The Art of the Interview Meets the Art of Writing: Gilda Williams, Writer on Contemporary Art
How to Write About Contemporary Art has become a staple for every person who writes or wants to in the art world. Has something happened since the publication that you weren’t expecting?
Thank you! But no: I was not surprised that my book got widely read. I knew that art-writers needed help, and would appreciate a primer. I received good advice from my pre-publication readers, who recommended the tone be inviting and kind – never wicked nor reprimanding, more “come in, the water’s lovely”. When I wrote How to Write about Contemporary Art despair about art-writing was rife – how pretentious it is, how impenetrable, how over-complicated. The ideas weren’t difficult to grasp, just impossible to extract from the verbiage. Mean-spirited articles were written about how noxious art writing had become and I thought, that’s not helpful. Yes, some authors are willfully pretentious, but most of the dross is innocent, penned by young under-paid art writers with no idea what they’re supposed to do. And I so remember when I was very young and trying to figure art-writing out — being lost and frustrated, with no one to ask.
I’d been working in art publishing since the 90s when I wrote How to Write about Contemporary Art – as Commisioning Editor at the art publisher Phaidon Press for over a decade, and before that as Managing Editor at Flash Art. At Phaidon we produced contemporary artists’ monographs which were quite innovative at the time, documenting young artists alongside older – and, similarly, commissioning new critics as well as more established. Often promising young critics needed to be coached through their first major text. I had to learn, by observing the habits of the experienced writers, the most useful advice to help a newby writer raise their writing game quickly. Then, when I entered Academia about a decade ago, students appreciated receiving the same guidance. So I’d road-tested all those art-writing suggestions over decades, and genuinely knew what helped. I put it all in my book: everything I’ve ever learnt over 25 years about how to write and how to teach others to write. Plus I was always trying to become a better writer myself — I just dumped it all into my ‘how-to’ book.
I receive about one piece of fan mail a week – not exactly Harry Potter levels, but nice. The best are from young people who say they got their earliest start from my book, and went on to study or work successfully as art writers. That’s heartening. Often these readers write from remote places (culturally or geographically) and, usually possessed with a natural predisposition for language, found in my book the push they needed to get started. I am proud and pleased to have provided a low-cost art-writing pre-school.
What is the most common mistake you see in art writing?
Definitely, lack of ideas. Writers with nothing to say: artists who can’t put into words what they do, critics who struggle to come up with a conclusion of their own. My book stresses style, rather than content, because the content must come from the writer’s imaginative mind – certainly not from me or a how-to book. Good technique will never compensate for a lack of imagination. I love precise engaging writing, but content is king.
Often when I’m teaching artists I’ll ask them, “Sorry, but your statement doesn’t make sense – what do you want to say?” And they stare back at me blankly, like “I don’t ‘want to say’ anything! I just want to finish this damned artist’s statement so I can get back to the studio and do what I love: making art.” Such an artist’s statement is doomed from the get-go. Resentment and coercion are not ideal starting places, and will never produce good writing.
Artists should have a wonderful time writing their artist’s statement. Writing it, and reading it, should be a joy and a pleasure. Artists are the world’s greatest expert on their art, and are free to write about their work however you wish. There are no rules. Artists! Who’s telling you to write in a way that you hate, to sound like somebody else? Nobody, except yourself.
So why are so many artists unhappy with how their words land on the page? They’re disappointed to hear their texts sound wordy and stilted and self-conscious, but have no idea how to fix it, how to sound like themselves. Artists have to write all the time, and are rarely taught how. Plus, unlike art critics, they have a massive emotional investment in their art which can make writing about it a terrifyingly soul-baring, nerve-wracking, insecurity-building endeavour. No wonder artists often dread writing that detested artist’s statement.
Truth is, even professional writers might take years to get their words to sing on the page, to recognise their voice in print. Yes, anyone can learn how to write: how to create pictures and vivid meaning in another person’s mind, just placing words in order on the page, but this takes time and practice. Not every artist is a Teju Cole or Hito Steyerl, able to compose sterling prose as well as make art. Often I suggest to the most tongue-tied artists, why not collaborate with a writer? Someone you trust, who gets your work and can write splendidly. In their studio practice artists are totally open-minded and will use whatever’s offered to them – new technologies, collaborators, technicians, specialists, readymades, anything. But when they write, they suddenly go back to the 19th century and start artisanally trying to express themselves from scratch. They don’t imagine that in their writing they have the same absolute freedom as they do in their art. The weirdest thing about artist’s statements is that, when artists talk about their art, they’re fascinating. Artists will explain their decisions – the materials they chose, the collaborators they work with – but somehow none of this good, informed, passionate stuff ends up in their statement. When writing they launch into amateur philosophy, or just list themes and key words that interest them. List-making is not writing.
I think critics could be useful in collaborating with artists in articulating what they are doing. Why not admit that yes, there’s skill in writing, and that capable wordsmiths can work in tandem with artists who struggle to write. A great example was Andy Warhol, 50 years ago, whose Diaries or From A to B and Back Again are some of the best artist’s writing ever – and Warhol could not write for beans. Warhol concocted language using ready-made text, talented writer-collaborators, transcriptions, recordings, anything really, to invent his own way of talking art.
