ART : What Do We Talk About When We Talk About a Work of Art? : For critic, something valuable happens in the process of trying to express thoughts about the work.

Ever wish you could have a tape recording of a message you find yourself repeating more often than you'd like?

I recently spoke with a woman I'll call Jane Upbeat, proprietor of an unfamiliar-sounding Orange County art gallery. The purpose of her call was to tout a latter-day Impressionist--let's call him Joe Wonderful--who has done the following remarkable things: eaten at the White House, sailed his boat around the world and sold nearly every one of the paintings in his show at Upbeat's gallery.

The only thing missing from this breathless roundup was a list of the movie stars who own examples of the Wonderful oeuvre. Oh, wait, I forgot: Wonderful is particularly special because he's a plein-air painter who actually paints outdoors. "That's unusual today," Upbeat assured me. Will wonders ever cease?

This would have been a great moment to turn on the tape: "Thank you for calling. Sorry I can't help you, but the type of contemporary art I review is work in a contemporary style, with a contemporary point of view.

"Impressionism is very popular among the general public, but its heyday was more than 100 years ago. It sprang from a social, cultural and intellectual climate that is very different from ours. Artists who work in this style today are just making pretty pictures with high sales potential, not freshly conceived works of art that honestly reflect our times and our issues.

"Please don't tell me you're looking for publicity for your artist; I'm not in the P.R. business. Don't bother to list the celebrity collections that are boosting your artist's career. I couldn't care less about his fascinating life history, or how much money he gets for his works.

"Sorry, but the only thing that's going to sway me is the quality of the art, and you've already dropped too many clues as to its utter lack of interest."

Of course, I don't really have such an insufferably rude tape. Instead, I'm insufferably rude in person.

"Alonso Amazing is one of the most famous artists in Europe," a gallery caller will say brightly.

"I've never heard of him," I'll answer.

"Well, you don't know about every artist, do you?"

Such is the fickle status of international fame.

If pressed, I'll launch into a tedious explanation about the ways art critics obtain information about art they consider worthwhile--the magazines we read, the art institutions we take seriously, the curators, historians and fellow critics whose opinions we acknowledge.

Such exchanges almost make a critic grateful for the type of art exhibit press releases that can be consigned quickly and quietly to the trash immediately after opening: announcements that proudly introduce new batches of marine art, cowboy art, bird prints, glass creations for the home, garish lithographs by someone with only one name, crass images of famous people by the son of a famous painter, sculptures by someone who claims to have invented a new sculptural material, and so on.

Typically, purveyors of run-of-the-mill commercial art trumpet the "lifelike" quality or "beauty" of the image, the length of time the artist took to make it, a "revolutionary" new technical invention, a list of museums said to own the artist's works and unsubstantiated claims of widespread critical rhapsody.

Tidbits such as these sound impressive to the unwary and don't require a fancy art education to comprehend. That makes sense, since the designated audience for such work knows little or nothing about art anyway.

But the strange thing is that hardly anyone actually talks about art , as opposed to all the simple-minded blather that swirls around art. Few people even try to verbalize the path they take toward an understanding of the process someone took in the creation of an image or idea.

Except for those who enjoy talking about theory, artists are frequently laconic about their work. When knowledgeable people--artists or others--tour an art exhibit together, they tend to speak in shorthand: "I like the energy in it." "The scale seems wrong." "Not quite up to her last work."

Even in art history courses, a lecturer will often thwack the screen where the slide is projected and say something about the "remarkable use of color" or the "harmonious play of forms." Copied into a notebook and reread at exam time, such pronouncements often seem vague and hard to differentiate from remarks made about many other works.

The point is not that art must be written or talked about to be understood but that something valuable happens in the process of trying to express your thoughts about the work.

I frequently find that I don't quite know what I think about an exhibit until I set about writing a review. The work reveals itself to me in the slow process of putting words together. If I had just glanced at the art and gone on my merry way, my understanding of it would likely be much more superficial.

Much (though not all) contemporary art is "speedy" to look at--there aren't a lot of tiny details to scrutinize or elaborate qualitative distinctions to fuss over. The "slow" part comes--or should come--afterwards, when you try to figure out what it all means.

The second part is the hard part but it goes a long way in verifying the staying power of the serious stuff and clarifying why commercial art that may seem more immediately alluring is ultimately less rewarding. A big part of the good work museum education departments do is to get people to start talking and thinking about the art they see rather than just gliding through the galleries in a baffled haze.

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