gall and gumption

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

buckner: Writing About Art

I’m working my way through a stack of papers by art students from a class called Writing About Art. These are kids who have very little experience writing; mostly they take studio art and design classes. I find myself writing the same comments over and over, so I came up with this list of commandments to hand out tomorrow. I thought I would post it here. Any other suggestions?

The Ten Commandments of Writing About Art:
1. Never use an artist’s or anybody’s first name in a piece of writing.

2. Don’t talk about what you don’t know, or didn’t know until you wrote this paper. Be assertive in your opinions. Don’t capitulate with phrases like “kind of,” “sort of,” “could be,” or “almost like.”

3. Don’t refer to the paper as an assignment or talk about why you chose your subject.

4. Don’t quote non-famous people. This is a controversial commandment and might find opposition in some quarters of academia. That’s why their papers are so boring. Always go to the source first. If you’re writing about Matisse, find out first what Matisse says. Then quote the opinions of people the reader is interested in knowing, like Picasso or Giacometti—but not just any academic scribbler.

5. Don’t generalize too much about the artist’s work. Describe specific examples.

6. Tell stories, but do so strategically to strengthen what you are trying to describe. Term papers need to be more formal than narrative writing. Don’t just blather on about how you went to the museum and saw this or that painting, etc.

7. Use your natural voice. Be honest and genuine. Don’t try to sound intellectual. Carefully edit fragments and run-on sentences.

8. Plot out the overall structure of your paper. Where is it going? Don’t meander.

9. Give historical background, but don’t let it dominate the paper. It’s too easy and it becomes very tedious.

10. Entertain me.

17 Comments:

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Kia said...

I'd add this as another item or maybe slightly modify item 4: Go to original sources first: if you're writing about Matisse, see what Matisse has to say before you go looking for what academic A said about what Matisse said or did. Also that can be the basis for non-toxic readings of academics, because then you've got something with which you can actually evaluate their judgments. This would get you round the whole "either/or" of quoting academics and put it more like, "Yes, if first you've..." and as they probably won't, they shouldn't. But at least they've been warned away from the stinkers.

Item 6 is excellent and often overlooked.

And good on you for blocking off all variations of "I was sitting looking out the window wondering how to begin writing this paper..." I still regret not suggesting this rule be applied to all CCS graduating speeches by students.

 
At 3:21 PM, Blogger buckner said...

I've edited it again since this morning, with the help of your comments.

 
At 3:51 AM, Blogger Señor Tripp said...

This is a great post and an excellent idea. Writing about art is seldom done well, maybe because it's one art about another. Anyway a provocative notion, these commandments.

As an artist of sorts, and also a writer, I truly enjoy reading (and writing) about art of all kinds. Although it's not a commandment as such (maybe a psalm), I would recommend your students also take great care in choosing their subject. If you do not respond on some deep, visceral level to the work, your writing is doomed from the start.

And this doesn't mean you've got to love your subject, either. I hate Thomas Kincaid and LeRoy Neiman with such passion it makes me flatulent -- yet I'd be just as happy writing about their work as Sargent's or Noguchi's, for example.

The trick is to organize that intense response into an energy that underpins the essay -- a kind of emotional thesis to inform the topical one.

 
At 8:34 AM, Blogger buckner said...

Thank you Señor. That's an excellent suggestion.

 
At 2:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend was hiking in the Sierras and came upon a man painting the scene. Catching a glimpse of the work, my friend blurted out something like "Ugh, that looks like a Thomas Kinkade." The painter drew himself up and said, "I AM Thomas Kinkade."

 
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