When you walk into an art gallery does a kind of anxiety wash over you?
Maybe it’s just a mild discomfort, of not quite knowing what’s going on, or what exactly the art is trying to do or say.
Or maybe it’s an extreme kind of anxiety, and you feel like you’ve just walked into the first day of class and been handed a pop quiz and you didn’t do any of the summer reading.
Well today, my friends, we’re going to talk about how to sound like you know something about art, so that you feel a bit more confident when you walk into a gallery or museum.
No Snap Judgments When you enter an art space, you may have an immediate opinion about what you see.
But go ahead and keep it to yourself.
Take some time to be with the work before you say anything about it.
If you’re there with someone, carve off and walk around on your own for a while.
If pressed for your immediate opinion, maybe say something like: “I’m still processing.” Process and processing are ALWAYS good words for when you want to sound like you understand art.
Right away you may be attracted to the art or violently repelled by it, but you’re going to impress no one by your quick read of the situation.
And plus you don’t want to spoil someone else’s experience by dismissing the art right away.
Look at the art.
This one sounds obvious, but studies have shown that on average, people spend less than 30 seconds looking at a painting in a museum.
You don’t have to chain yourself to each artwork for an hour, but see what happens if you look at a work for one whole minute, or even (gasp) two or three.
Try to make it active looking too.
Observe small details one by one, and then step back to take it in as a whole.
See what it looks like from different points in the room.
Heck, maybe even look at it through a camera if your internet-addled brain can’t handle such sustained attention.
Maybe walk through the room quickly, and then go more slowly on your second pass, choosing one or two works to give a longer look.
If it’s video or sound art, challenge yourself to watch or listen to the whole thing.
If you love the art right away, spend time thinking about why you love it, or maybe even look for something that complicates your love for it.
Or figure out which individual pieces in the gallery you like more or less than others.
If you immediately hated the art when you walked in, challenge yourself to look at it anyway.
Think about why you dislike it, or what would have to change for you to like it more.
Pretend like you made it, or your sister made it, and try to think about the work a little more generously.
Be comfortable not knowing Many times I’m in a museum or gallery, I don’t fully or even partially get what’s going on around me.
Art today can be so many different things, and each work can require different approaches for assessing it.
In one room you’re admiring the exquisitely rendered lace collar of a 22 year old Italian Marchesa, captured in all of her finery by Peter Paul Rubens in 1606.
In another you find yourself gazing upon a rectangular block of wood made in the 1970s by Anne Truitt, that’s been sanded to smoothness and coated with numerous layers of paint to reach two very particular tones of blue.
These are two very dissimilar activities.
Going to a museum can be a bit like the prize reveal on the Price is Right.
Is it this kind of thing you already understand as art and know you like?
[“A new sportscar!”] Or is it something surprising, that you don’t think you like or want at first, but upon further review find it even more interesting and fulfilling than the other thing?
There’s no one method for approaching or interpreting all artworks, which is frustrating but also kind of the fun of it.
For a minimalist work, you might need to look at the space around the art as much as the art itself, or you might need to pay attention to it’s scale in relationship to your own body, and how you’re inclined to move around it.
For an Italian Renaissance painting like Sandro Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, you may need to brush up on your greek mythology to appreciate it, or learn about the Medici Family who likely commissioned its creation, as clued to by the orange trees in the background, an emblem of the Medici Dynasty.
You’re not supposed to know everything about the art when you walk in or when you walk out.
Accept not knowing things, and ride the wave regardless.
Read, but not too much Find out what you can about what you’re seeing, but don’t let it drag you down.
If there is a wall text or label, give it a read.
Sometimes in commercial art galleries there are no labels or text on the wall.
But there is almost always a list of works and a press release sitting on the front desk, and maybe even an artist statement.
Go up there and read it, even if the desk and the person behind it are intimidating.
And they will be.
The quality of writing about art varies widely.
Sometimes labels and wall texts and audio guides are really good and can give you the little nuggets of info you need that make the work more comprehensible and enjoyable.
Sometimes the text is horrible and full of art speak and confusing interpretation.
Even if it’s bad, scan the text for facts.
Firm information like where or when it was made, clues to how it was made, or details that are not readily available from looking at the work.
You may need to read it twice.
Not everything about an artwork is self evident, nor should it be.
The people who made it come from different places and cultures and times, and they work from different traditions and learned different things in school or didn’t go to school.
Art needing explanation doesn’t mean the artwork is insufficient or you are insufficient.
It means we’re all different people with different experiences and motivations and we often need interpreters.
What’s self-evident to you is not self-evident to someone else, and vice versa.
All this said, if reading the text increases your anxiety, step back and leave it alone.
It’s there to help you appreciate the art, and if it doesn’t, no worries.
You can also do a basic search of the artist on your phone right there in the gallery to look at their other work and try to get a sense of the art from someone who has written about it in a different way.
Even if you’ve never taken any art or art history classes, you are more visually intelligent than you realize, what with the thousands of images you process every day.
Instagram is a master class in composition.
And whether or not you’re conscious of it, you are constantly negotiating a huge range of information and concerns when you look at an image on any platform.
