As Art Basel Miami Beach descends upon our city, Miamians will be forced to make small talk about art while waiting in line for free booze. For many, even those who are casual fans of art, talking about art can seem intimidating with all of these incredibly well-dressed out-of-towners throwing around words like "Abramovic" and "Gagosian" with such ease.
But as any politician can tell you, it's easy to sound like you know what's up when in fact you have no idea what you're talking about. It's not that different in the art world. Follow these tips and you'll be able to bullshit your way through almost any art conversation.
See also: New Times' Guide to Miami Art Week 2014
How to Talk About Pieces of Art
A lot of contemporary art exists to challenge established notions. So it's best to take stock of whatever beliefs you hold beforehand and then note which of them have been challenged by art throughout the week. Discuss those challenged notions afterward.
If you don't understand a particular work at all, it's likely attempting to challenge some notion about art itself. Dismiss the piece as "indulgent" and steer the conversation toward work that challenges notions with which you're more familiar.
If something reminds you of a penis, it probably is meant to remind you of a penis. Yet it is considered impolite in most corners of the art world to bluntly state so. Instead of saying "Wow, that looks like a giant dong," try something like: "The phallic implications of this work are quite confrontational, don't you think?" Art people love talking about dicks as long as you call them "phalluses."
Art people also love the word "juxtapose." Look it up in the dictionary and be on the lookout for various examples of juxtapositions throughout the week. Then say, "That's an interesting juxtaposition." Your conversation partner will nod, "Indeed."
Other words to add to your vocabulary: deconstruction, approach, visual lexicon, aesthetic, gestural, transverse, balance, displace, structuring, and space (but not when referring to the outer variety). The greater number of those words you use in a sentence, the less likely it will be for anyone, even art snobs, to understand what you're saying, but they will be left with the impression that you certainly do.
For example, say things like, "I enjoy how the artist approaches the concept of space by creating a visual lexicon of gestural marks resulting in an uneasy balance of the whole piece," instead of, "So this guy just put a bunch of random brushstrokes on a canvas and called it art? You gotta be shitting me."
Remember, if you're not sure how to refer to a work that's not two-dimensional but not a sculpture, just call it an "object." You would think the art world would come up with a better term for this, but it hasn't.
How to Talk About Specific Artists
If you mention Warhol a lot, people might get the impression that Warhol is the only contemporary artist with whom you're familiar. Which may very well be the case, but you don't want everyone to know that. Keep your daily use of the word "Warhol" to about five instances. Use the word "Banksy" fewer times.
Like talking politics and religion at Thanksgiving dinner, discussing the work of Jeff Koons during Basel is best avoided. He makes very large, shiny objects that sell for millions and millions of dollars but is deplored by just about every art critic. If you speak highly of him, you run the risk of some academic type thinking you're an easily amused philistine. If you speak poorly of his work, you might offend a very rich collector who just splurged the equivalent of five BMWs for one of Koons' works.
The Nick Cave who makes those elaborate sound suits people crowd around to take pictures of every year at the convention center is not the same Nick Cave who once recorded a duet with Kylie Minogue. (Likewise, if you think you overhear the name of a certain Beatle being discussed in the same sentence as the word "buttplug," you are in fact talking about Paul McCarthy).
As far as talking about other artists you're not familiar with, just remember that Wikipedia and the first page of Google image search results are your friends. Do a few smartphone searches every time you're waiting in line at the restroom and you'll be walking around saying things like "Ah, yes, his work is very reminiscent of Ryan Trecartin" and "Kara Walker is truly brave" in no time.
Oh, also, of special note for Miamians: No one wants to talk about Romero Britto. Ever.
How to Talk About Art Without Really Talking About Art
Noting the prevalence of various types of art at fairs is a fine way to sound like you know what you're talking about when in fact all you are doing is using basic math skills. "There was a lot of video art at Pulse this year." "Not very much photography at Scope." "It seems like I saw a lot of small ink sketches everywhere I went this year." You don't need to know what these trends mean or why they are happening. Your conversation partner may not know either, but you will both walk away with the idea that it must mean something and that it was a thing worth discussing.
Point at a particularly large work by a seemingly notable artist and say, "That would make a fine addition to a mid-tier art museum." Point at a small piece and say, "I could see that making its way into a private collection." Basically just think about the types of places you'd imagine seeing that art out in the real world. People will nod in agreement as long as you avoid saying "over someone's couch." There is no greater insult in the art world than saying a piece would look good over someone's couch, even if that happens to be the ultimate destination of many of the pieces you see at Basel.
Just mention random trends you pick up on in artwork. It doesn't have to be particularly artsy. One year I saw a bunch of pieces that involved ducks and proceeded to have a conversation about the artistic symbolism of ducks. It was five minutes of complete verbal bullshit.
Out-of-towners probably don't want to talk about Wynwood as much as you want to talk about Wynwood, but remember that the cool talking point right now is that Wynwood is over.
A Few More Basic Tips
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Secretly, people who like to talk about art simply want to hear themselves talk about art. Just ask a few questions and let them go at it. They probably don't care what you have to say anyway.
Take comfort in the fact that in a lot of cases, the deeper meaning of artwork is prescribed afterward by gallerists and critics. Often the artist was probably thinking what you're thinking: Yeah, this looks kind of cool.
If a conversation quickly goes above your head, just excuse yourself to get another drink; your company will understand. You'll soon find a new group of people, who are talking about what everyone actually talks about during Art Basel Miami Beach: where the best parties are happening.