Articles

The Anti-artist-statement Statement

by Iris Jaffe on March 29, 2013

William Powhida, "Artists Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive)" (2009), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18"x15" (Image courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery)

William Powhida, “Artists Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive)” (2009), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18″x15″ (Image courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery)

I hate artist statements. Really, I do.

As an artist, they are almost always awkward and painful to write, and as a viewer they are similarly painful and uninformative to read.

I also don’t know who decided that artists should be responsible for writing their own “artist statement.” Maybe it was an understaffed gallery in the 1980s, or a control freak think-inside-my-box-or-get-out MFA program director, but regardless of how this standardized practice came to be, the artist’s statement as professional prerequisite (at least for artists who have yet to be validated by the established art world) has long overstayed its welcome. And I don’t think a new one should be required in its place.

No, I don’t think that artists should relinquish all responsibility for the interpretation of their work, and yes, I do believe that context and subtext can largely enhance the viewer’s experience of art in general. However, for a number of reasons, to require that artists provide this context directly by summarizing the art historical and cultural relevance of their artwork in textually explicit, objectively framed terms, is ultimately setting them up to fail.

To begin with, visual artists are visual people: we communicate visually. Descriptive writing requires much more specificity than visual communication. If we had a preference or talent for expressing ourselves through text, we would just write essays in the first place — right?

Furthermore, most “real” artists create art on an intuitive basis, which essentially involves some combination of conscious and subconscious thought. This (fine art) is different than both design and illustration, which generally tend to function in much more literal terms. For a fine artist to be entirely aware of his or her creative process and the resulting artwork thereby created is a nearly impossible feat — and one that would require essentially super-human levels of self-awareness and analytical ability on the artist’s part.

Additionally, visual culture is neither unilateral nor linear in its development — it contains a number of interrelated, moving parts that relate to one another in various and complex ways. So while an artist may be aware of his or her direct influences, it is nearly impossible to know the vast conglomerate of influences that allowed these known, identifiable influences to exist in the first place. Furthermore, even if an artist were to successfully identify every single historical influence on his or her work, to include all of these in a 200 word or less statement would be impossible, and to summarize without overgeneralizing, perhaps even more so. Thus, any fine artist who claims to be fully aware of his/her process and the cultural relevancy of their work is either being dishonest with their audience, or speaking out of professional naivety. So, on the positive side, it’s probably a good sign that most artists dislike having to write their own statements.

To continue, similar to the nearly impossible challenge of deconstructing one’s own work and identifying all of its cultural predecessors, the automatic bias and inherited responsibility implied by authoring one’s own statement places the artist in a strategically limited, and often self-defeating position. For starters, the artist is unable to critically address his/her own work. Self-praise is simply inappropriate and carries little credibility beyond self-congratulations, and self-deprecation (outside of an ironic or sarcastic context) is similar or even more disadvantageous — for the obvious reasons. Second, as primary source material the artist’s statement is presented as intention or truth, usually the latter for authoritative purposes, placing the artist in an immediate position of responsibility for any and all “meaning” that he or she identifies or otherwise describes in the artist’s statement. This responsibility causes a wide-range of problems for the artist, which vary in course and degree according to the type of artwork made and the type of artist’s statement written to accompany it.

A few examples of common artist statements and the problems they cause:

The Overwritten Statement

The overwritten statement provides the audience with a clear and detailed account of how an artist’s work relates to the greater trajectory of art history and culture at large. However, due to over-specificity, these types of statements encourage little interpretation beyond their own details, and this often leads to a fixed and unilateral understanding of the work, for which the artist is then held politically and aesthetically accountable. In more severe cases, an overwritten companion text can actually upstage the actual artwork itself: the artist’s statement assumes most or full responsibility for communicating the artist’s ideas, undermining any expressive power that the visual artwork might have on its own.

The “Artistic” Artist’s Statement

As an alternative to the “overwritten statement,” “artistically” written artist’s statements employ poetic lyricism and literary symbolism to communicate deeper underlying concerns in an artist’s work. Because poetry and symbolic fiction are generally more abstract than interpretive text, these types of  “artistically” written artist’s statements can form a better complement to the expansive nature of visual language. However, for the viewer who didn’t understand the artwork in the first place, this kind of writing is equally or more confusing than the visual art itself. Furthermore, the worst of this genre can be unknowingly amateur, which in effect undermines the artist’s overall intelligence.

