Thursday, 8 December 2016

If you could say it in words...

What is the collective noun for a group of writers?

What is the collective noun for a group of art writers?

Art Writers Group collective met with interested writers, curators and artists at The Hestercombe Assembly in the afternoon of Wednesday 7th December 2016.

Created by Josephine Lanyon and Peter Stiles The Art Writers Group aims to raise the profile of arts writing in the South West and discuss with other writers, artists, curators and the general public ‘what art writing’ means in 2016, what the future of arts writing could be as well as ideas of; authorship, context and publicity surrounding the area of, you guessed it, arts writing. The Hestercombe Assembly featured six speakers made up of authors, editors and/or curators to discuss, “how texts can be produced, programmed and disseminated to create knowledgeable enjoyment of contemporary art”.

As a non-published, bookselling, artist come blogger what on earth was I doing there?

The answer to that question should be self-evident though highly worth mentioning that to me, this meeting presented an opportunity similar to that of the monthly book group meetings I host at Waterstones, to talk with other people interested in art, writing and reading. What a wonderful discovery to not be alone in this interest and passion of mine that I have embarked on over the last seven years. This was Art Writing in the broadest sense of the word, so included talks from editors, online writers, magazine writers, critical art writing (journalistic and subjective approaches) and art writing that posed itself more as performance art, poetry and in a narrative style more akin to that of fiction. I thought this event was going to involve much ‘clicking of tongues and stroking of beards’ as highly academic people pontificated on the merits of writing as a discourse and its significance to the visual arts themselves. Thankfully it had none of that pretention and became the ultimate fusion of the two worlds I have occupied during my career so far; that of the visual arts and the world of reading and writing learnt in my ten years working in a bookshop.

The following is a list of points I have taken away from listening to the speakers at the event and will consider in my future writing:

·         Art Writing, as a means of ‘capturing presence of the work’ –the function of art writing as a means of describing, explaining what it feels like to see/experience works of art as to a literal description of it.

·         Syntax –where the writing sits in time (past, present, future)

·         Art Writing becomes a way of talking about other subjects –science, environment, archaeology etc. etc. Looking for ways to make art more interesting or accessible to different audiences. As artists we are more familiar in working in ways similar to historians, archivists, scientists and other disciplines but as writers about art we should also consider applying the same. Interestingly not all of the speakers came from art backgrounds but creative writing or curatorial ones raising the position I hold within my own writing, as both an ‘artist who writes about art’ rather than ‘a writer who writes about art’ an interesting one. How can I bring my own experiences into my writing more?   

·         Art writing and subjectivity writing in embodied ways- similar to the first point, but writing about art becomes similar to that of poetry or fiction in that it follows a less academic tone and structure and the voice of the author is more distinctive and present in the work. The writing style has as much to say about the work it is describing as the work itself i.e. fluidity of writing matches fluidity of paint/brush-marks in a painting. The description of artworks becomes less and more about the bodily or lived experience of encountering the work. i.e. scale, weight, texture, sound, smell, context, emotion.

·         What can art writing offer to the reader that the viewing of art work cannot? Does it have to offer clarity or explanation or can it raise new ideas or alternative ways in interpreting work.

·         The lie of art writing? Is art writing a lie/deception of language? ‘art is a lie that reveals the truth’

·         What is the function of the writing? i.e. publicity, critique, opinion, experience and where is there flexibility for these to cross-over...

·         Who is doing the writing? Who is doing the reading? –authorship, readership and how context plays a part in both.

