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“Art writing. A Definition?

The question is asked in a text on contemporary art writing by Maria Fusco.(1) She brings forward several suggestions before reluctantly settling on an answer. Art writing is ‘writing with art’. The art review, artist interviews, text used as image within art, and experimental writing, are a few forms art writing can take. With such a wealth of possibility for writing within the artworld, its definitive purpose is questioned. The most traditional models of art writing, when writers provide vivid descriptions and a recounting of the image, favour ‘writing about art’. Fusco’s revision allows us a modern perspective on the shift in art writing towards a more collaborative and valued role. To write alongside artworks and not act as a secondary report of the image provides the art writer with freedom. This definition tethers the writing to the physical work of art however, and does not consider the writing as an independent medium. Similar to the relationship between artist and viewer, the writer communicates and translates ideas to the reader. Semiotics and language are the art writer’s resources. Writing is a created and creative form. To examine the current position of art writing, and be confident in a definition, certain aspects must be assessed. Art history will be used to uncover past examples of art writing, how and when there was a shift and the current opinion on art writing. Semiotics will be considered when looking at art criticism and the development of a more experimental art writing.

Writing About Art

Art criticism is the most traditional form of art writing. Popularised in the 18th century, it involves the pursuit of rational appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of the artwork. Towards the end of the 18 th century the authoritative voice of the art critic was gaining value and importance.(2) With the position that artists make art, and do not handle the business transactions of their work, the art writer or critic offered a link between dealer and artist. More recently positions have changed. In an article from 2003 entitled What Happened to Art Criticism?,(3) James Elkins expresses dissatisfaction about the neglect of a discursive voice in contemporary art writing. Elkins goes as far to say that it is in crisis. He claims it is deteriorating ‘into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism’. The clutter he speaks of is the saturated market of art magazines, publications and catalogues. The suggestion is made that writing about art has become trivial and lacks intelligent analysis. Elkins calls for reform. ‘Systematic concepts and rules’ are put forward as a solution. He poses the thought that art criticism has never been well ordered and that has led to the incoherence we are now faced with. Elkins describes art criticism as a ‘mongrel amongst academic pursuits’. With this he is quite accurate. David Crow reinforces this view in his Introduction to Semiotics.(4) Artistic practices do not have a set of theoretical rules to apply. Terms are taken from linguistics and semiotics and used to describe works of art. With no unique terminology for the criticism of visual art, Elkins’ hope is void. In his lack of consideration for the change in period and the necessity for the art critic to change with it, he is nostalgic in his arguments. With the growth of conceptual art in the 1960s, the traditional art critique greatly diminished in popularity. It was thought that this was working towards a commercialisation of the artworld; taking the authorship of ideas away from the artist.(5) In a roundtable discussion conducted in 2002 for October, the Present Conditions of Art Criticism are discussed. Rosalind Krauss suggests that in the decade leading up to the discussion, the discursive text has become unnecessary.(6) Once used for the advancement of artistic careers and to interact between dealer/artist negotiations, it must now change tactic. Artists generate publicity through other means. Appearance in group shows and Biennials allow the popularity for success. Interviews are used to find meaning in a work of art. Writing about art no longer holds the position it once did. Where Elkins wallows, Robert Storr calls for an embrace of what art writers do have to offer.(6) The writer no longer thinks solely of the reader’s understanding, but considers themself as makers. The art writer is a creative individual and their endeavors should not be scrutinized for what once was, but for what now is. It is established throughout the discussion that final judgment is no longer the function of the art writer. Art writing can still be an interpretive mode but not for the hard-hitting conclusions it once demonstrated. Writing about art is a dated practice. Ben Davis articulates, ‘a specialized kind of writing about art no longer has the unique role of motivating interest.’(7) With the decline of art criticism came a growth in the audience

for art writing outside the previous specifications. In 1972 Artforum1 published an article on the increasing importance of art magazines. It proclaimed, ‘No longer the passive judge and reorder of art it [the magazine] is now a part of the action.’(7) Art writing has become laced within the art world in magazines, manifestos and pamphlets. Writers while writing about art, write alongside it. Therefore, as Fusco claims(1),writing with art is a more fitting definition.

