I want to start writing about art but I live in a small town, and I’m not even sure where to start. Any advice on what I can do to get started?
Dear Amateur Scribe,
First, I want to start of with this: the world will never have enough writers, and certainly not enough good ones. So if you feel compelled to write, don’t let anything convince you otherwise. And trust me, many things will try to, but cast them away.
My brilliant homegirl Jean Rhys once said of her own writing (which you should all be reading) “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
Same goes for art writing. It’s a lake that matters immensely to our cultural well-being. So despite your living in a small town or whatever feelings of insignificance you might discover along the way, know that the job is a necessary one.
Now, if you haven’t written anything about art yet, I’d suggest reading about why criticism in the humanities matters at all. (Here’s a good recent thing.) And, furthermore, what the hell art criticism even is. There are different styles of “art writing.” For example, there’s a huge difference between reporting on an exhibition (objective, informative style) and critically reviewing an exhibition (entirely subjective, an account of your response/thoughts on it). Most people would say the later is truly what it’s all about. People like Jonathan Jones, who writes about art for The Guardian.
“Critics are the only real art writers,” he said. “We are the only ones who acknowledge, as a basic principle, that art is an unstable category – it lives or dies according to rules that cannot ever be systematised. If you treat art in a pseudo-scientific way, as some kinds of art history do, you miss everything that makes it matter.”
On that note, when it comes down to it, being a critic is all about your willingness to be passionate and opinionated about art. To let yourself something and then tell about it. If you’re willing to take that on, then you’re on the right track. It’s about what you feel, not what is “good” or “bad” or “right or “wrong”. No critic can ever be definitively right about a work of art, and that’s not even the point of it. So as you’re writing, remember that your educated opinion is yours and it’s worth stating. The point of being a critical writer is to offer something that isn’t just austere academic mush. It’s giving an honest account that testifies what art can really do to one’s heart, mind, and soul—whether it invigorates, mystifies, or repulses.
I’d recommend reading a couple of books, too. One book that really helped me wrap my head around my own sense of being an art writer was David Carrier’s Writing about Visual Art.It’s an indispensable—I’d go as far as to say mandatory—read for all the budding tadpoles, like yourself, who are new to the art criticism pond. Also, brush up on two influential yet largely opposing critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Their different approaches can help you decide what your own will be.
Now, once you’ve brushed up on a thing or two, find some publications you want to write for. Every publications needs a variety of voices; one person can’t write every article. So even if you are new, you have a good chance at getting your foot in the door if you are a competent writer. The South especially needs good new writers.
First, READ. Don’t submit to a publication you don’t read/aren’t familiar with. Do your homework in that regard too. I know you’re probably thinking “Damn, that’s a lot of homework.” But trust me, it’s for your own good. Doctors have to go to medical school for a million years. Writers have to read a lot. As my grand-uncle used to say, “Them’s the dues.”
Whether you are in a small town or not, you can still reach out to any regional publication with your pitches. Which brings me to my next point: pitching a story. To be an art writer you have to get comfortable with “the pitch”, which is just your proposal for a review or feature or interview you want to write. This is where it all begins. Learn this. Know this. It’s just a paragraph about what you want to write. You need to send them out well, and often.
Finally, I’d definitely suggest talking to a mentor who either writer for or works at a publication. A person contact me in much the same way a few months ago. She sent me a sweet email and asked if I’d be willing to help her navigate the Nashville art writing scene. I happily obliged, we met, and I gave her the rundown while she took furious not. As it happened, the following week I passed along a writing gig to her. And she wrote her first article. And that, my sweet rosebud, is how it’s so often done. Face-to-face, IRL, personal connections are always the way to go. So don’t be afraid to cold email a writer, just don’t forget to be extremely polite and even more considerate of the fact that almost every adult on the plant has a hectic, chaotic existence in which they feel themselves teetering on the edge of sanity. Not too many just have all this time for coffee meetings with strangers. The more you inhabit that approach, and the more accommodating you try to be, the more successful this stuff will be for you.
So write on, young dreamer! We need more like you. I will say, it’s not the most lucrative field; don’t fool yourself. You won’t find any art writers wearing Manolo Blahniks, living in mansions, and driving Ferraris. But it is, in my experience, one of the most rewarding and exciting ways to work if you love art and feel passionate about making sure it gets the attention it deserves.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.