How to Write About Contemporary Art

Kathleen Gilje, "Rosalind Krauss in the Manner of Degas," 2006. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. Courtesy the artist.

First, don’t.

Don’t intend to write about art at all. Write about something else. Go harrowingly into debt for an MFA in creative writing from a school with classes on polysexual prose and delirium. Write short, surreal poems about hurried sex with strangers or a long, unreadable novel about genocide in Africa.

Apply for jobs to be an editor of a TV trade newspaper or a copyeditor for a legal handbook. When you go into the interview in their air-conditioned mausoleum an hour from your house, your footsteps shuffle soundlessly across the dense, neutered green carpet. The recruiter seems to really like you. You come off as bright and dynamic. Confidently walking out, you hear only the funereal buzz of the ventilation and the dry turn of a single page as you pass dozens of sub-editors ensconced in dense cubicles correcting proofs. When they don’t hire you, try to understand it as a compliment.

Bednest in depression for longer than is appropriate. Count the motes of dust that pass through a shaft of light in your bedroom. Watch back-to-back trilogies. Weep.

You really like art, but you have zilch in formal training. Go to every art opening in the city. Sneak into the premiers of grand museum retrospectives, awkwardly hang around the beer bucket at shows for art-school drop outs pinning collages to the walls of coffeeshops, make witticisms half-drunk on cheap wine to potential acquaintances at commercial galleries, even if those cold crystal palaces spook you with their imposing facades and flinty receptionists. Pore over every magazine, studying every article and memorizing the names in each ad. Longingly finger through all the books at the local museum shop. Be relentless in your self-education. Even though you are paid nothing for this, somehow mark these hours in your head as ‘work’.  You are a detective, a pure researcher, an alchemist digging through potential fakery and arcane code to find the secret gold. Your curiosity whenever unmet eats through you like acid and you get drunk on all the knowledge.

Have a child.

Meet and even hang around real artists. When they ask what you do, breathe deep. You’ve published in school newspapers. You’ve made a zine. You’ve written short, surreal poems and a long unreadable novel. They don’t know this. You don’t feel much like a writer. Fake it til you make it. Act supremely nonchalant when you say, “I’m a writer.” With each utterance, you’ll feel like you’re electing yourself president, the self-appointed emperor of an undiscovered country. Or something better.

One of your neighbors hands your contact to an editor in London working for the website of a magazine in New York. The global-glamor gives you a little shiver. She offers you a gig covering a party at a boutique hotel on the Sunset Strip for their social diary. You sort of hate these nouns: boutique hotel, social diary, Sunset Strip. It pays roughly the same as three shifts at your coffeeshop. You have two dollars and twenty-seven cents. Burble with enthusiasm.

Go. Frightened, hurtle through. Breathlessly, sleeplessly, write it up. Turn it in. The editor lovingly walks you through it: measuring the rhythm of every line, sharpening each joke, drawing out subtle details half-remembered and sometimes nearly illegibly scribbled into a brand-new leather pocket notebook splurging-ly purchased upon your ascendancy to professional writer.

The piece is published. The subjects groan with complaint. Readers appreciate the poetic bravado and slight petulance against those in positions of power. The editor loves it. A paycheck almost mysteriously appears in your mailbox. The community subtly re-shifts to accommodate your new position as a writer, however lowly, for a real publication.

One leads to another. Keep repeating that you’re a writer. Pitch reviews, interviews, events. They begin as dense prose poems: plumped with odd metaphors, slant usages, obscure but beautiful words. Most of this gets edited out. Do this for a year, then two, then three. Get a poorly-paid teaching gig somewhere awful. Gain and lose a job at an underground press for critical theory and feminist fiction. Quit the job at the cafe.

Make too many mistakes to count. Keep writing.

The dense prose poems almost disappear. You write in newspapers, websites, magazines, pamphlets, brochures, books. You write press releases, artists’ statements, and calendar copy. You grind through review after review, word by word.

Your mother tells you she doesn’t understand what you do. Your father asks you if you have health insurance.

It all starts to feel pretty rote. Your writing, though still more poetic than the competition, has been beaten by editors into trite formulas.

“[Name of city]-based artist [name] in their [city] debut [juxtaposes/interrogates/explores/problematizes] the [slightly jargonish abstract concept #1] and [slightly jargonish abstract concept #2].” Followed by flat, bloodless descriptions and speckled with de rigueur references to art history and critical theory, the words are ashy and you hate them.

