How to Talk About Art: A Beginner's Guide | Learn with Artsy | Artsy's Learning Team and Jordana Zeldin | Skillshare

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How to Talk About Art: A Beginner's Guide | Learn with Artsy

teacher avatar Artsy's Learning Team and Jordana Zeldin

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      What Is Art?


    • 3.

      Asking Questions: What We Can See


    • 4.

      Asking Questions: What We Can't See


    • 5.

      Finding Art in the World


    • 6.

      Final Thoughts


    • 7.

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About This Class

If you're new to art, where do you start?

Join Artsy’s Learning Team and Jordana Zeldin for an inviting, 30-minute class on the fundamentals of defining, discussing, and finding contemporary art. This is "Art 101" for our era, opting for straightforward language that everyone — even those who have felt lost or skeptical about contemporary art — can use in their search to engage with art.

Each lesson brings ideas to life with examples from museums, galleries, and even public spaces. You'll learn how to:

  • Identify types of art
  • Look closely, ask questions, and discuss specific works of art
  • Approach art shows in different spaces

Plus, the class resources include additional reading on the artists mentioned in each lesson as well as a downloadable PDF pocket guide of questions to jumpstart your discussion when encountering art in the world.

The goal of this class is to empower you to approach works that may seem intimidating, or to experience art you love in a thoughtful and satisfying way. From sculpture and paintings to performances and film, this class will give you approaches to explain why, enriching your experience of making meaning in art everywhere.


This class is presented in partnership with Artsy, a resource for art collecting and education. Artsy’s mission is to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Meet Your Teacher

Jordana Zeldin is an independent artists' representative, a docent at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Gallery Partnerships Manager at Artsy. Prior to her work with Artsy, she served as Director and Curator at ArtBridge, a nonprofit organization committed to providing emerging artists with large-scale public exhibition opportunities throughout NYC and beyond. She lives in Brooklyn.

