Non-Artists & Art: A Bandaid for Painful Conversations

As an artist I end up explaining my work to people... a lot. Back in art school this was somewhat gratifying as I could safely assume that my peers had about as much art background as I did and my teachers immensely more. Predictably, these things would happen: (a) critical theory rears its cynical head, (b) colour and composition make prompt appearances, (c) closely followed by some transference occurring when the work in question becomes too personal for part of the group. (d) Something will probably be phalic that wasn't meant to be, and hopefully, (e) at the end of the process I walked away knowing what to do next or (dare-I-say) satisfied, though probably a little heartbroken- but the point is: I gained something every time.

The post-grad dynamics of these discussions are wildly different when the non-artist steps into play. When I introduce myself as an artist, the average person will ask how I make money, then they will ask to see some art, resulting in a quick cameo of my website via my cell phone. This will then be followed by solicited explanations of exactly how I make specific works; however, once I get 2 minutes into explaining photopolymer etching and exposure units, my audience thankfully releases me from this particular task. An important factor to note, when considering conversations with non-artists, is the elite history of fine art. Professional fine artists are business people responding to specific markets and many (but not all) internationally successful artists had access to money and education. When access to quality art and its interpretation is privileged, so exclusive that the only people who understand contemporary art had to pay to be taught how to understand it, how can the average citizen be expected to carry a conversation about a world they are so removed from? Now to be clear, I am not knocking art school. Learning how to make impactful, embodied work is what art school does so beautifully; however, it is such an immersive experience that it often leaves the student unaware of how to make art that isn't just for artists, let alone how to speak with non-artists about it.  In these dialogues I have noticed an equal focus placed on understanding me as a person as well as my work, which hints at something wonderful:  it says that I am the key to making my art accessible.  Real world art conversations often look like blank stares, yet my opportunistic heart craves a way to turn these chats into something more open and productive. 

Most people honestly want to understand art but simply don't know what makes a good question or how to articulate visual experiences. So how do I interact with non-artists when they ask about me and my work? I ask them how the work makes them feel, what they notice about it, what moods the colours bring to mind, what does the subject matter remind them of? I remember my first year of school when I was incredibly intimidated by art and I recognize this to be how most people feel all the time. Now in this new conversation, I am not only engaging my viewer in critical thinking and basic art discussion but I am taking in a perspective from the surrounding world, a world that inspires me. If the general viewer consistently can't pick up on a single concept that a piece is trying to express, then my work may not be as accessible or successful as I think.

Non-artists are perfect thermostats for gauging the accuracy of artistic vision. Art is for them too, and of course there are the quirky wonderful moments when art comments on itself in an exclusive way but this shouldn't be the majority; there needs to be room for all of us in the conversation.