Writer Lynn Maliszewski (with bag at right) seen covering Hermann Nitsch’s live painting action (photo by Benjamin Norman)

Editor’s note: In this post, freelance art writer and Hyperallergic contributor Lynn Maliszewski explains her own experience being an art writer based in Brooklyn, from the cheap cups of coffee to the studio visits. Think you’ve got what it takes? This is the first in a series of posts by art writers discussing their lives and experience writing about art.

1. Keep Costs Down and Hustle

Being a freelance art writer in New York is as outwardly glamorous as it has ever been; that is, not glamorous at all. Sure, I have the freedom to wake up at 10:00 am everyday and traipse around Brooklyn armed with a carton of 27’s, my laptop, and $8 for four cups of coffee and several bananas. But while we’re on the subject of money, let’s get that unfortunate basic point out of the way: I am extremely underpaid for how much effort and time I put into my work. Financially speaking, the pay-cut I took in getting laid off from a full-time gig waiting tables was rough, but it was kind of like a trip to the doctor’s office: worrisome and draining, but ultimately vital to my health. Receiving unemployment after busting ass in the hospitality industry for six years was a blessing in disguise, allowing for a base, meager income in this city’s land of unpaid opportunities. The plethora of unsalaried options for work (often referred to as “internships”) has only re-emphasized to me how nonexistent the “art writing” career ladder is. In fact, there’s all sorts of ways to become a full-fledged art writer. Whether you contribute to a handful of different publications, hold out for the elusive editorial assistant position at a magazine, or hit the jackpot in the editorial department of an art institution (museum or otherwise), there’s a good chance that all these paths could end up in the same position in ten years: head of an editorial operation somewhere, or, more likely, some other totally unrelated job.

2. Get Your Voice Down

My writing has been primed by interning, ghostwriting and editing experiences. Still, embarking upon freelance writing was a unique beast, freed from prior expectations or directions. Basically, it was scary. At first, there were inexhaustible options. Some publications are exquisitely academic in their art writing, others a bit more gossipy, while still others just bland. The sway of each outlet depended on its audience and the vibe of writers contributing, so I started to develop my own style according to where I held those standards for myself and what my art writing personality was. I also found myself among a small percentage of art writers who aren’t also working artists. My visual experience is tethered to my analytical work rather than an artistic practice. Instead of uncovering novel techniques, compositions or other formal factors in the work I review, my writing exposes larger questions I have about life and my own personal evolution. Writing is an extension of myself and provides the distraction and calm I assume visual artists find in their own craft. I hold it close to my chest, but I also want my writing to be as approachable as I am. I’m writing from the perspective of a looker instead of a maker; I can put myself in the viewer’s shoes.

Writer Lynn Maliszewski (at back) taking notes at Hermann Nitsch’s live painting action (photo by Benjamin Norman)

3. Look Harder

Despite its reputation of reclusiveness, art writing is actually delightfully interactive. Studio visits and meeting artists to chat about their work is an important and consistent part of my writing process. Understanding the artist’s intentions, process, and history is invaluable to me in analyzing their work. This demystification aids the powers of criticality. Socializing, however, has become a bit of an issue for me in the midst of freelancing. Even in the midst of a quiet moment with friends or the intermittent drunken stupor, my mind stumbles upon the work I could be doing. The autonomy of freelancing strikes like a virus at times, mutating my 23-year old self into an anxious, bitter, stressed curmudgeon. I’ve regularly lost track of days in my inability to separate work from life. “All work and no play” has to be the mantra considering the administrative work, actual writing and diligent arts participation (attending lectures, openings and so on) that may go on in a given week. I am constantly combating myself becoming the cliché of the boring adult I conceptualized in my adolescence.

3. Make Your Readers Feel It

Quality over quantity helps me keep my tension at bay. I stray away from blogs that post superfluous, shallow content just to fulfill a quota. Such oversimplification of visual art can betray the conversational quality of art and deny any type of insight for those less than well versed. I think my most successful writing allows the reader to understand my critical stance as well as recognize the depth of content and context available for exploration in the art I write about. My goal is to get a reader, regardless of background or interest, excited about art. Art should stimulate or challenge the viewer, kick their ass, captivate their attention or surge and collapse like the tide. I’ll admit that a Platon photograph has made me tear up and Warhol’s portraits really turn me on. Art intuits a thought in the collective subconscious while lending foreign stimulation to the visual matrix. Technology has made art more accessible, but I want to revitalize the experience of art freed from subliminal noise and distractions. By writing, I want to reinvigorate art’s sense of worth amid the younger generation of iPad-toting, multi-tasking, preoccupied individuals. Sharing these visual discoveries feels like a civic duty, like donating a cigarette to a stressed-out stranger. Writing about art completes a karmic cycle.

