A Short Guide to Writing About Art Summary

Sylvan Barnet

A Short Guide to Writing About Art

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A Short Guide to Writing About Art Summary

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Part of the Short Guide series by Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art (1981), is a student reference book designed as a companion book for students undertaking art courses. It is popular with students for its clear and concise guidance on writing about art and imagery. Barnet, a Shakespearean scholar and American literary critic, wrote numerous books about Shakespeare and co-authored many others of various topics. He died of brain cancer in 2016 at the age of eighty-nine.

A Short Guide to Writing About Art is geared toward students undertaking art degrees that have formal writing components. For these students, being able to interpret art and articulate their thoughts on paper is essential. To help them, Barnet gives many example images in varying forms, from sculptures to oil paintings. He offers guidance on how to present ideas effectively and to shape a discussion around artistic works. The book benefits anyone interested in the theoretical aspects of art. It is designed for novice students as opposed to students who are already confident in art theory.

Barnet’s key message is that it is the writer’s responsibility to help the reader understand the art in question. If readers can’t follow the writer’s argument, or they don’t understand the art, then the problem is with the writing, not the artwork. Different styles of writing are required for different formats—such as journal reviews or exhibition catalogues—and Barnet teaches skills that can be applied to them all.

The book encourages students to have personal opinions on art, not to rely on rehashing the opinions of other critics. It is important for students to develop their own personal style, rather like the artists themselves. Toward the end of the book, Barnet spends a lot of time reiterating what separates good writers from average ones; much of what he says comes down to having a strong personal style.

Good artistic writing does two things, according to Barnet: it gives the reader valuable information about the artistic work, and it persuades the reader to agree with the writer’s point of view. Even better, great artistic writing stimulates further conversation, perhaps encouraging others to draft essays of their own. Artistic criticism and essays should communicate with other pieces, much like books are often written in response to other books.

Barnet offers readers a helpful checklist for completing their own writing, recommending students refer to it each time they undertake artistic writing. For example, writers must ensure their title is intriguing and relevant. The scope of the work should be clear by the end of a brief introduction, and the art in question must be identified as specifically as possible. Writers must ensure they’ve properly considered relevant historical contexts, as context shapes artwork and its meaning.

A Short Guide to Writing About Art reminds students that the only way to write properly about art is to understand why they are writing about it in the first place. He considers whether all interpretations of a piece of art are equally valid, and if not, why not. He also urges students to consider who is responsible for giving art meaning—the artist themselves or the viewers engaging with it. Only by understanding the different possible answers to these questions, can students write about art authentically, which is the only way to write about it at all.

Barnet also encourages students to look at art from new perspectives. To write the most interesting essays or short pieces, they must write about something from a different angle. To do this, Barnet tells students to ask all sorts of questions about the artwork in question. The questions they can answer easily are boring, and they shouldn’t pick these questions as essay titles. However, questions that aren’t so easily answered are far more interesting to study, and they make for engaging, lively writing. Good writing means always being curious.

When students must write for different audiences, Barnet offers suggestions for what to think about. For example, students writing a review for an exhibition must write with an audience in mind—potential visitors—and they cannot forget their target audience as they write and review the work. On the other hand, students writing exhibition entries for catalogs must master the art of clear, concise, economical writing. Good writing gives the target audience what they are looking for.

Although the book is geared towards artistic writing, much of the information can be applied to critical writing more generally. Barnet talks at length about the importance of revising essay drafts, proofreading the work, reading it aloud or after a break to catch mistakes, and so on. He offers advice on drafting a thesis outline, to where to look for research to support conclusions. He also reminds students to evaluate sources properly, considering their value before giving them too much weight.