After more than a decade of teaching art history and grading papers from first-year to senior-level classes, I’ve seen my share of great student writing and my share of truly horrendous writing, the kind that makes you want to gouge your eyes out with your grading pen so that you don’t have to read another illegible sentence or misspelled word. Whether a student is a strong writer or someone who needs a lot of help getting their thoughts down on paper, many make common and easily corrected errors in their art history essays. To help you ace that term paper I’ve polled the art history faculty at MSU Denver for their top pet-peeves and all-too-commonly seen pitfalls and compiled them all into one truly terrible essay paragraph. If this looks like something you may have written (or are currently writing) read on to find out where you went wrong and how to get your art history papers back on track.
Above: Ganesha, 600s-700s CE, Cambodia (http://denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/ganesha)
Art has been important to many cultures around the world since the beginning of human existence. A work of art has the power to tell a story about the people who created it. As I walked through the Denver Art Museum I looked through many rooms filled with paintings, sculptures, and other types of art. At first nothing specifically caught my eye, although I saw many objects from ancient, medieval, and modern times. Then I moved on to the fifth floor where the works in the Indian art exhibit particularly drew my attention, as they gave off a very unique vibe. Eventually I made my way to far side of the room where the statue “Ganesha” sat on a tall plinth. This 3D piece of artwork was sculpted in Cambodia during the 600-700s. “Ganesha” gives off a surreal feeling due to the combination of elephant head and human arms. The piece of work also communicated to me a great sense of peacefulness, gracefulness, and importance that was very visually compelling and also could be described as eye-catching. This impression was created through the utilization of certain shapes and lines. The Hindu god of wealth and success looks back at the viewer with a gentle expression, probably meant to welcome penitents, one hand held out to the worshipper and one holding some sort of plant or staff, which might be a symbol of fertile crops. In my opinion, I think this is a true masterpiece; it is a truly amazing piece of art.
Let’s break this down…
Art has been important to many cultures around the world since the beginning of human existence. A work of art has the power to tell a story about the people who created it.
- Platitudes: These are meaninglessly broad statements that might sound profound but add nothing to your paper and are difficult to support with evidence- really, who knows if art was important at the beginning of human existence but we can assume that probably food and shelter were higher up on the list (you’ll also have to fight with anthropologists over when “human existence” actually began). These are often “engine revving” sentences: things you write when you start your paper and aren’t sure exactly what to say. It’s fine to include them in a draft if they get you started but edit them out before you hand in the final version of the paper.
As I walked through the Denver Art Museum I looked through many rooms filled with paintings, sculptures, and other types of art. At first nothing specifically caught my eye, although I saw many objects from ancient, medieval, and modern times. Then I moved on to the fifth floor where the works in the Indian art exhibit particularly drew my attention, as they gave off a very unique vibe. Eventually I made my way to far side of the room where the statue “Ganesha” sat on a tall plinth.
- Filler material: Like platitudes, accounts of wandering around a museum or gallery space don’t add anything for your reader and are painfully boring to read, no matter how much you might try to jazz the section up with catchy language. This is clearly filler material before you get to the point of the paper itself. Again, it’s fine to include in a draft if it helps get you writing but for the love of Ganesha cut that filler material out of your final draft.
- Vague language: The phrase “other types of art” is too vague and insignificant to add anything to the essay. Cut or replace it with more specific and descriptive language.
- Using “times” to designate period: Folks, Medieval Times is a restaurant and Modern Times is a Charlie Chaplin movie. Using “times” after a chronological designation in place of period, age, era, or (if you want to be really fancy) epoch is clunky and inelegant at best. While we’re on the subject, “modern-day” is an adjective, not a period of time (e.g. modern-day medicine has much to learn from the herbalist traditions of the past).
- Very unique: Something unique is, by definition, unlike anything else or the only one of its kind. It cannot be “very unique,” it is unique or it isn’t.
- Vibe: Vibes are communicated by and to people (or possibly they are communicated by places) but works of art, arguably, do not “give off” vibes and in any case this kind of colloquial language is likely to raise the hackles of your professor (or future editor). They communicate, or convey, or impart, or express.
- “Title”: Official titles of artworks are italicized, unless they are a description of the object being used in place of a title (e.g. Figurine with Headdress) or are the name given to a work of architecture (e.g. Colosseum). Also note, titles of any complete works (films, books, periodicals) are italicized. Quotation marks are used to designate the titles of sections within a larger work (book chapters, journal articles, etc.).
This 3D piece of artwork was sculpted in Cambodia during the 600-700s.
- 2D/3D: This is probably one of the most common errors we see in beginning art history courses (and sometimes even in upper-division classes). In an academic paper you always want to write out the full phrase: i.e. two-dimensional or three-dimensional.
- Piece/ Piece of art/ Piece of artwork: You can eat a piece of pie, move a chess piece, or carry a piece, but if you use the word “piece” in your art history paper to refer to a work of art you are probably causing your professor mental anguish on par with running your nails down a chalkboard. Piece actually has quite a few dictionary definitions (my computer’s dictionary actually includes the colloquiual phrase “piece of tail”) but none of them refers to a work of art. Moreover, piece usually means a fragment that has been broken or torn off of a whole. If you are talking about a piece of art you had better be talking about a piece that tore or broke off from the whole work. For my money, “piece of artwork” is by far the worst mistake a writer can make, as it is both technically incorrect and terribly redundant. *Please note: instructors may vary on using the word “piece” in conversation as a colloquialism. Many probably do not object to its use in a verbal exchange but would prefer to leave it out of written assignments.
