Writing arts reviews and criticism is a taunting job, indeed. A critique is an endeavour to comprehend an artwork and understand the intent of the artist and convey that information to your audiences. Ultimately, the goal of arts reviews is to provide feedback to art producers in terms the effects of their work at the same time as enhance readers’ experience of works of art. It requires not only expertise in the subject matter, but also tough decisions the reviewer needs to take in the process. Today, I would like to discuss the process of writing art reviews, as an important form of opinion writing.
As Conrad Fink writes in his book, “Writing Opinion for Impact,” before you start writing arts commentary, you need to sort out two fundamental questions:
1. To whom or what do you owe your principal journalistic loyalty?
- the artform you’re covering,
- the artist(s),
- yourself, or
- your audience?
2. Whom are you writing for?
- for insiders –those intimately involved in the sometimes tiny and tight world of art; or
- for outsiders – write as a translator converting the esoteric of art, its specialized language and concepts a general newspaper or magazine audience can understand?
To most editors, arts reviews and commentary are an offering to readers, an inducement to build circulation (just like editorials or columns on politics, sports, or business). Some critics have a different understanding: they like to write for themselves or for the sake of art (seeking to strengthen the art through commentary); or seek to take the role of the teacher.
As a beginner: start by emphasizing your journalistic skills and reporting strengths (your analytical and interpretative qualities will come with experience). If you are writing for a general-circulation newspaper or magazine, you need to offer help to your audiences. Once you become immersed in the arts’ world, it is easy to begin writing for your fellow insiders, those who share your passion and your understanding of art. However, most of the newspaper and magazine audiences will most likely be immersed not in art but in everyday life. These audiences need your help, your powers of translation as they dip into the world of art. If you believe that your essential duty as a journalist is to communicate information, to enlighten and assist, then you need to structure your career as a reviewer accordingly.
Form & Structure of an Arts Review
Art review as a form of commentary are expected to be original and unique, emphasizing particularly writers’ individualism. Therefore we hardly have a set formula for what should go in the content of arts reviews. These are judgments that the writer needs to consider based on the type of arts he/she is reviewing and the context. However, arts reviewers are expected to do it all: report & comments. As a young writer, approach the reporting function in arts criticism by addressing the Five Ws and How.
- In arts reviewing, your definition of “what” is pivotal. Your interpretation of the “what” factors expresses your personal opinion and sets the stage for your critical analysis.
- Not enough to mention the artist’s name, insert your opinion regarding his/her artistic quality
- Often, just a few words carry your critical appreciation of the “who” beyond the factual reporting of a news story.
Where, When, Why?
Two factors influence the judgment on how to handle this information:
- You are a journalist and are obliged to give readers “news to live by”: Where to go; How much it costs; How many pages a book has; Dates when a special museum exhibit will be open
- You must judge the news importance of “where,” “when” and “why”. In most reviews this information is given passing reference. But, not always though
- Use your best news values and judgment to decide if a performance deserves long or short treatment.
- The pros write tight – 100 words in the New Yorker, sometimes 200-300 words in The New York Times for major events
“Thinking Critically: Reading and Writing Culture Reviews” by Katherine Schulten at the New York Time provide incredible contextual resources to understand the nature of arts reviews, including understanding the genre, the role of criticism in our culture, and examples from model Times reviews that help understand the form. In addition, they provide information about the Review Writing Contest (Deadline: Oct. 22 – Nov. 24, 2015).
Numerous tips about writing different types of reviews provided by Emily Carr Writing Center.
“Writing a Review of an Exhibition” from A Short Guide to Writing About Art, 8th Ed.: Sylvan Barnet, 2005. Via UCLA & DMA.
Notes on “Writing Exhibition Reviews” by Judy Radul for Simon Fraser University, 2000
“Writing Reviews in the Visual and Performing” Arts published by Center for Writing and Speaking.
“How to Write Arts Reviews” by Alyson Stanfield.