1 Artforum is a monthly magazine with focus on contemporary art. It was founded in 1962 and is published internationally. See: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/mandarino/magazine-rack-march7-23-10.asp

Writing With Art

Art writing has shifted from judgmental evaluation to a more experimental form. However, it is questioned if the creative approach to art writing is truly a new development. In looking at art history, it can be determined if there was a scope for creative accounts as far back as the 18 th and 19th Century, when art writing came to prominence. With the dawning of the ‘Museum Age’, there came a dramatic recontexualisation of art.(2). Art that had previously been observed within a religious context was uprooted and entered into the open space of the gallery. Original meanings were scrutinised and reformed, and aesthetics more considered. Stephen Cheeke, in his writings on Prose Ekphrasis, considers the question being asked at this time: who is the new leader of the congregation of museum-goers? The art writer’s role was to provide meaning to the viewer. Vocabulary was bound up in religious language at this time, and with the account of the spiritual experience, art writing became a subjective replay of the individual encounter. The freedom of the open museum encouraged a freedom in writing. Romantic descriptions not only recounted aesthetics, but would offer a new form to indulge in alongside the work of art. In looking at Walter Pater’s analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it becomes clear that art criticism is not as plain as writing about art.2 Pater’s poetic descriptions form a visual reproduction and in turn influence the original painting.3 Through verbal description Walter Pater is able to create a vivid re-enactment of the Mona Lisa, dramatising the scene and adding a perceived narrative. In writing about the visual, meaning is extracted from the visual sign. David Crow describes the negotiating process between visual signs and their interpreter.(4) The background knowledge of the interpreter influences the reading, in an active exchange. Words are signifiers to represent the signified object. However, the relationship between the object and the word used to signify it is arbitrary. The word ‘mountain’ bears no relation in sound or written form to the object ‘mountain’. It is by association that they are linked. In the description of ‘writing with art’, text is an accompaniment to image. Visual signs are interpreted by the writer and translated into language for the viewer to read and understand. As the image influences the art writer’s words, the words become intertwined with the image. The art writer can create and manipulate the visual, using language. As Elkins rightly expressed, art criticism provides a critical analysis, however there is also room for interpretation and creation. It is therefore attested that the

2 “It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.…She is older that the rocks among which she sits, like the vampire, she has died many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”(2) Pater’s writing captures the art audience with its promise of details of the Mona Lisa, but is something else entirely. It is a prose to be read. 3 Once a description of a work of art is read, the piece is coloured by the tone of the writing., “the glamouring then, to adopt Berenson’s verb (derived from necromancy), is a process that begins with and is inherent to the visual, as indeed it is inherent to the verbal. We are never ‘unglamoured’”- Cheeke.(2)

romantic writings of the 1800’s offered creative experimental accounts as well as judgment. This kind of art writing can be read and enjoyed alongside the work itself. With the move away from traditional art criticism in the 1960s, the artist interview became the most popular form for artistic insight.(8) Gwen Allen insists that the move towards artist interviews was attempted to allow artists to market their own work. It offered ‘an alternative paradigm for the critical judgment of works of art’ in which the artist gets to have a say.(5) By the 1980’s the artist, and the artist persona, had become the driving force behind the art market. Celebrity and quick accessibility to knowledge replace lengthy analysis. There is a continuous curiosity of artist’s intention and an on-going search for meaning in a work of art.(9) The artist’s voice provides authenticity and is an accessible method of communication, considering its more social premise. The Q&A layout of a conversation and clear separation of paragraphs with labeled indications of who is speaking, promises an easy-to-follow linear argument. Such relaxed reading provides light insight and is not as overwhelming as the blocks of text in a critical analysis. The conversation conducted within the interview is one event in the publication process. Heavy editing to ensure the artist is represented as desired and that the flow of dialogue is consistently engaging, is undergone before release.(10) The transcription must be written and recreated to ensure the reader’s entertainment. The value of the interview lies in the transmission of primary source accounts of artistic endeavors. The art writer must effectively package the interview to convey the character of the artist.4 The artist interview is often given credit for its likening to psychoanalysis.(12) In this encounter the analyst takes on a position of master. The analysand forms a fantasy around the analyst as the knowing entity. However, in practice this is reversed. The analyst is aware that he or she, as the one who asks the questions, does not know the answers. The answers lie with the artist being interviewed. And so the analysand is closer to the truth. The interview is led by the interviewer and represented by the subsequent art writing, but it is centralized around the artist and the communication of the persona they want to be received. The art writer, in the artist interview, writes with art. Writing is not an independent practice in this form, but reliant on other artists and tethered to existing artworks. The interviewer appears to be a tool the artist uses to articulate personal ideas. The artist can use the interview to convey a message, for example; Jeff Koons, in his reproduction of identical answers to separate interviewers, sheds light on the manufactured process of the encounter5. When such manipulation takes place, the interviewer’s control is challenged. However, the interviewer can reclaim authority in the writing process of the published interview. Reva Wolf, in an introduction to an anthology of Andy Warhol interviews, opens with the question, ‘Can an interview be a work of art?’.(13) Warhol raises a host of questions surrounding the interview through tactics of evasion and disinterest. Warhol’s refusal to act in the expected role of interviewee means that the