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1. Introduction: Hi. My name is Jordana Zeldin. I'm on the gallery partnerships team here at Artsy. I came to the world pretty organically, and I've been the director of an arts non-profit, a galleress, a curator. I'm also a docent at The Whitney Museum of American Art, which means that I give tours of the exhibitions and works-on-view to members of the public. Of course, the thing that unites all of the activities that I've done over the last six or so years has been art. This class is for everyone. It's for people that are curious about contemporary art, people that are perhaps even a little skeptical about it. We're going to be focusing on three main things today. We're going to be talking about introducing you to the landscape of art, all the various types of art, contemporary art that are out there. We're going to give you a toolkit of questions that you can ask. Questions can be incredibly helpful in making it possible for you to connect and engage more deeply with the work of art. Then, of course, we're going to be talking about where you can find art out in the world. Artsy's mission is to make art accessible to anybody with an Internet connection. You can log on to learn about artists you already know about, discover brand new artists, keep up with Art News, and also connect with our gallery partners around the world to buy art. What I want to say to students is that you have a right to have an opinion about the art that you're seeing. You have the right both to like or dislike a work of art, and also to say that you don't understand, and to begin to ask questions about what it is you're seeing. 2. What Is Art?: In this lesson we're going to be introducing you to the wide range of forms that contemporary art can take. The examples that we're going to be walking through today are all examples of contemporary art, which for our purposes means the art that was made after 1970. One of the things that makes contemporary art so exciting is that it's being made now. So what that means is that the artists are often responding to the present moment, to experiences and circumstances that all of us share. To start with, what is art? Well, it's a pretty daunting question and there's no one right answer. But what I will say is that humans have been making art for thousands upon thousands of years, for countless purposes. From expression, to religion, to self-examination, And the fact that we don't have one clean cut definition is part of what makes it so exciting for us to talk about today. In this class we're going to offer a really practical approach, a way to think about and engage with what art is. For our purposes today we're going to break it down really succinctly and think about it in terms of both intention on the one hand and reception on the other. So by intention we simply mean, did the artist intend for the object or experience he or she created to be art? So for our purposes today, if the artist intended for the work to be art, then it's art. The reason that this is important is because once an object has been intended to be art, the lenses through which we view it change and of course so too do the questions. So take this work by the Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson. Intention is what differentiates this piece created in collaboration with a geologist from regular chunks of ice that you might see on the street after a snowstorm. So on the other hand, there are objects that might not have been intended to be art when they were created, but we consider them to be art because of the way that we receive them. That might be their placement in a museum for example. Think about Egyptian tombs or Native American masks. We still can look at them or receive them through the lenses of art as we might a painting by Rembrandt or Picasso. So when you're looking at a work of art, you can already start to think both about the artist's intention and also your experience of it, how you are receiving it. There is a vast landscape of contemporary art and identifying the type of work that you're looking at can be really helpful first step in understanding what it is that you're seeing. The first type of art that we're going to be considering today is object based art. Painting, sculptures, photographs, prints, those are all examples of object-based art because they exist concretely in space. You can look at them, you can walk around them but oftentimes with object-based art, all that's needed at least to start is to look. We're first going to be considering sculpture. Sculpture is one of the most ancient and traditional forms of art, and it's oftentimes one of the very first things that people think about when you mention the art object. Here we have a sculpture by the Venezuelan artist, James Matheson. What he does is he creates these very realistic almost anatomically correct portraits of male figure heads out of bronze. He often plays with the surface of the works like recreating cracks, grid lines or perforations in the work. Our second example of object-based art is this photograph by Samuel Fosso. Object based-art doesn't have to be three dimensional, it can be two dimensional like this photograph it's flat but what it does is it still offers us an opportunity to look. For our next example let's consider this painting by the artist, Amy Feldman. Here Feldman is making an abstract work making use of two grey tones. As a painting this work is also an art objects. Many art objects engage with the history of art making, like this work here by Faig Ahmed. Here what he's doing is he's taking a digital rif on a traditional Azeri carpet making patterns. Our second major type is experience-based art. With experience-based art you the viewer can often go inside it move, around it. It often be a immersive environment. While object-based works primarily engage the sense of sight, with experience-based works, you're often asked to notice what you're hearing, what you're touching, what you're tasting, what you're smelling. With experience-based works, it's almost as if you're going inside the art object. Here we have this work by the Chinese artists, Cai. What he's done is he's hand built 99 animals and placed them around this body of water. There is a sound component to the installation where you can hear almost like the sound of animal lapping up the pond, and it's lit very starkly and almost utopianly from above. Viewers are invited to weave around the space in and out between the animals and get a sense of what it feels like to experience this strange and otherworldly environment. Some experience-based artworks invite you to touch the work or even run through it. Like this modern year installation by the Icelandic artist, Elin Hansdottir, the work is made