A friend of mine recently asked me to visit an art exhibit with him to discuss the work and hear what I thought was good and why. I was flattered, yet also saw it as an opportunity to define art in lay terms, because I dislike “artsy” pretentiousness.
Before we started, I told him my opinion is just that, my opinion. I believe art, for the most part, is subjective, and by its nature, what one person likes another may not. With that established, we walked through the gallery and stopped at most every piece, taking a moment to pass judgment and then to explain our rationale.
It was surprising how many we actually agreed upon. The one difference was he couldn’t put his feelings into words. Oh, he expressed sentiments such as “I just like it, that’s all” or “I don’t get it,” both of which are legitimate responses.
On the other hand, understanding what makes something art not only will enhance the experience of viewing it, but also broaden the range of what the novice will come to appreciate.
When I view an exhibit, I avoid looking at the artist’s name and the title of the work so as not to form a preconceived notion. I look at the object as a whole, walk around it if it is three-dimensional, and then consider my sensory reaction – do I feel comfortable or uneasy, does it make me happy, sad, angry, or captivated?
There are many emotions a piece of art can evoke, often simultaneously. I try to define why I feel the way I do and ask myself if the artist’s choice of medium is the most appropriate to portray the concept. I look at the artist’s execution to see how well the materials are handled. Has he or she exhibited a mastery of the chosen technique, and is it the best use of those materials? Does the composition or form lead me through the work, or do I get lost along the way? Does it invite further exploration or a desire to take flight? Is the approach unique, or is it typical of other artwork? If it is sculpture or some other three-dimensional piece, is it successful on all sides?
In Durango, most art tends to be representational, which basically is recognizable subject matter, be it a landscape, wildlife or other identifiable object. When looking at them, it is relatively easy to understand their content, but what about abstract or conceptual art?
Have you ever stood next to someone at an art show when they uttered the phrase, “My 6-year-old could do that”?
Of course, the appropriate response would be “lucky you.”
I make the assumption that the artist in question has worked at his or her craft for years to arrive at the solution.
Nonrepresentational art can be analyzed by employing the same tenets – execution, composition and the emotional response the art elicits.
Stew Mosberg taught in New York at the Parson School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. He is the author of two books about design and has written extensively about art.