Suzana Milevska: Voice(s) of One’s Own: Writing a catalogue text as a specific genre of interdisciplinary and performative writing

The catalogue entry is an introductory text that belongs to a specific writing genre: it is a piece of interdisciplinary and performative writing that is determined by its relation with art. It is often called a preface but it is actually the main text in publications related to art projects and exhibitions. Each exhibition, artist’s career, and a single work of art all have a certain form/format and a background concept that needs to be presented and clarified within the catalogue essay so its function inevitably derives and is closely related to the exhibition and exhibited works. ‘In fact, a good entry should help the reader to see the work more clearly, more fully.’[1]

Besides the formal descriptive and explanatory aims, however, there are other requirements that a comprehensive catalogue preface needs to fulfil. All required components make the structure of this genre more complex than the structure of any other genre of writing being comprised of many different reality registers. The text that follows does not offer a recipe for writing a successful catalogue text but will reflect on the usual expectations that professionals and audience have from a catalogue entry. For the same reason it will attempt on tackling some of the major issues that accompany the fulfilment of these expectations and the sources of the problems that writers encounter in the process of writing.

On the one hand, many relevant data need to be presented clearly and comprehensively throughout the text that often requires an extensive research to collect, select and analyse all necessary information that is available. Research about art and artists goes under similar scrutiny as any other research and is even a more painful process particularly because private artistic archives are often scattered and fragmented. On the other hand, the catalogue text is a text after all: it needs to have its own structure and it needs to stand on its own because it is published as a publication that circulates not solely adjacent to the exhibition but also independently. Each writer, therefore, has to find his/her own voice through the process of writing, as with any other text. It should make this text stand out of many texts written about the same exhibition or artist’s work and to function together with its subject. The text, therefore, has to simultaneously retain its relation with the exhibition and with its past or future audience.


The inefficiency of language

A lot has been said about the inefficiency of language to express reality. The inadequacy and incommensurability of our language for representing reality become even more evident when reality to be reflected by a text is an art work or exhibition. This intricacy is a result of mainly two complex phenomena:

  • There is little to be said about art works with writing just about them because it is impossible to retrieve the creative process.[2]
  • There is a lack of equivalence between image and referent so purely linguistic understanding is inadequate to art objects.[3]

For Baxandall the verbal pointing phrases such as ‘there is a flow of movement from the left towards the center’ even though a more complex than the usual descriptive words are far from being sufficient for reconstructing the creative process that precedes the completion of an art work.[4] The problems with writing about art occur instantaneously because the words about images and objects are predestined and overburdened by descriptiveness, linearity and tautology.[5] The narrative expression largely differs from the visual one. To put it simply, words do not belong to the same order of reality as the images and objects, even though they are closely related in our consciousness: ‘THE WORDS resist me the way objects resist. They had to be observed, encircled, I would pretend to move away and then suddenly come back …[6]


I. Interdisciplinarity

Even though each epoch has its own requirements of approach and preferred rules, the catalogue entry has always been far from pure description or neutral attempt of retrieving the artistic concepts and expressions. Interweaving of different theoretical methods, literature and certain creative writing methods are means that can help the writer in finding the appropriate writing approach and vocabulary for each exhibition and catalogue text.

I want to argue that the catalogue text is a unique interdisciplinary genre that is neither mere a theoretical text, nor just another literature genre. Therefore even though it is open to experiments and variability there are certain specific rules of this genre and only by following of these rules it can justify its existence. The interdisciplinarity of the genre allows to the writer to put together different sources that may originate from disciplines that do not belong to art history but may shad more light to the specific language of each artist in the era when art is evidently influenced by social and natural sciences, literature, political, economical and other issues besides the visual representation.

Writing of the catalogue text happens through an entanglement of at least three radically different aspects:

a) Close formal analysis: an extrapolation of the form, subject and concept that is necessary introduction for the audience that usually reads the catalogue after visiting or instead of seeing the show.

Writing a formal analysis is not about a simple description even though it is based on observation. To precisely indicate how different forms are put together to convey not obvious meaning is one of the most important task of the detailed formal analysis. The extent and the importance of the close formal analysis’ role differs from period to period but nevertheless this part of the catalogue essay is an inevitable tool for articulating the need for use of different elements and artistic media and for thoroughly presenting and understanding the chosen art project.

The relevance of formal analysis has been significantly contested by the contemporary critics of modernism and modern art only because if this is the only analysis offered by the catalogue text, it isolates the work of art from its own context. By so doing it shreds all other possible meanings that a work gains when look at its own context.


b) Research: collecting and analysing of factual information about more general context of the exhibition.

To embark on the research for writing a catalogue is a process that differs from exhibition to exhibition. It can be based on one of several studio visits and informal conversations with the artist or it can mean years spent in local archives. It can even include travelling abroad and researching international state or private archives, depending on the concept and genre of exhibition (individual project, group exhibition, period overview or retrospective).

