Monday, August 22, 2016

Books I'm Reading: How to Write About Contemporary Art

The lessons author Gilda Williams offers in her concise treatise on good art writing How to Write About Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2014) could apply to writing about most anything, not only contemporary art. She attributes the large amount of bad art writing we encounter to a general lack of appreciation for the skills good art writing requires, pointing out that much art writing is assigned to people unprepared to handle it, and often assigned to such people because those assigning the task assume anyone can write about art well.

She first poses an important question: Why write about art at all? She answers by pointing out that there are many different types of art writing—writing for different purposes and different audiences that require different approaches. The main divide she suggests is between writing that explains and writing that evaluates. In the former category she includes news articles, museum wall captions, web collection articles, press releases, and auction catalog entries. In the latter, she includes academic assignments, exhibition and book reviews, op-ed journalism, magazine articles, catalogue essays, and grant, exhibition, or book proposals, while acknowledging that much art writing today straddles the two realms. In all art writing she suggests the first, perhaps most important, rule is to "...attempt, sincerely, to render artwork more meaningful, more enjoyable, attaching 'something more and better' to art and life than without it" (the interior quote using the words of New Yorker senior critic Peter Schjeldahl).

More specifically, she suggests good art writing succeeds at three things: 1) telling the reader what the art is (what it looks like); 2) telling the reader what the art might mean; and 3) telling the reader why it might matter to the world at large. Much of the text deals with explaining how to achieve these three goals while substantiating positions with facts and avoiding jargon and vagueness—particularly the vagueness caused by explaining one abstract concept with another equally abstract one, the hallmark of much pretentious, incomprehensible art writing.

The ideas are clearly presented and illustrated with many examples. While much of what Williams writes will be familiar to seasoned writers, it never hurts to be reminded of what makes good writing good. I suspect this book will be useful to anyone who regularly engages in critical writing about any kind of creative pursuit.

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