The “Up Close and Personal” Artist’s Statement

Similar to the “artistically” written statement, a statement that is too personal can be more distracting than informative, in this case by blurring the distinction between the artist’s work and their personal identity or art-world celebrity status. This is not always bad and is sometimes desired by the artist or can be essential to understanding the work itself. However, once the boundaries between the artist’s personal life and his or her work are eliminated, this generally has a lasting effect; at times the artist sacrifices the sociopolitical neutrality of his/her work for the duration of their career.

The Overly Vague, Say-Nothing Statement

Unfortunately, the problematic nature of authoring one’s own artist’s statement limits many artists to writing descriptive, factual, or personal (“I statement”) statements, and consequently, many artists default to writing vague and jargon heavy texts, which they have all too obviously spliced together from internet scraps, existing art criticism, and bits and pieces of other artist’s statements no less. Besides being generally uninformative, these types of statements can be especially frustrating or insulting to the educated viewer — much like numerous press release statements that are written in a similar manner.

The (Surprisingly) Well-Written Statement

When an artist does manage to present something honest, to the point, and well written, it is often revealed as having been written by someone else — or proofed to the point of having a similar effect.

Thus, in light of the above, while I believe that the artist him/herself should be the ultimate authority on their own work, it is more effective for both the viewer and the artist if the “artist statement” is written by an outside author (critic, curator, institution, etc.). To explore this argument further, outside authorship allows the artist to communicate with the viewer on a predominantly aesthetic basis, while still providing the audience with a concrete textual platform upon which to build a more meaningful examination of the artwork. This alleviates the artist of having to take direct responsibility for any potentially offensive or controversial content (by allowing the artist’s opinions to exist in visually ambiguous terms) and thereby offers the artist protection, for example, against the loss of support from politically sensitive individuals or institutions. Additionally, statements of outside-authorship function as an interpretation or critique of the artist’s work, which the viewer implicitly receives in the context of the author’s credibility. In comparison to a self-authored text, an “interpretive” text thus broadens the aesthetic potential for an artist’s work by acknowledging it’s own bias, thereby leaving room for further interpretation of the artwork.

In conclusion, because the existing system is so problematic, I believe artists and art institutions alike should seek alternative methods for providing supplemental information to educate audiences and facilitate the viewer’s appreciation and understanding of visual art. For example, I often find that interviews (text, audio, or video) between artists and curators, or artists and other artists, etc., provide a great deal of insight into an artist’s work and creative process. Documentation of the artist’s studio is another way to inform an audience — and Art21 is an online video series that combines these two formats (interview and studio documentation) nicely. The internet enables art professionals on all levels to administer their own improvisations within the existing “art world” system (via digital publication, commerce, etc.) and even offers the potential for creating new systems — so why not? Creativity is rooted in change. If the avant-garde did what everyone else did, it wouldn’t be the avant-garde, and art wouldn’t really be an innovative enterprise — it would be a repetitive one.

How’s that for an artist statement?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    Iris — I loved this article. The topic itself has been tackled often… but you did it in a smart and entertaining way. The issue I have is the ‘real’ artist part. An artist is just that… an artist — ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ;p

    • samktg

      Yeah, the “real” artist comment is bothering me too. It’s really unnecessary to the points being made to distinguish between fine artists and illustrators or designers. It mischaracterizes how such artists work, and is pretty insulting frankly. All it serves to do is back a hierarchy of high and low art at the expense of artists placed in each category.

      • http://twitter.com/AnimeGuardians Nelson Rolon

        Yeah, “real artist” begs the question, “Was this article written for artists who only have creative processes they cannot articulate?” There are plenty of artists with a clear vision of what they’re trying to accomplish, and although the final interpretation is ultimately based on public reception, this doesn’t mean the artist isn’t aware of what influenced the work and what they wish others would see. I think you (Iris) may be mystifying the artistic process too greatly, and that’s a very modern perception of art production that holds subconscious influences and open-endedness in high regard.