Collecting and analyzing of the background information about the work’s origin, artist’s career, social or political analysis of the era or adequate theory, or any other contextual issues relevantly related to the exhibition requires consulting of many various sources: hence, the writing inevitably becomes interdisciplinary and can largely exceed the art history methodology.


c) A personal quest for one’s own voice: searching for a specific methodology and vocabulary of writing that is recognisable for the writer/curator).

Besides the general requirements of formal and content analysis each text brings forward the subjective voice of its writer. Regardless to objectivity as one of the most important requirement of a catalogue essay, the personal, subjective approach towards a work of art or an art phenomenon is always welcome as long as it does not overlooks or is in a direct collision with the main aims of the artist.

In continuation of this text I will focus on various modes of speech and on the problems that writers encounter in finding a way to express their own opinions in a personally developed writing models and to build up their text either on stating facts and offering descriptions or on writing as a performative process.


II. Performativity

a) material and demonstrative mode of speech

Philosophers have never agreed on a single definition of nature of the link between the language and the reality: whether the words have meanings and stand for something other than themselves or they are completely independent and conceptually formative. According to Richard Wollheim’s interpretation and application of Rudolf Carnap’s distinction between two different modes of speech, for any writing about art it is important to take account of the distinction between:

  • the material mode of speech that states how certain things are and
  • the demonstrative or formal mode of speech that states how certain things are described in different contexts.[7]

If we use the example that was pointed by Wollheim for the material mode ‘Bavarian landscape is happy’ the example for the demonstrative speech would be ‘The predicate ”happy” is applied to describe a landscape.’[8] For Wollheim such formal mode of speech is used to draw the link, to stress the correspondence between the words and objects.


b) Three different kinds of indirectness:
non-descriptive figurative mode of characterisation of works of art

Language has different models for circumventing direct descriptive speech. Figurative means differ and relate to either the optical phenomena they try to describe, the way of their production or their reception. For example, while the comparisons by metaphoric description such as ‘rhythmic’, ‘forest of verticals’ remains in the realm of visual field, the causal characterisation of works of art in terms of agent or action that would have produced the work: ‘cautiously’, ‘sensitive’, ‘tentative’, ‘elaborated’ enters the realm of projection of a certain presumable production process. The third way of indirect speech focuses on the effect: it is a characterisation of works of art with words that describe the action that they have on the viewer such as ‘imposing’, ‘unexpected’, ‘surprising’, ‘striking’, ‘disturbing.’[9] Such distinction between the second and third indirect speech according to Wollheim derives from two different psychological theories about expression. The first theory is based on the assumption that art expresses certain psychological condition of the artist that causes the artist to make the work at first place. The second theory is the one that is based on the assumption that a work of art expresses a certain psychological condition ‘just in case it is that psychological condition which perception of the work causes in the mind of spectator.’[10]

Not only are the correlations between words, objects and acts essential for establishing of our relation with art but they are also important for better understanding of the human conception, representation and changing of world.


c) performative mode
Contrary to constative statements that consist of material and demonstrative statements and both describe some state of affairs or state certain facts that they must do truly or falsely, or to figurative speech that indirectly describes art works, performatives do not ‘describe’, ‘report’ or constate anything. They are neither true nor false. The uttering/writing of the performative sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action.

The assumptions of performative writing come close to the basic principles of radical constructivism of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s about constructing the object of observation throughout that very process. Von Glasersfeld refers to his ideas as ‘postepistemological’ because his radical constructivism posits a different relationship between knowledge and the external world than does traditional epistemology:[11]

  1. Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication, but it is actively built up by the cognising subject.
  2. The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the subject’s organisation of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality.[12]

The process of writing, though, can not be neutrally isolated from the art object and our knowledge about the external art world shapes it, constructs it, while we write about it.

However, to put it in J. L. Austin’s words, the various roles may weaken each other’s ‘illocutionary force’ of the performative speech that does the action.

According to Austin ‘illocutionary force’ rests in the ‘performance of an act in saying something as opposed to performance of an act of saying something’, such as in the acts of ‘orders’.[13] When the performative acts are put in a sequence, if the next performative speech contradicts the previous one for Austin it would be a clear case of contaminating the necessary conditions that having been fulfilled in the first case, cannot be successfully fulfilled and repeated in the next contradictory case.

In order to have a ‘happy performative act’ several conditions always need to be fulfilled. To use one of Austin’s examples of a performative speech act, the utterance of ‘I do’ or ‘Yes’ – uttered during wedding ceremonies: if one of the wedding partners utters the same sentence in another ceremony with another partner (without getting a divorce in the meantime) it would be a clear case of bigamy and thus the performative cannot be treated as ‘happy’. Only in the case of the unquestioned power of the sovereign whose body and actions are outside the law the ‘performative act’ will always be ‘happy’.

In fact, it is important to acknowledge the fact that these different registers can often be confused and may easily contradict to each other, so one might easily confuse successful and failed performative speech acts.[14] In his article ‘Signature Event Context’ Jacques Derrida questions the first two lectures of J. L. Austin’s book How to Do Things with Words, and also opposes to John Searle’s uncritical acceptance of Austin’s theory, by contesting the possibility for clearly distinguishing of speech acts from constative statements.

