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The Artist Statement & Why They Mostly Suck

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What is the goal of writing an artist statement? What does the artist statement do?

A good artist statement should enhance what a viewer sees in your work and provide a concise handle to approach a visual piece. It should be accurate, well-written, and correctly punctuated. It also should be specific to your work and offer unique insight into your process, unlike the general and non-specific example provided below.

 

Why is it important for a visual artist to put their work into a verbal format? In other words, why do I have to do this????!

As a writer and visual artist, you would assume that crafting an effective artist statement would be easy for me, but it is not. It is a complex and maddening task. It’s shocking how difficult it is.

I recently took on the challenge of updating an old artist statement and wrote several versions; all were awful. I am aware of what I am doing in my studio and the concepts I am attempting to communicate, but putting this into words is impossible, like squeezing an elephant into a mason jar. There’s no way to encompass and explain everything that I am trying to do in my visual work in words. It’s impossible.

I began to wonder: Is the artist statement essential?

I reached out to several art critics about this, the response was unanimous: they NEVER read artist statements when reviewing a show. All the critics I interviewed said that artist statements mostly get in the way of experiencing the work, are generally inaccurate and poorly written, and are, on the whole, useless.

If this is the case, then why do artists torture ourselves with writing them?

The bottom line is because we have to.

If a visual artist wants to apply for any kind of juried show, grant, or professional opportunity, we are required to provide an artist statement. In these cases, the artist statements are rarely read, but used to vet the experienced artists from those who will be less professional and more difficult to work with.

Artist statements are used in tie-breaker jurying situations or used to prove that an artist can write a grammatically correct paragraph, proof of professionalism and/or education. In some cases, a well-written artist statement draws the viewer’s attention to specific details, materials, and meaning that they would not have otherwise noticed, like a map or key to understanding the work.

 

So if we have to write them, how can I make this process less painful and absurd while generating better results? How do we make sure that all our portfolio materials are ready to go when an opportunity arises?

Exercise – Rewriting a Bad Artist Statement

When working with students, I have them locate examples of good and bad artist statements online. I instruct them to take a look at the artist’s work next to the statement and see how the two enrich or undermine one another.

Once my students identified optimal and poor examples of artist statements, we produced a list of characteristics to emulate or to avoid.

Length: Short artist statements were, on the whole, much higher quality than longer ones. The more concise statements had evidence of strong editing, less run-on, and clearer ideas. In addition, those who are evaluating your statement are usually in a hurry or reading many statements all at once. It’s a good strategy, also empathetic to your reader, to keep your statement to just a paragraph or two.

Buzzwords: Phrases like “creative expression of feelings,” the description that X artist has been “making art since they were a small child,” the declaration of “finding the extraordinary in the ordinary” and the “juxtaposition of daily life and spirituality” are all definitely bad. Not only are these expressions derivative, they are general. ALL art shares these characteristics, so these terms do not set any one work apart from any other.

Adjectives and Adverbs: Any qualitative descriptor of the work like “excellent” or “beautiful” is also off limits because they are subjective and don’t get to the heart of what the art is doing. Unless they’re buying the art, viewers don’t need to be sold on the quality of the work. The statement should, instead, explain what the work DOES, so focus on selecting the right verbs instead.

Artspeak / International Art English: If you can’t say it simply and without invoking the post-post-modernist cannon or using Artspeak (IAE), who’s going to want to read this? Artists do not need to write like writers for ArtForum. Speaking plainly, without hiding behind academism and intellectual verbosity is always preferable.

Humor: If your work is humorous, then it is ok for your statement to be. However, if you want your work to be taken seriously, then consider your audience before you make your work seem too light.

Objectivity: The more dispassionate and distanced the artist is from the statement, the stronger the statement appears to be. Artists can use the first person “I” approach or a third person. At times, a one or two sentence narrative explaining the artist’s personal connection to the work can be effective if the work is autobiographical. However, many artists employ a romantic, flowery language to describe their own work and indicates bad editing and inexperience. Your artist statement should communicate that you would be professional to work with, so you need to avoid sounding flakey.

Write Multiple Drafts: Once you have a general sense of what to do and, more importantly, what NOT to do, get down to business and write several drafts. It is highly recommended that you recruit several kind and smart people to read your draft and offer critical feedback. Don’t be afraid to go outside of the art community to friends, family, and neighbors. Often, you will get better suggestions from those who aren’t trained as artists and their questions will make you aware of assumptions and omissions in your writing.

 

The essentials of the artist statement are as following:

1. Materials and Media

In an age where art is usually experienced first online, you need to explain to the viewer what the work is. It can be impossible to tell whether we are looking at a film still, a site specific installation, or a painting. Don’t assume your viewer knows what and how you do it. Be generous with them! Always include an explanation of your media and process, and how material culture enhances the meaning of your work. What materials and tools do you use? How do you create your work? Be as specific as you can about what makes your work unique and how your materials reinforce your ideas.

2. Concept and Subject Matter

Your subject and concept are not necessarily the same thing. Your subject is the actual stuff you depict or reference. Your concept is the reason for doing so, the idea underneath it all. For example, an artist paints figurative portraits of individuals in natural settings in order to explore identity politics or expand the art historical cannon. Their subject is the people depicted, but their concept goes deeper and offers their reason for making the work in the first place.

3. How these two aspects – material and content – reinforce or contradict one another? What does your work DO? What sets your work apart from other work being made that appears to be similar?

Sometimes one’s material and concept work together within a longstanding tradition. For example, if you’re an oil painter of pastoral landscapes, you are working to expand an established tradition. Even if there is a contemporary or environmental aspect to your work and you are painting strip mines or disasters caused by global warming, your work benefits from the historical constructs set forth by artists who came before you.

Usually, and especially with contemporary art, work tends to buck or subvert established art historical traditions and this is what gives it meaning. If you are a fiber artist working within the tradition of colonial lace-making, but you’re depicting pornographic images in a doily, you’re subverting the tradition and challenging expectations of your medium.

Use active words — like explore, analyze, question, test, search, devise, discover, balance, connect, experiment, challenge, or construct.

Additional, optional aspects:

4. A short and specific personal narrative that relates directly to your art making. Autobiography has been a highly powerful tool for successful artists since the beginning of time. All art is, in some way, autobiographical and this story, told clearly, functions as a great first sentence or lede used to “hook” the reader. If you are making art for personal reasons, explain them because it deepens the meaning of your work and presents you as a unique individual.

5. An historical context explaining one or two influences on the work places it into a historical continuum. This shows that you understand what you are doing and why. It also may invite smart comparisons to your work.

6. NOTHING ELSE – save your feelings for your diary! The artist statement is a tool and cannot encapsulate the complexity of your work.

Other suggestions:

1. Do a studio visit with a colleague, artist, or critic and have them answer questions 1-5 for you and take notes. Let someone more objective than you put your visual work into words.

2. Read artist statements by artists who do work similar to yours. If they did a good job, write something similar.

3. Use a thesaurus – not for verbosity, but to make sure you don’t use the same word twice.

 

While I’ll agree with you now that artist statements are annoying to write and sometimes unpleasant to read, if you want to participate in professional activities, you need to have one ready to go and it needs to function in a very specific way.

My suggestion is to save yourself a last-minute panic every time you send out an application and have a short, one-paragraph version handy. Remind yourself this is just one small part of your professional toolkit and update that CV, freshen the images on your website and IG, and apply for professional opportunities with confidence, or at least without stress.

 

Header image: Artist Statement (drawing) by William Powhida

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