Is it sponsored or unsponsored?
Candid or staged?
Photoshopped or raw?
Filter or no filter?
Makeup or no makeup?
Use those same skills to ask yourself questions about an artwork.
Whether or not you have experience with art, know that your response to it is valid.
If an artwork reminds you of something funny and low brow, all the better—you’re interpreting this artwork through the lens of your own experience.
Accept your responses as they come.
The thing is, meaning is not absolute.
It does not reside inside of the artwork, to be unlocked or decoded and revealed.
Meaning is something that happens between you and the work.
It’s different for you than it is for anyone else, and it’s always shifting, changing depending on who you are and where you are and what’s happening around you.
The artist does not own the meaning, and neither do the experts and authorities who present it to you.
They are voices in the room, often very good and compelling ones, but ultimately you decide the meaning for yourself and only yourself.
Speak for yourself.
When you’re feeling ready to share your thoughts, pitch them as your opinion and not the divine truth.
Talk about your experience of the work, what you noticed, what it made you think about, how it made you feel.
And keep in mind who you are talking to.
Your gallery companion is likely not looking to you for the answers, so don’t pretend you’re an authority unless you really are one.
It’s ok to say, “Hey, did you read in that label that this artist made all of these artworks from inside a psychiatric hospital?” Share or emphasize information, but don’t assume they don’t already know.
Look for social cues that your gallery companion is interested in hearing your thoughts.
Even if you are the world’s authority on Contemporary Chinese video art, those around you may not be interested in receiving your wisdom.
If they’re not, save your impressions for later when you can write them down or share them in a blog post or tweet or what have you.
Or you know, just enjoy having thoughts and keeping them to yourself.
The single most underrated activity of 2019.
Figure it out together The best way to sound like you understand art is to make it a conversation.
Be curious about how other people respond to the work, and make understanding the art a group activity.
Are you talking to someone who knows more about this art than you do?
Then listen, weigh what they are saying, and compare it to your own experience.
If you’re talking to someone who knows just as much or equally little about art as you, enjoy trying to figure it out together.
Ask what they think without judgment, and consider their take seriously.
Walk around the gallery and try to answer some questions together, like: What is it?
Compare what it looks like it might be made of, to what it is actually made of.
Are there any unusual or surprising materials involved?
How was it made?
Was it made by hand?
Was part of the process automated or even entrusted completely to a fabricator?
Does that bother you a little?
Or a lot?
What choices were made to result in the thing in front of you?
How is it presented?
Why is it placed where it is, how is it framed or not framed?
Is it behind glass, and how does that change how you look at it?
How might you present it differently if you were in charge?
What is the title?
Does it help you understand the work?
If there is no title, or an unhelpful one, what would you title it?
Have fun figuring out a better one.
(That’s a really great book by the way.)
What’s the context?
How does the art relate to what’s in the room around it?
And to the world outside of it?
Does it speak to current events?
Consider bias How does it impact your read to know the artist’s gender, nationality, or year of birth?
You can also be silly about the process and ask questions like: If you had to describe a given artwork using 3 words, what would they be?
If you had to be locked in a room with one of these artworks for an hour, which would you choose?
What’s the most ridiculous place you could imagine the artwork being shown?
Or the best place it could be shown?
You can play a variation of what I call the Skymall game, where you have to pick one thing per page you’d take for free.
In a gallery, ask each other which artwork in the room you’d take home for free.
Where would you put it?
There are some things not to do.
Don’t use any jargon or vocabulary words you learned in advanced classes.
Even if you are speaking in one of those classes, you risk alienating your audience and might even get so comfortable using these terms they might slip out when you’re outside of the classroom.
Take a minute and think of another way to say it in simple, conversational language.
A little art theory can be a dangerous thing.
Read it, discuss it in class, and then leave it where you found it.
It can be super interesting, but pulling out Peirce's Semiotic Theory when you’re talking to people about art is extremely off-putting and will make them dislike you.
They won’t think you understand art because they’ll be too busy disliking you.
In general, you should avoid verbally quoting someone else unless it’s really short and you can quote it exactly.
Ad Reinhardt--a painter--once said: "Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting."
That’s short and funny.
You can use ones like that.
There are some questions I would avoid asking if you want to sound like you know something about art.
These include: “What does it mean?” and “What is the artist trying to say?” Remember the meaning doesn’t live inside the work, and also the artwork is not a direct mouthpiece for the artist.
It’s a way for them to give form to thoughts and ideas usually in an indirect way.
Finding your answer to these will likely happen indirectly as well.
When in doubt.
Last but not least, if you don’t have anything to say, you can always say nothing.
It is okay to not like something.
But realize that your very vocal epic takedown of an artwork probably won’t impress people.
You can criticize artwork, but it should be carefully researched, well considered, and delicately executed.
Good criticism is essential, but when it’s done well I feel like I’m struggling with the work along with the critic, admitting to work’s strengths as well as its weaknesses.
The most compelling cases are often not definitive, but searching, and open to the possibility that others will feel differently.
Have I just not-so-secretly told you ways to understand art instead of how to merely sound like you do?