out of mudbrick and it's lined with vertical mirrors, so that fact is that as you're running through the spiral you can see your fragmented reflection. The next type of art that we're going to be exploring is time-based art. Now of course all works of art take time. As I mentioned we encourage you to slow down regardless of what it is that you're looking at. But time-based works typically have a set beginning and a set end. Types of time-based art include; video art, sound art, film, performance, dance, all of these works take time, and while they often require a little bit more patience on the part of the viewer, they can also be some of the most deeply rewarding experience as you can have with art. Let's look at this work by the artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, called microphone's. What the artist has done is he's arranged these vintage 1930s shoon microphones around the room at different height and he invites people to go up to them and speak into them. The microphones have been modified so that after you speak into the microphone, what's reverberating back to you is a voice from a previous participant and in that way what you're getting with this work is an echo of the past. So you can almost think of the beginning of this work as the moment when you the viewer speak into the microphone and then the end of the work as when you hear the voice, one of the previous participants reverberating back to you. So again it's got a start time and an end time even though of course the installation will continue reverberating long after you've left. Some time-based art is performance art. It's ephemeral in that disappears as soon as the performance has come to an end. One example is this work by the artist, EJ Hill, he brought a fence into the gallery, he tied a jump rope to the fence, and he jumped rope on that fence for as long as he could until he collapsed with exhaustion. Video art like performance, like sound art, can also be considered time-based art like this piece here by the artist, Shazia Skander. What she has done is she has made use of a traditional technique, a painting technique where she's painting in miniature and animated the work in video form. What all of these works share in common is that the artist intended for them to change over time. So we've talked about these three broad types of art, but it feels important to note here that the types are by no means mutually exclusive and there are countless examples of overlapping between the type. So you can have an art object that changes over time, you can have a performance piece that incorporates an art object but what identifying these types can help you to do is think about or note if it's an art object, take note of what you see. If it's an experience-based or installation-based object, what senses beyond sight? What's the holistic experience that's being activated? And then if it's a durational or time-based work, you can ask yourself, how has the work changed over time? All of the vocabulary that we're making use of in this lesson, will help you to make sense of art. 3. Asking Questions: What We Can See: In this next section, we're going to be introducing you to tools for questioning and tools for looking closely. In this last lesson, we focused on how to identify the type of art that you're seeing, and in this lesson we're going to help you take that one step further and talk about how to make meaning from what you're seeing. I want to emphasize here that the questions that we'll be asking, aren't right questions or wrong questions but rather we're giving you modes of question so, that you can pick the one or the few that resonate most with you. So, let's start with what you can see and that's often known as formal analysis, and includes breaking down the elements of composition, materials, technique, content. When approaching a work of art, it can be incredibly helpful to break things down one by one. Which is really great about formal analysis when you're first approaching a work, is that it doesn't require any outside research and it's all about slowing down and doing some close looking. One of the primary building blocks of formal analysis is composition, and what that means is how the lines, the shape sometimes the color are arranged in relationship to one another. Ultimately, the question is, how is this work organized? That is composition. So, what we're looking at here, is a work by the artist Julie Blackmon and far from being a candid shot, photograph on the fly, this work with carefully composed by the artist. Now, when thinking about the different compositional elements in this work, one of the things that I first noticed is that there are lines everywhere. The stop sign makes a line, the window frames make a line even that jet stream at the very top of the word makes a line and then when thinking about lines in the context of this work, even the figures themselves are lines, but notice how every line is a skew. No, one line is perfectly straight across or perfectly vertical and I think part of what that does is help to underscore the work with a sense of unsteadiness and instability. Now, let's talk about materials which begs the question, what is the work made out? Of course, there's clay and paint, traditional materials that we often associate with works of art. But then there are also nontraditional materials. Artists can be working in precious metals or even found objects from everyday life. So, let's consider this work by El Anatsui. What might first look like a shiny fabric or metallic paint is actually bottle caps and packaging that the artist carefully assembled using copper wire. This is an example of an artist deliberately choosing a material to embedded with personal meaning. He said media which comes with history meaning with something means something to me. It's not just oil and paint from the tube, I can't relate to that well. I'd rather go for something that people have used, then there is a link between me and the other people who have touched that piece. The next element in our formal analysis that I want to consider is technique, and the question there is how is material used. Even when you have artists using the same material, the way that they approach it or make use of it, the technique, can make them look incredibly different. Consider first this work by Grace Weaver. It's flatly painted and large swaths of colors delineate the hat of a person. Now, this work here by Jenny Morgan also makes use of oil on canvas, but the way that she paints it almost makes it look like a photograph. It's meticulous and highly detailed. Then this last work here again, oil on canvas is incredibly painterly. The material is thick and built up. Doing this type of analysis comparing work side-by-side can really help