Reality Check: Choosing Your Words Wisely

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

When seeking to impress your friends with your vast vocabulary, do you ever wish you had a more sophisticated command of the nuanced language of the art world? Have you often found yourself tongue-tied as you labor to name the precise genus for certain art objects? Or maybe we could just drop this nonsense and settle for a two-party system that throws all art into either the 2D “picture” or 3D “statue” category.

Though I’m a fan of simplicity and believe in the life-changing magic of tidying up, we shouldn’t boil down the lexicon of art to a few generic terms that will, more or less, get us through a conversation. Precise and intellectually satisfying language is not unlike the fresh, high quality ingredients that make for a memorable meal, and if we settle for bland descriptions or misuse them in a conversation, we leave the creative soul hungry.  On the other hand, there’s no need for any of us to identify ourselves as “wordies”, thinking ourselves superior by needlessly displaying our verbal prowess. In any case, I’d like to propose a middle ground that calls for us to be reasonably discerning when we choose our words, starting with these three common linguistic blunders when discussing works of art.

Picture vs. Painting

Most of us are comfortable looking at two-dimensional works of art. It’s tempting, though, to call all of them “pictures.” Harmless as this term may be, it’s rudimentary at best and tells us next to nothing about how the art was made. It also implies that the art is representational, that we are seeing a picture of something. In that sense, when we say “picture” we’re referring to the image, or the visual concept that the art object expresses.

Yis “Nosego” Goodwin. American. The Teacher. Acrylic, 2017. Museum Commission.

An image or visual concept, to come to its fullest expression, must be embodied by a material. In art, the material an artist uses is often referred to as the medium. The material is our clue for naming a two-dimensional art object beyond the vague “picture.” Simply put, a painting is primarily created with paint, and should be called as such. A drawing is made of graphite or charcoal, and so on. The next time you visit an art museum, pay attention to the label next to the artwork, which will tell you the materials with which the work was made. You’ll soon be a pro at identifying the materials that make up images, freeing you from the “picture” trap.

Painting vs. Print

The proper usage of “print” in art can be vexing, to be sure. A print can be anything that transfers an image from one source to another surface. However, that transfer comes when an image is, generally speaking, carved or etched into some material that will allow a copy of that image to be repeated onto that other surface. This image transfer can be repeated once or 1,000,000 times to just about any material. It can also include details to be added by hand after the image transfer takes place.

Unlike a painting, this print of Director of Children’s Education Alyssa Dumire’s dog, Addy, can be recreated multiple times. One for each member of staff! Photography by Katy Thompson.

But what it is not is a painting. Many of us want to call anything that has color on a two-dimensional surface a painting, but this is a sweeping oversight of the unique processes of printmaking. Though painting and printmaking processes can be used in the same work of art, the main difference between a painting and a print is that a print is repeatable, and a painting is not. Many times, a print is a transferred image on to a sheet of paper (though there are always exceptions), and the surface of the ink or other transferred material is relatively flat. A painting is more likely to have a textured surface, depending on the paint or other liquid medium used, and the image may appear to have come into being organically. That is to say that the hand of the artist is often more evident in a painting: vigorous strokes live long after the paint has dried, pin drop details call to mind an artist’s self-control, and a hidden thumb print connects us with the creator of the work in a way that we won’t often find in a carefully executed print. Simply put, a hand-written letter is to a painting as a typed letter is to a print.

Statue vs. Sculpture

George E. Caniere. Major General Anthony Wayne. 1917. Dedicated by the City of Fort Wayne. Photo by Katy Thompson.

A statue is a sculpture but a sculpture is not always a statue. Moreover, a statue is a particular type of figurative sculpture, generally of a posture that beckons our gaze at this person as an influencer of our world. Statues are often found in the public square, and though many are masterfully sculpted, would any of us call them inspiring works of art? I’ll make the case that “statue” implies an art object that is self-referential, municipal, and divorced from its creator in public memory. Sadly, a statue is most a statue when we fix our sights on the person who was sculpted and set aside the sculptor. I’ll further contend that, though great statues are expertly sculpted, they rarely hit the mark of life-changing works of art.

A sculpture, then, is liberated from these diminishing qualities that relegate “statues” to the realm of government buildings and football stadiums. With sculpture, we revel in the texture and material, the play of light on and around three-dimensional forms, and the surprising perspectives revealed to us as we move about the work of art. We don’t even care that we’re not looking at a mounted general, and we may even prefer the industrial I-beams that call us to imagine a charging bull.

Mark di Suvero, American, b. 1933. Helmholtz, 1985. Stainless Steel and Painted Steel. Photo taken by FWMoA staff.

A love of art should give rise to the love of language, though the irony is that the world’s greatest art can leave us speechless. The best art transcends description and refuses to be confined by the limits of our words. And yet we should nonetheless strive to call things what they are, delighting in naming objects with the same care as was poured into their creation. When we honor the object by speaking accurately about the material processes through which it came into being, the object and the choices its creator made continue to live. Though you’d likely lose friends at cocktail parties if you launched into such a treatise, I invite you to quietly dismiss “picture” and “statue” from your art vocabulary.

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