©Janneke Wesseling, Professor in the Practice and Theory of Research in the Visual Arts, Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University (NL). In H. Borgdorff and A. Lewin (eds.), SAR International Conference Catalogue: Writing. Amsterdam: Society for Artistic Research & The Hague: University of the Arts, 2016.

Art writing and scholarly writing

Over the past 15 years, the artist-as-writer has become a generally accepted phenomenon. As a matter of fact, in order to successfully operate as an artist in our day, she has to write, as well as join public debates, and participate in conferences and discussion panels (besides curating, teaching and yes, producing art). The reasons for this development are multiple, ranging from the occasion of the Bologna agreements, which is connected to the so-called institutionalization of art, to the more meaningful occasion of contemporary art changing into a discursive and politically engaged field, ever since conceptual art in the 1960’s and 70’s (30 years before Bologna). Postmodern art practice is characterized by a “linguistic orientation”.1 This shift in emphasis from image to language has a profound impact on art education, where, in the words of the Belgian curator and writer Dieter Roelstraete, “the demand for literacy has become an essential ingredient. Eloquence in the contextualization and/or defence of one’s work is now simply de rigueur – nothing more, nothing less.”2 Roelstraete observes “a hypertrophy of art practices that centre around talk and an excess of art production that appears to ‘merely’ consist of a voice, and nothing else.” Indeed, exhibitions consisting mainly of ‘discursive material’, i.e. critical texts and documents of various kinds, abound in contemporary art spaces.

According to one theory, this discursive hybridization of art practice, which includes a noted interest in the ‘archive’ and the ‘document’, is to be understood as a response to Greenbergian Modernism with its essentialist claims of aesthetic purity, autonomy and universal meaning. The linguistic turn could also be explained as a retreat from capitalist image-consumerism and from an exploded art market. Hypothesizing about the phenomenon however, is not what is at stake here: excess or not, art practices increasingly embody a scholarly attitude and atmosphere. This happens through the appropriation by artists of academic mores and values, such as discursive formats and research methodologies.

Interestingly, the reverse is happening as well: scholars in the humanities manifest an increasing concern for matters of aesthetic form and for an expressive and creative use of language. A framework in which the scholarly and the aesthetic productively engage each other challenges the traditional dichotomy of ‘creative writing’ and ‘serious scholarship’. In The Future of ScholarlyWriting, Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres pose the following questions: “Where and if should we draw the line between making an argument, offering an interpretation, or presenting an analysis (standard criteria for scholarly work in the humanities) and writing poetically? Can we make an argument (offer an interpretation, present an analysis) in poetic writing? In the form of a poem? How fluid is the boundary between creative and scholarly writing?”3 Especially in the field of art history we are witnessing an active interchange between creative writing and academic writing. The collection of essays Creative Writing and Art Historycontains many convincing examples of the divergent and experimental ways in which art historians may approach their field of study.4 It is safe to say that the cliché of scholarly writing as ‘making an argument, offering an interpretation, and/or presenting an analysis’ has lost its self-evidence. The same can be said of the cliché of art historical writing as chiefly focussed on coherent argument, unambiguous chronology, demarcation of subject and object, reason, causality, balance, a ‘unitary structure’ of interpretation and explanation.5

Today, many universities offer courses in creative writing. At Leiden University, my colleague Liesbeth Fit and I have developed the course Writing Art, for BA-students from the faculty of humanities and from the faculty of art and design. The course encompasses various aspects and formats of writing on art, such as art criticism, art history, academic writing, artists writing on their own work and artists writing art criticism, as well as writing as art, such as performative writing, writing as experiment, and fiction. The course aims at acquainting students with these different modes of writing and, through active experimentation with them, to discover their own ‘voice’.

Writing as practice
Finding one’s own voice in writing is a long and often painful process, involving hard work over a long period of time. In this sense the case is not so different from any artistic practice: writing also is a practice, and there is only one way of learning it, which is by doing it. To write means to knead and mold the material of language, to search for words, to carefully build sentences and to invent new concepts. Writing is transforming thinking into text and prodding the text into existence. Somewhere during this process, the text will take over and start to ‘speak’ of its own accord.

