Book Review: “Art Writing in Crisis” 

I have been taking delight in reading “Art Writing in Crisis” recently published by Sternberg Press, edited by Brad Haylock and Megan Patty. It’s such a timely publication responding to crises in art writing amid crises in our present world, with a wide range of perspectives on the definition of art, writing, art writing, writing about art, writing as art etc, as well as its history and current problems. These essays read like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I as a young writer feel informed and consoled, warned and encouraged by the multifaceted content of the book. 

Dan Fox presented a rather grim outlook on the art writing industry as a whole based on his 20-year experience working as an editor for Frieze. It might feel like a punch in the heart for anyone fresh in the job. The reality of the writing business is further detailed by Barry Schwabsky’s candid “display” of the respective figures of payment for a catalogue essay, for The Nation, and Art Forum. How the digital format has exploited musicians also harms writers’ interests in the same way. Also interesting note on Peter Schjeldahl from The New Yorker who chose the subjects for his column by significance over quality, whereas Barry believes quality is significance and art critics have the responsibility of making the significance of neglected things manifest, which is to me an idea that turned power into passion, writing into belief. 

Then the book gets better and better in spirit, with rising hopes and strategies to tackle issues of the colonized and underrepresented discourse. In Megan Patty’s short history of museum publication, I was amazed to learn that when art has been further commodified during the 60s and 70s, especially in New York, artists began to explore the potential of the book form, breaking down the stagnation of institutions and the market. The book became an exhibition space for artists and collectives, including the likes of Ed Ruscha, Carl Andre, Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt, whose activities culminated in the foundation of Printed Matter and their equivalents in Europe. The proliferation of independent art publishing and small imprints challenged existing forms of art writing and its structures by giving lesser-known authors a platform. Perhaps this is what we can learn from if art writing is to reconfigure itself. 

Rachel Marsden’s investigation into China’s photobook publishing scene is a great example of the social reformative power of independent publishing lauded by Megan Patty: “Prioritizing selfhood (the self, the social, and the body), and giving insight into alternative autobiographies, mappings, and visual diaries of their makers’ ways of being in the world, photobooks are deserving of respect and care for the vulnerability presented. Examinations of emotional and social trauma have become central concerns in conceptual documentary photobooks in China, identified as a unique form of archival logic not to be homogenized or marginalized. The photobook serves as a sociopolitical response system, a mechanism to amplify hidden and subversive histories, meaning it is often as a non-official art practice that is counterposed to the conventional systems and markets of the art world.” 

Through perusing the glaring reality of our crises, I finished the book feeling invigorated. The hope is always in the hope itself. To paraphrase Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo, “Until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words, —Wait and hope”, I’d say, WRITE and hope!