    • http://www.facebook.com/iris.jaffe Iris Jaffe

      Oh, I think my use of the phrase “real artist” is being mis-read / miscommunicated here. The intent was to sarcastically reference how the general public conceives of a “real artist.” I should have thought my phrasing through more thoroughly, or more politically. I did not mean for the comparison between fine artists and illustrators or graphic designers to be read in an evaluative or cultural worth context – apples and oranges. Iris

      • samktg

        I think I know what you’re getting at with that paragraph, but it needlessly muddies the waters, and reads in a bad sort of way. I would suggest editing out mention of illustrators and designers altogether in favor of something like “Fine art tends not to function in solely literal terms.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Stansfield/100001995613066 Ben Stansfield

    Holy Moley, Iris, this is great! I’ve been saying this, in a much less articulate form, for years. Perhaps the next time I’m asked to provide a statement, I’ll feel comfortable refusing, and/or sending your text in as an explanation. Change starts at the bottom! :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=49501562 Laura J Crary

    I agree. I encourage my students to limit their artist’s statements to a discussion of process and, perhaps, any information that will help the viewer gain access to the work, in direct, unpretentious language. I then end up proofing the hell out of them so that I am ultimately really the author, using their thoughts and my ideas about clarity of language. I have also often written essays for artists who are friends, with whom I have had lengthy conversations about their work. I then run the final essay by the person, tweak anything that they find inaccurate or misleading, and we’re off. The statement itself is most important as an explanation of anything that might not be readily apparent in the work itself, such as process. I am always interested in process, very little in high falutin’ jargon.

  • Horace

    During my 4th year at SVA we had to write our first artist statements. The teacher told me that I had the best one in the class but that it didn’t match the work (which probably meant it was the worst one). Then she proceeded to spend the rest of the semester trying to gear my work to match the statement, misinterpreting it along the way… It took me 3 years to get my work back on track after that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/clarychristopher Christopher Clary

      That’s academia for ya!

    • mwaage

      Wow – that experience sums up what happens when making art becomes being marketable. Unfortunately the two are connected and it isn’t enough to do just one thing well. Urghhhhh

  • http://www.facebook.com/jdhastings James D. Hastings

    I think that submitting a novel for publication should require the authors to draw a summary of the novel’s themes, plot and historical context.

    • http://www.facebook.com/milo.russell1 Milo Russell

      If we start getting paid as much as you asses, then sure.

      • Tiran_K

        authors are getting compensated less and less these days, too ….

  • Vesna Jovanovic

    I am much better at expressing myself on paper than I am verbally, so this article left me with dread of the possibility that interviews will replace artists’ statements. I basically just use my artist’s statement to answer potential interview questions.
    Don’t get me wrong – I do appreciate the article! I don’t think statement requirements should be forced on artists.

  • http://www.kylepetreycik.com/ Kyle Petreycik

    I believe very strongly that an artist statement should not describe the work completely or make any interpretations for the viewer, but should instead serve as an easily digestible introduction to the work. An effective artist statement should be both intelligent and spark the reader’s interest making them want to see the work for themselves, otherwise what’s the point???

    • Vesna Jovanovic

      Good point. I struggle with this myself. I tend to give away too much…

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryanvbrennan Ryan Brennan

    Great Article Iris! I think it’s all about the purpose of the statement. It’s most applicable use is for applying to things such as residencies, grants or school. All else should be dealt with as articles or interviews…

  • http://www.facebook.com/amy.lapisardi Amy Lapisardi

    One time I was reviewing a group art show for my blog. There were too many artists to adequately cover everyone, so I zeroed in on the three I considered to be the most interesting. To make the decision, I not only examined the pieces themselves, but paid careful attention to the artists’ statements. One artist, most likely resenting having to write an artist’s statement, gave a rather uninformative blurb that said little more than she enjoyed painting nature scenes because she liked nature. I immediately excluded her from consideration. Everyone I chose to write about presented not only visually compelling work but showed a conceptual depth in their statements. Interviews may be great as a second step once you’ve sparked that initial interest, but you need something succinct to get people there in the first place. After all, if you don’t care enough about your work to articulate what you’re trying to do, why should they?

