On Art Writing


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Seven years ago, I was invited to attend an art exhibit perhaps so that I can write about it. The default feeling was reluctance, not because I don’t know how to write, but for the reason of deficient grounding in art – no art theory to boot; no art history stored in between my ears.

The invitation bodes badly for a freelancer who writes for various end-users with ever-changing needs, art not included. At that particular juncture, the function of everyday writing is a livelihood. The unremunerated journalism passion projects, though self-fulfilling, did not have a place in the order of priority.

A debate ensued in my mind: art writing is tedious; it requires thinking and studying; I have other important writing work and fellowships to finish; there is no compensation; I’m lazy. 

But I jumped in. 

I’m not a newcomer to the local art scene, but I’m neither a mainstay. My decades-old relationship with art, if that can be called such, is touch-and-go.

Despite the seemingly unsociable association that I have maintained with the art sector all these years, viewing art remained a cherished diversion from the daily grind; sneaking in on galleries empty of noisy art makers, creative workers, and annoying guides, to spend thinking time on the lines, strokes, pigments, symbols, and metaphors, rendered by artists to convey statements, criticisms or elucidations of historical events or an unfolding socio-political phenomenon.

Deliberately, these interactions with art were absconded like a passerby that didn’t leave a written footprint – online or offline. However, it slowly walked back in before that fateful invitation probably because of the political context of 2016, and with all social development and politically-related work taking its toll, the feeling that you’re worn out. 

The author with the organizers of the Visayas Island Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference 2016. (Photo by Christian Lozanes)

This is what lured me to take a closer look and write about art. Writing gained its momentum with Iloilo experiencing a rebirth with new aggressive blood and courageous artists exhibiting work with reputable names that had become synonymous with art development.

The preliminary outcome was tasteless; a product of unpolished journalism skills only made confident by a purified instinct to write. But writers write anyway using a borrowed idea as a preliminary step so that the underdeveloped, but original idea, can be advanced and the significance of art can reach a larger audience.

Seven years after, two of which were frittered because of the pandemic, I look back at how I started writing about art and what happened in between. This is like an attempt to learn how to write an essay but using the unlikely subject of self-reflection about art writing without hesitation of exposing one’s biases, inadequacies, and inabilities hoping that something good will come out of the process of reimagining the self.

After much reading about art (and I’m at the 5 percent level), viewing art, drinking plenty of wine, consuming cocktail food during unveilings, occasionally pulled to the front to cut the ribbon because there’s nobody else around, and filling the room with conversation and laughter, I have come to terms that only writers with a latent love for contemporary art will flourish in art writing. I tend to believe that this is an enjoyable vocation and I have occupied a small humble corner as a freelancer and a learner in a room composed of literary giants, respected art scholars and critics, academics, and real journalists who believe they hold the key as truth-tellers while others are merely lesser mortals.

Art, unlike the daily news coverage which is boring and has shamefully deteriorated with social media, is an interesting subject because it cuts across various themes that affect daily life. It is seductive for writing because it requires curiosity, the development of new knowledge and skills, or what they call retooling, and it is a relaxing pastime. 

Art subjects are cross-cutting making it seductive for thinking and writing

Art help explain the realities that we confront today. 

One good example is the recently opened solo show by Bacolod-based artist Charlie Co at the Mamusa Art Gallery in Iloilo City. The collection speaks about war and the endless cycle of conflict. War is on the news every day but art brings the subject closer to us and at a more personal level. Hence, the seduction of art coverage and writing. It breaks the tendency of oversimplifying the complexities of political events. Intellectual thought is required in art writing and it demands an investment of time to view art, think, and write.

While journalism is literature in a hurry, in fact much more carelessly hurried in this digital age, the art writing process, on the contrary, is slow and deliberate. The narrative is produced through an interplay of the internal – personal experience, observation, and emotions of the writer; and the external – art masterpieces and the artist, to connect to an audience who may not have seen art in an attempt to expound on a social phenomenon of the realities of the day.

Writing art can fill up that void space inside you.

Today writing about art remains a serious struggle yet it endured for very personal reasons. Every art exhibit has become a battleground for self-reflection, a mental and emotional journey, and writing about it is usually informed by the personal accumulation of the socio-political experience which has shaped knowledge, wisdom, and age.

I realized that unlike making news reports, opinion pieces, and special thematic stories, not to mention writing for people who can’t for themselves, there is much of the “personal” in art writing. 

Through the years, I have developed a priority for art that strikes a chord on the personal, art pieces and artists that provide focus on what the individual is creating as a contribution to improving society. To a great extent, this is what stimulated my art writing. It is the element of the personal that shaped its contours giving it authentic insight, flow, emotion, and intense opinion. 

Recognizably, the latter – intense opinion – is not entirely good for art writing said Gilda Williams in How to Write About Contemporary Art. She posed the question of how much of a writer’s opinion is required when a writer approaches art. As an opinion writer at the outset, this point served as a searing reminder of art critic Peter Plagens’s art writing formula that is 10% good and 90% crap. Without curiosity, patience to observe, examination of knowledge, emotion, and study, an opinion from artwork or the artist might just turn everything into crap. 

The realizations are abundant. Although I write during my free time, much of it follows the rigors of journalism, a method without a space for crap, and using a combined approach of investigation to find answers to questions and using the innate quality of creative exploration to tell about its relevance during conditions where humans lose faith in humanity.

Writing about art, I’ve observed, can fill up a void, that space probably occupied by frustrations and disappointments to deliver a healing element. The metaphorical and symbolic messaging of art illuminates to show the dark side of life – lies, illusions, contradictions, and mistakes so that we can gain access to higher truths and allow ourselves to understand the world around us.

As Socrates famously immortalized: “An unexamined life is not worth living”.  Art writing? Only through a latent love for art that an art writer will flourish.

Ted Aldwin Ong
Ted Aldwin Ong writes art features and reviews. His collection of articles can be found at In the Frame, the art section of peoplesdomain.net.


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