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How to Talk About Art Like You Know What You Are Doing

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‘It is amazing to me,’ said Bingley, ‘how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished, as they all are.’

‘All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?’

‘Yes all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.’

—Mr. Bingley, Pride and Prejudice

Though it sounds old-fashioned, knowing about the subject of art is something that makes you seem very accomplished and worldly. See, when it comes to art, I will confess right away that I am absolutely clueless. I am from the Jack Donaghy school of thought in that “I know what art is!!! It’s paintings of horses!” and when I see Jackson Pollack paintings, I feel like I could probably do something pretty similar. Basically I just nod my head if anyone asks me about a painting and talk about the colors.

But knowing about art can enrich your life and also your career. Just like being able to talk about sports or news events, art and art collecting can be a big part of business. Wouldn’t it be great if you could walk into a fancy executive’s office and know who the painter was? You would steal the show! Picasso and Matisse are great, but can you name five artists working today? If you can, then you are way ahead of me. That would be another great thing to talk about. Art is so accessible, so there is no reason you can’t learn about it.

We will give you a head start. We talked with Cristina Salmastrelli, Fair Director of the Affordable Art Fair NYC and Fair Manager of the PULSE Contemporary Art Fairs (check out this cute video she was in for last year’s PULSE fair), and Laura Schneider, an artist and educator who has a Masters in Art Education from NYU, about this big scary subject. We were lucky enough to pick their brains about how we can start to sound like we know about art.

How should we start getting to know about art?

Salmastrelli: This is what I would suggest: Go to a very general art of the world book and flip through the pages. Earmark which pieces catch your eye, then read up on those artists, the time period, and the materials used. That way you are learning more about what you already are interested in. Whether it is the forms, the colors, or the objects that are attracting you, you now know a general idea of your art tastes. Once you have done that, you can come to the Affordable Art Fair and seek out your tastes and buy from there!

A great book that you can get on is The Art Book.

What modern artists should people be aware of?

Salmastrelli: Modern art was the late 19th century up to the 1970s. You might think of Andy Warhol and Pop Art here. Regarding contemporary art, it is generally considered post-1950s (slightly overlapping with modern), or artists living within our lifetimes.

Contemporary artists 101: If you like sculpture, you should read up on Jeff Koons or Takahashi Murakami. If you like performance art, check out Marina Abramovic or Chris Burden. Photography, see Cindy Sherman. Painting: Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

However, right now, I like to focus on the emerging artists in the contemporary art world. It is really exciting to see the talent that is just blooming (so to speak) currently. To listen and learn about the new techniques and styles that these young artists want to experiment with is always refreshing.

What are some commonly used terms in art?

Salmastrelli: I would again focus on the type of art you like and research what that art has been made out of to learn basic terms for a category of art. For example, if you like paintings, you should know about the kind of paint the artist could use and the different effects they have on the canvas. Oil paints are very different than watercolors. If you like sculpture, you need to learn about wood, stone, bronze, and marble. Knowing the materials that art is made out of gives another layer to the piece of work. also has a nice glossary on their website of terms of the art world.

Schneider: Juxtaposition is a great one. Just use that word to describe any contrary seeming elements. “I love the juxtaposition between the detailed figure and stark background.” Works every time.

Tension. Use this similarly to juxtaposition. Easy peasy.

Talk about being “drawn” to something. You can make vague statements like, “I don’t know why I am so drawn to this.”

If things look messy or quick call them energetic. This puts intentionality and flow behind the messiness. If something is messy and off-kilter, like a lopsided sculpture, call it organic. Throw your hands up and get another glass of wine.

What about some questions you should ask when looking at art?

Schneider: Is this work about movement, a particular subject, the artist’s process, the material itself, or the space that it is inhabiting?

Is this work appropriating images or text from other areas of life/culture? To what affect? If it is a collage, or uses language, how has the new context of the work itself, and the gallery, changed the meaning?

How was this made? I loves this question. Before every piece of art, I try to imagine the steps underwent to produce it. Especially the first step. In front of a finished painting, I ask myself, “What was the first mark on the canvas?”

Any big events in the art world people should know about?

Salmastrelli: ART FAIRS! Art Fairs are where it all happens in the art world right now. You are able to see so many types of art in one place at one time; it’s amazing. The next two global fairs are Art Basel Hong Kong, and the original Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland. They will be amazing and full with contemporary and modern art from the top galleries from around the world. Our show next fall is this October in the Tunnel. We will be open from October 3-6 with a preview in the evening of October 2nd.

What should you say when you are at a gallery and considering buying a painting?

Salmastrelli: A great way to start a conversation about a specific piece is to explain to the gallery why it is intriguing to you. Give them an idea of what is attracting you to this painting or photograph or sculpture. This way you are letting the gallerist know what interests you which then, in turn, will help them explain more about the piece and also show you additional similar pieces that might pique your interest. You can also simply ask them to tell you more about the artist’s background.

Do you try to haggle?

Salmastrelli: I am not a fan. At all. These galleries are constantly researching the art market and the prices for certain pieces in specific categories. This is what they are selling it for because this is the market value based on the artists past sales, worth of the material used, as well as the time spent to create the work. This is hard work by the artist and it is a work of art. Respect the knowledge of the gallery and the talent of the artist by not barter or bargaining.

Do you have any tips?

Salmastrelli: Buy what you love. Our goal at Affordable Art Fair is to have art become something you cannot imagine living without. We at the Affordable Art Fair, and our exhibitors and partners, love art and live our daily lives around it. It’s a joy to share inspirational art and artists with you. To share what we learn is one of the best parts of our jobs. We buy for love, and so should you. A piece that you see and fall in love with will brighten your day every time you see it. If per chance that artist becomes extremely famous, well, that is just the icing on the cake!

What do you love about art? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Caroline Ghosn, Founder and CEO of Levo League, about her own art!

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