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The artist as a product is a major focus of the artworld, “Although decentralized, this system considers the artist as the essential figure and it assigns him a privileged role, since he is the product on which the system depends.” - Gelshorn (10) 5 In Tim Griffin’s article Method Acting: The Artist-Interview Conversation, he describes an anticipated moment in his career.(11) Griffin sat down with Jeff Koons and, through his questioning,, was granted a real insight into the artists’ life and work. Or so he thought. Koons had provided almost the same interview, with the same apparently spontaneous anecdotes, to a rival publisher.

interviewer is challenged to renew his or her own role. The interview can be a collaborative exchange between interviewer and interviewee, between artist and writer. Warhol would not provide the expected answers, preferring the more inventive. Similarly, the interviewer must be creative in the approach of questions and transcription of limiting answers. French art historian Jean Claude Lebenztein, in the 1970s, questions Andy Warhol on thoughts regarding Henri Matisse. When faced with the artist’s response, Lebenztein is compelled to break the standard Q&A rhythm of the interview layout in his transcript of the conversation. If the writer had only accounted for Warhol’s answer, ‘What can we say about Matisse, Fred? Couple of lines…’, the page would have offered very little. However, Lebenztein chooses to further interpret Warhol’s statement and use his silence and ambiguity as an illusion to a wider concept. A previous statement Warhol made, surrounding Matisse, is unearthed and the segment is complimented with a quote from Matisse himself. The dialogue becomes,

A friend once asked Andy Warhol what he really wanted out of life, and he replied, “I want to be like Matisse.” (Quoted from Calvin Tomkins, “Raggedy Andy”, in John Coplains’s Andy Warhol, New York, New York Graphic, 1971.)

Warhol: “What can we say about Matisse, Fred? Couple of lines…” “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue.” Henri Matisse (13)

The writer negates from the accepted format and creates an interesting ensemble for the reader, using Warhol’s answer accompanied with researched knowledge and judgment. An interpretative analysis is offered with additions to Warhol’s limited response. If the interview is a form of art writing in favour of criticism6, then this collaborative interpretation is the replacement of critical judgment.(14) Although the artist is in control of what is said, the writer offers a subtle hand to edit and produce an insightful read. The writer uses existing content as well as personal knowledge to write alongside art. Through the use of language and creative interpretation, text is produced as a source of information on an existing subject with an addition of content.

Jean Wainwright praises the interview for its writing style, insisting it is not taking the place of criticism but changing i t, “The interview does not replace critical writing – it aids and abets it”.(14).
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Writing as Art

Art writing can be read and enjoyed as an object itself, separate from an association to existing artworks. The art writer can be creative in the formation of independent and experimental texts. The line between visual art and the literary has been fading since the rejection of traditional art criticism .(15) Artists such as Hanne Darboven acknowledge the boundaries between disciplines upon being asked if they are writer or artist.(16) With a unique ‘drawing and writing system’, her work can be read while still being an aesthetic object in a gallery. Darboven makes the point of establishing herself as a writer. However it can be questioned; if she were to proclaim to be an artist, would she be any less of a writer? Writing is a medium she uses to create art. It is perhaps time to try ‘writing as art’ on for size. Daniel Kunitz describes a change in artists born after the mid-1960s.(15) He describes this generation as being born into a world where the boundaries between music, literature, art and other creative forms are blurred, if not non-existent. In the 21st century writing can be used as a creative medium. If context is a defining characteristic of art and the writing is within a gallery or art magazine, then writings status as ‘art’ should not be questioned. Artists such as Sophie Calle7 use narrative throughout their work, demonstrating that a story can generate art objects and be an object itself. Language conjures up the visual, and vice versa. Michael Baldwin insists that a linguistic framework is necessary for Conceptual art to even be viewed as art.(17) Michael Craig Martin demonstrates the relevance of a linguistic framework in conceptual art, in An Oak Tree. (See Figure 1) He uses a self-conducted interview to convince his audience that a glass of water visible in the gallery is an oak tree. This asserts him, the writer of these words, as the authority. The words create the artwork, as opposed to being a secondary account of it. The physical attributes of the piece offer nothing. It is the insistence of the transformation by the author that makes the piece. Martin Hentschel in Michael CraigMartin: And Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar likens this to the body and blood of Christ.(18) Bread and wine embody the physical representation of Jesus Christ, as objects they are irrelevant, the word of the creator is authority8. Rather than an example of text as image in art, Craig Martin’s An Oak Tree gives responsibility to the content of the text itself.

