Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Art vs Writing, Writing vs Art

Share |
Art vs Writing, Writing vs Art

On the Ploughshares blog author Annie Weatherwax writes about the connections between visual art and literature, going so far as to say the former gave birth to the latter. Writing and art, she claims, are so inextricably linked in the human brain that there is very often a natural overlap in aptitudes – many writers like to paint, draw, or sculpt, just as many artists feel an urge to write. As examples, she offers Gunter Grass, John Updike, S.J. Perelman, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and more.

The argument is not particularly convincing. For one thing, almost none of the writer-artist hybrids she lists ever rose above “somewhat talented amateur” in the visual field. (S.J. Perelman being the most obvious exception.) Some were little more than doodlers. There are probably just as many examples to be found of writers who like to play music in their spare time (ahem), who strap on skates or play pick-up basketball, who enjoy birding, or who dabble in the alcoholic arts. Weatherwax cites Douglas Coupland as someone “who is equally recognized for his visual work and his writing.” The kindest thing I can say about that is that Coupland’s books and his visual art are roughly equal in terms of their lasting power and the depth of thought and skill they display. Similarly, she quotes Jack Kerouac’s “theory of painting” (“Use brush spontaneously,” “Stop when you want to improve it—it’s done,” etc.), which only reminds me why I haven’t read Kerouac in decades. (I prefer writers who, when feeling the urge to improve their own work, go ahead and improve it.)

The other reason I resist this line of argument is that, when it comes to visual art, I am a complete philistine. In the same way that I could never be a food writer - my reaction to any given dish is either “tastes good!” or “tastes gross!” - I am at a loss when it comes to evaluating painting, drawing, or photography. I get bored fast in museums and galleries.

I can usually grasp why certain works are better than others. I get why works by Degas hang in museums while the binder-cover sketches I did in middle school of the elephantine drum kits I would one day own do not, for example. I can look at a deliberate arrangement of colours and shapes and appreciate the skill and craft that went into them. And I can usually spot a mediocre talent or a semi-talented fraud. But I have never found visual art to be nourishing in the way that, say, music or film can be, never mind great writing. Painting and photos, even ostensibly brilliant ones, only give me the urge to fill in all the imaginative space they deliberately leave open. I want to know the story behind the work, the work itself not being enough.

My imagination is solidly literal – which can be frustrating when I’m forcing myself stand before a canvas or print and trying to commune in some way with the images on it. But there is some consolation in the fact that stubbornly filling in empty spaces with stories – refusing to let silences stand – is one of the things that makes me a writer. That and a few crippling insecurities.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

You can write to Nathan throughout the month of July at

Go to Nathan Whitlock’s Author Page