How to Talk About Art

The ability to create art is the primary thing that separates us from animals, not counting elephants who learn to paint. But conversations about art can sometimes be intimidating. How does one discuss art intelligently?

First, ask yourself, “What is art?” Answer: “Pictures of stuff.”

Second, place the artwork in a context. What period does it belong to? There have been numerous movements throughout art history, such as the Renaissance, Cubism, and the one where everything is dots. What was that one called again? You studied it in your ninth grade art class. You had that teacher who let you call her Nat, and she had everyone do dot paintings of gnomes from this dream she had.

Identify the subject matter. Are you looking at a still life? A landscape? A portrait? Is it the kind of art where everyone is naked but unfortunately not attractive by today’s standards? Or the kind that unlocks a centuries-old secret, leading you on a fast-paced thrill ride as you try to stay one step ahead of both the authorities and a sinister religious cabal? Or is it nothing but squares or squiggly lines? The squiggly line kind is called nonobjective art. Resist the urge to say, “My kid could do that.” We’ve all met Bryson, and he’s much more likely to draw a demon with a chainsaw penis or a drifter stabbing a baby in the eye. Please do something about that kid. He keeps saying creepy stuff about how soon everyone will know his name. What does he mean by that?

To understand the meaning of the piece, determine the artist’s attitude towards the subject matter. In Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers series, for instance, how do you think Van Gogh comes down on flowers — are they cool or stupid? Remember, when we ask what a work of art is about, there isn’t merely one correct interpretation. Therefore, all interpretations are equally valid. Insist upon the rightness of your own opinions loudly and often.

When analyzing the formal aspects of a work, start by considering the elements and principles of design. These are line, texture, color, and three or four other ones. You learned those in Nat’s class, too, that time she passed out candy and had you make collages with the wrappers while she went into the supply closet for twenty minutes, and when she came back out she couldn’t stop laughing and eating candy. Nat was so chill. She said you had talent. You heard she’s living at the beach now and has a stand on the boardwalk where she writes people’s names on grains of rice. You wonder if she’d remember you. She was only, what, twenty-one? Twenty-two? Back when you were fifteen — that’s not a big age difference now. What if you ran into her again? Maybe the two of you would hit it off. Maybe if Bryson had a mother figure he’d mellow out and stop cutting up worms.

Note the negative space — this refers to what isn’t in the picture. For example, things that are not in Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People include trees, napkins, throwing stars, a cat wearing sunglasses, a young Alan Alda, etc.

Once you’ve mastered these concepts, you’re ready to show off your art savvy. Take a group of friends or colleagues to wherever some art is — a museum, a gallery, a rich person’s house that you broke into, etc. Point at a painting and go, “Check out the sfumato on that odalisque, amirite?” If the actual artist is present, be sure to mention how you used to do a little sketching but realized you needed to find a real job. This lets them know you could totally do what they do if not for your superior decision-making skills, and they will applaud you.

In conclusion, knowing how to interpret art will enhance your enjoyment and make a positive impression on others. By following these steps, soon you’ll be known as a real art expert, and not just as that guy whose kid did something to that dog.