Stephen Smith at Hestercombe Gallery 2016.
After a few hours in to this event spent listening to a myriad of wise words whizzing around the room (somewhat rebelliously at all this talk of writing) I was craving something physically visual, ever thankful that just outside the room we were in at Hestercombe House was the gallery that lay home to Stephen Smith’s paintings –a welcome reminder of the importance of the symbiotic relationship between the actual art and art writing. A few speakers chose not to include images in their talks, opting for the language and our imaginations to conjure up our own images of the art works being captured in words. This was an interesting exercise, but for me only reaffirmed where I stand in being between two camps of being an artist who creates physical images in drawings and print and being a writer who attempts to understand those visual experiences in words. Lizzie Lloyd was one speaker who did this and whose writing on Peter Doig’s ‘Figures in Red Boat’ was as equally creative as the art it spoke of and offered new ways into writing about art that are intelligently observant but personable so that they can be imagined more easily by the reader. Edward Hopper’s “..if you could say it in words there’d be no reason to paint” highlights the  difficulty faced when writing about something whose mere existence is incomprehensible in words but of course that challenge is also part of its appeal. Art writing is like being a translator for visual language though the writer and the artist may not always be trying to say the same thing.
Stephen Smith 'Red Forest'
For my love of reading and writing, I still feel as though words alone, read or spoken plainly, are not enough in themselves and offer less of an alternative to experiencing art and more of an addition to enhance the experiencing of art. Reading about art makes me want to experience it and experiencing art makes me want to write about it. What was fascinating and reassuring is that many of the curators and artists I spoke to at the event agreed that there was a place for both within exhibitions and that the relationship between the two was generally a positive and pro-active one at encouraging art appreciation. A possible difficulty to art writing for artists/curators of ‘visual arts’ and one that I feel is evident in the Stephen Smith exhibition at Hestercombe, is that the writing about the art can become more powerful or convey meaning more succinctly than the art itself. This statement warrants more explanation than what I have time to give it here, but essentially I feel Lizzie Lloyd’s writing of the Stephen Smith exhibition attempts to rationalise Smith’s work or compensate for the lack of meaning or substance to the context of Hestercombe that I personally perceived in his paintings. The writing wasn’t so much offering an alternative way into Smith’s work as it was almost justifying it. When it works well the text compliments the art work rather than ‘doing the job’ of the artwork as I felt here which is more a criticism of Smith’s paintings than Lloyd’s writing.

The writers that did chose to show images within their talks such as Mary Patterson created another approach to the context of art writing that became more performative with the rhythm of walking or thinking aloud, the importance of how the piece was spoken evident as well as the potential it had to reach alternative audiences and convey ideas in a framework that was unlike a conventional approach to writing. Here writing becomes an art form in itself.

Much was covered throughout the three hour session that could have had more audience interaction and dialogue than unfortunately what the time would have allowed. Though the biggest missed opportunity, I feel was, whilst Art Writers Group had, what I am sure were many applications from writers of mixed ability and experience, was to do something brave and use it as an opportunity find someone new by picking at least one speaker who, maybe was at the very start of their career and so were less established, unpublished or completely un-paid and independent. The speakers who spoke were all interesting, engaging and relevant in their own ways and I think it important to have people with their experience to bring authority and a certain amount of credibility to such an event HOWEVER, I think representation of an enthusiastic, unpolished, committed to art and arts writing individual with only their own motivation and ambition to support them would have been an inspiring call-to-arms and act as an advocate of the possibility that art writing can and should be accessible to all. It is worth noting here, that I was able to attend this event because I applied for and was awarded a free place to attend so feel grateful but also obligated to stress my thoughts here. There were several other people I met on the day in the same position as me, though I feel instead of piecemeal, Art Writers Group should use its authority to represent or give that experience to someone like myself or those I met in the audience that day. Instead it was disappointing that too frequently those with quantifiable or ‘institutionally recognised experience’ were chosen when there was an opportunity to offer a glimmer of hope amidst the unobtainable and futile nature of progressing into a paid career in writing that only those already practicing or within the industry were represented.

Despite some of my anarchic (but hopefully constructive) views, the day was still, overall very enlightening and I have felt inspired in meeting other people with shared interests in art writing. It has proved that despite its adversities and lack of opportunities, like all aspects of the arts themselves, remains worth doing. I am keen to develop my own writing based on some of the ideas mentioned here, learnt from the speakers on the day, and still have ambition that a legacy from this event, in the form of a peer-led art writing group could form (or gain more awareness, if such a thing exists in the South West please let me know) so that more opportunities to those outside our cities and in our rural areas have access to art appreciation, discussion, writing and reading.

I still do not know the noun for a collective group of arts writers but I sincerely hope it is not a rarity.
If you attended the event and/or would like to contact me regarding any of the above then I would very much like to hear from you. Please contact me at:

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Necessity of Art: A Review of 'Art as Therapy'

This weekend I read ‘Art as Therapy’ by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong and it raises some relevant ideas on how we make, buy, study, appreciate and display art, overall seeking to answer the question, ‘what art is for’ rather than the over exhausted and written about ‘what art is’. It does so largely through accessible well written visual analysis of a wide range of artworks making it historically quite interesting. That is where the good points end as it becomes quite infuriating at times in some of the statements and opinions it presents to which I will go into in this review, but conversely it is for those reasons it should and I think will become a must read for anyone studying art or those generally perplexed or curious about the art world as it raises some challenging debates and though this radically conflicts with my own views, if taken lightly covers a breadth of uses of art or how it can help come to terms with ideas to do with nature, politics, censorship, taste, mortality, memory and many more.

