Observation and Curiosity: Helping Students Write About Art

Elizabeth Adan is chair of the women’s, gender, and queer studies department and a professor of interdisciplinary studies at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo. Her 20+ years of teaching and research experience have focused on modern and contemporary art, history, and visual culture as well as feminist theory and practice. She has also worked as a practicing artist, a museum curator, and a freelance arts administrator.

Elizabeth Adan
Elizabeth Adan
Image Credit: Elizabeth Adan

In Chapter One of Writing About Art, Karen Gocsik and I identify some challenges involved in writing about art, something many students are confused about the first time they take an art, art history, or other visual studies class. Because of this very confusion, Karen and I start the book with four key components of critical thinking that are useful guideposts for all students—and all writers—who want to write effectively about art (and about visual materials more generally): summarize, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize (pages 19-27). However, there are at least two more key components to writing critically and successfully about art and visual materials that are worth noting, especially for students who are tasked with writing about art and visual materials for the first time: observation and curiosity.

Combining observation and curiosity is an excellent starting point for writing projects focused on art and related visual materials, whether you are new to or highly experienced with writing about art. Because vision is, for many of us, a primary way of receiving and processing information, our default mode of looking is often a quick glance or inattentive scan of whatever passes before our field of vision. Bringing together observation and curiosity can help us activate a more prolonged and intentional mode of perceiving and attending to visual stimuli—in general and pertaining to art in particular. Perhaps above all, by asking open-ended questions about our experiences of looking at art, we can dig deeper into both what we see and how we see it, which is vitally important for anyone who wants to write meaningfully about art.

In addition, to communicate effectively about art and visual materials, the best writers address not only the content but also the formal and visual properties of an artwork. For beginners, this may seem especially challenging, because beginners probably aren’t familiar with terminologies commonly used in describing the visual and formal characteristics of art. These terms (e.g., line, color, and composition; specific features of various artistic mediums and techniques, such as printmaking or sculpture) are covered in some detail in our book, and you’ll likely learn about them starting with your first art, art history, or visual literacy class. But prior to taking such a class, very few of us know how to clearly describe what we observe in an artwork, let alone how to use such descriptions as evidence to support our writing. The good news is that these are skills all of us can learn, and that we can develop and refine with practice.

To begin the work of bringing together observation and curiosity, we ask some key questions that may help inexperienced writers:

  • What is my response to this artwork? Do I like it? Hate it? Am I confused by it? Do I want to understand more about it? Do I want to look at it again?
  • What is it about what I am observing in this artwork (or group of artworks, or art exhibition) that is generating my response to it? In other words, how are my responses to an artwork shaped by its formal and visual properties?
  • How do the different visual elements that together constitute an artwork’s appearance relate to one another?
  • What is it about the visual elements of one artwork that connect it to, or set it apart from, other artworks? Other visual stimuli and experiences?

What is more, like all effective writing, writing about art needs to be thoughtfully planned and well organized, with the writer making a specific claim via a clearly articulated thesis statement. This thesis statement will be grounded in your in-depth, curiosity-driven observations (perhaps shaped by one or more of the questions I’ve indicated above), and it will be more than a description or summary of the art you have chosen to write about.

For instance, on page 166 we note: “During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modernism introduced new approaches to both form and content in the visual arts”—this is a widely accepted observation, confirmed across a range of art historical sources, that is more summary than argument. In contrast, “During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modernism introduced far more experiments in form than in content” is a thesis statement (or at least a preliminary version of one) that puts forth a perspective on its topic. A strong thesis statement will generate discussion and debate, meaning some of your readers might disagree with the claim you make in your thesis and/or how you support and prove this claim.

To develop a viable thesis statement, effective writers typically make very intentional choices about the art or other visual materials they write about. For instance, if you have an assignment that requires you to write about art produced in a certain time period or location, and you are interested in formal innovation, one starting point would be to identify artworks made in that time or place that have something unusual or otherwise noteworthy in their visual and/or material properties. As previously mentioned, effective writers also address both the visual elements and the content or subject matter in the art they write about, with at least some exploration of how the visual elements and content inform one another. In addition, effective writers use their writing to articulate insights about art that go beyond the most immediately apparent and obvious points.

This doesn’t mean that every time a successful author writes about art, they are unearthing mysteries about their topic. Instead, it means that effective writers provide their readers with opportunities to think about and see art in previously unexplored ways. In many cases, this also means that effective writers consider the ways that artworks use form and content to generate and communicate meanings that have important—if sometimes inapparent—impacts, not only within the realm of art but also upon the world at large.

Indeed, in many cases, these impacts have social, political, and/or cultural implications that are at odds with many common assumptions about art (e.g., that art is primarily intended as decoration; that art has little to no social or cultural importance beyond individual and subjective tastes; that art is apolitical). For me, one further way that some writers set themselves apart as truly exceptional is by formulating arguments about art that investigate and challenge these assumptions, demonstrating the many ways that art has historically been, and continues today to be, immersed in social, political, and cultural realities and frequently contributes to and/or counteracts philosophies and ideologies that govern our lives.

While these matters may seem far afield from what novice writers can manage, writing that addresses such concerns remains grounded in the two activities central to writing about art that I’ve already noted: observation and curiosity. In other words, this kind of socially, politically, and culturally relevant writing about art—writing that foregrounds the social, political, and cultural relevance of art—is something that, with thoughtful engagement and a little practice, we can all take on, even when we are new to writing about art.

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