Art Speak- How to Talk About Contemporary Art When You Don't Have A Clue

Originally Published: Jan 14, 2018


For non-artists, the art world can seem like a daunting, foreign place. Like many other industries, art has its fair share of special terms and jargon and often non-artists can be intimidated by discussing art. But you don't need formal training in art history in order to hold a meaningful conversation about works of art. So, I am going to break down some of the barriers here so you will slowly but surely become fluent in Art Speak!

Ever been to a gallery, museum, or art fair and felt out of place? You are not alone. Many people feel like outsides to the art world. Here are some tips to help you navigate through these situations like a pro.

Don't feel like you have to understand the meaning or artist's intent. This is especially true for contemporary and post-modern art. Historically, the purpose of artworks were more straight-forward. A painting or sculpture may have been made to capture one's likeness before cameras were invented, to illustrate a story from religious traditions or historical events, to commemorate an individual,or  to decorate a space, and so-forth . As art began to grow more and more abstract and conceptual in nature (think of all of the "ISMS" during the 1900s) the artist's intent for the artwork began to differ greatly from the previous generations. As art styles became more and more abstracted, artists began to make art for art's sake. Paintings no longer had to represent anything concrete but could make a conceptual statement of just being planes of pigment on a canvas (ex: Color Field paintings by Mark Rothko). Other artists, intend to pose a question to get the viewer to think and reflect. In some cases the artist will be explicit in their accompanying artist statement, dictating exactly the message they want you to take away from the piece. Many other times however, contemporary artists will send
the work out to the universe to let the viewer determine their own interpretations. This is where often times the art novice gets caught up in trying to understand modern abstract and conceptual art. Which leads me to mt two tips you can start using today!

Tip #1: Don't try to figure out what "it is" or what it means. The same work can mean different things and have different interpretations for each person who looks at it. Instead- Ask yourself how it makes you feel and talk that through. Does it make you happy, sad, excited, uncomfortable?

Tip #2: Discuss the physical artwork itself in terms of the elements of art and principles of design, such as the use of space and form, its texture or smoothness, the ways lines and shapes are used. You can say how you like the color choices. The bit of yellow here, and the touch of blue right there. Discuss the materials the artist chose to use, breaking down the artwork to these kind of descriptive words. This is the best place to start and then grow your vocabulary and discussion of your thoughts on your own interpretations with time.

So, there you have it! The formula so that you can now feel confident as you step in to the art world! Now get out there and explore all the amazing things our modern artists have to offer! 

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