‘How to write about art’ with Jennifer Higgie/Frieze Academy

Blog writing, arts writing, ‘The Temporary’ and many other wordgirl endeavours are on a go-slow at the moment. Rightly so, as most of the words I write are being written, re-written and edited over and over again for my PhD. Nearly four out of five draft chapters done, I can actually see an end in sight.

As a short interlude, I thought I’d take some time out to blog, to share some of the exhibitions, events and happenings I’ve seen and experienced over the last few months. This includes the one-day Frieze Academy course ‘How to write about art’, run by Jennifer Higgie, co-editor of Frieze Magazine, at the Rochelle School, London. As with most talks, courses and conferences I go to, I take notes as it all unfolds…so here are some statements from the day. Thanks to Frieze Academy for my free, funded place on the course – greatly appreciated – and to Jennifer for refuelling my writing mind, reminding me why I love to write and why I call myself wordgirl. Also, that it’s ok to have a multi-dimensional portfolio (as I call it) in the arts today, or as you said ‘professional hybridisation’.

Frieze Academy - Jennifer Higgie.jpg

Jennifer opened the day talking from personal experience as an arts writer and editor, ‘coming from both sides of the spectrum’ stating ‘things she wanted to be told 20 years ago’. Always making me think about what I’d tell my younger self if I had the chance. I’ll save that for another blog post.

  • There are lots of different aspects of art writing…this day is about being an art writer, not about being an art critic, about being an essayist or press writer. There isn’t one definition of an art writer, as there’s not one art world – the art world is made up of hundreds of art worlds.
  • Terms art and art writing are so broad – what do you want to write about art and your aspect of the art world?

“The act of shifting an experience from one language to another.” – Stuart Morgan, one of the founding writers of Frieze Magazine

  • Translating an object into words for whatever reason you have…Maybe you want to be an art historian, an academic, write about what art is…what it means to translate a history into what is consumable now…Populist art history, a theorist delving deep, an experimental art writer, running an art space…
  • Excerpt from Dave Hickey’s book ‘Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy’ (1997) – This is now on order.
  • It is about moving directly from what you’ve seen, to writing about it, from the particular to general.

“The question you need to ask yourself is, are you a good writer?” – Jennifer Higgie

  • Try and get honest feedback about your writing
  • There is good news and bad news about art writing. You’ll never be rich, it’s tough career, however, you will always have an interesting life, meet interesting people, look at interesting things, you’ll be challenged, creatively…you usually have to supplement your writing in other ways.
  • One gets tired of the role of critics – “the piano player in a whore house”.

“As an art writer you condemn your life to a process of perpetual homework.” – Jennifer Higgie

  • If you write critical pieces you’ll be hated by some people, or you’ll be hated for not writing about them.
  • The most common question I get asked is “What do you need to study or know to be an art writer?” It doesn’t matter. There is no trajectory you should follow.

“If there is one thing that art writers are good at, it is being a good reader.” – Jennifer Higgie

  • Ask yourself, why do you want to do this and what do you have to say in order to embrace this difficult world? What kind of clarity, passion, knowledge, creativity…? The best art writers are those who have created something extraordinary in terms of what they are responding to…

“Writing never gets easier” – Susan Sontag

  • Peter Schjeldahl’s poem ‘Dear Profession of Art Writing’ (1976-77) speaks of the crisis of being an art writer at his level.
  • Jennifer was inspired by Agnes Martin, who gave her a sense of permission to do this, to be a writer and critic.

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.” Robert Hughes in ‘The Shock Of The New’ (1991)

  • All art is, is the embodiment of what someone is thinking at that time – as an art writer you are adding another dimension to this. It reads like a novel…they are the page turners…Respond to the artwork with the same imaginative flourish. Art writing is your relationship to the art object or experience.

“What is your position as a writer?” – Jennifer Higgie

  • The art world is made up of localisms and is part of a much bigger globalised conversation…gender, race, geography, class and sexuality. Check your privilege – what is your position?
  • You have to know the lay of the land, the art critics, the art historians, the main debates – which writers have inspired you? They all have different sensibilities. You need to know which editor will respond to what you are pitching. One of the worst things you can do is not tailor your email pitch to the magazine, editor or editorial. Write one or two focussed emails to the people you want to write for. Research the differences between different art sources, magazine etc. Find out who the regular art writers are. Different publications require different types of writing – you have to be very aware that most magazine writers gets hundreds of pitches. “Don’t wait for the man to come to you, don’t wait for someone to hand you something.”
  • Don’t be afraid of humour in your writing – press releases or reviews can be so humourless.

“The best art writing wears its knowledge lightly and encompasses a world that is a very complicated place.” – Jennifer Higgie

  • Art writing is more than just writing – it can be video, it can be music, it can be audio.

  • Who is your audience? What does the audience in my minds eye look like? Do audiences even care about what critics write? The viewer as the holy ghost or peeping tom? Get a sense of knowledge of the publics they are writing for…Who is going to be reading this – a general audience, a fanzine, an art informed audience?
  • Dan Fox’s book ‘Pretentiousness: Why it Matters’ (2016)

  • Every art magazine, newspaper, platform online will have it’s own voice – what they are doing reflects what you are doing. Would you be proud writing for them? Every publication is looking for a particular tone of writing.
  • Within the different publications, writing breaks down again…features (approx. £525), interviews, front section columns (approx. £300), reviews (approx. £150), blog (approx. £150). What are your skills? What are your specialisms? Know what your strengths are and play to them. Don’t ever accept a piece because you need the money. There are also catalogue essays for small artist run spaces to established galleries. They have in-house writers where galleries are publishing their own in-house magazines – everyone is looking for good writers.

