How to Talk About Art
What do we mean when we talk about art?
The first thing to say is art is not a thing, so there is no ‘correct’ way to approach it.
Artworks themselves a are as broad and varied as those making it. As much as the average press release might baffle some into submission, art needn't not be an elitist activity and you don't need to download a thesaurus app to interpret it.
How to hold your own in a conversation about art
You’re in an arts institution; be it a gallery, museum or project space, and you’ve dutifully picked up a handout (or a cheap glass of plonk if you’re at the private view). You can tick the first box of the art speak checklist. Next you hover around the works; weaving between the cool kids, spending some time with the artworks. Great, now you're experiencing the piece. But before you make your way toward the vinyl paragraph on the wall. STOP RIGHT THERE.
Pay more attention to yourself
Before you rely on any information given to you about artworks, know you’re better off examining how you feel about the work first, or rather, examining its affect upon you. How else can you form your own unique and inspiring opinion? It is far more interesting to give an individual opinion on a piece of work than repeat what others are saying.
If intimidated by the arty crowd, try to forget the trendy haircuts and focus on the basics of the piece: what are the different parts of it and how does it make you feel?
What are the elements?
What are the visual, sonic and physical elements of the artwork you’re assessing?
Think about your senses and what is your experience of the work—only you can know that. How do the elements of the artwork relate to your experience of it? This line of questioning is a good way to understanding the organising principles of a work, or, how it works on its audience. The reason this approach is a good one is that it’s fairly safe to assume the artwork in question was made to be received by an audience: you.
Givens and hiddens
You might find the elements of the artwork produce contrasts such as opposites in shape, size or colour, or you might notice repetitions of similar materials, marks or sounds. You may be able to pick out a theme in the work, if not through the connotation of the material itself then maybe through word associations, e.g. broken ornaments, homes, rooms, collections, obsessions, displays, cabinets, oak, immoveable, histories, etc.
The enquiry process is always to ask what are the given elements; what are the hidden elements; the connotations; and ultimately, what effects do they have on you?
Information supplied by the gallery is great for giving you some context for your experience. Typically you can learn the whens and the wheres of the artist and their works, which is always useful information as it might place your experiences of the work in a wider context. Perhaps the work was produced during a political upheaval or economic boom, matching up to your observations. This is the sort of stuff you can’t be sure of by simply looking and is why those paper handouts and wall copy do come in useful. These do not give answers but are usefulfor cross checking your experience of the artworks. And don’t forget, you retain the right to disregard gobbledy-gook. You are after all, the audience, darling.
So, after taking a turn around the display and paying attention to your experience of the artworks—its various elements, their effects and contexts—you surely will not be short of a considered and relevant word or two when asked: What do you think of the work? Oh, and don't forget - you don't have to like it!
Knowing Your Art Movements
Renaissance and Baroque
Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes
Renaissance art aims to show the corporeality of the human body, and the three-dimensional reality of landscape.
Important artists: Caravaggio, Titian, Da Vinci
William Blake's Whirlwind of Lovers
Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement. It was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalisation of nature.
Important artists: William Blake, Goya, Turner
Modernism & Post-Modernism
Modernism is a philosophical movement that arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the factors that shaped Modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by the horror of World War I. Modernism also rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking, and many modernists rejected religious belief.
Postmodern art is a body of art movements that sought to contradict some aspects of modernism or some aspects that emerged or developed in its aftermath. In general, movements such as Intermedia, Installation art, Conceptual Art and Multimedia, particularly involving video are described as postmodern.
Important Artists: Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Theo Van Doesburg, Joseph Beuys
Jackson Pollock's Convergence
Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.
Important Artists: Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, Kandinsky, Egon Schiele
Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing 1136
Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, wherein artists intend to expose the essence or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. Minimalism is any design or style wherein the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.
Important Artists: Richard Serra, Piet Mondrian, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse
Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans
Pop art is an art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States. Pop art presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc. In pop art, material is sometimes visually removed from its known context, isolated, and/or combined with unrelated material. The concept of pop art refers not as much to the art itself as to the attitudes that led to it.
Important Artists: Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Jasper Johns
Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds
Contemporary art is art produced at the present period in time. Contemporary art includes, and develops from, Postmodern art, which is itself a successor to Modern art.
Important Artists: Grayson Perry, Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, Martin Creed, Sarah Lucas, Tracy Emin, Duncan Campbell, Laure Prouvost, Jeremy Deller