Book notes – A Short Guide to Writing about Art – Barnet

My tutors recommended this book after my first assignment. I managed to get a copy quite cheap on ebay, not the most recent version but hopefully that wont matter too much. My tutor commented that I should be more reflective when writing, and I should include how the work of art made me feel. I saw that I had been purely regurgitating a list of facts and there was very little original thought in it.


Chapter 1 – writing about art

What is art? Is something a work of art because the creator or the culture says it is. This is dependant on the context of the society. eg we now include certain ethnic objects in the definition of art which previously would have been defined as artefacts.

Why write about art? To clarify and to account for our responses to works of art that interest, excite or frustrate us.

Imagine who your audience is. This will help you decide what is necessary to explain and what is already known. Decide which terms you need to define and what degree of detail you want to go into.

A successful essay begins with where the readers are and then goes on to take the readers further.

Functions of critical writing: not just to find fault but also excellence. WH Auden (the dyers hand 1963) said the critic should:

1 introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2. convince me that i have undervalued an author or a work because i have not read them carefully enough

3. show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which i could never have seen for myself because i do not know enough and never shall

4. give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it

5. throw light upon the process of artistic making

6. throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion etc.

Your analysis may not be provable but has to be more than an opinion. You need to provide some kind of evidence – enough to make the reader take another view of the painting. eg Rembrandt “self portrait with Saskia” 1635. At first glance may be scene of jolliness but may actually have other meanings as evidenced by the items included in the painting and the fact that this style would have been inconsistent with his normal work.

A good essay will help the reader see what the artist had been trying to show us by giving a context of the artist and his views.

See sample essay “Millet’s The Gleaners” by Robert Herbert. Pg11

Evaluation or judgement. Analysis – separation of the whole into its parts. Comments on what is happening in the picture. Advance a thesis or main idea – not the assertion of a known fact but the thesis statement names a topic and makes an assertion about it that the writer will support with details later in the assay. Tries to persuade by offering an argument with supporting evidence. Organized writing.

  • Opening paragraph contains detail, some of which is not particularly relevant but sets the scene. These facts can be related to the main idea.
  • 2nd paragraph close look at aspects of the picture. Mentions social context.
  • 3rd paragraph comparisons with other paintings in the exhibition
  • last paragraph recapitulates the main point but also enlarges the vision – references contemporaries who shared the artists vision – and then returns to artist.

Outlining the essay can help organize and expand.


The artists meaning may be very different from the meaning that a viewer may have in another century for eg.

The artists interpretation may also limit the meaning as they may not be consciously aware of what they are including? The ideas of the society use the artist as a conduit to create the owrk.  NB is this why in galleries it is unusual to find an explanation of a work of art. I’ve always been frustrated by this. One of the reasons I enjoyed Peter Doigs exhibition is beacuse there were explanations for each of the paintings and what the artist was meaning. It helped me enjoy the pieces but did it limit my understanting. Maybe if I had more knowledge I would be able to make up my own mind about paintings but I’m still at the stage where I need to be guided or at least I want to be. I dont have the confidence in my own analysis.

The reception theory – that the perceiver makes sense of the image and interpret it in different ways according to their historical, social and psychological state. A work of art does not have meaning in itself but rather means something to someone in a context.

This argument reminds me of reading about reviews of certain paintings and questioning just how they know that’s what the artist intended when they painted a specific element there or included another item here. How do they know the artist didn’t just chose a particular colour because he had some left over. So maybe it doesn’t matter because its how our society perceives it now? I’m still not convinced.

Thus it’s important not to attribute intention to the artist eg “the artist was trying to show…” eg Georgia O’Keefe insisted that her paintings of lilys were not symbolic of sexual organs but theorists ignore this. If the viewer percieves this then it is true.

A curator Paul Taylor said that (pg 18) pictures do not have meanings, they are given meanings by people. Its the outcome of a set of historical circumstances and thus its meaning will change with age.


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