Spike Island

Reviewed: What to Expect from an Arts Writer

Spike Associates, a membership network of artists, curators, writers and other creative practitioners, have initiated a series of events on professional practice. They explore both critical and practical aspects of working within the arts with panelists from across the sector.

We'll be taking a break over the summer and return with more sessions in the autumn. You can also read about the first two sessions: What to Expect from a Gallery and What to Expect from a Curator.

If you missed the third session on Tuesday 29 May, which focused on arts writing, Spike Associate and writer Sacha Waldron has shared her reflections on the conversation:

What to Expect from an Arts Writer brought together three personal and professional angles on what it means to write and how and why we go about doing it. The term ‘art writing’ is a slippery fish these days, especially in terms of how it relates (or not) to the contemporary role of the critic and criticism.

Anna Searle Jones started off the conversation by asking how the panel members felt that writing fit with everything else they did. Both Tom Morton (curator, writer and contributing editor for frieze) and Corin Sworn (an artist using script writing and investigating constructions of speech in her work) studied Art History at university, and this led to magazine writing jobs directly after graduation. Morton has been writing for frieze since the beginning of his career and it has always had an influence on his curatorial work. He commented that he “wouldn't be able to curate without words”. Dr. Mick Wilson (writer and educator currently with Gradcam in Dublin) pointed out that although he writes in multiple roles, as a critic and as an educator, for him writing is quite episodic. This, he felt, led to his writing having less of an overall and continuous style than Morton, for example, who writes on a daily basis.

The question of style is interesting and often problematic. I feel, as an 'emerging' arts writer that often style or personal perspective is not what's called for by many of the new platforms that exist. Sometimes it can seem as if your role as an arts writer is to produce content rather than writing: a marketing exercise rather than, as Wilson commented, a “space to think”. Morton and Wilson discussed presence of 'fact' in arts reviewing, as often the writer is there as a proxy of the missing visitor. Wilson pointed out that the pressure on this “descriptive weight” perhaps means that the craft of writing was being lost. He mentioned the text produced by Adrian Piper for Art&Language as an example that he uses with his own students and commented, rather beautifully, that there is an assumption that text “flows fully formed from the writer” rather than being, often, torn and struggled out from the writer’s brain. Writing, as Morton rightly pointed out, can sometimes be “an emotional business”.

The panel discussed the variety of different platforms available to the recent graduate – blogs, web-based magazines, Twitter and the multitude of new and often short lived print publications that appear and disappear – but also problematised this. With so many spaces for writing, are we actually reading what anyone is saying? The panel discussed, what they called 'catalogue poetry', those catalogue texts that are hidden away in often vast tomes and read by so few. What is our investment in the continuing circulation of those kinds of texts? Sworn pointed out that the difference between the art review and the catalogue text is that the review is often a one sided commentary by the reviewer. The catalogue text on the other hand is often a more collaborative process with the artist one is writing about; at the very least it involves a certain amount of conversation.  An interest in co-production has some ways, it seems, drawn her to participate in a collaborative writing group that experiments with formal writing exercises. It became, she comments “more useful to do them together”.

The panel was, finally, asked about the role of the editor in writing. Sworn commented how useful  having an editor was when she first started out. Morton discussed his relationship with his editor at frieze. By rarely changing Morton's texts, Morton says that he knows to pay attention when she does make comments or suggestions. There is a freedom for the writer in this kind of relationship and one that obviously contributes to a sense of mutual respect between editor and writer.

The panel's discussion and the questions from the audience demonstrated that there is still a great enthusiasm and interest in the potential of arts writing. Sworn mentioned that recently she had reread Roland Barthes, a necessary but fairly uninspiring part of her degree, and had come across his reference to writing as revealing “the gold dust of meaning”. This delight of a summation is, in my view, why we continue to write. This is what it can be.