THE ART OF PERFORMANCE
Dave Mann questions the role of the arts writer.
In an age of online-first, visually-driven content, what is the value of writing about art or performance? And is writing about art even necessary? For someone who enjoys writing about art and performance, those are a few of the questions that can gnaw at my mind each time I sit down to begin a new piece. I never used to think like this. Back when I first realised I loved writing about art, I was convinced that writing was more important than ever – that it was an entirely necessary medium that wouldn’t fade away no matter how smart they made our phones, or how cluttered our timelines became. And I still feel that way about writing, it’s just that these days I fight a little harder each time to remind myself of those feelings.
It was a few months back when I really struggled to reconcile these viewpoints. I had written a long-form piece on a performer and the interview had gone well. I took my time with the piece, polishing and re-reading it many times over, and before I was set to send the piece in for publishing, I sent it to the performer for a readthrough. I do this whenever I write a particularly indepth piece about a person, because I like to believe that whenever you’re tasked with handling someone’s personal story, there’s an agreement of trust that’s entered into, and by working through the final draft of that person’s story with them, you’re honouring that relationship.
The piece came back to me filled with requests for changes. As I read through the edits, I realised that nothing about the form, the facts, or even the story itself was an issue for the performer, but that small things like the inclusion of slang words or phrases they used in direct quotes, were to be taken out. Other requested edits were that I include absolutely every piece of work they’ve done, and accolades they’d received named in full. In short, I had written a piece that spoke on the nature of their craft, why they did it, and what it meant to them and those who engaged with it, and to my mind, they had simply wanted an incredibly long-winded artist bio all along. Besides those ‘small changes’, they told me, they absolutely loved the piece.
The whole experience made me want to quit banging around on keyboards for good. Afterwards, I called a friend for advice. ‘What’s the point of writing about someone’s practice if all they want is a new artist statement for their website?’ I asked. ‘And what’s the
“Writing is performative – it’s process-based. You go out and experience something, gather the facts and the insights, run those things through your own experiences and knowledge, lay it out in a format that’s readable and understandable, and then you let it go”
point of writing about someone’s process if everyone would sooner watch an Instagram story about it?’ A little dramatic, yes, but the call helped. As these things go, the friend had no quick-fix advice on the matter, but we did end up having a good conversation about the value of process, and the value of documenting and archiving outside of social media.
Writing about art or performance is a tricky business for a number of reasons, one of which is that the majority of
us have preconceived ideas about arts writers as arts critics – sharp, ruthless folk, always poised to take up their pens and make or break artists’ entire careers. I am not an arts critic. I am someone who writes about art, and I find it’s the medium that makes the most sense to me. And if we’re differentiating an arts critic from an arts writer, I’d say that the latter is simply someone who takes the words, works, and processes of an artist, and puts them into a story that’s comprehensible. In this way, arts writers are much like political reporters who we rely on to sit in on things like SONA debates and parliamentary discussions, taking down all the bureaucratic jargon and presenting it to us in a way that makes sense – and if done well, makes us understand the significance of large-scale issues to individual people. And if art is just another way of making sense of the world and our places in it, then someone who writes about, documents and archives art, is ideally the conduit of these ideas to other people who are interested in creative forms of expression.
The other thing that makes writing about art a tricky practice is inherent to the act of writing itself. I’ve been lucky enough to write about all kinds of art and artists over the years and I still have these small pangs of fear in my stomach whenever I see my writing out in the world.
I’m scared of misinterpreting something, coming across as too soft, too hard, too arrogant, or too ignorant. Because writing is performative – it’s process-based. You go out and experience something, gather the facts and the insights, run those things through your own experiences and knowledge, lay it out in a format that’s readable and understandable, and then you let it go.
I went to a talk by the arts writers Sean O’Toole and Ashraf Jamal a while back. The talk, which focussed loosely on Jamal’s new book, saw the two discussing things like arts writing in South Africa, the media industry as a whole, and the various politics of writing. At one point, O’Toole asked Jamal how he dealt with people engaging with his writing, either positively or negatively. While Jamal didn’t quite answer the question, he did state that he ‘wrote to be read’. I found that to be a strange stance, although naturally, I understand that public writing will inevitably be read by someone.
The following day I had a chat with the artist Chris Soal ahead of his debut solo exhibition, Orbits of Relating. We spoke about his process, his approach to artmaking, and his own experiences of writing about art. He explained how, if you’re creating art that’s only seen by a select few – peers, educators, close friends – ‘then you’re essentially creating work that exists in a vacuum.’ One of the aims of creating
"Writing about art or performance is a tricky business for a number of reasons, one of which is that the majority of us have preconceived ideas about arts writers as arts critics – sharp, ruthless folk, always poised to take up their pens and make or break artists’ entire careers"
work, he said, is to have it engaged with, and seen by as many people as possible so that each person can draw their own meaning from the work, or leave their individual impressions on it. Writing about art, he said, was another way of doing that.
Later, while I tried to put Soal’s work and thoughts into words, I went through the same performance of writing that I always do. I gathered the information and the insights, I ran it through my own thoughts and impressions, typed it out into what I thought was a coherent structure, and then I let it go. I still felt the same fears and anxieties, and I still wondered what the value of my contribution really was. I thought back to the phone call I had with my friend, and I tried to remember what we said about writing being a means of communication – another version of someone’s practice or process being sent out into the world as a means of reference.
Ultimately, if all the pains and processes that go into trying to write about art or performance end up playing some small part in making meaning out of the way we exist in the world, then I think that’s enough.