Writing about art

In the OCA discuss forum is an ongoing thread about language of art. I am reading at the moment Gilda Williams How to write about contemporary art and at WeAreOca was just posted an article by Joanna about her one day course with Whitechapel. It seems all is about understanding proper use of language, writing about other’s or one owns work.

Just now, I received by mail a small booklet (postcard size, 40 pages), issued by the Swiss art critique institution AICA, complementary to the monthly edition of the Swiss Kunstbulletin

Three perspectives are presented: a general overview, a personsal art critique view (Gerhard Mack ), and an artist’s view (Julia Gerocs). Critique derives from the Greek term ‘kritikḗ‘ – to review critically, to judge. The authors looking at contemporay art journalism perspective that is looking for an ‘ideal of rejuvenating’.

Key aspects coming across and quite coherent with Williams’ book:

  • To write from a certain distance versus an emotionally too close attachment.
  • To be clear about one’s statement and positioning related to a wider context.
  • To be careful of usage of a ‘red thread (it could restrict possibly)’
  • To be aware of expectations, and
  • To treat the artist and artwork respectfully
  • To write vividly that engages the reader and possibly the artist in an authentic way

Gerhard Mack (art critic and art journalist) enforces the point of distance to the subject matter, being informed, to reflect one’s personal response, and to reflect what to write (and what to keep for oneself). He compares art writing with sport e.g. table tennis and uses this as a metaphor for the interactice, playful, back and forth movement in reaching a goal.

Julia Gerocs (performance artist) expressed it as ‘if an artist could phrase the subject in precise short words, one wouldn’t need to make the artwork’. For her as artist ‘reader’ art critical texts should activate perceptual and cognitive fields, to trigger emotions, and raising questions. A use of literal and metaphorical language in relationship with artwork and external and personal world would be of most value for her.


Three key aspects to consider writing briefly about an artwork (Williams, 2014):

  1. What is it? What does the work look like?
  2. What might this mean?
  3. So What? Why does this matter to the world at large?



To write with a certain distance from artwork (other or own) and to use language as a ‘tool’ to embrace the artwork but also relate it to other aspects, either from a personal point of view or looking at a widr context. It seems more relevant the How and the What. At a time of reduced attention span it seems the text need to be crips, exciting, and adding new levels of interrogation to the artwork.

I very much like the book by Gilda Williams who writes in ease understandable word the key aspects in either writing short captions or essays. Haven’t finished it but I already find it helpful as a reference



  • Williams, G. (2014) How to write about contemporary art, Reprinted ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

  2 comments for “Writing about art

  1. October 31, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    excellent – need to put this book on reading list (come x-mas when DK library is near). 🙂

    • Stefan
      October 31, 2017 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks- can truly recommend the book – and good to feed the list for xmas

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