    • samktg

      Artists make art. If you are judging them in terms of artist statements, you are failing to engage them on their own terms. The “something succinct” you are looking for to bridge the gap between zero and interview is the work of art.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Bodenheimer/100002933273057 Scott Bodenheimer

      That’s ridiculous. If you can’t tell shit from shinola and then write about it as a critic without Cliff’s Notes, you shouldn’t be doing that job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/clarychristopher Christopher Clary

      Thanks Iris for the article and Amy for your comment. Over many years I’ve come to understand how to use the artist statement as means to explore my ideas. It’s not poetry but just another tool (like good photographs documenting the work) to help myself and others see my art. Yes, I get more out of making visual art, but words are just as useful. This is why we shouldn’t fault Amy or any curator for using artist statements as a way to pinpoint those that take to writing as an opportunity for learning.

      • samktg

        Amy describes excluding an artist from consideration due to bland writing. This is what she is being faulted for, not for “pinpointing those that take to writing” (which itself should not come at the expense of artists who do not take to writing). Artists train for years, in formal and informal settings, to speak a visual language. If you are going to fault an artist for not speaking another language well you’re being disingenuous.

        • http://www.facebook.com/clarychristopher Christopher Clary

          To use Amy’s words … it was “uninformative” not bland. And that’s my point. A statement is only there to inform not replace the work of art. Hats off to the artist who can write to their advantage. It’s not easy. But an artist who has trained as you speak should see the value in using words to explore a visual practice versus resenting the artist statement. Or worse, giving in to art-world marketing speak. What of the William Powhida drawing that accomplies this article?

          • samktg

            I’m really not clear on why you’re okay with a critic passing over an artist due to a poorly written supplementary text. That some artists can write to their advantage, or offer useful insights into their practice through writing is irrelevant here. Certainly what an artist writes about their work may be useful for understanding the work, but as you point out, it does not replace the work of art. In evaluating an artist, one looks at their work. Statements are secondary, and Amy describes making it primary.

          • http://www.facebook.com/clarychristopher Christopher Clary

            Haven’t you ever been excited by a particular artwork after hearing the artist speak or reading something they’ve written? Or sadly disappointed? It colors things. So is the critic suppose to forget they ever read a poorly written supplementary text? I think this and much more influenced who Amy wrote about. For me, a work of art isn’t something to experience in a vacuum.

          • samktg

            The work of art hardly exists in a vacuum. The critic isn’t supposed to forget that they have read a poorly written supplementary text, but they are supposed to remember that it is supplementary. Context plays an enormous role in how a work of art forms meaning, but I am far from sure that the artist statement is necessarily relevant context (especially when the artist seems to be entirely resistant to the notion of the artist statement, though this resistance itself can be worth commenting on). Using it as a mark of how much an artist cares about what they do, and evidence of their work’s conceptual depth is gatekeeping at its worst. Artist X failed to jump through hoop Y with sufficient panache, and is now excluded.

          • http://www.facebook.com/clarychristopher Christopher Clary

            Thanks Sam for the exchange. Your last point is unfortunately our reality where too many MFAs compete for too few shows and even less press. So the culture machine has formulated the artist statement as a tool for critics, curators and viewers alike to split hairs. As artists, we can express our anger with an anti statement like the landscape painter did or realize that writing isn’t the enemy. And I agree, this resistance to state something may be of value to specific curators. Just not Amy.

          • samktg

            Thank you too, Chris.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Bodenheimer/100002933273057 Scott Bodenheimer

    Why can’t artists just submit the same sort of one paragraph blurb that authors present about themselves on the last pages of their books? Who started this ridiculous convention in the first place? Does it come from gallerists or curators that need some juicy sentences or catchwords to talk about work? Does it come from conceptual and performance artists who need to get grants and gigs without much more than disappointing photographs and videos? If Velasquez or Cornell didn’t have to do it, why should I? It’s silly, we should refuse to do it anymore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.pearsall.3 Paul Pearsall

    ffs shut up and draw something that doesn’t require a bullshit explanation!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawn.chapman.9026 Shawn Chapman

    I like colors. Colors are pretty! -me

  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.gassan Larry Gassan

    Several years ago I wrote in “Post-Modern Art Blows, and it Blows For You”:
    “Using A Useful Bullshit Detection Protocol: ArtSpeak is found in various places [print, gallery walls, etc]. It is best read aloud in one of two voices: (old-school) Daffy Duck/Sylvester the Cat; or New Jack (Eric Cartman). Either of these voices are highly effective Bullshit Detectors. Watch jargon, Latinates, and situational boilerplate melt away like a fumbled sno-cone on a summer day.”

