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Who gets to write about/with/as art?

A heap of Language by Robert Smithson

Art and writing have a long, entwined history: from descriptions of famous ancient Greek artworks by Roman authors, to the invention of ideographic writing systems like Chinese, to the text and image combinations in maps and diagrams. Since conceptual art emerged in the 1960s, however, many artists have used writing as a critical tool for developing and communicating their practice. For over twenty years, “Art Writing” has been taught at universities in the USA and the UK in a way that often crosses the disciplinary boundaries between theory, art criticism, fiction and non-fiction.

In this blog, I try to define broadly Art Writing, and show how multifaceted it can be. I also include an account of the particular writers I have come across that I have particularly enjoyed for their personal approach to talking about art and the institutional contexts art appears in. Keeping in mind our Artist of the Month for May, Neve J Harrington (image below), whose practice is fed by writing and conversation, I encourage readers to take the time to explore her conceptual articulations about space, dialogue and care by listening to her podcasts and reading her online publication Satellising.

Araignée by Guillaume Apollinaire

At its simplest, Art Writing helps us understand the visual arts (predominantly visual or performance- based works), and in particular, what is at stake in an artist’s practice. But Art Writing itself can be understood as a form of art. It is a way to introduce an element of discourse within an artwork. Satelliser: a dance for the gallery by J Neve Harrington

There are countless critical and creative approaches to Art Writing, including: writing on art, writing as art, writing with art, writing for artists, and writing by artists. The same goes for genre, subjects and forms: Art Writing can be academic, performative, speculative, poetry, creative non-fiction, fictions, artist statements, writing for social media.

Installation shot of ‘The three stories are flattened’ by Katrina Palmer at Void Gallery, Derry

For artists like Neve whose work is grounded in complex theoretical ideas – such as identity and relationality – and speaks to other disciplines – like psychology and biology – developing a ‘writing practice’ does necessarily impact how she develops performance-based works.

Not only does writing help generate ideas, artists often need to use writing to ‘speak on behalf of’ their work to fellow artists, curators, gallerists, critics, and publics. The old adage “writing is thinking” can be extremely helpful to artists who might be trying to plan a piece, or to reflect and discover the concepts behind their intuitive art-making.