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Be art smart

Is this any place to start an art collection?

Is a fun festival like Gasparilla, the area's top outdoor show, the place to get serious about art?

Sure it is. Leave the kids at home, block out the clowns, and case the show fast while circling on your program the booths to visit again.

Other than relying on your own taste, how do you recognize good art when you see it? How do you know the bad art?

It's bewildering, especially when contemporary art offers so many paradoxes. Keep your mind open, and recognize that good art can be:

Innovative. You haven't seen anything like it before, or maybe you have, but this art is put together in a new way. Or maybe it's a classic form carried in a different direction. Or copied. Good art in our time can be appropriated: lifted in whole or in part from what somebody else intended as art or as something else. And the practical nature of fine crafts permits reproduction of items such as dinnerware or an inexpensive line of jewelry.

Flawless. Technically superb, the perfect vehicle for the artist's innate talent molded by years of training. Or a mess. Attention to perfection and detail can force an artist to sacrifice freedom of expression.

Something you understand: a message, a reference, a relationship. Or something that totally confounds you with its mystery, paradox and enigma. Either way it shouldn't bore you, an hour from now or in the years to come. Good art has staying power.

Something that grabs your attention because it shocks you, challenges you and gives you an "artistic high." Or low key. It can be something you're tempted to pass by because it is too small, too subtle or too ordinary at first glance. Its creator could have made a flashy piece, but that might compromise the artist's integrity.

Here's how to make your way through these contradictions:

1. Consider the artist's reputation. Before you fork over big bucks for a major addition, ask the artist for a resume. Check out past awards won, exhibits and collections (extra points if in museums), critical reviews. Many artists have handouts with this information; some have loose-leaf binders of background and press clips to read while in the booth.

2. Learn about art. You can take courses, but you can also learn through experience. The more shows you see, the more artists to whom you talk, the more winners you check out, the more artists you follow from show to show and from year to year, the more you learn to discriminate between what is good and what is bad.

3. Look for art that looks different from that by anyone else, for art that says or shows something in a new way.

4. Avoid:

Art that has no distinctive qualities that would mark it as the artist's own.

Art that is standardized, romanticized, conventional and trite.

Art that is made by a mechanical act rather than a creative act.

Art that looks as though it was made solely to sell rather than because of some inner urge to create. Your instincts ought to tell you this, and will get sharper as you look at more and more art.

Photo-mechanically reproduced prints at high prices. Despite the numbering, the signature and the artist's hype, they are still posters. You shouldn't see any of this at Gasparilla.

Ceramics that look as though they were poured from a mold and painted rather than painstakingly hand-crafted. If you can't tell, ask.

Booths sporting work better suited for the commercial crafts shows, especially jewelry that, despite its sparkle, is lackluster in originality. (Good clue: is the best thing you can say about it the attractiveness of the stone?)

5. Buy art because you love it, not for investment. There is so much contemporary art that it is impossible for even the experts to know what will turn a profit in the future. Invest instead in your own enjoyment and enrichment.