According to Jacques Derrida’s interpretation of speech act theory, the opposition ‘success/failure’ made by Austin in the context of performative sentences is ‘insufficient or derivative.’[105] Austin posits context as the most important factor in the success of the performative speech act because the utterance of a certain phrase or sentence can be ‘happy’, or can actually do things only if the required juridical, teleological or cultural conditions are met during the performative speech act. However, because of the problem with citationality and the impossibility of listing all possible contexts and criteria for Derrida there can be ‘no pure performative.’[16] He ultimately argues that Austin was aware that his distinction between constative and performative speech was ‘hopeless from the start.’[17]

Perhaps it is not that clear how this debate relates to the issue of writing a catalogue entry? I argue that illocutionary force of the catalogue text has never been contested. Needless to say, the ilocutionary force of the text ultimately results from the established institutions of a catalogue and its writer. Such institutional frame legitimizes the validity of the statements of the catalogue entry that is nothing but a pure construction of correspondence between certain words and the art works. The performativity and the ‘illocutionary force’ of the catalogue essay may be questioned because there can be a clash of several art institutions that are involved in the execution of an exhibition: the institution of the artist or group of artists, the institutions of a museum, gallery, cultural centre, the management, or even the founders or state cultural policy.

Moreover, in the context of contesting catalogue texts one should be aware that once proclaimed classifications and metaphors used about certain artists and exhibitions enter international circulations and by a way of repetition become the speech acts inevitably linked to certain art works. Consequently their performative force is harder to be questioned and disputed after they have been legitimised by art history. The distinction between constative and performative speech becomes blurred in time and the responsibility of the writer for this loss within this distinction is less visible.


Instead of conclusion: voices of their own

The abundance of already existing traditional exhibition models (individual, monographic, retrospective, thematic, historicised, or biennial/international exhibitions), as well as the recently developed un-orthodox exhibition models or projects (interactive/relational, on-line, collaborative, participatory, researched or archive-based project, etc.) require re-thinking of the genre of catalogue entry. The analogy between art and language favoured by Wollheim may not be sufficient today when art languages started intertwining among each other and with outer world. Therefore the language we use to write about art should change.

Some of the main questions of this text remain open:

  • how far should one go in adapting and changing the writing methods, forms, vocabulary etc., when writing different texts and
  • how this affects the voice of one’s own.

It sounds as an inevitable paradox to attempt on preservation of one’s own voice at the same time when trying to modify and accommodate all new challenges in conceptualising writing forms. It is difficult to imagine that a writer would succeed in applying always different, self-transforming writing style, and simultaneously insisting on having a recognisable ‘voice’. In order to enable the writer to answer to the challenges of rapid art transformation the voice of one’s own needs to become the voice of multiple potentialities of what art is and can be, and thus what can be a writing about it.

Finally, I want to suggest that texts written about art may need to be replaced by writing that develops together with their subject in many different ways and directions. To conclude, the voice of one’s own today needs to be plural, to become by a way of multiplication voices of one’s own.

Would this mean a loss of any potentiality for a kind of authentic and subjective colour of the voice?

As for the questions of authenticity and authorship, they have already been fundamentally contested both by poststructuralists and by radical constructivist and postepistemological theory. Therefore a closer relation between the writer’s voice and the art it voices out is required. Subjectivity is not endangered, though, as long as the multitude of voices is linked to the multifaceted art phenomena today. It is always already based on the assumption of subjectivity that at the same time constructs the text, and is constructed through the performative process of writing.

First published: Suzana Milevska, ”Voice(s) of One’s Own: Writing a catalogue text as a specific genre of interdisciplinary and performative writing”, Artwords, No. 81, 82 (Winter 2007), pp. 156-160.

[1] Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing about Art, 8th ed., Pearson/Longman, New York, 2005, p. 138.

[2] Richard Wollheim, ‘Correspondence, projective properties, and expression in arts’, The Language of Art History (eds. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 51–65.

[3] Richard Wollheim, Art and its Objects, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980.

[4] Michael Baxandall, ‘The language of art criticism’, The Language of Art History (eds. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 67.

[5] Ibid., 71−72.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words: The Autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre, Vintage: 1st edition, Vintage Books Ed, Random House Inc., New York, 1981, p. 44.

[7] Wollheim 1991, p. 51.

[8] Wollheim 1991, p. 52.

[9] Baxandall, p. 69.

[10] Wollheim 1991, p. 64.

[11] Ernst von Glasersfeld, ”Questions and answers about radical constructivism”, The practice of constructivism in science education (ed. K. Tobin), NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, 1993, p. 24.

[12] Ernst von Glasersfeld, ”The reluctance to change a way of thinking”, The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9(1), 1988, p. 83.

[13] J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, druga izdaja (eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa), MA: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1975, p. 100.

[14] Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Prentice Hall, London, 1982, 309−330.

[15] Derrida, Margins, p. 324.

[16] Derrida, Margins, p. 325.

[17] Derrida, Margins, p. 325.