Talking About Art

photograph of a person facing an art gallery wall and writing on a giant sheet of paper with a black sharpie

What do you say?

How do you respond when you look at a piece of art in a gallery or museum? When you see a film or play? When you read a book? When you see a project presentation by your classmates? Probably some of the most common responses are things like,

I love it.

I hate it.

I like it.

I don’t get it.

All of these answers are legit… but if you think about it, they’re not really very interesting answers… and they’re also not very informative answers… they really don’t tell us much. You aren’t really talking about art. I think the best “review” or “comment” or “feedback” on a work of art doesn’t even say “like” or “dislike.” If you can consider what’s going on in a work, and how it resonates with you, without me even knowing that deep down you “love” it or “hate” it, that’s pretty good. “Love it” and “hate it” are ultimately shorthand for a deeper thought about something. But we get so used to tossing these quick responses out that sometimes we don’t take the time to even try to know what we really think.

Photograph of a series of mannequins in class cases in the center of an art gallery or museum type space with visitors walking around the cases and considering the forms inside

Planet earth is home to lots of amazing animals. I think we know that our dogs and cats are intelligent and have feelings. Dolphins and whales too. Still, there’s only one species on this planet called “Homo sapiens” or thinking or wise or rational humans. If you look at the animals on this earth, we are, in fact, a pretty weak species. If you were aliens measuring only strength and agility, you wouldn’t be betting on us. Yet, for better or worse, our species has gained dominion over all other living things on earth because of our minds. Because of our thought. It is the reason we build universities, and I think it is the reason you now attend university.

So while we’re here, we should develop our ability to think and articulate. Our ability to be more human. Our ability to more deeply appreciate art. To be a more aware and engaged part of our own culture. And bonus: if you do that, when you leave this place in a couple of years, you will be so much better at those intimidating job interviews where you really want to convince someone that you’re the right person.

Yes, yes, I know, back in high school it was cool to be stupid. And it was kind of embarrassing to be smart. Honestly, we’re not in high school anymore.

OK, Great, But…

OK, that’s all great… but what do you say? What if you kind of like something, or kind of don’t get something, but don’t know what to say? What if you think your classmates’ project is a little lame, but you don’t want to be a jerk? Again, start by not thinking in terms of “love it” or “hate it.” What if you and I were having lunch, and I placed a small, curious, unusual object on the table. Something you’d never seen before. You probably wouldn’t say “love it” or “hate it,” instead you might pick it up, you might bring it closer to your eyes, you might turn it around, you’d think about what it is or what it does. Maybe you’d try to take it apart. You might think about the form of the piece. You might try to guess at the content.

group of contemporary students, wearing denim, tank tops, back packs, looking at Courbet's 1855 painting Studio of a Painter


A piece of art is no different. After someone spends 2 or 3 years of their life making this film or writing this novel or painting this series, “love it” and “hate it” are pretty lame responses. Why do you think they spent 1,000 days? What are they trying to say? What are you hearing? Does this curious object or this art project remind you of something else in the same or in any other medium? Is there some painting by Pablo Picasso or book by Ernest Hemingway or film by David Fincher that this makes you think of? Does it make you think of Banksy or Kat Von D? Does it remind you of something from your own life? Your ex? That trip to Ensenada? Your grandma who passed away last year?


What we ultimately care about tends to be the content of a work of art. Maybe the ideas the artist was trying to explore. Maybe our own personal “read” of it. But there’s another way to think about a work of art. And if you’re stuck on what the content is, or even how you feel about it, considering the form can be a way to start thinking about a work and maybe start to gain access to it. Like that strange object I passed to you over lunch: at first you don’t think there’s any way into it at all. But then you start to notice fine seams in it. Not very wide seams at all. But maybe something you can slip your fingernails between and start to pry it open. When you talk about the form of a work you start to slide your mind’s fingernails into it. And often, once you start, you can keep seeing more and more in the work.

photo of Beyonce and Jay-Z looking at art at Art Basel Miami

Form is all sorts of attributes of a work. What size or magnitude is it? Aristotle, who spoke about things like order, shape, harmony, symmetry, definiteness, felt that things had an appropriate magnitude. That a very large animal or a very small animal could not be “beautiful” because it was of the wrong magnitude. Scale is a very simple but very powerful aspect of a work of art. Most things tend to have a “default” scale. In photography maybe the 8×10 print is the “default” size. When you make an 8×10 print you’re saying you don’t care about scale too much, that in this image you’re thinking about other things. But when you choose a non-default scale, then that quality begins to speak. What if your photograph is only 1″ x 1″? That’s so small many peeps might not look at it at all, but for those who do, it might force them to look really closely. To be physically closer to the image and have a different sort of connection to it, a different sort of intimacy with it. What if the photograph is 8 feet x 10 feet? That’s going to be a very different experience! As you stand before that giant print you might have a visceral experience from the mass of the object in front of you. If it’s a portrait of a person you might be overwhelmed as this “giant head” towers over you.

All sorts of formal qualities can say things. What about texture? Think of cotton candy. Think of sandpaper. Cloudlike, pink cotton candy. Rough, brown sandpaper. These textures and colors start to say things to us. They start to evoke feelings. But they might not be universal: White might be the color of life or purity in my culture, it might be the color of death in your culture. That cotton candy might evoke feelings of sweetness or lightness or even of happy days… but if you’ve had a bad time at the dentist, it might evoke thoughts of tooth decay.

Photo of Jay-Z and Charlie Rose looking at the Assyrian Galleries at the Brooklyn Museum

What about all those anti-smoking commercials showing disfigured, raspy-voiced people with emphysema or lung cancer? For generations we’ve associate smoking with sexy or cool. We’ve created “signifiers” or “signs” or “attributions” that point from smoking to cool or sexy. Those anti-smoking commercials are trying to break, or remap, those signifiers or signs or attributions and form new connections or associations. That’s a communication act where we’re trying to redefine our cultural associations.

Just as scale, and default and non-default scales can say so much, there are many other formal qualities you can think about in any work of art, for example:
• Scale: large, small, petite, massive
• Line: straight, curved, jagged, uniform, thick and thin, sketchy, undulating, sinuous
• Color
• Texture
• Mass
• Volume
• Rhythm
• Cadence
• Balance
• Symmetry
the list goes on!


When you want to say something about a work of art, try not to think in terms of “love it” or “hate it.” Instead try to consider what you see happening in formal terms. Think about what the author might be trying to say. Think about what you hear. Are these the same? Or different? Why might that be? If thoughts like “love it” or “hate it” do come to your mind, then take a moment to ask yourself why? What about this piece so quickly connects to me? Why does this piece bug me? Or not “work” for me?

What Else?

If you have other thoughts, or other ideas for how to talk about artworks, or questions about any of this, drop a comment/question in the box below! 🙂

I M A G E . C R E D I T S
Special Projects / Melinda Ring
Mona Kim Projects
Rappers looking at art

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Week 8 – Activity – Writing About Art | kristine dueno

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