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Art Writing: Why Do They Do It?

There's a roundtable at Housing Works Bookstore this week put on by OWS Arts & Labor called “Art Writing as Craft, Labor, and Art.” It harks back to the time when critics were also called “art workers,” a term that encompassed everyone in the art world system.
Although I wasn't invited to speak, I still want to pose some answers to the questions that the flack for the panel posed. (It is pasted at the end of this post.) I've been slaving on a longish text reviewing the “Specters of Artaud” show here in Madrid, and maybe I am wondering why. The question is basically “why do it?”, when there ain't no money, i.e., no career in it. I have some answers of my own.
I came into this gig – let's call it rather a predeliction, or trope, or repetition compulsion – nearly 40 years ago under false pretense. I was being paid to write about art for a major art magazine. This didn't last... maybe I blew my setup. Still, once I was in the New York City artworld, I didn't want to leave it. Writing about art, which I found endlessly fascinating, was my way of staying connected. If you write about it, they will pay attention. That is, the artists who make it, the curators who show it, and the dealers who sell it. They will read you and know who you are. You will be a “player” of some kind, even if among the more menial and little-regarded.
Most art doesn't get written about. Any intelligent comment, even a heartfelt response that isn't so smart, warms the cockles of the artist's heart. You gain goodwill when you write. (Or its inverse.) In the game of art – Andrew Hussey called the Situationists' version of it a “game of war” – you can help your friends, or those whose work you admire by writing about it. You can also inflict a little damage – or, paradoxically, help by publicizing – those whose approaches to creative work you do not approve.
Later, when the dust has settled, even long after the winners have been announced and paid, you can use your writing skills to bring art and artists you value back to public attention. That's history.
After some years of kicking around organizing, making art and videos, and writing from time to time, I went back to school in art history in '90. My thinking was, it would be better to make a modest living teaching than continuing to ply the dying trade which had supported my creative life. Silly me. Adjunct teaching in humanities is, generally speaking, a fool's game. I worked out that I made about $6 an hour. The only way to do it and survive is to do it fast and rote, and cheat the students of your best effort.
Even so, I was lucky enough to get two years of work teaching full time. I didn't think there was anything better. Every day of lecture is a day of “writing” the history of art standing up in front of pictures. Most of the students don't read, so you have to tell them what they should have read. What this does is tamp down your knowledge as you double down on stuff you already know. Still, it's rare to get a chance to really dig much further given the pace of a course. And it's devilish hard to bone up on new stuff as the academic calendar rolls by. That's why I am writing about the Artaud show. He's a key influence in the immediate postwar period, and I still hope to teach “contemporary” art survey again, which I start in '45. So I am studying, taking notes and accumulating source bibliography, and finally crafting an essay – which I can't publish. But it's okay. I'm learning what I want to learn.
It's all about habit and desire...
Just by way of public service, I should say something about the money part, which the panel of OWS A&L is focussing on, and which they will cover much better. My guess is they will basically tell you to forget it. The money – and it's itty bitty – is mainly in instrumental writing, which takes some skills. Catalogues, accurate descriptive texts, and the research that goes along with it are all important tools in establishing and increasing the value of artworks. These gigs may be hard to come by, especially in a down market, but maybe an art writer can still pay a few bills this way from time to time.
Then there is the very rare general interest art writer position, like Robert Hughes (RIP), or Jerry Saltz. Faint hope! These are very skillful, very fast, and very lucky writers, and there are only a handful of them. If you can roll that way, you're doing better than I could even imagine. Of course, blogging and the online infosphere has changed things – so we can hope that more cultural action will open up.
I believe that art writing people read will increasingly become a kind of general interest cultural reporting. I've been pitching the Gao Ping story to some Madrid writers, but they're not picking up. This super-rich businessman basically laundered his money between Spain and China by running art galleries and museums. People love that stuff! And a good knowledge of the art market can help a reporter who doesn't specialize in financial matters write good copy.
Finally, the route that critics of yore usually took was working the market itself. You meet artists, collectors, dealers, and you connect them. Duchamp did it. Breton did it. I know a prominent art writer who refuses to buy art. He believes it is corrupting. While I concede the point, I still think he's nuts.Your intelligence about art is your only retirement plan. Put what money you have where your mouth is.
Anyhow, fun as this is, I have to drop this avuncularation and get back to the books and e-search. Artaud's specter awaits. I can hear him howling...
Don't worry; write and be happy.

[a photo of photo of Bernard Berenson peering at a painting by David Seymour, may appear with this post]
OWS Arts & Labor callout for the panel: “Art writing is hard work. However, it is often framed as a mythic activity, replete with benefits such as “the power of the pen,” the authority of the critic,and the allure of earning a living while doing something exciting, and meaningful.The realities of writing about contemporary art include a precarious living, high attrition, hard deadlines, and the charge that criticism is “massively produced, and massively ignored.” Rather than being treated as an art form or a skill developed over time, art writing is frequently viewed as a tool of the market and an index for valuation and canonization, with art writers functioning as cogs in the vast cultural machine.
“So why do people continue to write about art? Why does one aspire to become an artwriter in a field that has shrinking prestige and financial returns, and when positions are becoming scarce? And why, in this economic climate, is art writing thrivingonline and degree-programs devoted to the field have begun to appear? Join Arts & Labor for a roundtable to discuss labor conditions in art writing. Hear how various writers' practices began, how their careers evolved, and what they think aboutthe current state of art writing. Together we will attempt to imagine how writers could develop new networks to support one another, and to practice their art and craft in asustainable and generative way in the future.
Art writers include: Ben Davis, Kareem Estefan, Ken Johnson, Paddy Johnson, Omar Lopez-Chahoud, Walter Robinson, Mira Schor, Martha Schwendener, and Christian Viveros-Fauné.”

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