How to Write About Contemporary Art by Gilda Williams

Books & reading, Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 2: Encountering Time - A Critical Analysis, Research & Reflection

How to Write About Contemporary Art (Williams, 2014) is one of those books I will keep returning to throughout my course. I have skimmed through the book a few times already and will use this page as a record and summary of the points I want to reflect on.


  • There is no one way to write about art – I think this is important to me, as I have been trying to focus on the “right” way to write and it is more about finding my own personal style.
  • Good art-writers read a lot from other people and look at a lot of art – this is something I need to always consider, there is no substitute for seeing lots of other people’s work and reading about it.
  • Writing about art is difficult – you are taking a visual medium and trying to put it into words. I can’t expect to be perfect immediately and it is okay that things will need redrafting.

To Do:

Write in a clear, well structured and carefully worded way.

Describe art, its meaning and its connection to the world.

Using imaginative vocabulary that is original.

  • Love art, enjoy it and that will come across when writing
  • Practice (daily if possible)
  • Writing helps you understand art
  • Edit a lot!

Section 1 – The Job – Why Write About Contemporary Art?

  • Writing about art should improve the experience of it. Make the work more enjoyable.
  • There are two different aims of text: to explain or to evaluate.

Explaining – contextualises and describes

Evaluating – judges and interprets

  • It is important to remember that all texts are opinionated and subjective.
  • Contemporary art lead to more than just descriptions using the standards of measure (shape, colour, size etc).
  • New words: readymade, abstract art, minimalism (see glossary) were needed to talk about contemporary art.
  • I found the section on the history of art-criticism fascinating. “In pre-Revolutionary times an artwork needed chiefly to please king and clergy to acquire validation; artists mostly (but not always) catered to the tastes of these and a few other powerful patrons, whose opinions were the only ones that mattered. (Williams, 2014:37). How different this is to today’ society where everyone is a critic!
  • Linking to other schools of thought such as structuralism, post-colonialism, feminism, queer theory, gender theory, Marxist theory, psychoanalysis, literary theory.
  • The importance of contextualisation:

what the artwork is made of

how it fits in the artist’s lifetime

what has already been said?

events when work was created

Section 2 – The Practice: How to Write About Contemporary Art

  • Write only about what you know. Trust yourself, become informed and your texts will improve.
  • Write about artists you actually like to begin with so that it feels authentic to any reader.
  • There are three main questions to ask yourself:

Q1. What is it?
Keep the description brief and specific. Look for meaningful details
Q2. What might this mean?
Explain where the meaning is in the artwork.
Q3. Why does this matter to the world?
Explain where this piece of art fits in world events and how it might change understanding or opinions.

  • Substantiation explains where your ideas come from.
  • This can be from factual or historical evidence or on the basis of visual evidence.
  • Don’t waffle as it is weak and raises more questions than answers.
  • Pay cloe attention to works, what makes them different. How are they similar to other pieces?
  • Provide readers with the steps in your thinking.
  • Be specific. Add titles and dates, write in the active tense, drop messy adverbs (sort of, kind of).
  • Flesh out descriptions.
  • When writing, keep the photo in front of you.
  • Also conider the gaps where nothing is happening.
  • Less is more when it comes to adjectives – one precise adjective has more power than lots of vague ones
  • Use interesting verbs.
  • Expand your vocabulary.
  • Revise at least two drafts.
  • Read your text out loud

Section 3 – The Ropes How to Write Contemporary Art Formats

I will return to this section at a later date as it contains very useful information on writing academic pieces.


Williams, G. (2014). How to write about contemporary art. Thames & Hudson.

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