Art Writing: A Starter Kit
Review by Lily Jamaludin

Art critique and writing can definitely be intimidating at first. Sometimes, it may seem as if art critics are of a different breed (often wearing oversized glasses and sometimes quoting obscurely from Edward Said or Susan Sontag!) But art writers shouldn’t be lofty intellectuals assigning a value judgment on an artwork.

Art writing is about seeing, engaging, experiencing and challenging art. It’s about examining if an art piece is a mirror or a window. It’s about looking closely and asking questions. This is something that everyone is able to do, and something that everyone should be encouraged to do. Our arts and culture can only grow stronger when more people – and particularly underrepresented communities – are thinking critically and talking about the art that is produced in our society.

As I write my final article for this year’s arts mentorship programme, I wanted to reflect on a few guiding principles that have guided my approach to writing about art – principles that might make art writing more accessible for everyone.

1. Be curious and seek to understand

Curiosity is one of the most important approaches to an artwork. To approach a piece with curiosity, we must first leave behind ideas about good and bad. Too often, critique and workshops focus on correcting a piece.

One of my favourite writers, Ocean Vuong, says about the writing workshop as a place where “we often privilege correction as progress. There’s this capitalistic anxiety to fix it. Even in the way we talk about writing: polish, cut, write, chop, tighten.” Instead, Vuong suggests that critics must first seek to understand the work, notice it, and recognise it – so that when the critique comes, it is in service of the work.

I think this is a really useful way to start. In some of my own workshop circles with friends, we begin with what we notice about the work. I also use this approach when trying to understand a new artwork that seems to escape my initial understanding. What do I see? What colours are used? What styles are used? What are the recurring images? Where am I, the viewer, positioned in relation to the artwork, and what is the impact of that? What is in the frame, and what is left out of it? When was this piece made? What was happening at that time, and what could the artist be responding to? To critique in service of the artists’ vision, we must first understand the vision. To do that, we must first notice.

2. Feelings in your body

It’s also important to recognise how we feel when we see or engage with an artwork. What emotions are in your body? What are you connected or drawn to? What impulses do you feel? Why do you think you feel them? Is there an identity, lens or experience that is shaping your response to the piece?

Sometimes, we might believe that our feelings and responses to an artwork aren’t legitimate because we haven’t read enough, or we don’t know enough about a certain topic. But the body’s intuitive responses hold a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we think about how a piece made us feel, we can then think more deeply about the work’s impact and effect, and if it was able to meet its vision.

3. Questions of limit and possibility

Sometimes, suggestions aren’t what an artist or writer needs in a critique. I often find questions are much more useful and give artists the agency to expand the piece on their own. You can pose your own questions for the artist.

An easy way to think of this is in terms of possibilities and limits.

• Where did the artist succeed in asking questions? What questions and possibilities and visions did the artwork open for you? Articulate them.

• Where was the artist limited, and didn’t ask enough questions or challenge the art enough? What questions still need to be explored? Ask them.

4. Critique as care work

This was a concept that Nabilah Hamid brought up in the CENDANA-Aswara masterclass that particularly stuck with me. The concept of critique as care work makes me think of critique as something grounded in love for community and vision. It makes me think of critique as deeply intentional, courageous and oriented towards a larger imagination.

It’s easy, especially when approaching a piece that you feel is weak or offensive, to tear it down – I admit that I’ve done that before too! But perhaps the work of critique is to cultivate a society and art community that is more critical, more compassionate, more visionary, more radical. For that to happen, we need more than just destruction. We might want to think about how we frame our response: is it resistance, cultivation, challenge, or encouragement? Are there ways we can engage the artist beyond the written review?

It’s been a wild and ceaseless year with the tumultuous events of the pandemic and surrounding political climate. Though it gets lost in the news cycles, we still need artists and art writers desperately. We need people who can see, reflect and notice. We need people can offer new, creative visions for Malaysia. We need people who can continue to challenge and expand those visions.

I’m not sure that the coming months will be any easier.

But, onwards, artists, writers, creatives. We need you.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Lily Jamaludin is a writer with the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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