A Guide to Writing About Art

As I prepare to write about my own work and consider “words” to describe the visual works of others I was advised to read this introductory text.

A Short Guide to Writing about Art (10th edition)
By: Sylan Barnet
NYPL: R-ART Desk N7479.837 2011; Prentice Hall, 2011

Chapter One – Writing About Art
What is Art?

“Art is culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting sensuous medium”  Richard L. Anderson
“If someone calls it art, it’s art.”  Donald Judd
“Isn’t it a man’s name?”  Andy Warhol.

“… Again, what is art?  Perhaps we can say that art is anything that is said to be art by people who ought to know.  Who are these people?  They are the men and women who teaching art and art history departments, who write about art for newspapers and magazines and scholarly journals, who think of themselves as art collectors, who call themselves art dealers, and who run  museums.”

And/Or if people who say they are artists, say it’s art.

Pollocks’ uncertainty about whether his work was art.  Whether his paintings were paintings.

Why Write about Art?
“We write about art in order to clarify and to account for our responses to works that interest or excite or frustrate us.  In putting words on paper we have to take a second and a third look at what is in front of us and at what is within us.  Picasso said, ‘To know what you want to draw, you have to begin drawing’; similarly, writing is a way of finding what you want to write, a way of learning.”

“When we write, first of all we teach ourselves; by putting down words and by thinking about what we are writing we get to learn what our multiple responses – our likes, our dislikes, our uncertainties — add up to.“

On Critical Writing:
“What is the function of a critic?  So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
1)    Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2)    Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough..
3)    Show me the relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4)    Give a “reading”  of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5)    Throw light upon the process of artist “Making.”
6)    Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.”

W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, 1963, 8-9

On Who Creates Meaning – page 24
“Some modern critical theory holds that to accept the artist’s statement about what he or she intended is to give the artist’s intention an undeserved status.  In this view, a work is created not by an isolated genius – the isolated genius said to be a romantic invention – but by the political, economic, social, and religious ideas of a society that uses the author or artist as a conduit. “

…  “This position, called reception theory, holds that art is not a body of works but is, rather, an activity of perceivers making sense of images.  A work does not have meaning “in itself”; it can mean something only to someone in a context.  The meaning is not inherent in the work, but is in the spectator’s response.  In this view, meaning is not in things that, so to speak, are behind the work, such as the artist’s intention and the patron’s demands; rather, meaning is in front of the work, in the spectator’s response.  What counts is, what kind of responds did the work evoke?”

Page 26-28
WHEN WE LOOK; Do we see a masterpiece – or Ourselves? …

  • If you don’t see clearly, you won’t say anything interesting and convincing.
  • If you don’t write clearly, your reader won’t see what you have seen and perhaps you haven’t seen it clearly either.

What you say, in short, is a devise for helping the reader and yourself to see clearly.

But what do we see?  It is now widely acknowledged … not the innocent eye. …the constructionist view holds that the eye is selective and creative.

“These ideas have engendered distrust of the traditional concepts of meaning, genius, and masterpiece.  The arguments, offered by scholars who belong to the school of thought  called the New Historicism, run along these lines:  Works of art are not the unique embodiments of profound meanings set forth by individual geniuses, rather, works of art are the embodiments of the ideology (ways of understanding the world) of the age that produced them.  To talk of genius is to fetishize the individual.  Works of art, in this view, are produced not so much by exceptional individuals as by the “social energies” of a period, which somehow find a conduit in a particular artist.”

“Theorists of the New Historicism argue that to believe in masterpieces is to believe, wrongly, that a work of art embodies an individual artist’s fixed, transcendent achievement, whereas in fact (they argue) the work originally embodied the politics of the artist’s age and its is now interpreted by the politics of the viewer’s age.”

Page 30:  African art out of context… the different context of showing work in a museum. … “In an anthropological museum the emphasis is on function, but in an art museum the emphasis is on form”… “The frame (the context) is not neutral; it is not a meaningless container, but rather it becomes part of what it frames. “

Page 32: Arguing an Interpretation:  Supporting a Thesis
“Against the idea that works of art have no inherent core of meaning and that what viewers see depends on their class or gender or whatever, one can argue that competent artists shape their work so that their intentions or meanings are evident to competent viewers.”