    More on all that, right here: http://mrprepress.wordpress.com/2008/04/11/post-modern-art-blows-and-it-blows-for-you/

  • http://www.facebook.com/KarenAtkinsonGYSTer Karen Atkinson

    Interesting responses to this, which I have heard before. Artists statements are hard to write if you don’t know what you are saying, and yes there are tons of bad ones out there, but they can also be useful. Believe me, I have read over 10,000 of them. Most artists, if they knew what was expected, could write a good one that will do no harm to their work, and often grab the attention of someone who initially is bored by the work. Everything you say is an artists statement, so why don’t you all consider it a part of your practice instead of an “academic” exercise that stifles you? When I read a good one, I know why they can be important. It can make all the difference to an application or in presenting yourself to others. Instead of abandoning the whole idea, perhaps changing the way you think about them would be a good reach in the right direction. Use it to clarify what you are doing as an artist, and how you communicate what you do as an artist can be very useful. What if you created it to work for you, instead of against you. They don’t have to be stuffy and academic either. I have read some really funny and effective ones. So, for those of you who are not going to give up all together or want to apply for things, here is an article on how to write a kick ass artist statement. It will take some of the pain away, and you will have your sh*t together. Or, you can never apply for things that use it as a tool to access who you are as an artist and whether we want to work with you or not. Just a thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hogglucy Lucy Hogg

    You point out some perennial problems with artist statements but your solutions underestimates
    artists’ capabilities. There is also the practical issue of needing a working document for introduction to galleries, grant applications, grad schools, residencies, and awards. A standard set of 15 low resolution digital images with no interpretation could mean anything to a jury or a committee, and to imagine that those images could simply communicate their visual ideas aesthetically wouldn’t work for much art today. The reality is that no newly minted artist could pay someone to write for them, much less have access to a decent editor. That luxury will come later for the .01% of artists who actually make it to the A list.

  • Helen Glazer

    I agree with the problematic types of artist’s statements you have identified above. And when I start reading one and find myself in a dense thicket of critical theory jargon, I, too tend to get impatient, but that seems to be the way a lot of art discourse is going, unfortunately — privileging an intellectual experience over an emotional or sensual one. But I do think artist’s statements can serve a useful purpose when one’s work is being experienced by someone who has never seen it before via reproductions (i.e. as a slide projection or on a monitor). I view it as an opportunity to explain things that might not be evident about the materials, surface quality and scale of the work from a photograph of the work. I also use the statement to answer questions that people ask me all the time, even when they ARE looking at the actual works.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maaniksingh Maanik Singh Chauhan

    Using the opportunity of a review of a recent Bushwick show, Clay Matlin calls for more forgoing the press release and artist statement and “letting the work stand firmly on its own” (among other things) in nice article on the GC Advocate: http://opencuny.org/gcadvocate/2013/03/20/oh-my-signs-and-signifiers/

  • http://www.facebook.com/leo.flavel Leo Flavel

    winge winge winge, sounds like another failed artist looking for someone to blame…Yes it is difficult to write and yes, the gallery certainly should be able to help. It all depends on how much money you want to make. Art Sales require hard work, talent, dedication and some good luck. If you are not prepared to give it 100% you will be a failure in any industry. Just write what you are comfortable with and work together with the gallery to help make sales as a team.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Linda-Marie-Smith/858669870 Linda Marie Smith

    I very much agree. The requirement that artists write statements about their work has caused them to make work that fits into these descriptive notions. This encourages a certain trendiness in the kind of work being produced; it all starts to look the same after awhile. I believe the artist statement came about with the increase in MFA programs and the use of French literary theory in the critical analysis of art. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to simply paste artist statements on gallery walls and leave the art in their studios. One wonders what is more important, the artwork or the lame explanations that artists feel forced to give in order to get their work shown.

  • I_would_rather_be_anonymous

    Add words and phrases to your statement such as ouvré, presence, “my
    artistic practice”, surface (the verb, the noun or preferably both), “informed by” etc
    and all will be well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/art.critic Mat Gleason

    I’ve never read an artist’s statement and I am not going to start now. People who look at art are smart, we get it, we don’t need your art school professor echo chamber to know what is really going on. Sorry, once it is out in public you cannot control the context.

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