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How to Write About Art

In this week’s blog, I’m happy to introduce you to guest writer, Ben Egerton.

Originally from the UK he now lives in Wellington NZ, where he is writing his PhD in poetry and theology.

I met Ben 1.5 years ago when I was looking for a collaborator for my Bodies of Art book. The intent was to hire Ben as a consultant but he quickly became much more than that. We are now co-writers on the book, as well as great friends.

In the making of Bodies of Art, we’ve had many great conversations.

Because art is a conversation, and writing about it isn’t easy.

Though this week’s blog isn’t a how-to-blog, but more an insight into what goes on when writing about art – I hope you will still find inspiration and encouragement to try it out for yourself.

Enough from me, here comes Ben:

Writing about Art

In an often used quote – variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis – writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

In other words, something as transcendent and indescribable as music cannot be measured using any form of experiential or representational value or with anything as banal as words.

Sound can be notated, but the why cannot.

In contrast, the success or viability of architecture – buildings, town design, something we’re all familiar with – can be evaluated by how successfully users – us – engage with it.

Poetry, paintings, all visual and written art is said to represent something and therefore can have those articulations put down on paper (indeed, much of it is on paper).

And, if that’s the case – and I’m not entirely convinced it is – then there is value in being able to elegantly, and eloquently, write about it.

Firstly, why am I not convinced? I’m not convinced on two counts.

One, music is a transcendental art form – music is, as they say, magic. But then so are all the other art forms. There’s no hierarchy.

Why do I like that painting? Why did you love that film? I just do – I can’t describe it.

A writer, then, writing about all art forms, including music, can add something to the original artwork.

It’s about trying to describe that ‘indescribableness’. Not in a literal sense – though that might have its place – but in a companion sense, in a ‘what did it remind you of?’ sense.

Not, I don’t think, in order to make the artwork better – and add something the artist forgot – but in terms of providing a lens or set of lenses for viewers or readers or listeners to notice things they may not have seen, or read, or heard.

A good piece of writing about music, a great poem about a painting, a photograph that captures the poise of a ballerina, an essay on a sculpture: they all do something wonderful and complementary in pointing, quite literally, to the bigger picture.

Secondly, when trying to write elegantly and eloquently about art the writer has to tread a very tricky and fine line.

One hand if you purely observe, you run the risk of pointing out the obvious.

On the other, you risk over-interpreting an artwork to the point of ramming a personal view down the reader’s throat.

To do this is to deny viewers or readers the right to their own interpretations and opinions.

Sure, art follows and set trends and is curate-able in terms of theories and styles, but its duty towards its consumer is absolute: art is, and must remain, subjective.

Any interpretation by an art writer therefore must, first and foremost, preserve this subjectivity. A writer about art has to let his or her opinions speak graciously.

The Ancient Greeks had a word for all of this: ekphrasis. Meaning to speak out, it was simply a description of a piece of art.

But its connotations push further: a conversation between different art forms, an evocation of an artwork’s spirit, an experience borne out of an interaction with painting, poetry or song; how a piece of art makes you feel.

So, how do you do it? How do I do it? This isn’t an easy question to answer because there isn’t, I don’t think, a right or wrong answer.

In the same way that all art forces us to apply our own experiences and understanding to it – writers about art must do likewise.

What I see as a poet and will choose to focus on will be different to what someone else sees.

My style of writing focuses on the particular and how it links to a whole: but the whole that I link it to – in an emotional, spiritual, intellectual sense, for example – will be different to the whole that others may link to.

My frames of reference differ from yours – by a little bit, or by a substantial amount.

Ekphrasis is all about following your nose.

Sit with a piece of art, let it seep into you. Pin a picture or poem on a board or near your laptop. Meditate on it. (Avoid reading about it online – you don’t want to colour or prejudice your own thoughts… though some factual research later may be enlightening.)

What does it connect you to? Where does the image take you? Where then? Where after that? What have you read, eaten, seen, where have you visited, who have you spoken with – and what did you say? – where are those resonances and echoes to be found in that picture? What or who do you believe in? And what don’t you believe? What does an artwork have to say about the different sides of your argument and experience? Who do you love, and how might love be shown in this artwork?

Art allows us to express the inexpressible.

Perhaps to write about it is to deny its gift. But, paradoxically, writing about art can allow us to take ownership of the art – not in an ‘it’s mine, hands off’ kind of way; and not with ‘this is what it means!’ superiority – but it lets us humbly give art the time and space it needs to share its truth with us. And that truth will, of course, look and sound and feel different for all of us.

Ben Egerton

Ben’s poems have appeared in various places; journals in New Zealand and Australia, at Wellington and Auckland literary events, and his writing on education has been published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

If you would like to read more of his work, you can do so here and here.

Next time on the blog I will give you another sneak peek into the Bodies of Art book. This time I will share part of the ‘RECLAMARA’ chapter with you.

Reclamara means to be reclaimed. This work explores what happens when nature takes back.

That’s all I’m going to say for now.

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And if you’ve enjoyed this post or have any questions, please leave me a comment, I would love to hear from you.

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