4. Don’t Hold Back

New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz spoke about the one-sidedness of art in the introduction to his anthology, Seeing Out Loud. Saltz strove to uncover the full spectrum of modern art in the New York market. Not all art that’s being shown is gold. I’ve taken this maxim to heart, expanding upon what strikes me about a work and nullifying “good” and “bad” pejorative labels. I refuse to shit on anyone’s parade (that’s not what I’m here for), but presenting a challenge to the artists I respect and supplementing the aesthetic dialogue is a top priority. Every show or artist I write about finds itself connected to me, both through my byline and the associations and analyses I evoke. Lingering personal questions broaden and develop with each article published. Each morsel of knowledge gained facets the diamond that is my personal understanding of art, generating a concentrated mound of grandeur where each cut reflects and refracts the wisdom ad infinitum. Well, maybe not quite so grand as all that. But we can all dream, can’t we?

Stay tuned for future essays on art writing, by art writers. Of note: photos of Lynn in this essay are from the Hermann Nitsch event she documented for Hyperallergic here.

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance art critic.

60 replies on “How to Be a Freelance Art Writer”

  1. I was nodding along with interest until I arrived at the point where the author identifies herself as 23 years old.  After that I started to feel like the important stuff is being left out here. Where’d you go to school, girl? How are you writing for BOMB and Hyperallergic at age 23? You can’t have been out of a BA (or BFA) for more than a year. How much experience can you possibly have?

    1. Okay, on second thought, I suppose writing for these sites right out of an undergrad isn’t that outlandish. I certainly didn’t have any ideas about art that were worth publishing when I was 23, though. Good hustle. Hats off to you.

        1. Maybe! But I know the difference between “your” and “you’re.” Probably on account of my advanced age.

    2.  Julian, a lot of it has to do with drive– the desire to pursue writing
      and the motivation to get the job done. Age is not exactly a factor in
      that sense. Age is not exactly a sign of experience for that matter. 

  2.  I’m sorry Mr. Sherwin but that’s empirically ridiculous. Of course age matters. Presume that one writer has studied art for, lets say 6-8 years and has achieved a terminal degree in theory or history, or both. At age 23 our noble author has not had the time to do so unless she is some sort of genius and I saw no signs of this. I agree with Julian, clearly. Perhaps her position is so secure due to the fact that the majority of the viewing/reading public anymore have little to no art theory education themselves and so any idea effectively written will sound like wisdom. I mean a writer somewhere actually made a heavily accented steroid bulked immigrant sound electable to a whole state. Consider this- the above article enumerated nothing of the idea eluded to in the title. I am no more enlightened as to the process of being a freelance art writer now than I was before I read her words. I found the banana and coffee bit somewhat humanizing, the low pay and hospitality veteran lines create a sense of familiarity, but aside from this her advice was -‘write, visit studios and talk to artists, write some more, wash, rinse, repeat’. Perhaps we have found the cause of the declining intellect of our art world- we are letting any 23 year old with a laptop critique the art without any criticism themselves. Ludicrous.

    1. Hey Scott,

      I have to admit that the slightly misleading title was my idea when I was editing the post for publishing. The article is modeled somewhat after popular blog Thought Catalog’s (http://thoughtcatalog.com/) “How To” series of posts that provide guides to do abstract things, usually angsty twentysomething-related. This isn’t meant to be a literal guide, it’s supposed to be evocative.

      Though honestly, “write, visit studios and talk to artists, write some more, wash, rinse, repeat” is probably the best advice you could give to any art writer.

      1.  Hey Kyle, a piece modeled on the Thought Catalog concept seems like a perfectly good idea, but it also seems to me that this topic is one for which Hyperallergic readers might actually appreciate a practical guide from an experienced (and hopefully successful) practitioner. Lynn’s writing shows some style and character, but it’s not really “entertaining” in a Thought Catalog kind of way. Nothing about it suggests that it isn”t to be taken in a totally straightforward fashion, and I think all of the advice proffered here — despite being perfectly decent — is probably common sense to anybody who’s already interested in art writing. If you’re looking for a model of useful and tongue-in-cheek art world advice, you might want to have another look at Paper Monument’s “I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette.”