The text ‘wants’ something, from the author in the process of writing and, later, from the reader. As is the case with art: the art work ‘wants’ something, it ‘appeals’ to the maker and to the spectator. What this something is, is usually discovered through the writing or making process. The artist wants to make the work in order to see it, to see something new or to find an answer to a question. The artist, as the first spectator of her work, may be as surprised by it as any other spectator. As the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt wrote: “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.”6 Before setting out on writing or making, there will be an idea of what one wants to demonstrate or explain, but what this is becomes clear only in the writing, and in the making, itself. When this happens, this is a cause for great pleasure.

Even though the text needs a reader to be read, and the art work needs a spectator to be experienced, this is not to say that the writer writes the text ‘for’ the reader, or that the artist makes the work ‘for’ the spectator. The satisfaction is in the writing, in the making, and in the discovery of something one has not read or experienced before. This is how I understand Roland Barthes when he writes in his famous essay ‘The Pleasure of the Text’: “A space of pleasure is thus created. It is not the reader’s ‘person’ that is necessary to me, it is this space: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an unpredictability of bliss: in order for the game not be over, in order for there to be a game.”7

Why write?

So the main reason to write is to clarify one’s thinking, to follow one’s desire and make progress on the path of discovery. As said, even if the text produces pleasure, the writing process itself is difficult. The investment in time is enormous. The time investment can be a shock to artists and art students and pose a threat to their artistic identity. This is especially the case with PhD projects in artistic research. A doctorate is a specific form of research and the PhD dissertation a particular form of text, because the dissertation has to demonstrate the mastering by the PhD candidate of research methodology. Therefore methodological transparency, reflexivity and communicability are important aspects of the dissertation. But they are certainly not the only relevant aspects; the format of the doctoral thesis leaves much room for experimentation and idiosyncrasies.

There are many reasons why artists want, or need, to write, ranging from criticism to poetry, from a politics of memory (involving archive and document) to “making the stone stony” (phrase borrowed from Victor Shlovsky’s essay ‘Art as Technique’, 1925), from writing as a clarification of a practice to writing as a practice reflecting itself. I will conclude this brief essay by giving some reasons for writing given by PhDArts candidates of Leiden University:

  • The analysis of the role of ‘text’ in performance: before, after and during the performance; by the artist, by performers, by third parties; in publications et cetera. This is an example of ‘writing as practice reflecting itself’.
  • The productive conflict resulting from the need for accountability on the one hand and the search for the limits of experimentation in academic writing on the other.
  • The careful and meticulous reconstruction of a logic of ideas.
  • To help in understanding what one is doing; the words change the way one looks at things and create a flow of thinking.
  • To reclaim the function of critique and not leaving this up to critics; empowerment.
  • Artist’s writing as a particular perspective on things, even before it is called artistic research.

Artists have decided it is worth the effort to familiarize themselves with the demands that come with academic writing and to appropriate habits that come with scholarly work. It is my belief that the true challenge is to develop different and so far unknown formats for making 5 an argument, offering interpretations and presenting analyses in order to enrich the cultural and artistic debate and to expand our view on the value of art for society.

1 Cheryl Simon, ‘Introduction: Following the Archival Turn: Photography, the Museum and the Archive’, in: Visual Resources Vol. 18 No. 2, 2002, pp. 101-107, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01973760290011770.

2 Dieter Roelstraete, ‘Word Play’, in: Frieze No. 139, May 2011, http://www.frieze.com/article/word-play.

3 Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (eds.), The Future of Scholarly Writing, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p. 12.

4 Catherine Grant and Patricia Rubin (eds.), Creative Writing and Art History, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

5 As enumerated by Cartherine Grant in ’A narrative of what wishes what it wishes it to be’, in: Creative Writing and Art History, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 48.

6 Nr. 22 of LeWitt’s ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ (35 in all), first published in: 0-9, No. 5 (New York), 1969.

7 “Un espace de jouissance est alors créé. Ce n’est pas la ‘personne’ de l’autre qui m’est nécessaire, c’est l’espace: la possibilité d’une dialectique du désir, d’une imprévision de la jouissance: que les jeux ne soient pas faits, qu’il y ait un jeu”. Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte, Parijs: Éditions du Seuil, 2000 (1973), p. 86.