There is an art to writing about contemporary artworks and there are skills that can be learned for the budding art writer. The most important factor for any writer is to have an intellectual curiosity. Curiosity about the particular materials, the process or method and the concept or the meaning within the artwork is crucial to writing on art. To think and write about art requires a familiarity with contemporary art and the critical writing around art. Gaining familiarity means becoming a consumer of art, seeing as many exhibitions as you can and reading the most interesting and current contributors both locally and internationally, to apprise oneself of the status of contemporary art and writing. The strategic writer will become familiar and knowledgable with makers and and writers of art. Through your efforts you will discover that you have likes and dislikes which will help you define your own personal affiliations within the contemporary art world.
WHY DO WE WRITE ART CRITICISM?
Art criticism serves as an appreciation and as a response to an artist’s work in an exhibition. Art criticism extends the life of the exhibition, placing the work within a context for an audience that might not have seen it. Considerations within the art review will address the following questions: How does this exhibition relate to the artist’s previous work ? Is it a continuation, a development, a change? How does it relate to other works or works by others? What affect does the exhibition have?
Writing art criticism contributes the ongoing debate or conversation on contemporary art as well as to the development of creating primary sources for Canadian art history.
CRITIQUE AND ANALYSIS
The verb to critique and the adjective critical are often misunderstood as possessing only a negative connotation. To critique a film or a work of art is to look at both the good and the bad aspects with a critical or analytical eye, to inform the reader what it is that works or doesn’t work for the writer. In writing art criticism you are always employing your critical faculties.
Analytical writing informs the reader. An honest review is more interesting than an overly polite one. The writer needs to argue their point with solid examples and clear thinking. At the same time the writer should not be overly harsh towards the artist, the work or the exhibition. An essay or article that is entirely negative will not likely be accepted for publication. A negative review reflects badly on the writer and is of no use to the artist.
One concern that an art review can critique is the way value is produced in art. Writing can perform as institutional critique, when questioning for example the curatorial choices of a particular gallery or museum. Does the venue have a preference for dead, white male artists as opposed to exhibiting artwork by a wide range of genders, races or ages? This is an example of a trend that could be addressed in a review.
The first question you will want to ask yourself is, what is it in this particular artist’s work that compels you to think about it and want to write about it? To help you get started in writing art criticism think of the review or essay as a narrative, a story that leads the reader through the exhibition and your thoughts about it. Introduce the reader by describing your experience of the work, the exhibition, or the overall installation of the work. Review what is there.
You will want to suggest an analysis by which to contextualize the work, relating evidence within the work or artist’s statement to critical concerns that you are going to emphasize. Analyze your experience of the work; provide an argument for the work that reveals your reasoned position – not merely your opinion.
Evaluate your experience of the work. If you don’t like one of the works or know what to say about it, leave it out. Write about the works that mean something to you. Don’t feel obliged to write about every single work. You can even choose to focus on the one work that is most meaningful to you.
Secondly you will want to analyze the art. How does it work for you? Where does it fit in with other works by this artist and with other contemporary artworks? In regards to the installation, briefly consider all of the following: the relationship of each artwork to the others, lighting, display, location in the room, labelling. If the work is professionally installed and presented you may not need to discuss it further than stating that the installation was inviting, or added to the artwork in a particular way.
Thirdly you will need to analyze and judge the artwork. Is it compelling or convincing? If yes, why? If not, why not? Is it successful (for you) ?
UTILIZING THE ARTIST STATEMENT
The artist statement provides the artist an opportunity to declare their intentions and express the intended meaning of their artwork to the reader. In writing a review it is a document that you will want to have at hand. Some artists’ statements describe their positions, intentions and experience which may be useful to your writing and provide new insight into the work. Sometimes the artist statement is not useful at all as it is directed towards a general audience.
How does the intention of the writer meet the intentions of the artist? You may find yourself in disagreement with the stated intention of the artist, or you may find a different meaning or approach to the work. This is fine as long as you make your argument clear to the reader, which includes the artist. The writer needs to convince the reader by explaining why they think what they do. Remember in reading the artist statement that artists are visual people and are not all able to clearly articulate what it is they are striving to achieve.
The artist’s CV or biography is useful if you are not familiar with the individual or their work. At some point in your writing you may want to speak with the artist either in person, or via telephone or email, to clarify questions that you may have, and run your ideas for the review by them first. Artists are only too happy to discuss and think about their work.