        1. I’m so sad you think it’s not entertaining! I thought it would be better to not have it be “entertaining” in a Thought Catalog kind of way because I think their writing is shallow and infantile, which wouldn’t exactly serve your purposes either. (“How to Not Have Sex With Your Studio Mate”?)

          To me this piece is just kind of a personal meditation, which might be interesting, might not. The “advice” model is just a reference, a structure. I don’t think I’d fill the requirements needed for a guide to real art world art writing by a successful practitioner either. Point taken though, and we’re certainly going to make this into a series. I just hope that when mine comes about no one will expect ineffable wisdom.

        2. Julian, I think that’s why when we asked Lynn to write the piece we realized it had to be a series, so we will be inviting art writers of all types to write about their own experiences as a freelancer, full-timer, etc. We believe in plurality. And the piece itself isn’t intended as tongue-in-check. 

    2. Hi Scottfxx,

      You know, I have to admit that I agree with you. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as someone who has studied art and theory for 6-8 years, but it’s shocking to me that you think I don’t realize that. It’s the reason ‘write, visit studios and talk to artists, write some more, wash, rinse, repeat’ could actually be one of the more accurate descriptions of the path I’m trucking along on right now. School and all the new Art Theory/Cultural Criticism/Visual Analysis grad programs have actually played tug of war with my freelancing for a minute now (that’s a whole other article, though). Thankfully, seeing art prompts me to do research. Academic art writing, and I assume by your standards more ‘critical’ art writing, takes not only extensive research but a thorough survey of the prismatic aspects of genres, artists, and work in general (i.e TIME). Obviously, in being 23 I’m still working on it. Also, this was by nooo means an instructional manual, but rather a momentary status report.

      1. Dislike this comment. How old do you have to be to write about art? What’s the difference between being an ‘art writer’ and an ‘art critic’? And as Hrag said above, who decides what’s true criticism and what’s not?

        Maybe you were just referring to the ‘old people not freaking out’ part.

        1. I really dislike this comment, I guess sarcasm doesn’t translate online well, but I thought it was pretty obvious I was writing in jest.

          The entire idea that you need to be a certain age or of a certain qualification to write about art is absurd. if the writing is well done, thought through and informed then who cares how old the writer or critic is? You don’t need a BFA, BA or MFA to read some Adorno, Eco, or for the youngings Ed Halter (to be clear for Kathy I am not saying these are the only writers you need to know to write good criticism). Self-education is often the most fruitful and I highly doubt any of the writers commenting here learned as much in university as they have being on the job. 

          1.  Sorry, after a few years of graduate work at the University of Chicago, I am not in the “self-education” camp.

            I get it, but can’t get into it.

          2. I think you’re forgetting my PhD in “Being an Obnoxious Art Blogger”. Just kidding! I don’t have one!

            For me, there will always be a line between highly focused, theoretically critical, academic art writing and the kind of accessible, clear material that can also be enjoyed and appreciated by a mainstream audience. I know I’m on the accessible side, but I don’t begrudge the other side of the fence.

        2.  yes, the old people freaking out part.  But in general, the ability to ask the right questions I think sets apart “true criticism.”

          Honestly, I don’t care if an art writer or critic likes a work or not.  I look for the conversation; the interesting questions art presents.

          1. OKC Thunder : Memphis Grizzlies :: Experience : Grad School? Anyone? Anyone?

            Grad school lets you get your hands dirty with more intense theory and analysis, and come to terms with questions already asked. However, I wonder if mutating into an uber-nerd might make it more difficult to write for less formally-driven criticism publications like this beaut right here. Moreover, I want my writing to speak to my generation. I think interesting questions can still be raised in an article that doesn’t site 6 anthologies of criticism.

            I’m working on grasping the art criticism before me because I recognize its importance and I’m curious. It may take a little longer because it isn’t condensed into 3 or 4 years of full exertion, but piecemeal/experiential learning is incredibly valuable in a different way. Experience is key for getting conversation going, be it with artists, writers, friends, or strangers. I’m still absorbing, and feel like grad school is best served with a more specific aim.

