As someone who both reads and writes a lot of catalogue essays for contemporary artists, I was intrigued to find instructions online-- on E-How, of all places-- for writing one. (I confess that I have come to rely on computer queries for everything from converting centimeters to inches to recipe substitutions, like milk soured with lemon juice for yoghurt, or instructional videos on, say, regrouting a countertop or installing a faucet.)
The E-How directions for writing an essay seem at first glance to be as direct as those for home repairs. Still, the devil is in the details, as the expression goes. Experience has shown me that it is one thing to watch someone effortlessly sweep fresh grout into those tiny cracks between tiles and entirely another to manipulate the stuff yourself. But I digress.
The instructions for essay writing suggest beginning with biographical detail, such as“facts about the artist’s birth and early upbringing, education, exhibition history and any awards she might have won. This should be easy to summarize by researching details of the artist’s life online.” Right. This will be simple because the Internet is such a goldmine of accurate information about the formative experiences of most artists.
The next step is to evaluate the artist’s work to date, in order to identify “some major turning points in her career,” as well as a consistent theme. “Analyze that theme. This is the fun, subjective part. You have already presented all the information. Now it’s your turn to make your own contribution to the artist’s work.”
This is the fun, subjective part. Fun, maybe-- though honestly, that isn’t exactly the word I would use. I might lean towards enjoyable, interesting; challenging. But subjective? Not if you are doing a good job. Why, I ask myself, is it that when Civilians* talk about analyzing and evaluating art, the same idea nearly always surfaces-- that such discussion lacks objectivity and inevitably veers off into some kind of thickety underbrush of creative flights of fancy?
Catalogue essays are not about making something up. They are about finding the clearest way to describe and explain. The catalogue writer opens a door, makes the viewer’s experience of the work more meaningful and satisfying, and puts the work in a context that helps it to be understood and appreciated.
Oh, I almost forgot: in the E-How instructions, the last thing the essay is supposed to do is to draw a conclusion by synthesizing objective fact and ‘fun’ fiction together in order to “make a lasting impression on the reader” – but of the artist’s work, rather than your prowess as a writer. Well, of course. Isn’t that the whole point?
*Civilians: those who define themselves as not of the art world.