Talk Smart About Art

When was the last time you looked at a work of art? Did you wonder how to talk about art? You can seen art clearly but also quite miss the point. Most of us do much of the time. Art is everywhere. But appreciating it takes thought and care. That means looking up from the phone and away from the screen… at least some of the time.

How to Talk About Art
Tina Barney – The Europeans

Nobody’s looking around much these days. Beautiful girls are falling off piers, buildings, and mountains. Their selfies are veritable suicide machines. And for what? Dying for art is one thing. It’s crazy too, actually… but it makes more sense than this selfie BS. If only more people were at least willing to talk about art.

I love art because it changes people. It helps us see the world through other eyes. Most of all, it moves us. These are enormous accomplishments. That’s especially true now. We’re tech-numb and distracted. To penetrate that shield of apple product screens is an extraordinary feat.

It’s No Mystery – How to Talk About Art

Artists do this all the time. It’s their everyday. We owe our souls to these sensitive saints. They pour blood from veins onto canvas and into sculpture for our sake. Then we repay them with bad wine, cheese, and pretentious banter. It’s why I rarely frequent art gallery shows.

Of course, I go to art galleries. I meet artists and talk with them about their work. But the show is just that – a show. Much like a wedding is a performance. If you want to actually know a couple, you won’t learn much about them at their wedding. That’s the show.

The real partnership is in their everyday. It makes coffee in the morning. It tucks an arm around shaking shoulders for comfort. Real marriage is a sacred, hidden thing. Yet people talk about it as if it’s a knowable, typical reality. I think art is more obvious… even though it’s also a sort of mystery.

One of my few regrets is that I never took an art history class. Instead, I’ve taught myself over the years. Most of it has been immersive. A well-crafted trip to Italy, weekly museum visits for decades, and intensive study. I’ve been serious about it. But I did it my way, non-traditional.

You can learn about an artist in their workspace or gallery. Many of them hang out there at times to answer questions about their work and process. They are happy to help anyone learn how to talk about art. That might make you nervous. It made me antsy the first few times. But it’s much easier than an art gallery opening.

The cool thing about talking to the artist is that they’re INTO their work. In fact, nobody in the world’s more into it than they are. It’s primo primary source info. You want to know what art’s about? Ask the one who made it. I’m lucky because I live in NYC and there are lots of artists here.

But artists are everywhere. You just have to tap the market. Go to sidewalk and local art shows. Chat with the artists about their work. Some are more forthcoming than others. But they all love to talk about their creations. If I connect with their art, I ask for a card and if I can see more of their work. Usually that gets me an invite to their studio.

They may think I’m interested in buying or that I’m just into their work. Perhaps they think I’m a ridiculous flirt. Either way, artists love to share art with interested people. It’s kinda like that rule; if you want others to think you’re interesting, show interest in them.

Watch Artist’s Special Features

Let’s say you’re an introvert. This idea of approaching an artist horrifies you. No problem. Lucky for you, we’re in the digital age. There are many ways to watch and listen to artists. I have done this with many, living and dead. In fact, I must admit that I do it in other arenas too. That’s how I discovered the wonder of special features. It’s also how I learned how to talk about art.

Because I’m a writer and movie-lover, I love to listen to DVD special feature tracks. Back in the DVD heyday (the late 90s – early 00s) special features were the podcasts of the time. A movie-maker speaks about their experience on a commentary track. Sometimes it’s the director. Other times an actor or screenwriter.

If you’ve seen my Instagram you know I’m into photography. That’s nothing new for me. In fact, in my twenties I got obsessed with the photographer Tina Barney. I saw her work in galleries and museums. Went to her speaking engagements. I bought her books. Then, luck struck and someone made a documentary about her. I got it on DVD and thrilled to find there was a commentary track. Tina Barney herself talks about her work and illuminates the artistry.

I’m not overstating that. I learned a vast amount about photography listening to her speak about her work. Barney gets deep into the meaning and significance. She gave me a gift with that commentary because after listening I knew how to talk about photography. I could do it with confidence. From that moment forward, I got it. Sometimes that’s all it takes. One smart cookie shares their crumbs with us and POW. Illumination.

Art History With Sister Wendy

I’m into PBS. This started when I was a kid and didn’t have cable. Then it flourished in my twenties because, once again, I didn’t have cable. This was before we could stream entertainment on our computers. It was my weekend go-to. I’d set up an easel and put PBS on to listen to while I painted. That was when I discovered Sister Wendy.

She was a nun and art historian with a PBS show. Her enthusiasm and brilliance about art was infectious. She had true passion. I’m sad to speak of her in the past tense because she recently died. I rarely cry – but I did that day. This woman was a true treasure. She taught me how to talk about art.

In fact, my favorite book of all time is a Sister Wendy coffee table tome. Sister Wendy’s Thousand Masterpieces changed my life. It’s a glorious compilation of her chosen 1,000 best paintings of all time. But the real riches lie in her descriptions. This was how I learned Art History. She taught me how to talk about paintings.

These days I can hold my own at any art exhibit. I could sip bad wine to chat casual and calm with Cecily Brown. It would be no sweat. That’s all thanks to Sister Wendy. She’s the only true saint in my art world. That’s because she not only taught me Art History. She showed me how to speak about art with aplomb. I’m forever grateful.