Literature 10-6-2011

Arts Journalism 101: Anatomy of an Article (The Profile)

A primer for writers new to the field: A breakdown of the basic arts profile, step by step

Anatomy of an Article

The Profile

At its heart, this kind of article tells a personal story that connects the artist and his/her work with the reader. For an editor, there are lots of advantages to approaching the arts this way. By introducing readers to the arts and specific artists’ work through the vehicle of a human story, artwork immediately becomes more accessible and inviting to the nonexpert, arts-curious general reader. Everyone likes a good story — and it renders occasionally difficult artwork as something that exists on a human, rather than superhuman, scale. The narrative of an artist’s story and perspective on his/her work gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of artwork. It’s a nice way into what can be a daunting subject matter. This is a sort of hybrid form of article, lying somewhere between interview and art criticism. For this kind of piece, the writer shapes the arc of the story, using select anecdotes and quotes from the artist to punctuate and ground the tale. But there’s just as much of the writer as the artist in this kind of piece.

Set the stage

What is your own impression of this person? Describe the scene for your reader: help them to envision what you see, what the artist’s space looks like, offer some thick description. Is this person intensely engaged and attentive? Shy? Warm and ebullient? Reserved and aloof?

Some background info on the artist

Where did this person come from and how did they get where they are now? What touchstone moments have galvanized them to make art in the first place — and, just as important, to make this kind of work, in just this way?

Cultivate your ear as a listener

As your subject is telling their story, what unusual personal quirks or evocative moments in their tale catch your ear? What grabs your eye and imagination as you look at their work? Pay attention to those details. You’ll want to include as many rich, specific human details — the kind of thing that makes this person’s story uniquely their own — as you can for your reader. With a few carefully chosen, especially revealing anecdotes from your subject, you can draw a vivid portrait in just a few paragraphs. Don’t worry about taking an exhaustive history. Think instead about framing your narrative profile around those things you hear from your subject that you find most interesting, or that shed the most light on this artist’s work.

And what about the art?

What is the artist aiming to accomplish/convey with their work? Describe it for your reader and, if you have some expertise in this kind of work, place it in context of other work like it, but briefly. A bit of contextual analysis and your informed, critical take on the work is absolutely welcome. Does the artist have any upcoming events the editor should know about? Be sure to include all the relevant information, links, etc when you submit your piece for editing. (If there are images, sound clips, video bits, etc that would help make this work more concrete for the reader, be sure to gather as much multimedia material as you can — a photo of the artist and some images representative of the work discussed — to augment your written description.)

A note about conflicts of interest

It’s just not good journalism to write about your friends, enemies, coworkers, or close acquaintances. If you have a pre-existing connection (business or personal) to an artist that will make it difficult to write about them with the measure of dispassionate distance required, you probably aren’t the right person for the assignment. It’s best to be up front with your editor about those connections when they crop up (and if you’re doing this long enough, they will — it’s a small community). Your relationship to the artist may well not be an assignment dealbreaker (with appropriate disclosures and for something other than a critical piece), but it’s not all that desirable either.

Susannah Schouweiler

Susannah Schouweiler is a writer, editor, and museum wonk. For 12 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of Mn Artists at the Walker Art Center and responsible for publication of original arts writing on the homepage, blog, and social media assets. Back in the day, she served as Editor of Ruminator magazine, a nationally distributed art and lit mag. She has written on the arts for a number of regional and national outlets, including Hyperallergic, Rain Taxi Review of Books, MinnPost, The Growler, …   read more