Reactor

In Defense of the Artist Statement

by Robin Grearson on May 3, 2013

Calvins-artists-statement

Calvin’s (of Calvin and Hobbes) take on the artist statement (image via artvent.blogspot.com)

As a writer who works with visual artists, I was inspired to address Iris Jaffe’s recent post, “The Anti-artist-statement Statement.”

“I hate artist statements,” Iris began. “As an artist, they are almost always awkward and painful to write, and as a viewer they are similarly painful and uninformative to read.” No! I disagree!

Okay, I have never met an artist who likes writing artist statements. And I knew I was poking at a wasp’s nest when I created a workshop called “Learn to Love Your Artist Statement.” But I was still caught off guard when a student walked into the room one day last year, arms folded, and said, “This better be the best class I’ve ever taken.” Yeah, artists really hate these things.

Iris broke down artist statements into categories, but regardless of type, she’s right — most of them suck, for various reasons. What my reluctant student (and most artists) wanted to know was, why should she write one at all? And if she does, how can she ensure that hers is good?

I usually start this workshop way off the topic with a simple story, like the time I went to my friend Melea’s house when I first moved to Brooklyn. She told me the house number was 187, then added, “It’s the only white house in a row of brownstones.”

I walked in the semi-dark, squinting to see the number 187 from the street. Once I found the house, I belatedly remembered the other detail and felt a little stupid for all the squinting. There it was, the only white house, and a house is a far easier thing to find than its street number.

Why did I make things harder for myself? I’m just one of those people who relies more on text and linear information. When I visit an art gallery, I read artist statements, titles of works, curatorial statements, and other words that offer context. So the short “why” for the artist statement is, in Iris’s own words: “ … visual artists are visual people: we communicate visually.” Yes, but then there are the rest of us. If you are going to privilege visual learners over verbal learners, fine, but don’t forget that you’ve made a choice. As for the purist’s argument against offering any text at all to accompany visual art — isn’t that like arguing that a novel is somehow diminished if it includes an illustration or, say, a cover image?

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t need an artist’s manifesto or moral judgments or childhood stories. And I definitely don’t want to waste time reading clichés, artspeak, or cool-sounding phrases spit out by an arty robot. Someone else, like the gallery, can be responsible for informing me about historical or cultural context. All I want from an artist statement is a link between the work and the artist. When this is done honestly, the result is original and authentic. It’s simple, but there is so much resistance that the simplicity is overlooked.

Don’t tell me what to see, what it means or how to look. Just show me the bloody but still-beating human heart of the maker. Consider this question: Where in the work that you have made am I seeing something of the human being who created it, if I wanted to look? No one but the artist has this answer, which is why I disagree with Iris and believe only artists can write an effective artist statement.

The first drafts I see tend to be composites from other statements, ugly things jammed with phrases that seem true and may even sound cool, but ultimately they’re generic — they could apply to thousands of artists and therefore say nothing about this one artist. Many artists are convinced that phrases like “My work explores the relationships between (insert parameters here, light and dark, myth and reality, good versus evil, et cetera et cetera et cetera) … ” are inspired and original. But art does not explore relationships, people do. Many people. I Googled “My work explores the relationships between” and got 218,000,000 hits.

I challenge artists to stop looking outside for language and to start digging on the inside for why they do what they do. No one else knows what gets you up in the morning and makes you finish a painting on the way to your day job, or what problems you’re trying to solve in the world by depicting characters a certain way, or why you found that imagery compelling.

A photo by Jessie Kotler (image via jessiekotler.com)

A photo by Jessie Kotler (image via jessiekotler.com)

What do I mean when I say that an honest statement will necessarily be original? Consider an excerpt from Jessie Kotler, a photographer and recent workshop student who allowed me to use her first and final drafts.

First draft: “I take photos of things that I find interesting — often things are dark and strange to me. I am interested in the subject of mortality. I hope to show myself — my feelings.”