WRITING ART CRITICISM: THE BASICS
It is important when writing about art to write from the work not onto the work. There are many instances of critical reviews in which the critic heaps scorn upon all the things that the artwork is not. Sometimes the writer will feel unresolved about an artwork. The process of writing about and through the work can be an exploration for the writer, the means of discovering what it is you really think or believe. Writing can open up and resolve issues, an act that is satisfying and rewarding for both the author and the reader.
The best art writing comes from an appreciation and a curiosity about the artwork in front of you. It creates the urge to analyze the strategies that are employed in the work in order to understand, and allows you to convey that understanding and appreciation on to the reader.
In the beginning the writer should always write for herself first and then adapt the writing for the reader. While it is crucial to know for whom you are writing – a general audience, a professional art or scholarly audience - it is difficult to begin writing with your imagined audience looking over your shoulder.
Art writing must engage the reader. The writer can activate the work through criticism; placing it and bringing it to life by giving it a context. The writer should strive to enhance the work, not to diminish it. Hopefully the writer will have something new to say. Quoting other writers in a review is only useful if you mean to challenge that assumption in your essay. But one should never use the vehicle of the review of an artist’s work to settle scores with other writers.
The writer often uses her own private writing as an exploratory draft to develop ideas and thoughts.
The following list of questions may serve as a guide to exploring what it is in the artwork that you wish to write about.
What is it about the artist that interests you?
How does the work function? Does the work use metaphor or the substitution of a different visual image?
How has the artist constructed the visual elements, and how do these relate – either structurally or psychologically - to you as the viewer?
What operation does the artist’s work normally perform? Is it a critique, or an evocation?
Does the artist share ideologies or concerns with other artists?
What values does the artist seem to hold unconsciously? – The relationship to the audience, the role of the artist, communication, etc.
How does the artist work? Do they emphasize intuitive processes or respond to conditions they encounter?
What materials are employed and how do these choices further contribute to the meaning of the work?
Is there an evolution or development in this work?
What does the artist appear to be interested in or take notice of?
How would you summarize the artist’s modus operandi or working method?
Having examined the artist closely, are you still interested in the artist, and what are some of the main points of interest for you?
Writers of critical art reviews often overuse comparison, description, and poetic vocabulary with little criticality or creativity. Employing poetic language and comparisons can be useful and lovely, evocative and entertaining however a level of analysis and substance is required to balance the writing.
Writing that exclusively features the observations and feelings of an author regarding art works are better in blogs, diaries or journals. This kind of writing is better served as press for the gallery or the artist because it never takes a critical position about the work and exhibition under consideration.
Lengthy or multiple quotations interrupt the reader of the review and force him to stop reading and look to the endnotes.
THE CATALOGUE ESSAY
The essay published in gallery catalogues or brochures is slightly biased as it is used for the purpose of advertising or marketing. It will always present the artist and the artwork in a positive light as it is a vehicle for the gallery to promote the work and the artist to its clients and audience. Therefore you will not find a heavy critique in a catalogue essay. You will however, find a full examination of the process of the artist, perhaps a consideration of the inspiration for making the work and that history as well as a deeper consideration of the meaning of the artwork. This deeper look will usually include either a brief overview of the artist’s previous artwork, history of exhibiting and may note the continuation or mark a change in direction in the new work. The catalogue essay may place the artist’s work into a larger context within the history of contemporary art and may even make reference to other works in the larger history of art.
Each writer should attempt to present their arguments in a way that reveals them to be aware and generous. While the writer should not feel obliged to praise the artist or the exhibition, the writing should be well researched and strive to present the positive aspects of the exhibition and art work. It is important to convince the reader that you are serious in your consideration and to refrain from being too flippant. Your purpose should be to contribute to generating thought and discussion around contemporary art while remaining respectful of the artist.
Before graduating from the Masters of Visual Studies: Curatorial Studies at the University of Toronto, Jennifer Rudder was Director/ Curator of Gallery Stratford, Executive Director of the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, Editor of MIX magazine and Director of YYZ Artists Outlet. Her graduate exhibition NATURAL HISTORY showed at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto and toured to Gallery Stratford in 2010. Rudder is Editor of the monograph Ordinary Marvel: Susan Kealey, published by YYZ Books in 2003. She served as contributing editor for the art publications MIX, Canadian Art, Fuse and Lola magazines. As an independent, Rudder has curated numerous exhibitions including Crime and Punishment for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario which toured to Gallery 44 in Toronto and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. She is currently an independent curator and a lecturer at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Criticism and Curatorial Practice.