Pub. Date:
Prentice Hall
A Short Guide to Writing About Art / Edition 9

A Short Guide to Writing About Art / Edition 9

by Sylvan Barnet


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The best-selling guide to writing about art

Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art guides students through every aspect of writing about art. Students are shown how to analyze pictures (drawings, paintings, photographs), sculptures and architecture, and are prepared with the tools they need to present their ideas through effective writing. Coverage of essential writing assignments includes formal analysis, comparison, research paper, review of an exhibition, and essay examination. New to the 11th edition is a chapter on “Virtual Exhibitions: Writing Text Panels and Other Materials.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780136138556
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Publication date: 01/22/2007
Series: Short Guides Series
Edition description: Older Edition
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.56(d)

Table of Contents

In this Section:
1) Brief Table of Contents

2) Full Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Writing About Art

Chapter 2: Writing About Art: The Big Picture

Chapter 3: Formal Analysis and Style

Chapter 4:Analytical Thinking

Chapter 5: Writing A Comparison

Chapter 6: Writing an Entry in an Exhibition Catalog

Chapter 7: Writing a Review of an Exhibition

Chapter 8: Virtual Exhibitions: Writing Text Panels and Other Materials

Chapter 9: How to Write an Effective Essay

Chapter 10: Style in Writing

Chapter 11: Art Historical Research

Chapter 12: Some Critical Approaches

Chapter 13: Writing a Research Paper

Chapter 14: Manuscript Form

Chapter 15: Writing Essay Examinations


Chapter 1: Writing About Art

What Is Art?

Why Write about Art?

The Imagined Reader as the Writer's Collaborator

The Functions of Critical Writing

Some Words about Critical Thinking

A Sample Critical Essay

What Is an Interpretation—and Are All interpretations Equally Valid?

Expressing Opinions: The Writer's 'I'

Chapter 2: Writing About Art: The Big Picture

Standing Back: Kinds of Writing (Informing and Persuading)

Close-Up: Drafting the Essay

Checklist of Basic Matters

Chapter 3: Formal Analysis and Style

What Formal Analysis Is

Formal Analysis Versus Description

Sample Essay: A Formal Analysis

Postscript: Thoughts about the Words “Realistic” and “Idealized”

Cautionary Words about Slides and Reproductions in Books and on the World Wide Web

Chapter 4: Analytical Thinking

Subject Matter and Content

Form and Content

Getting ideas for Essays: Asking Questions to Get Answers

Another Look at the Questions

Chapter 5: Writing A Comparison

Comparing as a Way of Discovering

Two ways of Organizing a Comparison

Sample Essay: A Student’s Comparison

Rebecca Bedell: “John Singleson Copley’s Early Development: From Mrs. Joseph Mann to Mrs. Ezekial Goldthwait”

Checklist for Writing a Comparison

Chapter 6: Writing an Entry in an Exhibition Catalog

Keeping the Reader in Mind

A Sample Entry

Checklist for Writing a Catalog Entry

Chapter 7: Writing a Review of an Exhibition

What a Review Is

Three Sample Reviews

Chapter 8: Virtual Exhibitions: Writing Text Panels and Other Materials

Kinds of Exhibitions

Kinds of Writing Assignments

Chapter 9: How to Write an Effective Essay

The Basic Strategy

Looking Closely: Approaching a First Draft

Revising: Achieving a Readable Draft

Peer Review

Preparing the Final Version

Chapter 10: Style in Writing

Principles of Style

Get the Right Word

Writing Effective Sentences

Write Unified and Coherent Paragraphs

A Note on Tenses

Chapter 11: Art Historical Research

Accounting for Taste

Historical Scholarship and Values

Chapter 12: Some Critical Approaches

Social History: The New Art History and Marxism

Gender Studies: Feminist Criticism and Gay and Lesbian Studies

Biographical Studies

Psychoanalytic Studies

Iconography and Iconology

Chapter 13: Writing a Research Paper

Primary and Secondary Materials

From Subject to Thesis

Finding the Material

Art Research and the World Wide Web

Keeping a Sense of Proportion

Reading and Taking Notes

Checklist for Note-Taking

Incorporating Your Reading into Your Thinking: The Art of Synthesis and Drafting and Revising the Paper

Checklist for Reviewing a Revised Draft of a Research Paper

Chapter 14: Manuscript Form

Basic Manuscript Form

Some Conventions of Language Usage

Quotations and Quotation Marks

Acknowledging Sources


Footnotes and Endnotes: Chicago Manual Style

Chicago Manual of Style

Chapter 15: Writing Essay Examinations

What Examinations Are

Writing Essay Answers

Last Words



Another book for the student of art to read? I can only echo William James's report of the unwed mother's defense: "It's such a little baby."

Still, a few additional words may be useful. Everyone knows that students today do not write as well as they used to. Probably they never did, but it is a truth universally acknowledged (by English teachers) that the cure is not harder work from instructors in composition courses; rather, the only cure is a demand, on the part of the entire faculty, that students in all classes write decently. But instructors outside of departments of English understandably say that they lack the time—and perhaps the skill—to teach writing in addition to, say, art.

