How to Be a Freelance Art Writer

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.

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