By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art


This text is intended to help students improve their ability to write about visual things.  I explain the most common types of analysis used by art historians and a little bit about how these methods developed.  This is not a history of art history, however, nor is it an introduction to the theory and methods of art history.  Major scholars are not mentioned and complicated ideas have been presented only in terms relevant to their practical application.  It also is not a guide to learning how to look at art.  For that, Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look remains unsurpassed.3

Almost all of my examples come from texts written in English.  Translations change exactly what is of greatest interest here: the words and concepts used by good writers about art. Furthermore, there is a history to the language used in English by art historians.  Sometimes this has shaped the meaning of a term, occasionally in significant ways.  A few examples will be discussed below.  Even in their use of ordinary words, however, these writers can serve as models.  Their vocabulary and ideas offer a wealth of contributions to the internal resources upon which we all draw when we write.  The more developed these resources are, the more fluent and expressive writing based upon them will be.

Painting, sculpture, and architecture have been considered the major forms of the fine arts during much of the Western tradition.  They have attracted many of the most ambitious artists and, consequently, more attention from art historians.  Architecture, however, like video and electronic mediums, requires a specialized descriptive and analytical vocabulary.  Just as the art historical methods I explain are the ones most commonly used, so the forms of art discussed in the passages I have selected are those most frequently covered in art history courses.  For the same reason, most of the art analyzed in the text comes from the West.

I have not included any reproductions, in the hope that more attention will be given to the passages quoted.  Glancing at a picture and then skimming text about it is not the same as trying to create a mental image of something from words alone.  The absence of illustrations also should make it easier for each reader to decide which words seem particularly effective in communicating information about visual things.  However, I have given enough information about each work so that a picture of it can be found without difficulty. Many of them will be familiar from art history surveys.

Another editorial decision I made was to cite the names of the authors quoted within my text.  The normal practice of putting that information in the notes makes it easier for the reader, who is given a smoothly flowing argument instead of one constantly interrupted by names and book titles.  Here, however, since my subject is writing, identifying the writer with the passage seemed useful.  The most important art historians of the past have birth and death dates in parentheses after the first mention of their names.

This is a guide to writing about art, not to writing itself.  It is no substitute for a book like The Elements of Style, the classic but still inspiring text by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.4 Nonetheless, I would like to begin with a few fundamental principles.  Paragraphs should be the basic organizing unit of any essay.  Each one should develop a single idea, introduced at the beginning of the paragraph by a topic sentence.  The paragraphs should be organized so that the ideas follow one another in a logical sequence. This means that the topic sentences should form an outline of what the writer intends to express.  Sentences should be complete, and grammar and spelling must be correct.  Words should convey the writer’s meaning as directly as possible.

The choice of which verb tenses to use must be consistent throughout a single piece of writing.  My personal choice is to use the present tense for anything that still exists, like a work of art or a book, and the past tense for a completed action.  In other words, Michelangelo sculpted David (because he did it centuries ago), but David shows Michelangelo's interest in the Classical conception of the nude male body (because it still does).  This seems to me the most logical approach, although sometimes it leads to awkward phrasing.  Many people use the present tense for both cases.  In other words, Michelangelo uses the Classical conception of the nude male body in his sculpture David.  Whatever the choice, it must be adhered to throughout any particular essay.

To be effective, a paper must be directed toward a single goal.  The purpose matters to the writer and it matters to the reader, who will have expectations about what comes next based on what has been promised.  Writing intended to evoke a vivid impression of a work of art has to present very different information from an interpretation of the subject that depends upon detailed historical arguments.  For this reason, it is important to let the reader know as soon as possible what kind of analysis will follow.  Every aspect of the paper should contribute to it.

Success is measured by how well the intended meaning has been communicated to the intended reader.  There is no substitute for having someone read a draft, or for putting a paper aside and returning to revise it later.  Even before that, though, a writer should try to assess the clarity and logic of the presentation.  Underlining topic sentences to see if they really do outline the argument is helpful. Quickly sketching elements mentioned in a visual description is another revealing exercise. If there is no place in the drawing for a particular detail, it has been introduced at the wrong point in the essay or essential elements have been neglected. Most of all, the writer should be prepared to revise and revise and revise.  Good papers never just happen.