you to understand and see what technique an artists is making use of and to also recognize these techniques as deliberate choices. We can ask ourselves, why is Grace Weaver making use of these flat swaths of color? Why is Jenny Morgan making paintings that almost look like photographs? Why did O Jun decide to build the paint up as thickly as he did? So far, we've talked about composition, materials, technique, but we haven't yet even gotten into the question of what the work is of. One of the ways that can be helpful in considering this is to ask the question, is the work abstract or is it representational? Abstract refers to works that are made up primarily of lines and colors and shapes. Whereas representational works often reference something that's familiar to us from our everyday lives. So, as you can see, that by slowing down you're able to start to notice and recognize elements that you wouldn't have seen with a quick first glamorous. What it also helps us to see is that each one of these elements reflects an artistic choice. Simply looking can be incredibly powerful, you could always get something out of a work by approaching it in this way, but it's never the whole story. 4. Asking Questions: What We Can't See: Next up, contextual analysis. Now, oftentimes when you meet somebody very quickly, you might be able to describe what they look like, what they're wearing. But it's not until you really get to know the person, spend time with them, learn about their family history and their friends that you really get a sense of who they are and that's very much the same case with a work of art. Just how we can break down what we can see in a work of art, we can similarly break down the elements that aren't immediately visible to us. Let's revisit the idea of intention, which brings to mind the question when looking at a work of art, "What is the artist's intention?" Earlier we talked briefly about a performance by EJ Hill called fence mechanisms. We mentioned that the performance is time-based beginning when the artist tied a jump rope to a fence and ending about two hours later when he collapse from exhaustion. The performance is clearly a feat of endurance, but what the work is about goes beyond that. To gain a better understanding of it, we can start by considering the artist's intention. From doing a bit of research, we can learn that fence mechanisms is a semi-autobiographical performance. It's personal for the artists, in that it draws upon experiences from his childhood. Hill has spoken about feeling isolated in the Catholic school yard as a child and he remembers tying a rope to a fence so that he could play double dutch by himself. Because of this experience, the jump rope, which would be an object that might not mean much to most of us, has a very specific resonance for Hill. It became a symbol of the alienation he felt as a gay black adolescent growing up in Los Angeles. Going back to the idea of artists choices, Hill could have chosen to communicate this experience in any number of ways such as through a painting or sculpture. But for the artist, the memory of the physical experience was profound, which made it all the more important for him to present the piece using his body. He said, "Being alive is hard. Being alive is so complicated. Being alive in a black body, being alive at a queer body, it comes with certain things that others don't have to think about. I've been storing these experiences in my body since childhood. I feel like the world has been preparing me for this type of work since the day I was born." Now, of course, we wouldn't be able to know any of this, had we not done a bit of research or perhaps spoken to the artist, that is looked into the context of the work as opposed to just thinking about what's in front of us. Let's talk about reception, which is a word that we introduced at the start of the lesson. Now in this case, reception is referencing the intended audience, so who the artists made the works for and also where it was received, the context or place in which the work is being presented. Some artworks are entirely site-specific, which means the artist created them for a specific location and often for a specific audience. So, Deborah Kass designed this outdoor sculpture to be installed at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. When looking directly at it, you can see it's large, made up of two yellow letters which say OY or YO, depending on which way you're facing. Now, with the real significance of the work comes in is that when viewers are looking to Manhattan from Brooklyn, the work reads OY or OY, but when you're standing in Manhattan looking to Brooklyn, it reads YO or YO. So, what the artist is doing is kind of cheekily playing on the cultural differences between these two community. This example goes to show us just how important looking beyond the work can be and considering the surrounding context. So, let's next talk about an artist's process, specifically processes that might not be visible in the finished piece. So there are two examples that come to mind here, one by Ben Weiner and the other by Stefana McClure. This piece by Ben Wiener is reminiscent of tie-dye, but actually what the artist has done is he's created a series of drawings made by coating sheets of paper in ink and then soaking it in different drugs, both over the counter and legal. This process is almost wholly reliant on chance, as the artists really doesn't have an idea how the piece will turn out when he begins the process. Then there's this work here by Stefana McClure. Now it appears that what we're looking at are two squiggly white lines on a blue background. But this is really another example of where understanding the artist's process can offer clues as to its meaning. To make this work, the artist watched subtitled movies and then transcribed every single subtitle from a single film line on top of line. So what that did is ground down the paper. Learning about this artist's process shows us that what looks like two squiggly lines is actually hours and hours of work and we can now understand why the piece of paper looks so thin and eroded, where the subtitles have been laid down. If hearing about these artists processes is exciting to you, know that you can almost always approach a work of art through the lens of process. Lastly, let's consider the environment, which begs the question, where and when was the work created? Unlike trying to imagine what it was like to live 500 or even 1,000 years ago, the beauty of contemporary art, especially work that was produced near you, is that you have a baseline understanding of the context in which the work was made. For artworks, like we're talking about that are deeply rooted in the now, it can be very easy to fill in the blanks for