This book may offer a remedy. Students who read it—and it is short enough to be read in addition to whatever texts the instructor regularly requires— should be able to improve their essays

  • by getting ideas both about works of art and about approaches to art, from the first four chapters ("Writing about Art," "Analysis," "Writing a Comparison," "How to Write an Effective Essay"), and from Chapter 6 ("Some Critical Approaches")
  • by studying the principles on writing explained in Chapter 5, "Style in Writing" (e.g., on tone, paragraphing, and concreteness), and Chapters 7, 8, and 9 ("Art-Historical Research," "Writing a Research Paper," and "Manuscript Form")
  • by studying the short models throughout the book, which give the student a sense of some of the ways in which people talk about art

As Robert Frost said, writing is a matter of having ideas. This book tries to help students to have ideas by suggesting questions they may ask themselves as they contemplate works of art. After all, instructors want papers that say something, papers with substance, not papers whose only virtue is that they are neatly typed and that the footnotes are in the proper form.

One is reminded of a story that Giambologna (1529-1608) in his old age told about himself. The young Flemish sculptor (his original name was jean de Boulogne), having moved to Rome, went to visit the aged Michelangelo. To show what he could do, Giambologna brought with him a carefully finished, highly polished wax model of a sculpture. The master took the model, crushed it, shaped it into something very different from Giambologna's original, and handed it back, saying, "Now learn the art of modeling before you learn the art of finishing." This story about Michelangelo as a teacher is harrowing, but it is also edifying (and it is pleasant to be able to say that Giambologna reportedly told it with pleasure). The point of telling it here is not to recommend a way of teaching; the point is that a highly finished surface is all very well, but we need substance first of all. A good essay, to repeat, says something.

A Short Guide to Writing about Art contains notes and two sample essays by students, an essay by a professor, and numerous model paragraphs by students and by published scholars such as Rudolf Arnheim, Albert Elsen, Mary D. Garrard, Anne Hollander, and Leo Steinberg. These discussions, as well as the numerous questions that are suggested, should help students to understand the sorts of things one says, and the ways one says them, when writing about art. After all, people do write about art, not only in the classroom but in learned journals, catalogs, and even in newspapers and magazines.


I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures which I thought fairly good when I was fifty, but really nothing I did before the age of seventy was of any value at all. At seventy-three I have at last caught every aspect of nature— birds, fish, animals, insects, trees, grasses, all. When I am eighty I shall have developed still further, and will really master the secrets of art at ninety. When I reach one hundred my art will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained around the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life.
—Hokusai (I780-I849)

Probably all artists share Hokusai's self-assessment. And so do all writers of textbooks. Each edition of this book seemed satisfactory to me when I sent the manuscript to the publisher, but with the passing not of decades but of only a few months I detected inadequacies, and I wanted to say new things. This sixth edition, therefore, not only includes sixth thoughts about many topics discussed in the preceding editions but it also introduces new topics.

The emphasis is still twofold— on seeing and saying, or on getting ideas about art (Chapters 1-4) and on presenting those ideas effectively in writing (Chapters 5-8)— but this edition includes new thoughts about these familiar topics, as well as thoughts about new topics. For instance, the pages concerned with generating ideas contain new material about:

  • the canon
  • cultural materialism
  • queertheory
  • realism and idealism
  • critical values
  • the uses of the Internet

The pages concerned with effective writing contain:

  • boxed summaries, each with "A Rule for Writers"
  • seven checklists for revising paragraphs, writing a comparison, evaluating a web site, and researching on the internet

and the discussion of documentation now includes:

  • Chicago Manual Style
  • the Art Bulletin Style Guide
  • forms used for Asian names
  • citations of electronic sources

Eleven illustrations are new, including Segal's The Diner, Paik's TV Bu&dgrave; dha, Brancusi's Torso, and a photograph of the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Much of the new material concerned with generating ideas responds to relatively new trends in the study of art. Today an interest in political, economic, and social implications of art has in large measure replaced the h earlier interest in matters of style, authenticity, and quality. In short, contemporary interest seems to have moved from the text to the context, from the artwork as a unique object with its distinctive meaning to the artwork as a manifestation of something more important (gender, politics, ethnicity), from aesthetics to a criticism of social and political cultures. This shift in the study of art is a response to a shift in art itself— the shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism. In the first half of the twentieth century, art— in the movement called Modernism— sloughed off the earlier concern with subject matter, illusionism, and beauty; what F counted was the artist's sensibility. Post-Modernism, rejecting this elite ' sensibility, sees artists as deeply embedded in their society, understood only in the context of that society. The emphasis is now on the historical conditions governing the production and consumption of art.

Nevertheless, A Short Guide continues to give generous space to the formal analysis of art. I continue to use the term art rather than visual culture, though I uneasily recall Andy Warhol's observation that in America most people think that Art is a man's name. I grant, too, that visual culture has the advantage of including works— for instance, boomerangs, nose rings, and Native American feathered bonnets— that we might call art but that are not called art by the cultures that produced them. Indeed, one has only to do a very little reading to learn that many languages do not include a word for art; apparently no Native American language has such a word, and the Japanese invented such a word only after coming into contact with European ideas. My use of art, then, should be considered not only affection for an old word but also shorthand for visual culture.

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