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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Speaking Art Speak

I once had a college freshman art student, return to my classroom for a visit during spring break. He commented that he had gone off to college hoping to learn to paint and draw better and perhaps learn a little something about art. He was dismayed to realized after less than a year that it the latter that was by far the most dominant. He suggested that art schools taught about 80% about art and only about 20% "how to." I had to laugh, though I might have set the latter percentage somewhat lower than that. He'd gone off to college to learn art and had, instead, gotten an education (and rather rapidly at that). Though he appeared not yet to be cognizant of the fact, he was, in actuality, learning a whole new language. I hesitate to call it a "foreign" language since it was, for the most part, his native tongue, though peppered with enough French and Italian terms and phrases to make it seem foreign. It's called Art Speak.

I object!
Way too many years ago, I was in the same shoes as my former student. As a freshman at Ohio University I recall my first participation in a group critique. A very opinionated photographer friend of mine commented that the work of art we were critiquing was "interesting." He, myself, the rest of the class were stunned when the instructor climbed up one side of my hapless friend and down the other for making such a meaningless, asinine comment. My friend had not mastered even the rudiments of Art Speak. I, of course, hadn't either, so I quickly decided to keep my mouth shut during the rest of the critique.

Teaching Art Speak
Art Speak is a product of the era of Modern Art. Until the advent of practical photography, art was firmly rooted in the reality of Realism. There was some high-flown flirting with allegories and the like, but for the most part, the old adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words" held true. However, as art began to flex its newfound freedom from the bonds of Realism, critics found it more and more difficult to judge the success of a given work of art without knowing the artist's mind--his or her aim in creating it. That's when they began requesting the much-hated (by artists, at least) "Artist's Statement." Few such written revelations ventured near the one-thousand words of the old adage. In effect, art works depreciated to the point they were worth only a few hundred very carefully chosen, often quite pretentious words (above). And, as time passed, the simpler the art images became, the more complex became the art posturing (below) on the part of artists and critics alike--Art Speak.

The kind of untranslatable nonsense on the part of an
art critic that gives Art Speak a bad name.
Don't get me wrong, Art Speak is not a bad development. In fact, it would be very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to intelligently discuss the past century of more of art without an esoteric language adequate for the task. However, as with every "foreign" language, if and when it becomes impossible to sensibly translate words and phrase into the popular vernacular, then it becomes pretentious and useless (or at least, nearly so). Unfortunately, that has often become the case with today's art and the words used to prop it up and lift it up to heights it in no way deserves (I'm think here especially of conceptual art). When art must be explained by the artist, then it ceases to communicate adequately on its own and thus veers into (or very near) the realm of non-art. With creativity and communication being the two legs upon which all art teeters, there is never a perfectly even balance between the two. However, when art becomes so creative as to block its communicative element, then it and its creator falls flat (below).

Conceptual art--too creative to be communicative?
Now, having used Art Speak to some degree in trying to explain Art Speak and how it came about (hopefully without becoming untranslatable), let's talk about how to talk about art.

COLOR: Natural, clear, compatible, distinctive, lively, stimulating, subtle, artificial, clashing, depressing, discordant, garish, gaudy, jarring, violent, bright, brilliant, earthy, harmonious, intense, saturated, strong, vibrant, vivid, dull, flat, insipid, pale, mellow, muted, subdued, quiet, weak, cool, cold, warm, hot, light, dark, blended, broken, muddled, muddied, pure, complementary, and contrasting.

COMPOSITION: Arrangement, layout, structure, position, landscape, portrait, square, circular, triangular, horizontal, or vertical formats, diagonal, angled, foreground, background, middle-ground, centered, asymmetrical, symmetrical, balanced, unbalanced, overlapping, cluttered, static, dynamic, chaotic, spacious, empty, free-flowing, formal, rigid, negative space, positive space.

TEXTURE: Flat, polished, smooth, raised, rough, coarse, incised, pitted, scratched, uneven, hairy, sticky, soft, hard, shiny, glossy, reflective, semi-gloss, satin, silk, frosted, matte, and rugged.

LINES: Straight, jagged, curved, smooth, organized, hatched, parallel, wide, rugged, broad, thin, light, dark, colored, lively, and action.

Concepts: Controversial, thought-provoking, convoluted, trite, innovative, elitist, tiresome, futuristic, sexist, moral, religious, racist, deviant, and dubious.

Don't use: interesting, deep, strange, weird, crazy, stupid, ugly or any other vague or generic adjectives in any art context.

Art Eras: Prehistoric, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Roman, Pre-columbian, Medieval, Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Classical, Rococo, Romantic, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Modern, and Postmodern. For the most part, each of these eras has an associated style by the same name. However, as you begin discussing Modern Art, you should be able to speak of such art movements as Fauvism, Pointillism, the Pre-Raphaelites, Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop, and Op art. I've left out a few, and you need not know precise dates, but it helps to know them to some degree in chronological order as listed above.

This is pretty much Art Speak 101, probably sufficient to see most art students through their freshman year. From that point on, as new media are encountered, each with its own lexicon and aesthetic terms, Art Speak doesn't quite rise to the level of difficulty of Mandarin Chinese, but it comes awfully damned close.
Good advice in any language.


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