Writing about art can be challenging because, before embarking on a discussion or analysis of a work, you first have to translate your experience of a visual image or a structure into language. This is true not only for Art History students whose papers are often based on the visual analysis of images or monuments, but also for Studio Art students who write artist statements in which they verbally articulate ideas and influences that they have expressed visually in their work.
The most frequent types of papers students write in Art History courses include visual analysis papers, research papers, critical analyses of scholarly articles, and exhibition reviews. While research papers and critical analyses of scholarly articles are similar to such papers in other disciplines (e.g., History or English), they likely include a visual analysis component that is not typical in other disciplines. Visual analysis papers and exhibition reviews are genres unique to Art History and Art Criticism, and they both build on the close reading of a single object/monument or a close reading of a series objects and the space in which they are displayed. Studio Art students frequently write exhibition reviews or responses, analyses of the work of an influential artist, and artist statements.
The purpose of writing in Art and Art History courses is to derive meaning from visual works from the past and present, to become more skilled in visual literacy, and to develop and amplify skills of analysis and argumentation, and independent thinking. Art and Art History papers will also develop your self-expression and facilitate your immersion in the creative field of Art or the scholarly field of Art History based upon sound research skills and careful, solid arguments. Studio Art courses will prompt you to reflect carefully on your own artistic processes and ways of thinking and to articulate your relationship to the tradition of art-making.
A unique characteristic of writing in Art History is its reliance on visual analysis. The ultimate goal of writing a visual analysis is to understand how the work you're writing about conveyed and conveys meaning. A convincing visual analysis is an interpretation of the work that combines the examination of formal, experiential details in light of relevant contextual information, therefore close reading of visual information and the critical analysis of primary and secondary sources are valued characteristics of art historical writing.
For visual analysis papers and exhibition reviews, the first step is translating your experience of what you see and what you feel or perceive with your senses into words; for example, when you stand in front of Michelangelo's David at the Gallery of the Academy in Florence, you not only look at the composition and carefully crafted details of the sculpture, you also react to its size, its placement on a high pedestal, your opportunity to walk around the figure, and the space where it is displayed and other visitors' reactions to it. When you are not able to visit the work in person, you should still try to imagine how it operates in its physical context, taking into account whether it is currently found in its original location. Once you have performed this first, observational step, the second step in visual analysis is to contextualize the artwork you're writing about in its historical moment. One way to contextualize an artwork is to compare it to works of art that have a similar subject matter, share its time period, or both. This kind of comparison will help you and your reader understand how the work fits into larger artistic developments. Another way to contextualize an artwork is to understand its social, religious, or cultural role by using primary textual sources (e.g., diaries of artists or patrons involved, documents of the work's commissioning, preparatory sketches or studies of the artist, newspaper articles that reveal how the work was received when it was first displayed, and historical accounts that describe the work). A third way to contextualize an artwork is to understand how it was originally displayed. A final contextualization strategy is to use the work of scholars who have studied the same monument or related monument to build on or refute.
A common genre in Studio Art is an artist statement. The valued characteristics in an artist statement differ somewhat from those in a visual analysis. An artist statement is a short essay, about one page in length that is written in the first person. The purpose of artist statements is to articulate the processes, influences, and concepts that inform your independent artistic practices. These statements verbalize the multi-faceted ideas that inform artists' work, providing helpful context for viewers, curators, selection panels, and peers. A compelling artist statement communicates significant elements about the motives and concerns that inspire works of art. It can address a number of meaningful issues and influences such as your sense of identity, intellectual or technical aspects of your artistic process, and your position in relation to the history of your medium. An artist statement is subjective in the sense that it reflects personal creative processes, yet it should also reflect and even interrogate broader cultural, social, political, and/or scientific themes.
For Art History papers, your evidence will be drawn from three types of sources: the visual evidence provided by the work of art that you are analyzing; primary textual sources that date to the same period as your visual evidence; and scholarly secondary sources. Secondary scholarly sources can provide you with a framework for analysis, or can provide factual information about primary sources that the author used but you may not have easy access to. Secondary sources can also offer an interpretation of the work you are analyzing which you may accept or reject based on your own critical analysis of the work, primary sources, and the scholarly literature. You will need to document the sources of your ideas and information vigorously throughout your paper in order to show what sources you have used for your work; art historians typically use footnotes or endnotes for such purpose.
Papers that you will write in Studio Art courses will focus primarily on visual evidence, although occasionally primary sources of artists' writings or secondary scholarly sources will also be used.
Consult Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art, Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2014 for more detail about writing about art (including medium specific questions one may ask when analyzing a work), for tips and examples of effective visual analyses, and for advice on completing research papers.