- Forgetting BCE/BC/CE/AD: While you may occasionally see museums leave off these chronological designations, in a class paper you always want to make it clear whether you are talking about 600 BC/BCE or 600 AD/CE, unless you’ve already established the period you are discussing (e.g. referring to the year 1508 in a paper about Italian Renaissance painting).
“Ganesha” gives off a surreal feeling due to the combination of elephant head and human arms.
- Surreal: Surreal is often an overused adjective to stand in place of words like “bizarre,” “uncanny,” “dreamlike,” “weird,” or “strange.” While it can be used like this, “surreal” is also used to designate a specific, historical art movement. In an art history paper you are better off using one of the adjectives above, rather than have any confusion about the work’s possible alliance with modernist Surrealism. Also, in the case of the Ganesha sculpture, the word is not applicable since the juxtaposition of human and elephant features is meant to convey the divine nature of the god. Describing the figure as “surreal” implies the human and animal features were brought together to look uncanny or strange, when in fact this is simply the appearance of the god in Hindu art, corresponding to his nature in religious mythology.
- “Give off a feeling”: Like “vibe,” works of art do not “give off a feeling of” anything.
The piece of work also communicated to me a great sense of peacefulness, gracefulness, and importance that was very visually compelling and also could be described as eye-catching.
- Over-writing your sentence(s): Behold the horror that occurs when perfectly good sentences go wrong through the common practice of over-writing. This sentence only needs about half of the words used here to make its point. A stronger sentence would be .” The best way to avoid having your paper weighted down with bloated phrasing and flabby sentence structure is to edit, edit, edit. Cut any words that are unnecessary. “Very,” “truly,” or “really” as qualifiers rarely add anything to the proceedings. Also, the writer here has claimed that the work conveys a sense of importance, but importance in relation to what? Without more context the word is virtually meaningless and should be removed.
- “-ness”: -ness is a suffix added to an adjective or participle to form an abstract noun to describe a quality or state (e.g. goodness, kindness, happiness). However, this poor, innocent suffix is often cruelly abused by writers seeking to add gravitas to their descriptive nouns. An important fact folks: longer words don’t actually add up to better writing. I cannot stress that enough. Instead of using words like peacefulness, calmness, gracefulness, etc., see if their shorter, clearer, more elegant counterparts will do: peace, calm, grace. Your sentences will thank you.
This impression was created through the utilization of certain shapes and lines.
- Use versus utilization: Utilization is not a fancier form of “use;” utilization implies that you are making practical or good use of something often not intended for the purpose. Utilize is also used in scientific or technical writing but isn’t typically your best choice for an art history paper.
- “Certain”: Using imprecise and vague words like “certain” in place of detailed information leaves your reader wondering what the heck you are talking about. In the sentence above the writer could have easily said “organic shapes and curvilinear lines” to clue the reader in to the significant formal elements of the work. Remember, precise and detailed (yet concise) language is your key to successful papers.
The Hindu god of wealth and success looks back at the viewer with a gentle expression, probably meant to welcome penitents, one hand held out to the worshipper and one holding some sort of plant or staff, which might be a symbol of fertile crops.
- Subjective impressions presented as fact: Here the writer has recorded a number of subjective impressions or guesses and presented them as fact. Are we sure the expression is intended to be “gentle”? How do we know (without more historical context) that he is welcoming penitents? The object held in the hand is ambiguous without more research and suggesting it is a plant or staff symbolizing crop fertility based on what the object looks like to the writer could be very misleading. Instead of guessing, simply state that the god holds an unknown or unidentified object. If the god appears gentle you can record that as a personal impression, but be sure that personal observations of that sort are appropriate to the kind of paper you are writing or leave them out altogether.
In my opinion, I think this is a true masterpiece; it is a truly amazing piece of art.
- Redundancy: “In my opinion” and “I think” mean the same thing; placing them in the same sentence leads to language bloat and before you know it your essay is in need of a 5-day cleanse.
- Masterpiece: Masterpiece is a term best avoided for two reasons– 1) it is a bit antiquated and out of date and 2) it is a term tied to old-fashioned ways of thinking about Western art as the product of certain “genius” artists who produced “masterpieces” based on culturally-specific measures of value, which may not be applicable to other cultures or periods. In contemporary art writing masterpiece is generally avoided, lest the writer be mistaken for one whose views on art are traditionalist, Western-centric, and generally out-of-date.
- Meaningless adjectives: amazing, great, cool, fantastic, wonderful, awesome, awe-inspiring, etc. are all really enthusiastic-sounding adjectives that mean little in the context of an academic paper. After all, how do you demonstrate to your reader that the work is amazing? What makes one work cool and another not? While your reader might be gratified that you enjoyed your art-viewing experience in the end these descriptors sound like more filler and lend little to your analysis of the work itself. Including them in either your introduction or conclusion can seem like a cop-out for saying something more meaningful or profound about the work in question.
Looking for more ways to improve your writing? Check out Stanford University’s “Top 20 Errors in Undergraduate Writing”: https://undergrad.stanford.edu/tutoring-support/hume-center/resources/student-resources/grammar-resources-writers/top-twenty-errors-undergraduate-writing