7 Sophie Calle is a celebrated French artist who incorporates narrative structure into lived experience within her practice. See: http://www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-sophie-calle/ 8 “This is a work of art in which the act of perception and the act of visualization both prove to be a dead end. Your response to it – as with the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – rests wholly on an act of faith.” Hentschal, M. Michael CraigMartin: And Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar. Verlag das Wunderhorn. Germany. 1999. P18.

(Figure 1)9

9 Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind. A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oaktree. To conceive the category 'oak tree' or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is unperceivable it is also inconceivable.” - Craig-Martin, 1999 (18)

Similarly art magazines allow this platform and offer relevant insight into current issues. Davis claims it was ‘the explosion of feminist, gay rights, and post-colonial struggles of the 60’s and 70’s’ that led to the art magazine providing an outlet.(7) Blogs, zines and methods of self-publishing allow artists to express themselves through the written word. David Senior discusses the use of publication and distribution by art writers to ‘make their own little spaces for dispersal of ideas’.(19) Just as a museum embodies visual art and provides a platform for artistic practice, the printed object allows art writers to further their written practice. The art magazine is a ‘multimedia broadcast service’. (7) John Douglas Millar discusses this collective nature of current art writing (20) He notes a ‘growth in the market for ‘quasi-literary journals’’ and dismisses the multimedia aspect. Miller acknowledges F.R.DAVID and crudely summarises its editorial policy10 as ‘anything at all’. It is claimed that freedom of content encourages a weak, mix-and-match approach to publication. The suggestion is made that the artworld is accepting of anything and everything, and so bad writers can reside there and get work seen. Millar’s assessment that art writing invites in ‘anything at all’ might well be accurate. However, this should be seen as an opening up of mediums and learning through experimentation, rather than complete disarray. Storr, in the October roundtable discussion, claims, ‘learning to write in a variety of forms and learning to write using different aspects of ones own voice may be a means of gaining access to fresh ideas ’.(6) An artist’s practice involves this pursuit of new ideas, through exploration of form, medium and content. An art writer’s practice does the same. Millar fails to understand art writing as both a structure and an object, separate from literature. Art writing is creative and experimental, challenging the use of text and escaping the conservative limits of literature. In the aforementioned Fusco article, on the definitions of art writing, format is played with.(1) As opposed to the standard lengthy paragraphs seen in Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism?, Fusco’s analysis is entertaining in its structural quirks. Language is broken up with list-making and anecdotal references. The writer conveys her point and injects personality into the piece. The enterprising nature of such writing aids it to be accepted as a field of art production. The art writer uses text as medium and the printed page as a gallery. The mix of styles and forms that Millar is so opposed to, is similarly shown in The Happy Hypocrite.(21) The publication, ‘for an about experimental art writing’, hosts an assortment of interviews, short stories and other examples of art writing. Issues are themed not by subject but by methodology. This unifies thematic approach and allows an opening up of style and form in the writing. By allowing different methods of writing into such journals, the boundaries of artistic practice are further blurred and possibilities increased. Returning to the definition of art writing, a list on Frieze blog is worth attention. Compiled by Michael Newman, Adrian Rifkin, Yve Lomax and, again Maria Fusco, eleven statements around art writing are provided. The first statement appears the most fitting; the other ten are almost unnecessary if the first is to be trusted. “Art Writing emerges as a practice.” (22)
10 “Writing as a mode that informs and feeds, supports and describes, backs up a nd interprets, comments and reflects upon contemporary artistic production. Writing as the “core material” of a number of visual artists but equally as a mode that exi sts parallel to or in service of the visual.”

