Writing and Art Making, a Dialogue
Occasionally I have to convince people of writing’s importance within an artist’s practice. To my mind, the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program’s (MFAIA) emphasis on developing strong writing skills—through the dialogue between students and advisors, as a documentary tool, and as a means of critical thinking—is a fundamental benefit of our curriculum. It serves to prepare artists for many of the roles they’ll be expected to assume in their professional practice, such as introducing their work, engaging in thoughtful criticism, writing proposals, helping future students pursue learning goals, as well as in helping to create links between different areas of human knowledge.
I’ve come to believe, as Carol Becker notes, when artists avoid reading and writing they’re putting their holistic development at risk:
“What [art] students need, fundamentally, is a very good education, because one of the things artists aren’t given—and it disempowers them terribly in the world—is good reading skills. And it’s the same with writing. Very often young artists can’t write well, and they’re told not to worry about it, because they’re artists. Artists need good language skills—I think that’s crucial. But there’s been this idea that if you verbalize or intellectualize, it’ll destroy the spontaneous, intuitive qualities of artmaking. I think that’s crazy—it’s developing only half a person. I want our students to have a good solid, historical education, so that they know the culture they’re living in and are curious about the rest of the world” (Conversations Before the End of Time, 1993.)
I today realize that Becker was talking about me.
I finished art school in 1988 a weaker writer than when I began. I was dissuaded, implicitly and, as disturbing as this seems today, explicitly, from thinking of writing as a valuable skill for my future. It would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that my writing teachers were to blame for my deficit. If there’s fault to be assigned, it lies with me—and with the artists who taught my studio classes. Other artists trained me to believe that visual artists can transcend the need for strong writing skills, and I was all too eager to believe them. I fell for a seductive notion that artworks can speak for themselves and that any viewer should be able to interpret the languages of my visual forms. I wanted to believe that a process of critical making could replace processes of critical writing, and that artworks need no narrative context. I convinced myself that immersing myself in the languages of making was enough. But it’s not.
I don’t mean to infer that artworks need to be explained or that metaphor, intuition, feeling, or gesture, so often powerfully evident in the arts’ languages, need to be translated. And in advocating for strong critical writing skills, I’m not arguing against the criticality of the arts’ languages. It would be a mistake to suppose that critical writing can supplant the value of poetic, spatial, kinesthetic or visual languages, because there are human experiences arts’ languages masterfully engage—often with insight beyond the capacity of expository writing. Rather, writing has the power to help us discern greater meaning, by offering a way to articulate the intentions that live underneath an art practice, by helping to compose contexts for artworks, and by establishing a conduit through which meaning can be shared between different ways of knowing.
Bringing artworks into dialogue with audience very often requires that artists build a bridge that allows multiple languages to enter into conversation. Most often this requires a common language, like critical writing or rhetoric. Especially in an interdisciplinary context, this is rarely a one-on-one affair. This process becomes more interesting when you consider the bridges that might be necessary to bring two artistic languages, say graphic design and dance, into conversation; and the complexity and possibility grows exponentially as four or five artistic languages attempt to learn together.
I was lucky. In the alchemy of my experience, writing changed from something assigned by others, something to be endured, into a joyful process of discovery. As writing became an integrated part of my practice, a provocative sequence of questions emerged. These questions will frame a group study, titled Critical Composition: Thinking, Making, Writing, that I’ll undertake with a group of MFAIA students in the fall of 2013:
How are the impulses that prompt artmaking the same as those that fuel writing?
Can writing shape, focus, and amplify the impulses that inspire artmaking?
Does engagement with multiple artistic languages advance my practice?
How does consciousness about language allow me to know what’s underneath my impulse to make art?
Does becoming a better critical writer make me a better, a more critical maker?
If I still hold residual frustration about my own art education, it’s not just that some of my teachers sold me a bill of goods. My displeasure lies with the enduring idea that art can be taught (or made) in a vacuum.
Rigorous education in artistic forms need not and can not be segregated from language education—or other disciplines. They can be developed in an integrated and interdisciplinary way. It’s here that the MFAIA program is offering something vital to the larger conversation about the development of an artist’s practice. And it’s here that the MFAIA’s curriculum may be of special and enduring benefit to students.