Artwork is to the eye what music is to the ear. It is an instantaneous like or dislike.
It can become more intellectually interesting, by degrees, after thoughtful reflection, but it is that first emotion you feel upon viewing or listening that counts. It is not an analytical moment; it isn't an intellectual moment. It is an emotional moment that is arrived at by who you are and what you've made of yourself throughout your life.
It is your subconscious mind reacting, and in your subconscious is the sum total of what you've thought and how you've acted since birth -- and more importantly, who you've become and what you think about yourself and what you know about the world around you.
All of the above brings your context into each new artwork. If you know about World War II and you see a painting of a man in a Nazi uniform giving a loving kiss to his wife, you cannot love the painting because you know that that uniform represents severe oppression and murder and anyone wearing it cannot possibly love himself, and therefore he cannot love his wife. You don't think of these things consciously in that first millisecond of viewing the painting, but your subconscious mind does make that lightning assessment and downgrades the beauty of the painting -- or even repulses you.
If you see two people hunched over in prayer with serene faces and a Christian cross in the background, your subconscious mind knows there cannot be serenity, but instead turmoil and false serenity. You move on.
If you see a man in a hard hat hard at work on a steel beam of a skyscraper with sweat dripping off his nose and a look of contented intensity on his face on a brilliant summer day, you soak it up like life-giving sustenance.
The mind can sum up true happiness in artwork so quickly and astoundingly that it may take you minutes or hours to figure out what it was that astounded or repulsed your mind. One painting that an art historian showed me and a group of enthusiasts at an Atlanta museum earlier this year didn't sit well with me, even though the man in the artwork appeared to be doing some sort of masterful drafting or something while standing up.
Around the man were his children, a messy floor, and his wife in the corner of the painting watching him. I realized that the wife had an angry look on her face, as if distanced from her husband emotionally and angry at him for something. The clutter affected me like all clutter does. The lighting suggested a bit of somber.
I realized that the man may have found his true calling in his work but that he was not handling the rest of his life well and could not be completely happy. My subconscious mind picked up on all of this instantly. When I realized this, I shook my head in astonishment of the human mind.
Art should make us happy. There is no truly great artwork that does not do so.
There are four main areas that our subconscious mind evaluates in artwork (I'll talk about them in more detail in a later post): Those areas are: content (objects, people, etc.), theme (happy or sad), quality (masterful or something less in painting skill), lighting (effervescent or less).
The art historian I refer to above, an Objectivist, has written a book recently on this subject, and he says that you must "suspend disbelief" when you approach artwork.
No, you must suspend nothing. You must simply look and be yourself. Your subconscious mind will do the rest. You need not delve into history or ruminate upon the content or learn what the artist intended.
You simply look -- and then enjoy or move on.