The title ‘Art as Therapy’ which implies a more holistic stance associated with the idea of the ‘therapeutic practice of making art’ is a bit misinforming when in fact the tone of the book is far more critical and ideas based so reads more as ‘Art as Philosophy’ in my view than ‘therapy’. Central to its argument is that when engaging with art we should learn to adopt a ‘therapeutic reading’ in addition to technical, political, historical and what the writers describe as ‘shock-value’ readings. I am not against this idea per say but I think there is a danger that if we are viewing art with the gain that it is going to help us or, if we take De Botton’s ‘therapeutic reading’ as a means of art addressing our ‘internal flaws’ then it can become a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude and art is therefore something that exists to gratify our ego and becomes intrinsically inward looking. I think it would have been more helpful if de Botton had presented an outward looking purpose for art by using examples of collective artist groups such as Assemble or environmental art projects that exist by working outside the gallery, with real people, to improve the therapeutic well-being of place and the people who live there.

‘Therapy’ might be the overriding example the authors use to describe the ‘for’ in their question ‘what is art for?’ but throughout the book it becomes clear that they are describing art as being ‘a tool’ by being both a therapy, political stance, money-maker, educational, social, research and environmental tool in which, “...has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” The faults in De Botton’s writing lie therein as at times he comes across as very condescending as he points out our flaws and need for justifying art by telling what's wrong with us, and how artworks can cure our psychological, mental and spiritual ills when in-fact I feel the expectation should not be so grandiose or met with a pre-conceived self-awareness of its benefits. It would do better for offering ways to engage with art and how to begin to understand it than its implication that art should be created, read or exist to plug some kind of ‘mental or psychological gap’. It raises expectations on art works to deliver something profound or meaningful when more should be done to promote the ‘reading’ of art to be subjective and in the same universal language that people can appreciate or understand music.
The introduction is equally problematic for me, particularly the opening lines, “The modern world thinks of art as very important –something close to the meaning of life. Evidence of this elevated regard can be found in the opening of new museums, the channelling of significant government resources towards the production and display of art...” The latter in particular not something I can think many in the art world in this country would necessarily agree with at the moment, I also think it a huge generalisation to say that ‘the modern world thinks of art as very important’ because surely part of the reason for writing this book is that art isn’t valued enough and by the fact artists and writers are having to constantly convince us otherwise? I feel it is one of the artist’s main concerns (that is a product of our consumerist society whether liked or not) in the modern world to constantly having to justify or quantify the value of their work both in a monetary and moral sense. Even highly ‘successful’ (in a money sense) artists like Koons or Hirst have had to work or have had to rely on the critiques and reviews of writers and art dealers in order to convince others of a perceived sense of ‘value’ to their work. If the idea of 'value' towards art was removed altogether then people could be more open to what the work is rather than what it is worth.   
The book’s final offering that the ‘overall aim of art is to reduce the need for it altogether’ is depressing an end as it is nonsensical because whilst there is humanity, diversity and debate in the world there will always be a need for art. It is a redundant argument, as even if the world was a utopia there would still be a need for art, for the truth-seeking or self-expressive qualities that it offers. Art like science should have no bounds or higher agenda as it is infinitesimal in what can be discovered or explored through them. Many times reading this book I couldn’t help but think that if you want to be inspired by an example of writing about ‘what is art for’ then you should put 'Art as Therapy' to one side and read Ernst Fisher’s ‘The Necessity of Art’ which remains one of the best books ever about the relationship between creative imagination and the individual’s need to engage with society. "Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it."
 One final and redeeming idea from ‘Art as Therapy’ that I think is a good one, is the idea of ‘art as a tool’, a concept I have previously never looked into in any depth. So obsessed with depicting tools as art, tools in art and what tools are that I had never paid much heed to the thought that art itself could be a tool! In my own art this raises a whole paradoxical situation of art about tools being a tool about a tool about a tool....(I feel an epiphany coming!) If you read 'Art as Therapy' in this context of seeing art as a tool and can put aside its faults in some of its statements then it offers some useful ways into understanding art but for best results should be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet in relation to other books that offer a slightly less inward looking perspective.