How to Talk About Art


I have witnessed many conversations about art. Whether it is a student critique, a discourse on a historical piece of art, or a gallery exhibition, the verbosity of the art world is not in peril. I have, however, witnessed faux pas as grand as the artistic themes they attempt to describe. Not all of us are expected to be well versed in the tongue of art criticism, so here are a few non-authoritive talking points when you are on the spot.

1. Emotion
Talk about how a piece makes you feel. This is a very valid talking point and establishes that you have made a personal connection with the work. You may remark that Goya’s work leaves you feeling unsettled or disturbed or that the work of Miro is hard to relate to on a personal level because of the lack of interpersonal empathetic material. A work can make you happy like a jovial scene by Toulouse-Lautrec, puzzled like most of the work by Duchamp, or troubled like Picasso’s Guernica. Whatever emotion you feel when approaching a piece is fair game and may be accessed when describing the piece.

2. Technique/style
This approach may take a little research to make your argument plausible. It is helpful to some grand themes in the scope of art history to analyze why a certain artist used a particular technique or style in a particular time period. You can, however, note whether the artist thought it important to make colors or proportions true to life. You can note whether the colors are flat or have dimension or whether the piece as a whole seems to be derived from life or imagination. Once you are able to notice or describe some of these stylistic choices you can then go on to consider the context.

3. Context/history
While most people are not experts in art or art history, most of us have a working knowledge of history. Once we can determine the time in history a piece of art was made and where the artist was, we have another layer of social commentary to add to the art discussion. Going back to a previous example, Picasso’s, Guernica is inextricable from his experience during World War II. This piece is extremely thematic and historically relevant even down to his choice of colors (stylistic observation)

4. Art history
If you have taken the time to become acquainted with art history, you can discuss a piece in terms of the period in art history it appears to reflect. With the scope of art history before us we can even (and is many times appropriate in contemporary art) to mix and match periods of art history in describing a piece. Someone may demonstrate traits of Fauvism along with Impressionism. Or, a realistic looking figure may be rendered classically except for the context that makes it more Dada. An ongoing thought for me is the appropriate identification of Caribbean art when we mainly have the continuum of Western Art to draw vocabulary from.

5. As a consumer
Without resorting to surface level comments like, “I would buy this” or “I wouldn’t buy that” try to think like a collector. Collectors grow their collections from different motives, ranging from a fascination with a particular artist or theme or a deliberate attempt to vary the themes in their collection. Some collect because it provokes certain feelings or because it gives some sort of inspiration. Comment on why you could see yourself owning a particular piece of art and try to understand why.

With these talking points in hand, here are a few “don’ts” when discussing art.

– There is no circumstance where saying “I could do that” or “My child could do that” is appropriate. Not only is it likely that neither of you ‘have’ ever done anything like that but it usually undermines your position more than a commentary on the art.

– Try not to use the word ‘nice’ when describing a piece. It is a very nondescript and unhelpful word. When you catch yourself about to say nice, try these substitutes: successful, convincing, good use of, provoking, challenging, pleasant, or intriguing. Most of these words lead to further conversation while ‘nice’ is effectively a conversation killer.

– The public arena is not the place to discuss whether a piece of art qualifies as ‘art’. Walking up to a piece and declaring the ‘artness’ of the object calls your experience and decorum into question more so than the target of your assessment. There exists philosophical conversations on aesthetics that flesh out the idea of whether something is art or not. An art gallery is not usually an appropriate venue for this conversation.

– It is not appropriate to discuss the price unless you are interested in investing in the work. Art is a unique product from a unique individual and is the product of time and dedication. Many factors are taken into account when setting the price. If you are unaccustomed to the veracity of the numbers following the dollar sign, it is most appropriate to leave this out of your verbal calculations.

So the next time you find yourself in front of a piece of art grasping for words, tap into your bank of existing knowledge and connect the dots! If you are at a complete loss it is not defeat to admit that you are out of your depth and defer to one of your peers’ knowledge. It is better than describing the work as ‘nice’.

*N.B. I used well known artists from western art history to establish a universality in the delivery of this article. If you are unfamiliar with any of the names or pieces, you are encouraged to use the resources at your disposal to enlighten yourself. Further, Grenada has its own share of highly identifiable contemporary artists which will be the subject of a future post.

– Asher Mains, artist, entrepreneur

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