Jan Estep, “Why Write about Art?," Rain Taxi, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2006, 34-35.
spoken and written on its behalf. Artist statements, lectures, critiques, conferences, books, catalogues, reviews, announcements, ads, gossip: those of us involved in art talk an awful lot about it. This language locates art in ways that append its physical sites, conceptually, historically, and emotionally. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. What we think and feel when experiencing art is intimately linked to the act of putting language to our experience. Most of us understand art within a broad yet specific context of knowledge; hence, the more we know, the more art seems to open up for us. It also means that every time someone adds their two cents, they contribute to that body of knowledge—for better or worse, from inside or outside the institutional mainstream, but contributing nonetheless. The language swirling around art actively structures its location in our minds and in our culture and there are innumerable ways to shape this dialogue.
Regarding those who act as agents for art by writing about it, why do we do it, and what do we hope to achieve by doing it? One way to pursue these questions is to ask professionals in the field who engage in art writing as a career. This is precisely what the National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP) at Columbia University did in 2002 when they surveyed 196 art critics who work for large-circulating daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, and national newsmagazines. The detailed report, titled The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics of General-Interest News Publications in America, written by András Szántó, and available at www.najp.org, investigates the state of art criticism in the popular news media and the way this influences the national discussion about art. Though the survey reveals disparities in working conditions, amount of coverage, views about ethical issues pertaining to art-world practices, and even the overall mission, there was consensus regarding the general goals of the profession.
Responding to the questions “What do you think a piece of art criticism should accomplish?” and “What is the role of the visual art critic in the community?” the surveyed art critics stated the following: “educating readers; describing art works; forming a ‘bridge’ or opening a ‘dialogue’ between artist and readers; evaluating art; placing art in an historical, cultural or political context; writing well; motivating readers to see and buy art; motivating artists to produce work; introducing readers to different cultures and alternative viewpoints; and finally, entertaining readers” (Szántó , p.24). When asked to rank these goals, they favored description and contextualization as the most important. Giving an accurate description of the artwork and providing pertinent background information about the art and/or artist on view outweighed the relevance of their personal opinions as to whether the work is good or bad (Szántó, p.27). It seems that professional art critics working for popular news media feel obligated in a pragmatic direction: chronicling what actually happens in the world and placing it within the stream of other known facts. These goals provide a naturalistic, factual grounding for their reportage, which leaves aside more controversial questions of taste and judgment.
Pointing to the opposite extreme of these supposedly neutral motivations for art writing are the more self-serving reasons that tempt people. This is the domain of conflicts of interest, and suggests that power is seductive despite the noblest intentions. In this vein a person may write about art to start a career, to meet “important people,” to gain access and entry to various venues. Writing creates cultural capital for oneself, one’s friends or the art one collects, and through it a person can gain power and prestige. Writing from self interest can be a way of asserting one’s mastery, superiority, and authority at the expense of the art or artist in question. In the worst cases, writers inadvertently kill the art in the act of writing about it; such an approach has the effect of championing language over art, exhausting the work so that in the end there’s nothing left to look at or to see. These reasons may only minimally influence one’s behavior but, nonetheless, they are an inevitable component to the competitive and political nature of the art world.
In his 1982 essay “Why Write?” artist and writer Daniel Buren lists five reasons in response to his titular question: Necessity, Urgency, Reflection, Commissions, and Pleasure. Buren’s creative practice consistently moves between writing and making art, and this particular vantage point is strongly felt in his writing. “The artist isn’t necessarily an idiot or an illiterate—why shouldn’t he write as well?” (Daniel Buren, “Why Write?” Art Journal, Summer 1982, 108.) For Buren, it is a necessity that artist/writers reclaim the critical floor so as not to be a victim of others’ (critics’) writing, especially as the later is generally mediocre and flawed. Urgency fuels writing, because often a text is the most expedient way to respond to a situation or to thwart a pending threat. Reflection: writing texts allows one to reflect on past work or present concerns, to articulate and understand the reasons and implications of one’s work, via the critical distance in time and thought that writing allows. Commissions account for writing provoked by someone else’s invitation and desires, providing the opportunity to explore new terrain or organize previously inchoate thoughts and ideas. Lastly, pleasure in writing itself motivates the activity, a personal pleasure, which may or may not be communicated to a reader.
Buren goes on to stress that writing does not reveal the truth or impose truth onto its objects. Writing and making art are two distinct, but related, activities. Buren calls this art’s “baptism by fire.” Good art must be able to withstand the onslaught of language, to be or to show more than what we can say about it. He is careful to enforce that writing about art is not to replace or explain away the object. Art must hold its own in this way, not let us forget its materiality with a few choice words. For Buren, art writing is dependent on the object, not the other way around.
As the NAJP survey and Buren’s conclusions show, writers come to write about art for all sorts of reasons and for a wide range of audiences. Whether one responds more to Buren’s take on this endeavor or the broad national survey’s, both approaches come into play. Description and context are useful in laying down an anchor around which other words revolve, creating a concrete image or set of conditions at the center of the discussion. Yet usually the writer is also trying to figure out some philosophical or aesthetic problem, trying to defend and to articulate an issue or idea that preoccupies them. Writing is never a neutral activity, as focusing on “pure description” implies. It is creative, generative, intuitive, and analytical. Despite its objective nature it is subjectively informed. Writing gives body to a worldview that wants articulation and that seeks reciprocation.
In this regard art writers and artists are not so far apart. In fact, like Buren and 44 percent of the NAJP respondents (Szántó, p.14), many people who write about art also produce art. Consequently, there are a host of motivations shared by artists and writers for what we do. There is a shared desire to express and to communicate positively, to give value and status to something we believe in, and to convey dissatisfaction with the way things are. We write/make art to be a part of a community and to help build that community. We work to contribute to culture in our most idealistic moments by positing an alternative worldview in hopes of shifting the present one. Writing and making art are ways to satisfy curiosity, to struggle with issues and ideas, to know, to learn, and to grow. Working creatively allows us to explore the contemporary world around us, to locate ourselves in relation to that world. Immersing ourselves with the medium shows one’s care and love of art, why it is important, significant, and worthy; such immersion gives meaning to one’s life and structure to one’s activities. More prescriptively, we write/make art to show art’s cultural relevance, its epistemological relevance as a way of knowing and being. Overall, art and writing are collaborative, rather than oppositional, practices.
There are also more ephemeral reasons for writing about art, ideals to which writers may aspire but still fall short. Similarities exist here too for artists but the rhetorical power of language to categorize and to name poses a particular challenge for writers who want to trouble the relationship between art and language, object and subject. One such goal is to clearly convey one’s point of view and the questions at hand while still leaving room for others, that is, to speak with force but without shutting down the discussion. Related to this is the wish to create a field in which art can be seen, understood and approached, but which does not dominate or truncate the aesthetic experience. Often writing is used to create a debate, to sustain contradictions, to embrace ambiguity and dialogical tension in the hopes of initiating a dialectic that does not find resolution. Pushing at the outskirts of meaning, writing is a way to articulate something that resists articulation, to name the unnamable, and to search for the unknown. At its most elusive, writing points to something just on the other side of language. At base is the desire to activate an aesthetic space of the mind, a contemplative space that is engaged by the creative imagination. This is the potential of writing as much as this is the potential of art.
Copyright 2006 Jan Estep