Closing the Gap Between Words and Images

text tattoo arm tattoo art and design
When is it too much text? (Photo:

As long as I have been making art—and eight years of writing steadily about art-related issues here on Slow Muse—I still struggle with how words and the visual come together.

One part of me is convinced that the great visual experiences cannot be harnessed into words. That’s the part that finds the current proclivity to align every visual object with an accompanying text just plain tiresome.

From The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones:

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

There is another side of me however that loves words and is so grateful when they open and expand my experience of seeing. My mother tongue is visual, but gratefully I know some word people too. Currently working on a catalog for an upcoming show, I have been completely enamored with the wordsmithing skills of my essayists, Linda Jones Gibbs and Kathryn Kimball. These “word wizards” tend to be writers who love art, not artists who can also write. They know how to craft words that deepen and enhance a visual experience, something I simply am not able to do with a sense of personal satisfaction.

Gilda Williams has written a small and important book that addresses many of these current word and image issues. How to Write About Contemporary Art, published by Thames & Hudson, is smart, fast and well written (but of course). It is also beautifully designed by artist/designer Sarah Praill to be highly readable and visually engaging. (More books like this, please.)

Williams presents the complex landscape of writing about art with the expertise of a seasoned tour guide, breaking the tangles down into comprehensible chunks. There is the issue of art criticism after the Clement Greenberg era. There is the increasing trend to use words to bring conceptually challenging contemporary art closer to larger and less familiar audiences. There is the delineating difference between explaining and evaluating (which, while important, is “in practice, porous” in her view.)

She can also speak about the shortcomings of the art writing without being condescending or unduly harsh. Fear, says Williams, is the real root of bad writing:

Much contemporary art-writing remains barely comprehensible…contrary to popular belief, most indecipherable art-speak is not written for the purpose of pulling the wool over non-congnoscenti’s eyes. On occasion art-impenetralia is penned by a big name, attempting to mask undeveloped ideas behind slick vocabulary or hawking substandard art; but the worst is often written by earnest amateur art-writers, desperately trying to communicate…the cause of much bad art-writing is not so much pretentiousness, as is commonly suspected, but a lack of training.

(Note: What a great neologism, “art-impenetralia.” Sounds like a salacious act!)

Williams also has her list of worn out words and phrases which should be left out of any writing. (We could all add our favorite frayed terms to this list as well):

formal concerns
today’s digital world

This is a worthwhile read for writers and artists, especially artists who struggle with how words can respectfully and meaningfully coexist with their visual work. This is as close to an art writing style guide as I have seen, and a worthwhile add to my bookshelf.

4 Replies to “Closing the Gap Between Words and Images”

  1. Linda Jones Gibbs says:

    I am very humbled by your comment. I intend to read Williams’ book – and gave a sigh of relief as I don’t believe I used any of her worn out words and phrases!

  2. Fear as the basis for art-speak goes to the root: our need to be noticed, to be considered important. What better way is there than to imitate other art-speakers who have an established importance. I’d admit I’ve tried to write artist statements from fear (without success, however). Ms Williams identifies fear rather than pretension as the root–I hadn’t thought about art writing in this way. I like the writing of John Seed and Alain de Botton (and his co-author John Armstrong in their book Art as Therapy) because what they have to say is accessible, interesting, and meaningful; what they write has something to do with the way I live in the world.

  3. Following the link to Sarah Praill’s website, I learned that she needs a copy editor.

  4. “Williams also has her list of worn out words and phrases which should be left out of any writing. (We could all add our favorite frayed terms to this list as well)” Legions of college composition professors agree with this idea.

    I like to tell my students, “Strike this from your lexicon!!”

    It teaches them a vocabulary word while I’m at it. 🙂

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