  3. In public I generally blame the ad and pr machines for what in private I curse, “damn kids.”  

    As an art writer I’ve found that along with looking at art and speaking with artists, much time must be spent looking for more substantial reading and resisting the temptation to feed on an art blog only diet.

    1. But we’re on an art blog right now! I think there has to be a distinction made between “blog” and “art publication with bad, shallow, irrelevant content”. Plenty of print operations are a lot more useless than what we post, IMHO.

        1. I’m not sure how you jumped from “reads art blogs” to “only reads art blogs.” 

          1.  I think I am missing the point you are making here. 

            My original point is simply to make access to a variety of art sources and that means not all blogs all of the time.  This, I think is the best way to serve the voice of the art writer….of any writer.

    1. Why are you posting anonymously? Can’t you tell us who you are? And then again, who gets to decide if it’s “true” criticism. Eye of the beholder IMHO. 

      1. yup. “true” criticism has been defined to me as always negative, always positive, historical in nature, personal in nature, regurgitation, too demanding for the public, enlightening, and useless. I’ve heard all of those in the last week.

        Writing about art is not always criticism.

        “True” criticism makes me think of drag queens and their “realness.”

  4. thanks, lynn. i just started visiting this blog, and other art blogs, on a regular basis, and have been enjoying it and them. i am more familiar with lit blogs and i’m not sure whether it’s disappointing or somehow relieving that the same kind of persistent pessimistic trolling is as prevalent here as it is on lit blogs. in any case, you all look to be doing a great job.

  5. To be honest, this read a lot like the shallow, quota-filling content you mentioned avoiding. Instead of substantive advice or anything related to the title of the post (Scottfxxx was right to comment on its misleading nature) this reads like a well-edited Livejournal entry. You’ve worked hard, you’ve sacrificed; that’s good for you but it’s not impressive and the ambivalent tone of self-praise isn’t cute either.

    I think a huge problem with students and aspiring writers/critics our age (I’m 23 as well) is our self-involvement and preoccupation with our own lived experience. When it’s presented in an eloquent, interesting way then maybe it’s pertinent and worth reading, but I’m sorry, I don’t think this qualifies.

    A lot of the time, a B.A. means we’ve learned to relate things to ourselves, but I think it often takes serious, thorough and advanced studies before many of us will be able to make connections between what we’re learning and the world beyond ourselves. Oftentimes experience, wisdom and persistence are great stand-ins for advanced degrees, but either way, that ability to think critically and to not relate everything to ourselves is important, and largely underdeveloped in people our age. It’s something that we, as young people still trying to forge a sense of self, can not yet adequately do. Writing like yours proves this point.

    As your style develops I’m sure you can turn your ‘morsels of knowledge’ into something great, but to give advice or to indulge in pre-memoir musings on your life already is a little presumptuous and silly.

      1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Hrag. 

        The whole point of this series is to look into the minds, experiences, and professional lives of freelance art writers. Yes, it seems one-sided because I am currently the only inhabitant of the series. I’m not claiming to teach you anything new or looking to be a singular source teaching anyone how to freelance.
        I understand where you’re coming from in thinking our generation is self-absorbed. But as almost any freelancer can tell you, there’s a different degree of pressure when you cannot escape your work. Your byline is obviously your name but also an insight into what you see, read, and are interested in both inside and outside of art. Writing (like art) is a complete extension unavoidably of the author. Also, the whole point of this article (once again) was to give a status report, and be honest with both myself and the reader about a small gear in the art writing machine. I do not give advice, I do not claim to be the sole opinion of interest or worth. Plus, i refuse to feel bad for being self-referential when the article is about what challenges me and what issues I have. It’s a special occasion!!

        I’d love to hear what you think about my writing for publications other than this one.

      2. Wow Hrag maybe you and your bloggers need to figure out what advice is. It’s neither what was in the original post nor in my reply. Way to perpetuate the stereotype that art blogs are shit.

  6. Weighing in as someone who will paying off her graduate school debt for the next 25 years, I think that with writing, jumping in and learning on the go is just as good as spending a few years in a quarantined hothouse being spoonfed theory. 

