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Katie Grace Brake

Prof. Graves

LANG 120

13 April 2017

Writing in Art

Freshman writing courses are aimed at giving new college freshmen the tools they need

to succeed with college writing assignments. Writing is an important part of many students

college careers. Its important that students are able to write meaningful, cohesive papers. Not

only does it help with getting a good grade, but many people learn the information better after

thinking deeply about it, which writing forces them to do. However, formal writing can differ

between different disciplines. Because of this, some students may find that these general writing

courses are unnecessary while others may find them exceedingly beneficial.

David Russel argues that writing courses are better taught in the disciplines. To try to

teach students to improve their writing by taking a GWSI (general writing skills instruction)

course is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball,

basketball, field hockey, and so on by attending a course in general ball using. (Russel.) Teresa

Thonney responds to his argument by asserting that freshman writing classes are crucial and the

key to teaching them lies with conventions of academic writing that she has noted. Introducing

first-year composition students to these conventions of academic writing provides them with

knowledge they can use now and refine later when writing in their chosen disciplines.
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(Thonney.) These arguments are interesting and complicated, but the question Im asking is this:

what types of writing does the art field call for, and can it be taught in a freshman writing class?

Before I can assess the latter part of my question, I must first answer the former. What types of

writing are used in art? To find out, I conducted interviews with professional artists Michael

Iauch, Matthew West, Nathan Newsome, and Shawn Beard.

It seems that art isnt an area of study that writes academically. There isnt any

need for a lot of formal training and research. Theres nothing to research. Any information in the

field is created by the artist. Since it is a visual medium, words arent important to the subject.

People understand the art through looking at it and thinking about it, not by reading an

explanation. Sometimes, however, being able to read about the process to create a piece is

important to understand the art. Of course, this isnt always the case. Some artwork draws the

audience in by inviting them to figure out how it was made. Were going to focus on art that is

supplemented by understanding the work that went into making it. Michael Iauch hiked a

mountain dragging a piece of paper behind him. Unless you knew how the artwork was made, it

would just look like a dirty piece of paper. That is where exhibit and show information panels

come into play. These short paragraphs let the audience know how the works were created, and

sometimes what the message of the show is. In order to create these blurbs, the artist needs to

know how to convey a lot of information in short declarative sentences. There isnt room for a

lot of poetic run-ons.

Some people argue that art shouldnt be written about. If the artist explains what she

wanted the work to mean, it ruins the chance for people to respond to it in their own way. A

picture of a sad person could elicit different responses from different people, but if the artist says

the picture is about a death, it cant be interpreted any differently. So how do you write a blurb
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for an exhibit without ruining your artwork? You simply have to describe the arts characteristics,

rather than the end goal or meaning. Explaining what technique was used to create the artwork is

usually more valuable than describing what the work is meant to show. The example above of

Michael Iauchs work highlights why the process is important to know. Reading a paragraph

about how the painting youre looking at has deep orange hues juxtaposed to the bright cerulean

streaks of the sea to show you the way light destroys the darkness only cheapens the art.

Sometimes the explanation paragraphs arent even needed.

Another reason artists might need to write is to critique fellow artists work. Shawn Beard

frequently critiques his students work in order to help them grow as artists. Being able to explain

using art vocabulary reasons a piece was successful or not is essential. Not only does it help your

peers to improve, but it helps you avoid mistakes and make better decisions in your own artwork.

The skills needed for this type of writing cant be learned in a freshman writing course. They

have to be learned by experience making art, an understanding of art vocabulary (such as

positive and negative space, contrast, and color scheme,) and valuable critiques. In the

same way having someone else look at your writing and suggest how to make it better, critiques

are a way for artists to improve with one another. Being able to effectively communicate using

language is important for critiques. You cant simply point at something and expect the other

person to understand that youre trying to say a higher contrast between the values of these two

areas would help draw the eye to the focal point.

There arent many other reasons to write unless you are a student artist. Some of the only

formal writing that artists have to do is writing assignments in school and grant applications.

Writing assignments require research, but theyre only for a grade in a class and dont have much

to do with being a professional artist. Even art teachers dont write scholarly papers very often,
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they contribute to their field by creating more works of art. Grant applications, on the other hand,

are going to be used by students and professionals alike. Big projects require a lot of materials

and money, and artists are typically in the lower financial levels of the art world. Writing to a

benefactor about the project plan and the meaning could help win over some money to get your

project started. For this, you would need to understand how to effectively wield words to

convince the donor that your project is the one worth supporting. Being able to establish ethos,

pathos, and logos goes a long way toward convincing someone to agree with you. Learning

which words hold positive and negative connotations can help you manipulate your benefactor

into giving you money. These rhetoric skills can be taught in a freshman writing class, but can

only be used effectively after a lot of practice.

Sometimes its important to write for yourself. Keeping a journal is a good way for an

artist to write down her thoughts so she can come back to them later for inspiration. Shawn

Beard says a lot of his writing consists of poetry to inspire [his] paintings. Michael Iauch tends

to combine self-searching writing with culturally and politically aware writing to gain

inspiration. Sometimes painting a picture using words is a good way to get creative juices

flowing. This type of writing is where poetry comes into play, along with colloquial freewriting,

letting the words roll off the pen instead of working hard to get the rhetoric right. This is the type

of writing that cant be taught, whether the class is freshman writing or fourth year creative

writing. Spilling inner thoughts onto paper isnt teachable. The person in question must first

teach herself how to connect with her thoughts in order to place them on a page. Keeping

journals isnt required, but most of the artists I interviewed stated that they keep them. Personal

reflection can be a useful tool for any discipline.


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The only formal writing artists usually undergo is grant applications, unless they are

students writing term papers. These are the only types of writing that a freshman class can help

prepare the artist for. Through learning how to effectively use rhetoric and the best ways to

format and begin writing a paper, artists can benefit from a freshman level writing course. The

academic writing conventions that Thonney outlines would help with learning these skills. On

the other hand, writing personalized exhibit information and providing proper critical feedback

cant be done without learning art vocabulary and having a personal voice in your writing.

Freshman writing courses cant teach these skills. Personal reflection is another important area of

writing for an artist, but personal free-writing reflection isnt something you can get better at, nor

is it something that can be taught and graded in a classroom. This need for specific skills

supports Russels idea that writing courses should be discipline-specific. Freshman writing

courses will likely stick around for a long time. The debate surrounding them will continue to

evolve and expand. The benefits of the class outweigh the drawbacks. Even if the students area

of study doesnt call for much formal writing, the skills will still help in general education

courses and perhaps later in life.


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Beard, Shawn. Personal Interview. 26 March 2017.

David Russell, "Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction," from

Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction, ed. Joseph Petraglia, Lawrence

Erlbaum, 1995.

Iauch, Michael. Personal Interview. 29 March 2017.

Newsome, Nathan. Personal Interview. 27 March 2017.

Thonney, T. (2011). Teaching the conventions of academic discourse. Teaching English in the

Two Year College, 38(4), 347-362.

West, Matthew. Personal Interview. 29 March 2017.


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