A Short Guide to Writing About Art by Sylvan Barnet

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)

Background: I ordered this book a few months ago, when I decided I wanted to focus my studies on the theoretical side of art. In order to start practicing my writing more seriously, and having never had any formal training, I wanted a book that could guide me in the right direction, not too advanced nor too basic, and which could be a good reference in my future academic research. After looking around for a bit, I settled for this one, which appeared to have the most interesting contents and best reviews.

Review: Art criticism can be a daunting subject. Many times I’ve gone to an exhibition or read an art book and felt bewildered by the seeming impenetrability of the language used by the critics and art historians. On the other end of the spectrum, I have come across texts that not only deepened my understanding of the artworks, but also made me appreciate things I would normally never cast a second glance at. A Short Guide to Writing About Art aims at those who wish to write the latter type of texts.

Written in a concise and clear language, this book is clearly aimed at art students, and is great for those, like me, who have some kind of background in art but who are just starting to write. The initial part of the book, which includes sections such as “Why Write about Art?” and “The Relevance of Context: The Effect of the Museum and the Picture Book”, focuses on teaching the students to look at art and to organize their thoughts, ideas and opinions, and the best way of expressing them. The author makes a point of explaining that, if your audience doesn’t understand (or misunderstands) what you wrote, most likely the problem is in your writing. He goes on to explain all the little things that one rarely thinks about or even notices, but which make all the difference when reading, and end up separating a great writer/critic from a mediocre one.

The guidelines presented are adapted to various situations, for example, exhibition catalogs, reviews and essays. The book covers everything from giving your own opinions and having a personal style, to the specifics of looking at the different art mediums. Towards the end, the author focuses more on the technical side of writing, including formats, language and research. It is, in short, a reference book and a how-to book combined into one. The points and guidelines presented can be applied to any kind of writing, not just art criticism.

The only complaint I have is that towards the end, the explanations about grammar, form and bibliography got very heavy and the book ends on that note, which is a shame because the rest is so clear and easy to read. Because of the density of information it took me longer than usual to read this book – two months as opposed to, say, a week (granted, those two months included a trip to Paris and another to Cuba, in which I did no reading, but still). Nevertheless, I recommend this to every art student, and to everyone who wants to learn about looking at and writing about art.

What’s Next: I’m really happy I bought this book. It was exactly what I needed to initiate my path towards being a better writer. I plan on checking out some of the books and resources mentioned throughout this one.

Next on my reading list are Dune by Frank Herbert and American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson.

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