    So while, the ’23’ was surprising to me as well, the author seems to know that she’s just starting out and the city is her classroom. There’s some romance and self-mythologizing here, sure, but who is NOT guilty of that at 23? I know I was. If there wasn’t that initial star-struck feeling toward art and living the dream in NYC, we would have all majored in something, say, practical in college. And then we wouldn’t be able to have such sparkling fights in comment threads! 

  7. To me the article seemd so basic that it was almost pointless… then we get to the age and then, it gives some context.  Visit studios, check. Have a voice (personal style), check. We certainly expect artists to have voice

    Hate to be the bearer of some tough news but I don’t know anyone getting paid much for art criticism, whatever age, except for the Times, Time, the biggies. In my part of the world, the last art critic on a daily newspaper was just taken off from art writing. He stayed on the paper to write of other things, of “news” I suppose. Almost everyone who freelances here pieces together small bits of money from different publications or sources and they’re all way past 30.

    I think what I miss the most here is the love of reading in and of itself, the love of the word. You can tell when a critic has read many different kinds of writing – like novels or things which have (on the surface) nothing to do with contemporary art. That was what was so delicious about the diaries of Delacroix – he jumps from painting to music to romance. It’s all tied together. I liked Hickey for similar reasons – he was into jazz and musicians; he could place artists into a bigger landscape.

  8.  Ok…my thought after reading the article and comments centered on age and experience, (and myself being on the further end of that path), is that youthful idealism and the early thrill of personal commitment,  is great, even though it can seem shallow when looked back on, or by those with more experience or degrees.  There is nothing more boring than dialogues with practitioners who become too sure of their conclusions and always have to have the last word.  They make or write about art from a defensive position, more than exploratory, because they have to protect their own past thoughts, endlessly. With that said, I do seek out the voice of educated, experienced thinkers, as a way of learning what the most established points are…up to that point…while knowing that younger thinkers will uproot many of them in time, because that is what they do! Yes, 23 is young to be an advisor, but I really think it was just about communing and encouraging each other.   

    1. Nicely put, Judith. Young writers would be silly not to consider established critics in hope of pushing questions further and looking for new ones.

  9. I just realized that the 4 section topics are actually really good advice.
    1. Keep Costs Down and Hustle
    2. Get Your Voice Down
    3. Make Your Readers Feel It
    4. Don’t Hold Back

  10. I am completely flabbergasted at the elitist, anti-art, tripe expressed in the comments to this article. If I am understanding properly, one could not POSSIBLY enjoy art properly or have anything useful or interesting to say about art unless one is either seasoned by age or in possesion of an advanced degree in art theory or criticism. I will say this in the politest terms that I possibly can…
    I really don’t know Ms Maliszewski’s work, but a writer’s ideas and points-of-view are evidenced by their writing. A writers age and education are also often evidenced by their writing; if I’m not interested, I will move on to some other writer. It almost sounds as if many of the commenters are afraid that someone might express a “wrong” idea about art or someone’s work and that this would be bad and should be, at least, frowned upon, if not not censored.
    I am 50 and have loved art all of my life, even when I was 23. It has made me laugh, made me cry, forced me to think and cost me money that I didn’t have. In my view, as uneducated as it is, this is what art should be. Most of the time, I really could care less about the theoretical considerations of PhD art critics.
    I may not (or I may) be interested in the musings of a 23 year-old art writer but there is certainly a place in the world for them.

  11. Nice post! Thank god there’s no age limit to being a writer, artist or musician, the world would be pretty boring otherwise. And just as knowing an artist’s background and context helps getting further into their work, having such information about critics is great to enable readers to be critical too. Very good point about your position as a non-working artist in the art world – you’re not alone! 

  12. Dear Lynn,

    Congratulations on a great article. While I notice that some people in the comments are referencing (and critiquing) your age / experience level, I would like to commend you on your drive, and on what you have learned about the industry thus far. Also, I commend your statement (via the comments) that you’re 23 and “still working on it”…that your art writing career is a work in progress, and that you are actively seeking out and obtaining the “experience” that several commentators seem to feel as necessary criteria when writing about art. We all have to start somewhere, after all. I look forward to seeing more of your work, even as you continue to learn and grow into your chosen career…with any luck, we will both accumulate more art writing “experience” together!

    A 25-Year Old Writer / Editor for a Museum Blog
    (Who considers her travels and exposure to art more relevant “experience” than her master’s degree in Art History)

Comments are closed.