This depresses you. Progress feels negligible. Dream of short, surreal poems of hurried sex with strangers. Contemplate unweaving that unreadable novel into something potentially publishable. Take the Foreign Service Exam and begin to plan some kind of exit strategy.

Get fired from half-a-dozen jobs half-heartedly sought in hunger. Somewhere in here, your family falls apart.

Tell yourself “Fuck it. I’ve got nothing to lose.” Write an essay on a favorite artist in the strangest and most beautiful sentences you know. Every metaphor blossoms with fictive potential, every verb tumesces with desire. This isn’t an essay, you are writing a love letter, an inflammatory manifesto, a last glorious surge in a losing war. This is a song, a paving stone, a sculpture, a dream.  Scare off every cliché and phony second-hand thought. Every word, terrible or triumphant, is yours. There isn’t a comma that doesn’t feel true.

Bracing yourself for self-righteous defeat, start cruising online job-boards and the websites for graduate-school programs you are wholly unqualified to attend: botany, zoology, astrophysics. Having passed the FSE, fly to meet working diplomats for the final day-long interview. You are asked what to do if you are offered rotten meat by a local official (eat and puke later), if you see an American ship bombed in the harbor on the weekend when the rest of the office is on holiday (immediately contact a superior, somewhere), and how would you defend giving military aid to a country with a terrible human rights record and a history of armed conflict with its neighbors (whatever your answer is, it won’t be very good).

The magazine accepts your last-ditch essay. When you receive it in the mail, your piece is on the cover. It is the first time this has ever happened to you. Understand the empty vanity of such small achievements, but let it deliciously swirl in your soul anyway.

Fall in love and abscond with your best friend’s girl. Get your heart broken by this crystalline noise witch. Drink a little too much and catch something you’re ashamed of.

Stick it out. Keep writing.

You realize art writing is just writing, another aspect of literature. That catalogues can be short novels and reviews haikus and columns soliloquies that transcend the ephemerality of quotidian journalism. You write nothing but wet fleshy narrative essays with formal inventiveness. You return to writing prose poems, but these are informed as hell and backboned with serious analysis though still sincerely as weird as you. Your metaphors billow into whole worlds and evanesce into parable and fiction.

You understand that being a professional is stupid. You would rather be unprofessional. Human, inappropriate, vulnerable. You decide that you are no longer an art critic or a novelist or a poet or even really a writer. You’re just you, in competition with nobody for nothing, merely doing the one thing that can only be done by you.

Somehow this works. Your daughter is fed. Your rent is paid. You try not to worry about the rest.

Get into an argument with a colleague at an opening when he tells you his responsibility is to the artist. Tell him that’s advertorial, infomercials. This doesn’t go over well.

Surprisingly, you win a prize.

You get your hands on a book by Gilda Williams titled How to Write About Contemporary Art. Though clearly written for neophytes, you wholly delight in the deft simplicity in which Williams explains the hot mess of the artworld and how underpaid writers might somehow navigate it with only words. You find her history of art writing beautifully concise, collapsing your years of subtle research into pages. Much of the text, however, though it uses examples from art writing, could just as easily be said about all writing.

Don’t be phony. Don’t try to sound smart. Forget cliché and jargon. Be clear. Make your reader feel something.

Remember that Williams rightly begins by saying “the truth is that anybody who ever succeeded invented their own way. Good art writers break conventions, hold a few sacrosanct, innovate their own.”

One aside by Williams sticks out especially:

Note: If you possess anything like Walter Benjamin’s astonishing intellect, fierce imagination, and writing craft: by all means, take a leap. But first drop this guide immediately, you do not need it.

Like all good teachers, she cuts us loose should we surpass her instruction.

Sitting at a café, a little depressed but definitely free, struggling to meet deadlines, go through all the chance occurrences that got you there. Remember when you were twelve scissoring out the plates in your brother’s art history textbook, bought with GI Bill money after the army. One of them was Warhol’s blue Marilyn. At the library looking up Warhol, you learned about the Velvet Underground. You peddled to the music shop and bought their record. On the way home, you stopped at a café that you’ve never left.

Take a sip from your coffee. Pen an essay titled “How to Write About Contemporary Art” that describes your individual route to wherever it is you are. Circuitous, fairly ridiculous, and a little heartbreaking, you could not have done it any other way.

You are not Benjamin, you are only you. Set the book down and leap anyways.

The café is closing. Your coffee is cold.

Now, close your laptop and leave as it’s time to pick up your daughter from school. As you pull up, her face fireworks with delight as she runs to meet your car.

Press send.


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