Talking about and Viewing Art: for Dummies
Every time I say I am an artist, people say "that’s cool," but really don’t know what to do with that information. I think there is a common misconception that art/artists are pretentious and that you have to know the secrets of the art world in order to talk about it. That is because art is so subjective. The more confident, louder, and more pretentious people are going to have their voice heard more, and that opinion becomes what the piece is about. Yes, some people can be like that, and I wouldn’t suggest getting a doctorate in art history if you don’t know how to talk about art within the industry’s larger context and history, but in general, art is really all about the feeling. In art school, they do have concrete parameters that they judge art on, because you do need a grade, but you don’t need to know any of this in order to talk about and enjoy art. Here are some ways to handle situations involving art, if you have no experience with it at all:
1. Put yourself in a place to talk about it.
If you like it or not. Mention a piece in someone’s house, go to a gallery or a museum, and explore an art fair. There is art everywhere, so go to where you are drawn to. Maybe you like graffiti, so take a tour to a place that has a lot of it. In Philly and Richmond, there are huge graffiti scenes. I have also been to Wynwood Walls in Miami, so if you are in those towns you are in luck. Even if you aren't there are pockets everywhere.
2. Open up the conversation with simplicity.
Say you hate that, or love that, or hmm. That is a great start. Then go from there with basic adjectives. Whenever I am too close to a piece and I need it to have a particular feeling I will ask my boyfriend for help. This makes him super uncomfortable, so I say shout out some adjectives. That’s it. I promise you will be fine.
3. When you are ready, go into what the piece reminds you of.
Talk about a memory or a feeling. No answer is wrong here. I think that is another thing people are afraid of. Offending the artist or other viewers not agreeing with you. That piece is there for you to view it and feel whatever you are going to feel from it, just as much as it is there for the person next to you. Also, artists have to sit through critiques that are way worse than anything you think of saying. We just aren’t that fragile for the most part, so say whatever you want.
When you first meet one, you might have no idea what to say. A great first question is, "What kind of work you do?" Art is vast; it can really be anything at all. Next, you can ask for a business card or their website name to see if you connect to the actual work. If you really want to get into it, artists should be able to explain what their work is about without getting too complicated. Ask what it is about, and try to connect to what they say. A conversation can easily grow from there. One of the best questions I ever got was, "Why abstract and not realism." For someone without any experience with art, this is a super good question. Realism is a lot easier to understand. And this is a huge choice I made for myself so I would be happy to talk about it.
5. Follow artists on social media.
You will most likely learn a little more about their process. If they have a blog, you will learn even more about what they are all about. Art is about the psychological processes of the artist. You will learn about their work by learning about them. Then you will be able to connect with them more. For example, I try to motivate people to follow their dreams. That is easier to understand for people because everyone has a dream, rather than trying to make sense of my colorful shapes and scribbles.
6. Go into museums, but with a plan of attack.
Yes, go to a museum. I know it might give you anxiety to even think about that, but you can actually survive and enjoy it if you have a plan. I interned at the PMA and now live next to the VMFA. Ever since I started showing this interest my mom has been all about museums. (I am pretty sure she used to hate them – but hey, she’s a really great supportive mom.) Yano museum professionals and artists get museum fatigue too, ok? So it is still necessary to have a plan. When I interned at the PMA it took me 7 hours (not consecutive) to go through the whole museum, and I do move pretty quickly. Know what you are drawn to and go there. Do you hate paintings of horses and dogs hunting? Maybe stay away from the European Sporting section. Think Abstract Modern Art is ridiculous? Then stay away from there as well. Hit the places you really want to see, then if you have time and energy later, go somewhere new.
7. Ask employees what their favorite pieces are.
If you really don’t even know where to start with making a plan of attack, have the museum workers help you. Ask them what their favorite pieces are, and then have that be your plan of attack. Or, just start on your own and ask the people standing in the galleries what their favorite piece is once you are there. They have employees everywhere for security/customer service purposes. You will always find someone.
8. Use the recourses the museum gives you.
They are all about being interactive right now. Use their cool new gadgets to look at the pieces in a whole new and interesting way. There are also programs and tours you can do that will help you view all the museum has to offer in a way that works for you and takes the stress out of planning it. Then you don’t even have to talk about art yet if someone is doing the talking for you!
9. Take your time, but know your limits.
The benches aren’t just there so you can sit and look at one piece forever. Museum fatigue is real. If you are getting tired, go and sit down and get something to eat. Take a break and get back to it in a little while, or the next day if you have time. Nobody is having fun if they are tired and cranky.
10. Play a game.
You can even make up a game to play while you are at the museum to make it more fun for you and your group. Maybe you each pick an object and see how many times you can find it in paintings. Talk about your favorite and least favorite from each room. Instead of people watch, you can painting watch and make up your own stories for what you see in the pieces. Get creative!
Baby steps here. Maybe next time you are in a position to talk about art, just don’t shy away from it. You can do it!
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