Before You Attend that Ritzy Party...
Become a Cultural Connoisseur: The Artist's Conversation
A Commentary on How to Sound More Intelligent than You Actually Are
by Veronica Jean
It’s happened to everyone sooner or later: There you are, in full swing, fascinating people with your heroic tales of conquering your computer problems– (Ha! There is no ‘any’ key!) — and telling off your boss earlier that morning. (Okay, so you didn’t actually say any of it…but pretending to in the bathroom at work is close enough). You toss in a few quotes from a book you read, repeat a word you’re not quite sure the meaning of and are feeling pretty good about the impression you’ve made with your new friends. You take a small sip of your drink, and next thing you know the person you are speaking to lifts an eyebrow and asks coyly: “What do you think of the arts?”
Now, for some of us this may be a chance to engage in not only a delightfully deep conversation, but to slide in your passionate opinion about light and color, style and the general ‘feel’ of a work. For the rest of us, we have developed a defense mechanism of smiling nervously, nodding on occasion, and spending the rest of the conversation stepping on eggshells and hoping the person doesn’t notice you drowning. In fact, for the later half of the argument, you were pretty sure Caravaggio was a style of dance, and a Cezanne was a method of recalling the dead.
This is the worst kind of social anxiety, mainly because, unless you truly know what you are talking about, you are at the mercy of the person who started the discussion. Moreover, that person is usually very opinionated about the style and mood that is ‘proper’ in art, and as this is purely subjective, any opinion you try to form mid-conversation can be shot down as sadly as a lame-winged duck in duck-season. Even the most well respected artists, in fact sometimes they more often then others, can argue about art.
Rarely is there more danger of revealing oneself then here. Never fear. You are in dangerous territory, but there are a few cunning Do’s and Don’t’s to fishing your way out of this conversation. Use them correctly and you may even impress a few people.
DO memorize one artist who takes your fancy. You need not know too much more about them than one famous piece and a few fun facts. With a little vague connotations thrown in, you can make the person you are talking to believe that you are a passionate fan of what you consider ‘good artwork’. No matter what happens, turn their attention back to this artist. Force the conversation on a playing field you feel comfortable with, and always find correlations, no matter how wild, between whatever point they want to make and the subject which you understand. Take the names of two other artists and throw them in occasionally: It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense in context. The wilder the correlation, the more the person will believe you must truly understand the inner workings of art to see how Picasso and Caravaggio are similar.
DON’T make up artists who never existed out of curious French words or a sandwich you once ate. Heaven forbid the person has been to the same little Deli across the street, and knows that the only oils in a Bahn Mi or a Ruben are the ones keeping it from getting too dry. (This is about the same as giving an entire business dissertation with your fly down. If nothing comes out of your mistake, you can recover, but if anyone sees something they shouldn’t have, it’s best to leave right away. Perhaps even burn the building.)
DO change your vocabulary. If the person does happen to bring up a painting you can recall, talk about the ‘flow’ instead of the ‘way it looks’. Mention light, never color. Color is for the obvious, but the use of light is more subtle and will always make you appear smarter. Say things like ‘Asymmetric’ and repeatedly admire the ‘line of motion’. It matters little if you understand what any of these mean, only how adamantly you use them. If you want to get really fancy, use phrases like ‘Geometric’ or ‘linear’, but a word of caution: Misuse of these words in the wake of a real art connoisseur will destroy your whole conversational apparatus. Things like ‘Transcendent’, ‘Surrealistic’, and ‘nostalgic’ are also acceptable. The bigger the word, the more it will appear you put thought into your opinions.
DON’T say words such as ‘thingy’, ‘brush hairs’, ‘colors’, specific body parts or simplistic representations of shapes like ‘swirl’. You want to prove that you see beyond what is immediately in front of you, even if what is immediately in front of you makes no sense whatsoever. (By way of social blunders, this is about the same as taking your dog with you to a social event and having him relieve himself on the host. In both cases, a well timed joke is a quick recovery. Either that, or moving to another state, whichever works.)
DO find healthy ways of avoiding certain topics. The art world is perhaps the one subject in which a dash of arrogance can often be mistaken for intelligence. Brush off the subjects you don’t understand, and if the person presses you, give them a slightly pitying glance and say something vaguely deep, such as, “You really can’t see beyond the canvas, can you?” No one knows what this means, but then again, you’ve been lost most of this conversation so what harm could it do?
DON’T go out of your way to form any real opinions about something. Let the other person do the talking, and if they mention any piece or line of work you are unfamiliar with, simply form a mildly disappointed expression and say ‘It doesn’t speak to me’. (Art is, apparently, a living organism, and therefore should always speak to the viewer.) (NOTE: if art does speak to you, NEVER divulge any dialogue. Ever. Ever ever ever. I don’t think I’ve memorized enough ever’s.)
DO constantly wear an expression of interest. Nod your head. Never-mind what the person is saying, vary your expression so you are sure to appear part of the conversation.
DON’T let your guard down. (There is nothing worse for your appearance than standing at a party awkwardly as if to say “I’m too stupid to join in this conversation. May I still stand here?”)
DO be offended that ‘real art’ is dying out. Never let either of you approach the subject of the true meaning of ‘real art’. Chances are, they will only be too happy to oblige, as they have no idea themselves.
DON’T If you must branch from traditional artwork, bring up things like ‘spray paint art’, recycled sculptures and ‘crafts’. Spray paint and old garbage are for hooligans. You are a byproduct of real culture (never mind what that means). Failing to avoid these topics is about as embarrassing as mistaking a stranger for your significant other just as a moment of friskiness finds you. In both situations, the best thing is to brush the matter off as quickly as possible, and look just as shocked and offended as the person you have just offended. You may even be able to convince them it was someone else by looking wildly over your shoulder, but don’t count on it.
DO drink wine. Swirl it as the person talks and inhale occasionally. (Wine is also a living organism. It needs to breathe.)
And last but not least,
DON’T agree to go to museum or meet up later to discuss the matter more in depth. You don’t need to see things in depth. Depth is where people can drown, and you need to take your swimmies elsewhere. You barely survived this conversation, let alone a whole lunch-in. Walk away with your pride in tact. Remember, you are a cultural connoisseur. In the pool of knowledge, you dabble, but never dive.