Good art-writers are under-employed, whereas artists often write reluctantly, and often fail. Bring these two souls together!
But, for non-writer artists who want to learn how, the first assignment I always set is to write a story about their work, 500 words. Not necessarily aiming to produce an artist’s statement (although in a few lucky instances, this method delivers) but to learn to put sentences in order (start, middle, finish) to be specific and detailed. Most artist’s statements ricochet from one vague aspiration to the next, each sentence orbiting in its own disconnected universe, isolated from what came before or after. Try writing a story, or a dialogue, about your work. Make strange your relationship to the page. And if you’re really stuck, just keep your statement super-short, 45 words or less, the principle being: the shorter the rope, the less chance of hanging yourself.
You were recently part of the Arts Writers Grant Program’s evaluation committee, The Andy Warhol Foundation. Writing grants is something that many find even more difficult than to write about their work in general? What is the point that people overlooked and should pay more attention to when writing grants?Steven Pinker claims that a good writer can remember not-knowing – that is, a good writer can remember starting from scratch, not-knowing their subject, able to bring the reader from not-knowing to knowing. Usually, artists are literally unable to remember not-knowing their own work. They start writing from where they’ve arrived in their practice, not where they started – never retracing their steps. The reader is lost from the opening word.
What you’re teaching in art writing is not just to put ideas into words, but to show where those ideas believably come from: to trace back your sources and observations so ideas can stand up, be persuasive on the page. So, one: you have to have ideas, and two: you have work backwards to determine how you arrived at them, provide your idea’s lineage, through words. This is not a 1+1 = 2 operation but can be accomplished very imaginatively. Any interesting writer – whether it’s a novelist or philosopher – walks you through their thinking. They don’t pound out ungrounded conclusions, as most artist’s statements do.
Good writers are good observers. They notice what brilliant words and stories and images will provide convincing background to hold up their ideas, somehow getting them into a stranger’s mind: the reader’s.
The next biggest job, once you have made your observations, is putting your thinking in order.
That’s a massive part of the writer’s job: lining things up so your idea can coherently take shape in your reader’s mind. When I write, especially research, it’s 20% research, then 70% putting everything in order and ensuring there are no gaps in the argument, which sometimes demands more research, more thinking. The actual writing part is 10%, almost nothing – it takes me a day or so to write, say 2000 usable words, once I know my content. The faster I write, the better, I think. I polish of course, but I try not to over-polish. If possible, I wait a day between writing and polishing, so I take distance, hear it fresh. I know exactly what I need to say beforehand, all the links in my thinking are joined up in my head, so the writing’s fast – but, while I’m writing relatively quickly, something else happens, something unplanned. Unexpected words and connections arrive in the moment, and this makes me really happy. I plan ahead, yes, but writing’s never mechanical.
Also: possessing a broad vocabulary, self-editing ruthlessly and learning how to punctuate properly are big pluses – but nobody wants to hear that.
How can someone put their best foot forward to write?
Read tons of great fiction – far preferable to reading the art mags. Any writer will tell you they learned by reading the very best stuff, and aspired to be as clear, generous, smart, lovable as their favorites. I peruse the art mags – hyperallergic.com, ArtReview, as well as Artforum and frieze, where I write – regularly, but listlessly. I keep up with e-flux.com because they have the most provocative and up-to-date ideas, but I don’t aspire to write like that. I check out thewhitepube.co.uk because they’re the most vivid voice in UK criticism right now. I read the New York Review of Books because it’s seriously informed and perfectly edited. I admire experimental writing, what The White Review are doing for example, but that’s not my literary staple: seasoned fiction is. I am a 100% book nerd and read 3-5 hours a day, every day. I quit social media long ago – cut way too far into my reading time, and generated too much mental noise and clutter.
The best novels I’ve read recently are Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey. Also In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, and Fen, short stories by Daisy Johnson. Standing favorites are Zadie Smith (one perfect sentence after the next!), Tana French (the Full Package: stupendous plotting, vibrant characters, edgy dialogue, powerful themes, you name it), and Max Porter (startling and confident word combinations). But Toni Morrison is the best of the best of the best. Each of her sentences is like music, and her books are full of love – love for language, for her characters, for her reader. Now there’s a writing teacher.
Is there one change that you have seen happening about art writing in recent year?
Definitely art writing’s gotten better in recent years – even the bottom-feeding press release is less nutty than it used to be.
Except for getting a copy of your book, what is the best piece of advice you can offer on how an artist can write about their art?
Write lots, try lots of approaches – storytelling, dialogues, anything. Spend a day experimenting, create multiple versions of your statement to find your favourite – you don’t need to painfully belabor a single definitive statement, set in stone. People can be afraid of words, frightened of the blank page – just leap at it. All words are free of charge, always smiling and ready and willing to serve. Try them all.
Gilda Williams is an art critic for Artforum and Senior Lecturer on the MFA Curating programme at Goldsmiths, London, where she teaches art writing. Her book How to Write about Contemporary Art (2014) is published in seven languages.
To learn more about Gilda Williams’s work visit her website gildawilliams.com