Why Do Artists Write? As I See It…
Since the Renaissance elevated individual painters, sculptors, and architects beyond the status as crafts- and guildsmen and created the Western notion of the artist, a few artists have maintained a writing practice alongside their physical production. Though Vasari’s Lives gave us a model for art historical writing, Vasari did not have to contend with shifting attitudes of aesthetics that found the need to categorize various projects as “Art” or “non-art.” (The impulse for catty gossip, on the other hand, appears to be woven into our DNA.) As early Modernists fought the prevailing academies, they relied heavily on the manifesto to define their agenda or identify their faction. After World War II, when the center of the Modernist art world migrated to New York and artists began to produce objects that did not look any different from everyday items, writing became a way for some artists to (try to) control the terms of debate around their work. As contemporary Western art moved from traditional disciplines and its discourse pushed past the Modernist project to a myriad of concerns (the position of art in culture, the engagement—and exploitation and repression—of the dominant culture with other cultures, the necessity of art and its attendant institutions, the viability of entire media, etc.), the volume of writing by artists truly exploded.
I see the most vital writing recently done by artists as coming from the supposed end of Modernism, by Donald Judd and Andy Warhol. Judd brought the control he sought over every facet of his work and life to his writing, and he was specific enough to take on Michael Freid and other critics on their own terms after the previous generation had largely abdicated the interpretation of their work to others. (Indeed there was a certain distrust of writers by artists. Mel Bochner has stated that in the ’60s, “artists who wrote were looked at suspiciously, as if writing somehow tainted their visual practice.”) Armed with a degree in philosophy, Judd worked in the trenches writing criticism as he found a voice for his sculpture and developing installation concerns. Because of his example, the writing projects of conceptual artists such as Bochner and Smithson were more easily accepted than they might otherwise have been. Counter to the theoretical and journalistic rigors of Judd’s writing, Warhol’s writing took the laissez-faire approach of the personal diarist. Even if his dairies weren’t intended for public consumption, they are an antecedent to our celebrity-dazed, reality-show culture. Like his art, his writing progressed from “high” art into mass marketing and popular culture, and he went so far as to found Interview Magazine, setting the bar particularly high for future artists wishing to mine celebrity culture for their work. The territory he staked out seems particularly relevant to today’s art world, which can plumb the depths of personal revelation or wade the shallows of the contemporary mediascape just as easily as it can engage the formal interplay of shape, line, mass, and color.
For young artists working now, writing has become ever more important and common, while simultaneously being dreaded. With the Internet as an everyday utility and the proliferation of social networking sites, more and more interactions occur via text; and yet I rarely meet artists who enjoy writing. The extraction of a wisdom tooth is considered preferable to writing a new artist’s statement, and writing about larger concerns or the work of other artists is out of the question. The contraction of print media means that the profit motives that lead Judd and Bochner to writing no longer obtain for artists. I think most artists would rather leave the production of text to someone they see as more qualified, which probably leads to the sad state of the statements about artist’s works found in press releases, many of which could be contenders for a Bulwer-Lytton award if there were a relevant category.
Indeed, I do dread writing. Partly because I generally do not have to do it, partly because I live with a writer who makes it seem easy (and so all the more frustrating to me), and largely because writing would keep me out of the studio. But it’s starting to seem more important to make the effort, both as a way to engage with artists and work I may not know, and as a way to decode contemporary thinking on art generally, and on painting specifically, even in the midst of the messy present. I confess that I incline toward Judd rather than Warhol; and as I endeavor to post with a semblance of regularity, I will be combining reviews with longer pieces aimed at addressing broader questions, while keeping the gossip out of it. Consider this first post a way up and off the couch.