what you can't see. Take for example this installation called Ice Watch Paris by the Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. During the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, Eliasson brought 12 chunks of glacial ice from Greenland, to the plaza of the city's pantheon. These were chunks of ice that had broken off from a fjord in Greenland due to rise in global temperature and they totaled more than 80 tons. They're laid out in a circle, almost like a clock. The berg slowly melted on the streets of Paris, which was Eliasson's way of visualizing the impact of climate change. So, if you just came across a melting chunk of ice in the streets of Paris, it certainly could give you an experience and could be considered art. But how much richer has the work become when you know that the chunk of ice was sourced from Greenland and broken off of a fjord and that the work was being exhibited as part of the climate summit in Paris? So there are all sorts of questions that you can ask about the context of a work. How do you go about finding all of that information? Well, to start research, you can go online, go on to Artsy, go onto Google, just as you would where you wanting to find out more information about an author or a great piece of music. Also don't be afraid to ask the people around you. Art world spaces often have a whole host of experts who've spent a lot of time with the works, be they gallery assistants, museum docents, even security guards. In this section, we've talked about both what you can see and what you can't see and we've given you a whole slew of questions and approaches that you can use when considering works of art and if some of these questions or approaches feel unfamiliar or maybe even a little uncomfortable, I would encourage you to try them, see what happens because what you find might surprise you. 5. Finding Art in the World: More often than not, when you're going to see art out in the world, you'll be seeing it in the context of an exhibition. An exhibition is a grouping of works that are presented usually around a single theme, or working method, and can either be as single artist exhibition, or a group exhibition which means, works presented by two or more artists. One of the benefits of a solo exhibition, is that you can get a pretty deep understanding of an artist's practice, as well as how the artist's work might have evolved over time. More often than not, exhibitions have titles, and those can also be valuable keys in helping us to determine what the work might be about, and as well, when it was made. Some solo exhibitions are also retrospectives. Retrospectives typically cover the entire course of an artist's career, right from the beginning, through to the very end. One of the great things about a retrospective, is it can really give you a sense of how the artist has evolved, and how the works changed over time. So, those are solo exhibitions, but the other type of exhibition, is the group exhibition which brings together a number of artists and unites them around a single theme, medium, process, time period, and on and on. So, who creates these exhibitions? More often than not, it's curators. They're responsible for selecting the works, arranging them in a room, and creating a through line or story for visitors to follow. You are far from alone when visiting an exhibition. There are a plethora of resources to help to guide you in your research. Among those, docent tours, press releases, then you can download the audio guide, read the wall tax, all of these things, are there for you. One way to find exhibitions near you is to log on to Artsy, go to our shows page, type in your city location, and see what's about to open, as well as what's about to close. You can also check your local paper, and the myriad of arts blogs that are available online. There are four main places where you can see exhibitions today, museums, galleries public spaces, and you can also look on the internet. Museums are typically large nonprofit spaces, with an educational mission, like the Met, the Whitney, and Luckman, in Los Angeles. Galleries, are commercial spaces for buying, selling, and viewing art. They are often the very best places to see emerging work, as well as the contemporary work that's being made today. Because galleries are typically less education focused, and more commercially driven, it might seem like there aren't as many resources available to you, and sometimes they can even feel intimidating. But I would encourage you, don't be intimidated by the gallery, you can go in confidently using the tools that we've talked about today, you can ask for a press release, an exhibition checklist, and you can always talk to the person behind the desk, who very likely has spent a lot of time around this work and knows a lot about it. So, the examples of galleries, who worked with some of the artists we've talked about in this lesson, are October Gallery in London, Mark Moore gallery in Los Angeles, and Brand New gallery in Milan. Public spaces, are often great places to find art. Art that's close to you in your community. Some famous examples of public art are the Bean in Chicago, or the Statue of Liberty. Public art is often about you, your neighborhood, and community, and it's a great way to begin when searching for art that you can connect with almost immediately. Of course, there's just so much information about art online. You can log on to a great institution's website, you can check out Google Art Project. For more art historical context, you can look at Art 21, or the Art Story, one great place to begin, is to log on to artsy, visit the Art Genome and Projects page, and there you'll find literally thousands of categories of art, and begin to explore art based on your own interests. 6. Final Thoughts: So, we've talked about intention and reception. We've talked about the three types of art, object-based art, experience-based art, and time-based art. We've talked about how to ask questions both about what you can see, and also what you can't see, and we've also talked about where to find art in the world. So, what do you do now? Check out the class resources. Download our cheat sheet of questions that you can bring with you when you look at art out in the world. Consider signing up for the art's editorial newsletter, where you'll be kept up to date with art news, but it will also be chock-full of educational resources, they will talk through key moments in contemporary art, and talk about what you're seeing, talk about it with your friends, your colleagues. When you're in these art world spaces, ask security guards, ask docents. The whole point is to begin a dialogue and a conversation that you can feel confident now being a part of. 7. More Creative Classes on Skillshare: