How do I talk about art?

Thursday, 31 August 2017


Art is something I gave up on ever thinking I could be good at during my first year of secondary school. What I produced on paper never looked like what I had in my head and I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to shade things correctly. I also decided I would probably never 'get' art, thinking that understanding it was just reserved for the people who could do it.

As I got older, I started going to galleries and museums more often, enjoying them as just a day out at first but then realising I could appreciate art on some level. I could say "I like this", "that reminds me of this", "that would make a great colour combo in an outfit" etc. But I still felt like I was missing something important. I remember chatting to my friend Faaizah about it one day, a person who loves art and is a great artist herself, and how she gave me a few things I could think about. I also remember feeling a bit like an idiot for asking but she didn't think it was a stupid question at all.

So I recently sat down with Faaizah again to ask her about art and how to take it all in, as it were. This is what I took from a recording of that conversation in a noisy cafe with most of the ums and likes edited out. Most of them. Also when I read back through this post, I realised we talk about other kinds of art - music, writing, graphic design, photography - sort of as if they aren't art. So when we say art in this post, we're meaning classical/modern art you see in galleries.

Annabelle: So I just wanted to ask you: how am I supposed to talk about art? Because I enjoy art, I'll go to galleries, I'll look at things online, and I'll see pieces and go "oh that's pretty!" but I don't really know what I'm supposed to say or how I'm supposed to take stuff in. Is there a way to it?

Faaizah: I think it's the narrative that a lot of people grow up with. When you're younger and you're doing art in year 7, year 8, a lot of it is very methodical. You're drawing something, you're not really thinking about the depth behind why you're drawing it and a lot of it is boxed into really old, classical methods like draw some fruit...

A: Shade it like this...

F: Yeah. I think when you only learn that side of it you start thinking to yourself if I can't draw a perfect apple or even a person, you automatically write yourself out of it. You think it's not something I'm good at, same way some people do with maths or English, so I'm gonna withdraw from it. And some people fall in love with it and they think oh I'm good at this so I'll keep going. In a way art has become this thing that's like a filter where you start with a massive group of people who could all be involved in some way but then the school system and the way people think about it filters it down to a select few who are good at drawing all the classical styles. And it's not to say that technique doesn't matter - it'll teach you the way things are put together. You'll have an appreciation of art if you know a little bit about painting or if you know what it's like to draw something. When you go to a classical gallery and you see a Rembrandt painting that's detailed and intricate, you have an appreciation over how much hard work went into it.

But that appreciation for that hard work doesn't necessarily mean you'll have an emotional attachment to it. And that's difficult to teach, but I do feel that's where schools fail. They don't teach you about art as an emotional connection. Think of the way you think about music. Music is constantly fed to us outside of school as something therapeutic, something fun, something that represents us that we can emotionally connect to. With art, I think it's more presented as a stale, forgotten practice that only really rich kids can afford to do at university. Like anybody who had a passion for it, and I'm guilty of this as well, learns to leave it behind because you're fed this idea that you can't make money off of it. That select few people who can afford to do art, they're the ones who end up at uni, they're the tastemakers later on, they're the ones working in the galleries, so in a way it becomes this institution that gets carried on. Because you never get that young fresh blood that you need to bring a different perspective, you don't get any people of colour. Those people who are doing something fresh with art are very much still on the fringes. Because of that I think it's difficult for the everyday person to go into a gallery and feel anything. From the beginning they've had no introduction to it as something as a visual expressive movement.

With graphic design, logos, Nike, Apple, all these things, we're constantly fed those images and so you start to feel something. Even with photos on Instagram, loads of people will feel some kind of emotional connection, feel that it expresses themselves in a way. Some people might think "why don't people paint, why don't people draw and share that as much as their photographs". I mean obviously every photograph isn't an emotional expression - like your cup of coffee doesn't have to be that - but it does say something about you or what you wanna communicate about yourself. People can't use traditional art mediums as a form of communication...

A: Or at least not quickly, or not to the extent or standard they want.

F: Yeah it's not their go-to. Even if they wanted to they can't access it because I feel like it's been locked out for them in my perspective. My advice to anybody who wants to really understand art would be to learn about what's happened in the past because those artists have stories. Not all of the painters we worship today started out in schools or were really rich. They have their stories and there's something you can relate to and connect with if you have a bit of context.

The other thing is, there's a lot of fun that's poked at with art. If you see a giant painting and you know it's worth a lot of money, you automatically wanna underwrite and be like "oh I don't understand why that block of yellow paint is worth £200,000". And that's fine - there is a pretentiousness level to art but there can be more too it.


A: So how do you go about appreciating art? Like apart from aesthetically because I'm just like "oh that looks nice, I like that". How can I begin to understand it more and go a bit deeper?

F: I think there are gonna be some pieces where no matter how much you try, you can't emotionally connect with them. And that's art. Like going into a gallery with a mindset of "I need to emotionally connect with every single painting", you might end up there for 20 years before you can leave. It's just not feasible. It's like people, you either connect with them or you don't. So if you think about it in that way, each painting as a person, think am I seeing a story, do I feel anything, does that remind me of something. Don't just look at it in a visual sense, look back at your own self - does it remind you of anything, does it connect to any part of your life? There are some paintings you might see like a portrait of a person showing an emotion that's something you've experienced as well and that makes it emotionally more, more than just a visual to you.

It's hard for us because we're fed so much imagery everyday that it's unique for us to actually look at something and attach deep meaning to it. It's hard. On Instagram how many images must you see a day? It's like the world's biggest gallery in a sense. That's why it's worth taking the time to look at details. Connecting to art can be like a puzzle. If you go in there and you look at all the hard work that's gone into it, that might make you feel something like how you might've put hard work into something too and relate to the artist's feelings in that way. It could be the nature or the content of something. If it was made by a person of colour, as a person of colour you might be able to feel something and see their story because a lot of art is based on real events. I mean it's just about, in the content itself, finding the right match. It's like dating in a sense - it's finding something that sparks. It's not really something you can write a textbook about and get straight instructions. It's like trying to appreciate a person - get to know them a bit, see if there's a spark there, what's beneath the surface.

A: I recently got into Edward Hopper's paintings. He often painted pictures of people in cities but there's always a look of loneliness about them. I love how he manages to capture that loneliness and I looked up a video about him and found out he suffered from loneliness too and always felt a little bit lost. But I remember the first thing I liked about his paintings was how they look like movie stills and I just wanted these people to get up and start walking around. Like I wanted to see the whole story play out, I really wish they weren't just still images. That's what really attracted me to them.

F: I think you just gave a perfect example of how you can connect with something. You talked about something to do with you, you connected with a piece of him. He's not in the room when you see his paintings, his paintings are saying something to you. Someone else could look at them and not see anything but a bunch of people, but it's like self-reflection - you see something you want to see or something is there that you want to reflect on and it automatically brings you closer. And then that spark drives you to find out more about the painter, more about the medium, how they view things. At the end of the day art is a medium, there's interesting parts about the medium itself like how he might've put the painting together, the technique, but the overall effect is what made you remember his name and his work and made you want to follow him a bit more. People are all so different and their experiences are all so different. There's probably gonna be an artist out there for everyone that they can connect to, feels represents them, but that's a good example of how you can connect with something.

A: Also how did you learn to appreciate art? Because I know you did art until A-Level. Was it from that or was it more from you looking at art and finding things that resonated with you?

F: I'm probably a bit biased because I've always had an interest in it. So I think for that reason I'm more interested in the medium. I've always been drawn to visuals and I think I'm quite a visual learner as well so for me pictures do hold more meaning and I find them easier to understand. So attaching emotion to art came naturally. It's not something you really force, but you can try it. It'll either work for you and feel like you can communicate and understand it and it works for you or you might feel you're more into music or writing and that's what you resonate with and how you express yourself.

Studying art makes see you see for one, there's a lot of interesting things about technique and method. You're also opened up to this world of artists and history that you might not have known. It also helps you see how modern art is influenced so much by the past. What you thought was original may not be - there's visual references to the past everywhere. But I think more than anything when I went to uni and stopped doing art, I found I connected to it much more easily on an emotional level because it wasn't about work anymore. With art a-level I always felt like I had an end goal, like there's a reason I have to do this, tick off an objective. It was a tool to get to a certain point. When I didn't have that sort of association I liked it a lot more. Things mean more to you when you're not pressured into liking them or feeling something for them. When I left school and had a break from art I started to miss it, and when you naturally meet it again you feel more for it. You're drawn more to it and when you look at things you wanna research them, not because it's work but because it genuinely interests you.

There's also a lot of romanticism about artists, like they're these crazy people who don't live normal lives. But artists are just people who communicate more visually. It's just a language that they speak.

A: So it's just a form of expression that's had this whole institution built up around it and it feels hard to crack.

F: Yeah. I feel at this point not enough people have tried to crack it. And it's understandable why. It's intimidating. You go to a gallery, you might feel like there's a only certain type of person who's gonna be there, the atmosphere is sometimes cold and not very welcoming. So that makes you feel how could I possibly connect with what's in here, what's on the walls, if I can't feel at home in the environment. There could be efforts made to make it more approachable for everyone and make more people want to go see or pursue art.

Follow Faaizah on Instagram and check out her incredible food blog

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