The state of art writing occupies much debate in the 21st century. Writers such as Millar and Elkins do not take it seriously as an art form, as it appears not as structured as the literature of art criticism. Art criticism lost authority from the 1960’s onwards. With conceptual art begging for authorship and negating the judgmental art critic, new forms of writing were replacements. However, it has been established that even in criticism dating back to the 1800’s, creativity and personal interpretation of the image were significant factors. Art does not have a specialized language, art writers must create and manipulate to express the visual. Art writing has always been a creative medium but it is now allowed the stage to establish itself as an independent one. The rise in popularity of the artist’s interview, with its simplistic format and quick access to artistic insight has continuously peppered the pages of art magazines. The growth of other formats of publication, such as art journals, have led to a wealth of possibilities for art writing. These journals surround the idea that art writers can experiment with language and push the boundaries of conceived notions of writing. Such exploration of medium resembles the way a sculptor, a painter, or an installation artist might play. Art Writing Can write about art Often writes alongside art Occupies its own artistic context Uses language to stimulate its viewer Can create an object to be interpreted Is an artistic practice

List of References

(1)Fusco, M. Spit and Image: Contemporary Art Writing and its Environs . In: Map, Vol 15. Autumn. 2008. (2)Cheeke, S. Prose Ekphrasis. In: Cheeke, S. Writing for art: The aesthetics of ekphrasis. Manchester. Manchester University Press. 2010. P163-189 (3)Elkins, J. What Happened to Art Criticism?. Prickly Paradigm Press. Chicago. 2003. (4) Crow,D. Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics. AVA Publishing. Switzerland. 2003. (5)Allen, G. Against Criticism: The artist interview in Avalanche magazine, 1970-76. In: Art Journal. 2005. P.50-61. (6)Baker, G, Krauss, R, Buckloh, B, Fraser, A, Joselit, D, Meyer, J, Storr, R, Foster H, Miller, J, Molesworth, H. Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism. In: October Vol 100. Spring, 2002. P200-228 (7)Davis, B. The Golden Age. In: Art Papers Magazine Vol 37. Winter 2013. P46-48 (8)Anastas, R. A Response. In: Art Journal. 2005. P.78‐83. (9)Burton, J & Pasquariello. “Ask Somebody Else something Else”: Analyzing the Artist Interview. In: Art Journal. 2005. P. 46-‐‐49. (10)Gelshorn, J. Two are better than one: Notes on the interview and techniques of 
 multiplication. In: Art Bulletin. 2012. (11)Griffin, T. Method Acting: The Artist-­­Interviewer Conversation. In: Art Journal. 2005. P. 71‐ 77. (12)Bickers, P. Introduction. In: Talking Art: Interviews with artists since 1976. Ridinghouse. 
 London. 2007. P.13‐23. (13) Wolf, R. Introduction: Through the looking glass. In: I’ll be your mirror: The selected Andy Warhol interviews, 1962-­­1987. Carroll & Graf. New York. 2004. (14) Wainwright, J. The Captive Voice. In: Dialogue. 2006. Accessed on 20th Nov. 2013. Available at axisartists.org/refdialogue/40 (15) Kunitz, D. Texting: The artist as writer as artist. In: Modern Painters Vol 23. Summer 2011. P48-53 (16)Schoofs, M. Hanne Darboven: I inscribe, but I describe nothing. In: Flash Art International Vol 46. Winter 2013. P76-79 (17)Baldwin, M. Extract from ‘Art and Language proceedings’. In: Audio Art Issue Vol 1. 1973. Available at: http://www2.tate.org.uk/audioarts/cd1_1_transcript.htm Accessed on: Dec 8 2003 (18)Hentschal, M. Michael Craig-Martin: And Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar. Verlag das Wunderhorn. Germany. 1999. (19)Senior, D. No Future. In: Art Papers Magazine Vol 37. Winter 2013. P54-57 (20)Millar, J.D. Yes, but is it edible?. In: Art Monthly Issue 349. Autumn 2011. P11-14. (21)Dillon, B. Art writing/Child’s play?. In: Art Review Issue 25. Autumn 2008. P34

(22)Fusco, M, Newman, M, Rifkin, A, Lomax, Y. 11 Statements around art writing. In: Frieze Blog. Available at: http://blog.frieze.com/11-statements-around-art-writing/ Accessed on: Dec 6 2013.

Figure 1 Michael Craig-Martin An Oak Tree 1973 Glass, water, shelf and printed text Tate Collection, Michael Craig-Martin born 1941, 2005, viewed on 28th February 2012, <http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=27072&searchid=19313&tabview=work>

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