How to Write about Contemporary Art:  Gilda Williams

‘Invent your own way’

Introduction  P 9.  ‘… much contemporary art-writing remains barely comprehensible.’ P 10.  ‘translating visual experience into written language.’  Good art writers:

  • Write clearly, well-structured, carefully worded
  • Text is imaginative, spicy vocabulary, original ideas – substantiated in experience and knowledge of art.

Describe what the art is; explain plausibly what it might mean; suggest how this might connect to the world at large.

And for my learning, how it informs my art practice

Julian Stallabrass – critic and art historian.  P 16.  ‘Intuition tells me that [inter alia] the most fertile new art-writing ground may be that being charted at the fringes – such as … philosophy … .’

Possible further reading:  The Philosophy of Art:  An Introduction.  Theodore Gracyk

P 17.  Attributed to Andy Warhol “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you.  Just measure it in inches.”

Section 1.

  1. Explaining v evaluation – art criticism.

Explaining:  contextualising and describing – facts and ideas, communicated plainly – informative.  Evaluating:  judging, interpreting – opinion or argument, what you think and why.  But not mutually exclusive – can be porous.  P.23. ‘a fiction or poem that adapts the artwork as a springboard to launch the writer’s unbridled imagination might not set out to accomplish either ‘explanation’ or ‘evaluation’.

  1. Why art criticism anyway?

Contemporary art needs context e.g. Marcel Duchamp.  Boris Groys ‘protective text-clothing’ – art is ‘naked’ without it (art criticism).

Note to self:  But is that entirely right?  Why does art need a translator or to be explained by an “expert”?  What does the artist’s statement (or deliberate absence of statement or title) add (or not?).  What about attribution?  Or is that something separate? See Royal Academy debate.
Quote from Odilon Redon (on interpreting his work) (Gibson, 1996: 22) “My drawings are not self-defining; they inspire.  They determine nothing.  Like music, they place us in the ambiguous world of the indeterminate.” “The title is justified only when it is vague, indeterminate …”.

Section 2.  Art-words or artworks

Contemporary art needs context – again Duchamp – moving beyond centuries-old standards of measure (shape, colour, subject matter, technique).  New words required: readymade; abstract art; minimalism; conceptual art; land art; time-based media.

P.25.  Context – enables appreciation of the works’ contribution to contemporary culture and thought.  Andrew Hunt – it may even seem that contemporary art is completed through criticism – for better or worse, since many artists and art-lovers resent art’s quasi-reliance today on the written word. [Ref: Clare Bishop, Artificial Hells:  Participatory Art and the Politics of Sponsorship (London: Verso, 2012), 256-57.].  An art writer is a conduit between artist and viewer.

Section 3  Art writers and bias.  P.26.  ‘For art-writing to add @something more and better’ (Schjeidahl, ‘Of Ourselves’) to art, readers must trust their author.’  Publicity or marketing material is not unbiased criticism.  Frieze Fair:  critical/commercial tension, but has a respected talks programme.  Beware faux-criticism of art sellers.  Role of critic changing?

Section 4  p. 31.  No agreed history to art criticism.  Emerged 17th/18th century (Baudelaire/Ruskin) – move away from patronage.

Conceptual art – criticism/comment built-in.   P. 33-4.  ‘Many players beside the critic contribute to the validation of art’:  curators, dealers, collectors.  ‘It was proposed that the analysis of contemporary art might benefit from the tools offered by other fields, including: structuralism, post-structuralism. feminism, post-colonialism, queer theory, gender theory, film theory, Marxist theory, psychoanalysis, anthropology, cultural studies and literary theory. ‘ [and philosophy?]

P.35.  ‘Art language evolves collectively over time and in response to new conditions of art.’ ‘Judgement … gradually replaced by ‘interpretation” [or contextualisation] ‘which realises that there might be contradicting, yet equally valid, responses to art.’  Contextualisation:  what the art is made of; how it fits with the artist’s lifetime of activity; what has been said about this art previously; what else was happening when it was created. ‘Some dispute the very assumption whereby artworks are begging to be ‘read'[to have meaning extracted and fixed through language] and instead prioritise their uniquely subjective art experience.’

P.36.  ‘Written responses to art in the 21st century might belong to any genre whatsoever:  a science-fiction tale or a political manifesto’. P. 37.  refers to a piece of criticism that is ‘more Benjamin [the critic] than Klee’ [the artist].  Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) – ‘a rocky road to follow.’  Ekphrasis:  ‘a literary description of, or commentary on, a visual work of art’, or the conversion from one discipline (art) to another (writing).

P.43.  Avoid ambiguous or conflicting phrases:  bold yet subtle; comforting yet disquieting.  Commit yourself.  Write what you know.

P.46.  Trust your gut reaction – but do your research too.  Keep it simple:  omit needless words.  Note:  I have come to realise as I look at more work that while I need to keep an  open mind and carry out research, gut reaction is an entirely valid part of art criticism.  I noted my reactions when looking at works by Robert Rauschenberg and Jacob Epstein elsewhere in this blog.  I doubted my initial reactions, but I shouldn’t have.  

P.49.  Three objectives of communicating art-writing.  What is it? what does it look like, how was it made, what happened? – brief and specific.  What might this mean?  explain where observed.  Why does this matter to the world?  So what?

P.50.  Evidence-led or opinion-led or mixed – will only stand up if you can substantial your claims.