the art of art writing (part one)

In 2006, PORT held it’s first annual Pretentious Art Writing Contest. The winning entry by Ethan Ham turned a critical eye on the “oppressive humor stereotype” found in popular comic strips.

The pop-art (yet neo-minimalist) etchings of Ziggy and Family Circus, both liegemen to the Lichtensteinian legacy, question their own raison d’etre. Are they visual tropes? Are they self-conscious (self-mocking/self-loathing) po-mo nombrilisme? Or are they simply (and solely) stochastic snapshots sans lexical basis? The Family Circus series can best be examined as artistic interventions against the oppressive humor archetype, whereas the unappealingly desperate musings of Cathy Guisewite’s eponymous series are truly indebted to Jenny Holzer’s oeuvre. Or, as Baudrillard and Guillaume so succinctly state, “What is produced with the romantic turn…is…the…play of…masculine hysteria…of …sexual paradigms that once again must be reinserted in the more general and universal context of a change in the paradigms of otherness.”[1]
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[1] Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume, Figures de l’alterite. Paris: Descartes et Cie., 1994.

I can see why this one took the prize. I swear I felt an aneurism coming on trying to decipher this mess! While this is an obvious send-up of critical art writing, it’s brilliant because it rings true. I’ve experienced the frustrating displeasure of reading art reviews or exhibition catalogs and being completely overwhelmed by intentionally complicated and showy language that revealed nothing except the writer’s huge vocabulary.

In an effort to improve my critical writing and make sure the above pretentiousness doesn’t happen on this blog, I attended a two-day art writing workshop this past weekend at local arts collaborative PLUG Projects, led by St. Louis-based poet, curator and arts writer Jessica Baran.

Distracted by Nicole Mauser’s adorable boots.

We began with an examination of the term “art writing” and its various forms such as curatorial statements, press releases, art reviews and artists statements, with each method serving a different purpose: advertising, boostering, critiquing, or reportage.

The big question: should critiques hold back or completely let it rip? In a room full of artists, one could assume that heaps of praise were always desired, but the consensus was that any viewpoint the writer held was fine as long it was presented thoughtfully and after close examination of the work.

With no particular form valued more highly than any other, there’s plenty of artistic freedom and room for multiple voices. From journals to newspapers to blogs there are also many platforms in which to promote critical art writing, which was encouraging.

Art critics are a diverse lot. For the purposes of our discussion, a distinction was made between art critics and art theorists or art historians, although as Jessica pointed out, it’s not unlikely for someone to be all three. Early critics such as French poet Charles Baudelaire remarked on the self-reflection and alienation of mid-19th Century painters , coining the term “modernity” to describe the particular challenges associated with creating art and documenting beauty in the urban landscape. In 1966 essayist and political activist Susan Sontag reflected on the cultural impacts of art, irking her contemporaries by suggesting in “Against Interpretation and Other Essays” that by focusing solely on aesthetics, art’s transformative and spiritual energy was being supplanted by pure intellect to its ultimate detriment. Artist Donald Judd challenged the preconceived notions associated with three-dimensional artwork  while decrying the elevation of European painters and sculptors as the gold standard in his 1965 essay, “Specific Objects,” boldly declaring that “a work needs only to be interesting.”

One of the more unique forms of critiquing art is through Ekphrasis, which is writing that comments on another art form. I’ve always been aware of this but never had a name for it before. Now that I know it, I’m seeing it everywhere! Jessica shared a few examples of Ekphrastic poetry. For me, the standout was W.H. Auden’s 1938 poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” in response to Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting “Fall of Icarus” (c. 1558).

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

As Day One drew to a close, we visited two nearby art galleries, Bill Brady and Dolphin to see their current shows and apply what we learned. In an upcoming post I’ll recap Day Two and our bone-chilling assignment: writing an art critique in 200 words or less.

Is critical art writing important? Where do you go for art info?

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2 thoughts on “the art of art writing (part one)

  1. Articles, reviews, and even (gasp) labels written like the one above WITHOUT the satire are the reason I often describe my job as a museum educator as being a translator. I translate art criticism and art history into language that’s actually comprehensible. My goal is to give you an interesting, intelligent experience, while letting you avoid that feeling that you’ve just been hit in the face with the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.

    The trick of vocabulary, I think, is knowing when NOT to use it. The realm between overuse and underuse is where good writing truly exists.

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