Book review: How to Write About Contemporary Art by Gilda Williams

This is an important book for anyone who writes about art and its related disciplines. From Textile Foundations to Sustaining Your Practice as a textile student you are asked to comment on the work of others and your own creative output. This is a skill that does not necessarily come naturally, and many students struggle with it. It is therefore important to get some help. This book is different from the many “how to” writing books because it makes a strong case for knowing your subject and writing creatively about it. It explicitly explains the importance of bringing together observation and critical thinking with articulating your knowledge and conclusions. This is important in all the writing you do as an OCA student, including the learning log, research projects and critical essays. But these skills go beyond your undergraduate studies; informing the artist statements, funding applications and website blurb you will write. It could also be argued that these same skills will positively impact on your work life and improve the way you digest written communication generally. In her talk at the Garage Museum in Russia, Gilda Williams makes the case for artists becoming better writers as the growth of digital technology demands that creative practitioners effectively articulate their motives and conceptual thoughts. This is certainly what we expect from you, as students, through the continued reflective thinking and critical analysis of your own work.

So, what does this book have to offer? How to Write About Contemporary Art lays bare what good writing is. The author picks apart examples of writing to illustrate where the strengths and weaknesses are. Guiding the reader around common pitfalls without suggesting there is a one size fits all formula. It demystifies writing by clearly setting out its purpose in art culture and why it is so important to write with clarity. Covering the many areas where writing in the arts is used this book demonstrates the nuances of different writing styles but encourages you to be brave about your opinions and cultivate a creative spirit. It makes the case for prioritising the development of your writing skills and also taking some time to get each piece of writing right.

The spin off, I think from using this book will be two-fold. Firstly, you will become better at looking and thinking about art, design and craft. It will encourage a more purposeful approach to examining secondary research material, leading to evidenced based knowledge. Inevitably this will contribute to stronger creative practices in your more practical work. Secondly studying this book will help you become a better reader. Not only by being able to identify good sources but also extracting the useful and illuminating information.

I suggest you read this book from cover to cover with pencil in hand to make notes and marking pages you will want to come back to, as I have done. Writing articulately about your work and the work of others is an intrinsic part of your studies so I recommend you set aside time to craft your skill.

How to Write About Contemporary Art by Gilda Williams, published by Thames & Hudson.

Presentation of the book How to Write About Contemporary Art by Gilda Williams at Garage, Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oqi_k1RQsnQ&app=desktop

See Joanne’s post about a workshop she attended with Gilda here.

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8 Comments

  1. Amano - Photographic Studies 11 September 2018 at 10:02 am

    I attended one of her workshops earlier in the year at The Whitechapel Gallery (https://amano3.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/writing-for-the-exhibition-gilda-williams/)
    One point that stood out was avoiding using too many abstract terms as this can easily confuse the reader; we actually did a small exercise around this. The main exercise was actually writing about an art piece and the feedback I got from that was helpful though not unlike feedback I got from a group of students about a week or so later!!

    Reply
  2. Amano - Photographic Studies 11 September 2018 at 1:44 pm

    The YouTube video is a good resume … she says she is actually against writing artist’s statements (about 24 minutes in) !!

    Reply
    1. becka fairley 11 September 2018 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks for you comments Amano. Maybe the artist statement has had its day but we ask students to write them during TX3: Sustaining Your Practice as a way of concisely communicating what it is your work is about. The statement may never need printing and putting against the work but it helps to organise and consolidate your thoughts about the work and creative practice. We also don’t expect a formulaic approach to its contents.

      Reply
      1. Amano - Photographic Studies 15 September 2018 at 2:22 pm

        Hi Becka Yes, am vaguely aware of the learning experience arising from writing an artist’s statement. Gilda is referring to professional work in the market place. I think the artist’s statement helps personally if only to help one realise what writing about oneself can throw up !?

        Reply
  3. Stefan J Schaffeld - Visual Artist 12 September 2018 at 8:47 am

    I agree, this book is a certainly a good read for those struggling to write about art instead of making art. But with the shift in what artist’s statements are and what art is, the one might well merge with the other and both together are part of a whole. Like Richard Tuttle and many others who write aside poems, but related them to his painterly sculptures. It is an easy read and one focus is certainly to be yourself in writing, a narrative that touches the reader in a different way. Also good exercise to write about one’s own work and about one’s other, are there differences?
    Thanks for bringing it up here

    Reply
    1. becka fairley 18 September 2018 at 4:41 pm

      Thank you for your insightful comments.

      Reply
  4. Inger Weidema 13 September 2018 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks for this reminder – The book also has a nice chapter on essay writing which might be used as a leverage for IAP and onwards.

    I think statements are a nice thing to write and (more importantly) rewrite from time to time – for practise and clarity. I have seen a good many that are near impossible to understand. But then again, some are are just poetic or even just plain and easily read descriptions. Currently I have a main focus to cultivate the ability the write as ‘detached’ about myself as I writes about the work of others. This book will hopefully help.

    Reply
    1. becka fairley 18 September 2018 at 4:44 pm

      Definitely Inger, for many students essay writing is stumbling block so I hope this book helps.

      Reply

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