How to Talk the Talk When You Know Nothing about Art

SLEEK provides you with a series of expressions that will make you sound at least semi-knowledgeable about contemporary art

Your life is busy. Between bitching sessions about Eckhaus Latta’s lost authenticity, fuming at your ex’s new polyamorous lifestyle on Snapchat and waiting tables at a wifi-less bar in Neukölln, who has time to actually form an coherent opinion about all the art constantly on view in Berlin? For Berlin Art Week, we want to help: the feeling of dread that arrises when confronted with an art work you simply don’t have the energy to understand can be fought temporarily. With this article, SLEEK provides you with a series of expressions that will make you sound at least semi-knowledgeable about contemporary art.

Photo by Philippe Meissner, sourced from flickr

“Conceptually, this is questionable”

You’ve known it since your mother’s silent, tortured glance at your first experiment with haircuts: challenging someone’s aesthetic choices while abstaining from any clear opinion will trigger quite the negative response. “Questionable” is vague enough to convey both doubt and a wise form of scepticism; adding “conceptually” into the sentence basically informs whomever is listening to you that you know what an artistic concept is, aka you might be kind of smart. This statement works well when confronted with something that seems so dumb it can’t possibly be based on even the most basic human thought: bad monochromatic painting, things with mud on them, or whenever an Aldi plastic bag is involved.

Paul McCarthy, “Complex Shit”, photo by FaceMePLS, sourced from flickr

“It’s quite layered”

Obviously, no artist would ever admit to topical one-dimensionality; you must always expect an art work to be meant as the starting point for a multitude of discourses. Pointing out the complexity of a confused figurative painting will impress your entourage, who will suddenly think there’s more to you than a US passport and a sharp tendency to repost Hood by Air fashion show pics. Plus, “it’s quite layered” leaves things open: whether you actually understand or like what you’re looking at becomes secondary. You know there’s more to that sad collage of 1990s Australian Vogue editorials than fashion, and that’s good enough.

Dan Flavin – “Four Red Horizontals (To Sonja)” (1963), photo by cea+, sourced from flickr

“Oh come on…”

Has your artsy acquaintance Shannon said something provocative about this houseplant-and-mannequin installation you’ve just spent 5 minutes looking at? Good. Take a risk and sound more qualified by opposing an “Oh come on…” to her critique. Even though you were probably thinking about your annoying vegan flatmate, the combination of extensive gazing and vague opposition will attest you a certain intellectual gravitas. People might think you actually are here for the art, and not for the free bottle of unrefrigerated Kindl. Since you probably don’t like Shannon anyway and wouldn’t know what to say about the piece, slowly walk away to the next work on view and spend five more minutes there, this time to think about your stolen bike. Excellent when confronted with large installation pieces and annoying people, like Shannon (interns at an off-space, wears velours ironically, calls Tresor bouncers by their nickname).

Jennifer Rubell, “Lysa III”, 2014; Fiberglass, resin, and steel; Rubell Family Collection


While we hope you actually never end up in front of something referencing Warhol or Lichtenstein, artists often take inspiration from other artists, which isn’t bad per se: since appropriation, being inspired by or even copying someone else’s work is a legitimate strategy. Sometimes it’s obvious, in which case, one doesn’t need to underline it; at other times, it is barely visible, which is when you can place a snarky “referential” into the room, blowing everyone’s brains with your sharp analytical mind and knowledge of art history. It is important however to keep it at this one single word, because most probably, you’re not really sure what these iron casts of pantyhose are actually referencing. With British sculpture and homoerotic photography in particular, dropping this can be an effective escape from your inexistent opinion. There’s enough of both second-rate Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans to fill up the Mariana Trench twice.

Photo by Thomas Leuthard, sourced from flickr

“Have you read that book by…?”

There are moments in which simply nothing remotely adequate seems utterable in front of art. In that case, instead of panicking, opt for the diverting strategy: just mention a theory book you read in college, really bored you to death, has a nebulous artistic vibe and all your friends love (Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag are good picks, for example). Whomever you’re talking to will either 1) not have read it but won’t admit that, consequently staying silent 2) have read it and feel the need to expand on it endlessly, so you don’t have to say anything additionally. In fact, talking about Walter Benjamin might very well be among the top 10 hobbies of the Berlin art crowd, next to applying for residencies and debating the future of Volksbühne, among other things. So mentioning that guy is a safe solution if for example, you’re speechless after a 45 min black and white film of a goat standing still in a garage to the sound of experimental cello.

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