‘Sounds to me that you can reduce this to “formal” versus “conceptual”–there may be a better word to use than “conceptual”, something to describe the process, the idea…

Just watched a film and I can’t recall the title, but it’s about a kid who’s a complete outsider who’s bullied everyday by his peers, family, etc. He is on the verge of suicide, doesn’t fit in, suffers from major anxiety because the world around him is not nurturing to his true needs. He’s becoming disconnected from the world. He has one place he loves and that’s a local museum. One day, he runs from a frightening scenario that he can’t deal with, and ends up in this museum, where he says (in a voiceover, relating this to us, the viewers, like it’s now at a later date), “the one place I like is the museum, because here they aren’t constantly trying to sell me something.” Which, I thought was quite interesting. When you go to a museum, you don’t linger in front of the pieces you think are pastiche, conceptually thin, or plain bad. You go to see and muse over the pieces that bring you either peace of make you think about life in a new and different way. You go for a dose of depth, of concept, of becoming one with the artist at exploring your existence, world or mood at some sort of deeper, (okay, sigh, I’ll say it) spiritual level. And then you stay there as long as you want, no one’s trying to sell you something.

But if this was a gallery, they may be wanting to sell you something. Some gallery employee may walk up to you and say, “don’t you just loooove how the sky is soooo blue?”

Or you’re standing there attending to your thoughts about the work in front of you–let’s say this is your favorite work in the place– and a couple walks up besides you and you can’t help but overhear them say, “ooo, why did he paint these people with such uuuggly hats? Oh, this is just so violent looking, too much blood, this is really depressing to look at. Doesn’t anybody paint happy things any more?”

The point is you, unlike these other less interesting folks, were drawn to the work, the specific piece, because you see something beyond paint-on-canvas, beyond the formal structure, you see the “faith” in between the strokes, the “hope”, you catch a glimpse of the artists’ paradoxical struggles, their darkness, their burdens. The formal structures and techniques used by the artist may help him tell the story to you, but they aren’t the whole story. As they say, the power of some jazz isn’t in the notes within the musical composition–the magic is in the spaces in between the notes–the silence, the tension between the notes–that’s makes the music great. So to reduce an art work down to a “compare and contrast” formal analysis of the “luminous color”, to categorize artists either by genre or by time period, misses the entire point of art and artmaking. Those things, those analytical strategies may help you understand certain things about the work, but in the end, maybe not the most important things’