“Professional hybridisation is normal today.” – Jennifer Higgie

  • What constitutes bad writing? Convoluted writing…using far to many words to say not enough. Don’t be afraid of expressing things clearly and simply. The idea that curators or people trying to write the press releases have to try and impress you.
  • Don’t let your writing be “Pho-philosophical hogwash”…the untranslatable intentions of their artworks. Try and think about it in a more imaginative way. Don’t make it boring or generic, don’t make it too long.
  • Look at what the publications aren’t covering. What is coming up that I could cover? Look back through their archive to do a search about that artist or exhibition or theme
  • Acknowledge a conflict of interest. I will not commission you to write something if you work with a particular artist or gallery, working at a commercial gallery is out of the question.
  • You’ll always work closely with the editor to develop the focus and tone of the piece.

“What is the best way to make the first steps into writing?” – Jennifer Higgie

  • Become a reader, find out where you want to write, your point of view, whether its for money or creative development.
  • Writing art reviews versus arts journalism – a journalist replies broader interests. There is a complexity in straddling two domains – to switch horses. Conveying a complex idea in two different languages. The power of the contra-dancing mind…
  • There is an evolution of art criticism…from journal in-print to online. A good art critic will place the artist in a historical context…art history is extremely important as with Frieze Masters – a conversation between the past and present. This conversation is a rich and on-going one…intertwining…
  • Research, research, research rather than write…if you are writing about something complicated, you need to invest in research

“Procrastination is the beast of all writers.” – Jennifer Higgie

  • You have to be very honest with yourself, if you’ve done a lot of research and the deadline is looming, you have to start writing. Fear of the blank page.

Frieze Academy - Jennifer Higgie and Charlie Fox 2Frieze Academy - Jennifer Higgie and Charlie Fox

In the afternoon, Jennifer had invited Frieze writer Charlie Fox to talk to the group about his development and experiences as an art writer. He spoke honestly, articulately and distinct, as you’ll read…captivating us in his journey of writing and words. What a writer should do…

  • I studied literature at university – it was drag.
  • Have a lot of faith in what you’re doing, especially when you are pitching.
  • I see art in a “memoristic” way.
  • Influenced by Wayne Koestenbaum, Rhonda Lieberman, Vladimir Nabokov…
  • Inertia created from academia, a language to do with textual space, hierarchical subjective…de-territorialisation…language you have to obey…it is smart, clever, witty…this is more interesting space…based on moments of serendipity
  • Have enough weight behind the writing for it to work…it’s about finding “the hook”.
  • Being concise is a real art. The mistakes are important too – you have a really good editor if they can tell you it doesn’t work. You have to trust your editor, they are your friend, they are there to help you.

“I’m not married to every line, if it doesn’t work – it doesn’t work, that’s easier in a way.” – Charlie Fox

  • Find material that you can play with – as a galaxy of stuff. Throwing things into the room that wouldn’t often go together – how does this break with the traditions involved? How are you going to make the works reverberate in someway whilst keeping them in focus?
  • If you’re trying to please an imaginary audience, it’s over.
  • There’s tension between what’s required of you and what you can get away with – they work in a very specific way, you have to radiate them in a specific way.

“History superimposed on history – this is what really great art writing does. Art writing is about seduction too. All writing has to have space for breathing for seduction. The route of seduction is being led astray – a danger a risk involved – how I can potentially humiliate myself within this piece?” – Charlie Fox

  • Your art piece in a magazine is competing about 50 other art pieces in the same magazine – what makes yours distinct, what will keep your audiences attention? You don’t want it to be average or a chore, find a way to make it be something else – it’s going to be online and in-print for a while.

  • Be open and fluid in what you are writing about so that connections and discovery can happen…it is ultimately about holding someone’s attention. Pay attention to the edges of the conversation – see what they are looking at.
  • Never push an artist into a pigeonhole in an interview…let in unfold…
  • Art, what ever format it comes to you in, is a hallucinatory thing – they are objects of special attention – it is not reality in an ordinary way of thinking. Addressing the strangeness of the task as a radical thing – art is not static, it is constantly rethinking the past crashing into the present.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

  • Resist the platitudes and the megaphone language you hear all the time.
  • You’ll hear this really often – “I don’t think I’m ready”. No one is ever ready to write. Just jump in and devour it.

The final part of the day cited Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘On talking about art’ and Robert Hughes’ ‘Shock of the New’ (1991)…

  • Failure can be useful when writing about art – failing to understand something, failing to come to grips with something. ‘Fail again and fail better’ (Samuel Beckett).
  • “Productive Frustration”

  • Is education possible without humiliation?
  • Why do we bother to interview artists?
  • Do we write about the work we can describe or the work that stimulates us that we can’t find the words to say? How difficult is it to sum up what an artwork is about? Express this sense of grappling.

How to approach writing according to George Orwell:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
  • What is the best way to communicate your idea? Your reader is not a mind reader, you can’t assume what they know. A lot of art writers think that descriptions are beneath them. Would I enjoy reading this? What would I learn from it? Is the writing itself as interesting as the ideas its trying to communicate?
  • Your first sentence is competing with everyone else’s first sentence. Grab someone’s attention. Read your words out loud to highlight the awkwardness.
  • Rhythm in writing is really important in how you might seduce a reader – highs and lows, intensities and space. Writing will never be sequential

 

  • A great metaphor is a powerful thing – don’t mix your metaphors.
  • Make your images precise.
  • The memory of the last line, citing Great Gatsby –“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
  • Is this writing a reflection of it’s time? Is the artwork new, urgent or innovative? Does this artwork know how to communicate?

“Be self-critical and rigorous. You have to sustain your love of language. I have committed to a life of homework. A constant life of doubt, of thinking it could be done better.” – Jennifer Higgie

 

 

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