We've all known a real-life Mary Wilkie – a person who was designed and placed on this planet to make you feel completely inept at holding an adult conversation about anything. Mary – the seemingly effortless pop-connoisseur played expertly by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's Manhattan – is infuriatingly bright and well-read. She glides through conversations leaving a trace of superiority, condemning her co-conversationalists to a fumbling marathon of one-upmanship. Her patronising air is never more apparent than in her first appearance on screen – an encounter with friends in an art gallery.
She is pitted against Isaac (Allen) and the young Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who are both unwittingly and quickly besieged by her sophisticated discourse. Suddenly, without due warning, everything they had believed to be delightful about the exhibition they'd just experienced was completely shot – like a deflating balloon darting rapidly across a room.
Cover: Still from Manhattan, 1979, written and directed by Woody Allen
Scene from Manhattan, 1979, written and directed by Woody Allen
This scene alone is enough to send anyone into blind hysteria whenever a friend so much as suggests an art-viewing activity – the horror of it happening in real life is far more frightening. But it's not just the anxiety of the inevitable omni-intellectual that stops us venturing out to look at art – it's the even more dreaded fear of not understanding it. Or at least, not being able to express our individual interpretation of it.
Seizing the fear
But imagine if instead of shying away from the real joy that can be gained from spending time with art, we chose to embrace the fear that keeps us away from it. Image we used that fear as fuel to punch through the limitations we believe we have when it comes to really understanding art. In reality the smartest thing you can know about art is that it very rarely has just one meaning. And even if it does, there's no rule that says that its viewers have to subscribe to that meaning, or that they can't attach their own to a particular work of art.
What if whenever someone
asked us what we thought
of a work of art, we resisted
the intellectual guessing game
Fear of art is very real and it can be felt by even the most ardent art lovers and gallery-goers. The secret behind extinguishing that fear is the same as it is for all forms of trepidation about anything in life: confessing. What if whenever someone asked us what we thought of a work of art – what we reckon it means, what it's supposed to be conveying, why the artist chose a particular viewpoint – we resisted the intellectual guessing game and, instead, admitted that... we're not sure.
Peter Paul Rubens, Rubens With His Wife Helena Fourment And Their Son Frans, c1635, Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In reality all that separates us from the Mary Wilkies of the world is vocabulary. The words we don't yet have shouldn't be what stops us from enjoying art, letting it grip us, excite us, sadden or even bore us. Yes - the language of art history and criticism can be dense and alienating, but visiting a gallery or a museum shouldn't be a testbed for using that kind of language. The language of enjoying art should be personal, honest, and unbridled.
You're not convinced. Okay – how about de-mystifying the grandeur of art-speak before going in to the art-viewing experience? If we were to break down the most commonly used, even trendy, phrases that are used by the intimidators of the art world, then perhaps we could give ourselves more leeway to develop our own vernacular.
Derivative – Like Mary Wilkie and many others before her, this word is used by art-intellects to infer that a piece of work lacks originality, and borrows from previous artists or canons. It's also a way for people to not-so-covertly say – I've seen it all before.
Canon – This refers to a group or collection of art, literary, or musical works which combine together to signify a specific field. So whenever someone uses it, it just means that the work of art follows a set of principles that links it to other works.
Textural – Is a fancy word for describing something as interesting for its surface appearance. It can refer to layering of paint, materials used, or essentially anything that looks like it would be fun to touch.
Muted – This word is used for colour schemes that are faint or understated. Some really fancy people might attach it to elements of a work of art that aren't colour. But if you just substitute it for the word 'faint', you're unlikely to get lost.
Georgia O'Keeffe's muted collection of wrap-garments, Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern, Brooklyn Museum, photo by Mark Leonard
Abstract – This is a word that describes a work of art that doesn't depict anything real or that exists in the world – for example Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). You might also hear the phrase nonrepresentational, which means the same thing.
Figurative – On the other hand, this is the word used to describe art that represents something that actually does exist – anything that's actually a thing, not just the human figure.
Immersive – This is a label for art that goes beyond boundaries and includes the viewer in some participatory way by eliciting interaction. It can vary from minimal (e.g. a video installation inviting viewers to wear headphones), to complete immersion (e.g. walking into a work of art made up of a whole room).
Rain Room, Random International, 2012, water, injection moulded tiles, solenoid valves, pressure regulators, custom software, 3D tracking cameras, steel beams, water management system, grated floor
It's only words
There are hundreds of buzzwords and art-speaky phrases we could learn before heading out into the fearsome world of gallery-browsing. The truth is that no-one will ever know them all, and (just as we find out by the end of the movie) even people like Mary Wilkie are sometimes unsure of themselves and fearful of falling intellectually short. So next time you're invited to attend a gallery opening, or to see a new exhibition with a friend, don't immediately shoot the idea down in your head. Art is truly for everyone – no matter what language they speak.