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How to Write About Contemporary Art

Gilda Williams
Publisher
Thames and Hudson
Price
£12.95
ISBN
9780500291573

EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Introduction: There is no single 'best' way to write about art

 

Instinctively we know there is no formula to any kind of writing, so How to Write About Contemporary Art seems at first an impossible book title. Even if you follow to the letter every suggestion gathered here, and try earnestly to write well about art, the truth is that anybody who ever succeeded invented their own way. Good art-writers break conventions, hold a few sacrosanct, innovate their own. They measure their limits by instinct, not by rote. Mostly they learn by seeing miles of art, and reading good literature in bulk. There is no substitute, for a writer, for possessing a natural ear for language; a rich vocabulary; a flair for varied sentence structures; an original opinion; some arresting ideas to share. I can teach you none of that. Finally, no book can teach you to love art. If you dislike contemporary art, put this book down right away. It is not for you.

Art in the 21st century—online and off—is experiencing a phenomenal boom, with the demand for written accompaniment raised to fever-pitch. Museum and art fairs boast ever-spiralling visitor numbers and expansions, while new art schools, specialized MA programs, international biennales, commercial galleries, art services, artist's websites, and gargantuan private collections seem to gain ground every day. Every role in the expanding art universe demands its own class of art-copy, whether aimed at art­ists, curators, gallerists, museum directors, bloggers, editors, students, publicists, collectors, educators, auctioneers, advisers, investors, interns, critics, press officers, or university lecturers. A worldwide virtual audience now absorbs art primarily through on-screen text-and-image, and artworks created by the youngest generation of post-postmodern, post-medium, post-Fordist, post-critique artists require decoding even for specialists.

As the readership swells and the need for communicative art-writing skyrockets, we notice that—although some art-texts are well-informed, imaginatively written, and genuinely illuminating—much contemporary art-writing remains barely comprehensible. Banal and mystifying art-writing is a popular target for ridicule; scrolling through yards of unfathomable verbosity on Contemporary Art Daily—an art-information website with an open-submission policyI too despair at what passes for plausible art-language. However, having taught and edited art-writing for years, I also hear the strain of raw inexperience behind these indecipher­able texts. Odds are these struggling authors have been tossed into the art-writing deep-end without any help in navigating their difficult task: translating visual experience into written language. Make no mistake: for most newcomers, that job does not come easy. The purpose of this book is to provide some guidance to the art-writing novice—and perhaps offer the experienced writer a refresher as well.

In my opinion, contrary to popular belief, most indecipherable art-speak is not written for the purpose of pulling the wool over non-cognoscenti's eyes. On occasion art-impenetralia is penned by a big name, attempting to mask undeveloped ideas behind slick vocabulary or hawking substandard art; but the worst is often written by earnest amateur art-writers, desperately trying to communicate. Art-writing is among this industry's poorest paid jobs; this explains the fault-line running through the art-world, whereby fairly advanced art-writing tasks are assigned to its least experienced and recognized members. The cause of much bad art-writing is not so much pretentiousness, as is commonly suspected, but a lack of training.

Writing well about art is an intensely skilled job, yet even top art-writers' salaries pale next to successful artists' and dealers'. Four digits count as big money on the art-writing circuit. Usually people get what they pay for, and much art-writing is barely remunerated. The writers of the much-maligned and often inscrutable gallery press releases—which to me read like cries for help from the industry's hard-working junior ranks—rarely even benefit from the input of a professional editor. Routinely these raw texts are blithely distributed online in all their first-draft glory. A common misconception can emerge that because some art-texts seem meaning­less—because their writers are wrestling with clear expression—so too must be the art. If there's one single best reason to learn to write well about art, it's because good art deserves it. And sharp art-writing can make art-viewing all the better.

While I cannot correct lopsided pay scales, I can—for the benefit of those attempting this satisfying but underrated task—share everything I know. Having spent a quarter of a century professionally writing, editing, commissioning, reading, and teaching contemporary art-writing, I have reached the following paired conclusions:

 

Good art-writers, despite countless differences, essentially follow the same patterns:

  • their writing is clear, well structured, and carefully worded; 
  • the text is imaginative, brimming with spicy vocabulary,and full of original ideas, which are substantiated in their experience and knowledge of art; 
  • they describe what the art is; explain plausibly what it may mean; and suggest how this might connect to the world at large.

 

Inexperienced art-writers repeat similar mistakes:

  • their writing is waffly, poorly structured, and jargoned;
  • their vocabulary is unimaginative, their ideas undeveloped, their logic flawed, and their knowledge patchy;
  • assumptions are not grounded in the experience of art, which is ignored;
  • they fail to communicate believably the claimed meaning behind contemporary art, or its relation to the rest of the world.

 

The purpose of How to Write About Contemporary Art is not to dictate how you should write, but gently to point out common mishaps, and show how skilful art-writers avoid them. By laying bare successful and weak practices, you might steer clear of poor habits from the start, and set off thinking and writing about art in your own smart style. If that ambition appeals, then this book is for you.