If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Power to Look

This video is part of the Art Institute of Chicago's Art Explainer series. How does what you see in an artwork tell you how to look? Using three artworks from the Art Institute's collection, this video unpacks a central theme and uses innovative visual storytelling to highlight the choices artists made to shape form and meaning in their works. Ultimately, it shows that each of us already possesses a powerful tool for making sense of art: looking closely. Art Explainer videos empower you to look at and understand art from any historical period or culture. Designed for students as well as adults, this video series is produced for the web and usable in a wide range of learning environments, from mobile devices to formal school classrooms.

The following works from the Art Institute of Chicago appear in this video:

Grant Wood, American Gothic; Yoruba Crown from Nigeria; Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day; Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

How does what you see in an artwork tell you how to look? The visual qualities of an artwork shape the way we look at it and the meaning we take away. An artist might use a point of view that confronts us with a stern gaze or sight lines to hint at something we don't see. These strategies set up a dynamic relationship between artist, artwork and viewer. Considering what is and is not visible in an artwork or how the artist positions us in relation to the subject can help us think more deeply about social position, setting and gender. Let's look at a few examples. This beaded crown from Nigeria was made by one of Africa's largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba. The Crown's form and patterns were intended to communicate the King's royal power and his ancestral connections to his subjects. A key part of the conical crown is its beaded veil which protects the king's subjects from the potentially dangerous power of his gaze. The veil is also meant to hide the king's individuality, activating the abstracted faces adorning both the front and back of the crown. These represent the king's ancestors whose power to see in both this world and the supernatural one are symbolized by the face's protruding eyes. The birds represent the essential support of women in the community. The Kings senior wife is perched at the very top, reflecting another social hierarchy. Today in a museum we can take a close look at these meaningful forms, but what we don't see is the crown in its original ceremonial context. On the other hand "Paris Street; Rainy Day" painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877, was always meant to be seen in an art gallery. Born into the Parisian upper-class, Caillebotte was much like the wealthy man this painting, his education provided access to tools like the camera lucida enabling him to picture the changing world in a new way. Caillebotte created this life-sized street scene soon after the city underwent a massive modernization project. Organized around key buildings like the Arc de Triomphe, the radiating plan allowed officials to more easily control the way different social classes interacted. The paintings large format draws us into Parisian modern life at the end of the 19th century. The scale of the work connects us to the paintings fashionable couple in the foreground while the plunging perspective distances us from members of the working class in the background. While Caillebotte's painting reflected his contemporary world, American photographer, Cindy Sherman, found ways to critique it. Fascinated by television, costume and makeup she first gained recognition in the 1970s for a photo series that evoked films of the 50s and 60. Always casting herself as a subject, Sherman suggests a range of submissive female roles. In "Untitled Film Still #92," Sherman depicts a vulnerable subject cowering on the ground. She crops the image tightly and arranges the shot so that the viewer is looking down on the female subject from a position of power. Though it resembles a film still, the images actually stand alone photographed without an accompanying story. Here, Sherman harnesses the power directors have in placing their audience within a scene. Because her character isn't looking directly at us she, doesn't challenge our gaze. We can look as long as we want, but remember, Sherman created this scene so ultimately she's the one directing our viewing experience. From the veiled Yoruba crown to Caillebotte's panoramic Paris, and Sherman's provocative film still understanding how we look helps to give an artwork meaning. Next time you're in a museum, consider how the power to look shapes your experience of other works of art.