Want to sound clever when talking about modern art? GQ met Ben Street, an art historian and lecturer for The Tate, National Gallery and Royal Academy at The Whitechapel Gallery, London, to learn how to appear cultured on the topic.
“The art world is full of pretentiousness, but not the art,” says Street. “There’s this whole language around art which is extremely hard to understand. But you can decode it because there’s a tiny bag of words and phrases that are used again and again. They don’t exist only to sound clever – sometimes they are just the right word – but if you want to sound clever, use them.”
Do say: ‘This raises questions…’
It’s a bluff that people use all the time in the art world, you don’t have to be accountable for anything.”
Don’t say: “This kind of looks like…”
“It’s really tempting when looking at abstract art to see something in it, but what abstract painters really, really don’t want you to do is to see their work and say ‘this kind of reminds me of a fridge, and that looks like a map of Manhattan’. Don’t mention the fact that the artwork in front of you looks like Tetris. This is just to sound intelligent, mind – of course art can look like Tetris.”
Do: talk about placement
“When you’re in front of a Dan Flavin don’t say: ‘This is a pile of lights.’ Sometimes artists take a material and change it massively – like a block of marble becomes Michelangelo’s David. Other times art is about a really small change. So with everyday objects like the strip lights that you’d usually see on the supermarket ceiling, it’s all about placement. Say the obvious:
‘Look at the way that the lights are placed in the center of the wall, touching the floor. That placement is intriguing. That is after all where the art is happening.”
Don’t: have (too much of) an opinion
“Art critics very rarely express an opinion about art. You rarely see someone saying ‘this is wonderful’, ‘this is great’, ‘it’s beautiful’or ‘cool’. The best thing they will say is: ‘it’s interesting’. Being levelheaded is a key thing when looking at contemporary art. It’s a way of showing you can handle content which is maybe quite confrontational or disturbing. Always project ‘I’m cool with this’; be prepared to see things that are quite odd and to not be freaked out by them. Never overreact.”
Do: ask questions
“If you’re standing in front of a painting everything single thing you say can be a question; ‘It’s interesting how he’s chosen to juxtapose these colours – what do you think about that?’ There isn’t going to be a right answer. It’s not like a debate when people might tell you you’re wrong (unless you say something completely stupid). The top bit is fact, but the rest is just chat.”
Do: talk about ‘relationships’
“This is great on a date because if you talk about relationships, it can plant the seed of expectation with your date. It’s all about saying what you see and then saying it relates to another thing you see. Ask yourself what it is you’re look at – colours, circles, are they symmetrical – you can dress that up by saying ‘the colour relationships within this work give it a real sense of visual energy’. When you’re talking art speak, you want to use it in a way that is so dense that it can’t really be challenged.”
Don’t: suggest you could have made the artworks if you wanted to
“If the painting is of a square in a square, it is a square in a square. Another might just look like a bunch of lines, but punk is a good example of something that is easy to make but is really compelling. When you listen to music you don’t say ‘that’s great because that was really easy to do’, you think it’s great because it’s got something about it that’s exciting. A lot of people find photography very baffling because of the assumption that anybody can do it. It can be tempting to think why is that here, why isn’t my great photo of a cat here. Do. Not. Say. This.”
Useful art lingo: the GQ cheat-sheet
“For example, ‘The colour relationships within this work give it a real sense of visual energy’.”
“Anytime someone in a photo or image is looking directly at you, you can say ‘the direct gaze is really intimate’, and that’s good on a date. Don’t be too cheesy though.”
“This is a good word to use when something has vaguely sexual content. You can say it to show that you acknowledge it and that you can handle it.”
“Dynamic is a really good word, because again it doesn’t mean much besides interesting, powerful or active – its really vague. You can often say the viewpoint makes the image more visually dynamic – that’s a good stock phrase for a lot of photography.
“Engages is a real buzzword in the art world at the moment, you can just say: ‘This Andy Warhol really engages with popular culture’.”
“Don’t ever say ‘looks like’, say: ‘this engages with the visual language of…’ If you see some really crap street art you can say’that really engages with the visual language of Banksy” (it means it nicks his ideas, or else it just looks like him).
“Space is a great word, saying this is an amazing space, or a beautiful space, that’s a good way of getting around talking about the art itself.”
“Don’t ever say you don’t understand something. Say this content is ‘really challenging’, or even better say this ‘challenges assumptions about space, or gender” – even if there aren’t any assumptions about it.”
And finally… the ultimate dinner party diversion:
“If someone is talking to you about a big exhibition or about an artist you’ve never heard of, talk about the institution itself. Say:’Well that’s fine for you, but I’m much more interested in the grassroots scene, I went to a small space (not gallery) that’s doing some really interesting work and it’s engaging with popular culture and some challenging questions’. If you’re in London or Glasgow or Manchester you can get away with saying a really obscure name, or if your mind goes blank you could just say that it doesn’t have a name.”
Don’t want to bullshit your way through life? Visit one of Ben Street’s art lectures and get cultured for real. The art featured in this article will appear at the newly opened exhibition “Adventures of the Black Square”, which will run at The Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April.