Chapter 2 – Writing About Art:  The Big Picture
Page 36: … “Conceptual Art are tedious because there is so little sensuality, so little visual pleasure.”

Chapter 3 — formal Analysis and Style

Page 46:  “a formal analysis — the result of looking closely – is an analysis of the form the artist produces; that is, an analysis of the work of art, which is made up of such things as line, shape, color, texture, mass, composition.  These things give the stone or canvas its form, its expression, its content, its meaning. … That is, members of a given interpretive community perceive certain forms or lines of colors or whatever in a certain way.”

Formal analysis assumes a work of art is:
1)    a constructed object
2)    with a stable meaning
3)    that can be ascertained by studying the relationships between the elements of the work.

“If the elements ‘cohere,’ the work is ‘meaningful.’   That is the work of art is an independent object that possesses certain properties, and if we think straight, we can examine these properties and can say what the work represents and what it means.  The work speaks directly to us and we understand its language – we respond appropriately to its characteristics (shape, color, texture, and son on), at least if we share the artist’s culture.”

Page 49:  Opposition to Formal Analysis
“Formal analysis, we have seen, assumes that artists shape their materials so that a work of art embodies a particular meaning and evokes a pleasurable response in the spectator.  The viewer today does not try to see the historical object with ‘period’ eyes but, rather, sees it with an aesthetic attitude.  The purpose of formal analysis is to show how intended meanings are communicated in an aesthetic object.

Since about 1970, however, these assumptions have been strongly called into question.  There has been a marked shift of interest from the work as a thing whose meaning is contained within itself – a decontextualized object – to a thing whose meaning partly, largely, or even entirely consist of its context, its relation to things outside of itself (for instance, the institutions or individuals for whom the work was produced), especially its relationship to the person who perceives it.

Furthermore, there has been a shift from viewing an artwork as a thing of value in itself – or as an object that provides pleasure and that conveys some sort of profound and perhaps universal meaning—to viewing the artwork as an object that reveals the power structure of a society.  The work is brought down to earth so to speak, and is said thereby to be ‘demystified.’  On the contrary, the student ‘deconstructs; the work by looking for ‘fissures’ and ‘slippages’ that give away – reveal, unmask – the underlying political and social realities that the artist sought to cover up with sensuous appeal.”

Page 50+: What is style: “the combination of line, color, medium – work of van Gogh, Walt Disney or Norman Rockwell —  of the same subject are different styles.  Chinese landscapes compared to a van Gogh landscape.  “Style, then, is revealed in form; an artist creates form b y applying certain techniques to certain materials, in order to embody a particular vision or content.  In different ages people have seen things differently: the nude body as splendid, or the nude body as shameful; Jesus as majestic ruler, or Jesus as the sufferer on the cross; landscape as pleasant, domesticated countryside, or landscape as wild nature.  So the chosen subject matter is not only part of the content but is also part of that assemblage of distinguishing characteristics that constitutes a style.”

Page 62:  Realism has at least two meanings in writings about art:
1)    “a movement in mid-nineteenth-century Western Europe and America, which emphasized the everyday subject of ordinary life, as opposed to subjects drawn from mythology, history, and upper class experience;
2)    fidelity to appearances, the accurate rendition of the surfaces of people, places and things.

Page 62:  Idealism, like realism, has a least two meanings in art: 
(1) the belief that a work conveys an idea as well as appearances and
(2) the belief – derived partly from the first meaning — that it should convey an idea that elevates the thoughts of the spectator, and it does this by presenting an image, let’s say of heroism or of motherhood, loftier than any real objective that we can see in the imperfect world around us. … What distinguishes the idealizing artist from the ordinary person, it is said, is the artists imaginative ability to penetrate the visible (the surface) and set forth an elevating ideal”

Page 68;  see “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin,  1936 – http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

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