This is personal, it’s not cluttered with artspeak, but it does not tell us much about Jessie or her photographs. How do you know it’s not finished? Those words could also be used by hundreds of other artists. If the statement is about locating what is original about the artist, within the work, this statement needs more effort. We asked Jessie to tell us more about her passions (this is how the workshops end up being called “artist therapy”). Jessie reflected not on the writing but on how the photographs were an expression of her singular, specific passions. An excerpt of her revision:

“I like to look at things that many choose to look away from such as death … I spent the last year working at a hospice sitting with people while they were dying. Seeing death up close makes me feel more alive.

I am drawn to sadness, discomfort and unpleasant things such as a dog run over by a car or an old lady wearing too much makeup … I want to see the whole story.”

Jessie’s revised statement belongs to only one person, and it allows a viewer to locate something of the artist within her images. This artist statement enriches my experience of her photographs. Many people do not want to know anything about an artist beyond his or her work … but some of us do, and it’s this audience for whom an artist writes the dreaded statement. Unlike what Iris suggested, I’m not asking artists to become aware of all that is unconscious about the creative process, only to connect the dots afterward, because only the artist can. And who ever said it has to be long? Artist LNY told me once, “An artist statement should never be longer than a tweet.” And that can hardly be called writing at all!

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  • ZacharyPritchard

    I can see some validity in your argument, but to me visual art should be understood visually. It is a visual experience, text shouldn’t enter unless prevalent in the art piece. It seems one would only need to read about the work through a title or a statement if they weren’t open to the idea of taking the time to look, think, comprehend, and try to understand the work.

    • http://firstproofprints.com/ John Redmann

      I’ve gone to more than a few shows where the art didn’t mean much or the context was confusing until I read the statement and understood the art from the perspective of the artist.

      I think an artist should try to be accessible. If they can’t be present to represent their work an artists statement can help to do this.

      • ZacharyPritchard

        Artists can’t always be present to explain their work, and statements on the wall won’t always be around to explain it also. I think the work should be more accessible than the artist.

        I’m not saying there is no validity in statements, but I think there is way more bad statements than good and it is another (often pointless) task forced on to the artist that can get in the way of the work being successful. That is of course if the artist lets it, some artists have a better time with it others not so much. The ones that have trouble with it it can often help them, as the previous anti-statement explains in better detail and writing.

        If you need to put up writing to give context for your work by all means go ahead.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

          IDEA: an art show with accompanying commentary, PR, wall cards, and artist statements that are taken from other sources: they are deliberately mismatched. Will the viewer “see” what the text leads them to? How relevant will it be? Fun, fun!

    • freshacconci

      That’s a cliched idea of art that isn’t supported by history. I am no fan of the artist statement for the simple reason that most artists are not writers. That is a problem of execution not purpose. Prior to our period of art, from the art pour l’art stage of art up until the 1960s or so, we were taught to believe that art is both purely visual and can be understood visually. Prior to modernism, this was not the case and although artist statements did not exist artists were keen to be part of the intelligentsia and were quite well-read (or at least well-versed) in philosophy, theology, politics and so on. This was evident in the art as well and appreciating art meant understanding the ideas behind the work which required knowledge. This would take the form of discussions and so on. The idea that artists are naive creators operating on instinct and that art can be understood just by looking is actually pretty insulting to artists. We have just shifted in our ways of explaining the work from the salons and drawing rooms to artist statements. I believe artists should employ writers to write their copy but explaining art in words is nothing new.

      • ZacharyPritchard

        I don’t agree that that is insulting or that artists are naive. What ever happened to “if you can explain it in words why paint it?” There is a balance you have to walk as an artist with how much you know and how much you don’t know about what you’re doing .

        If you know too much, I think the work lacks that interesting exploration for me being the viewer. I can’t look at it and come up with my own questions and therefore I don’t find it through provoking.. If you know too little it is usually scattered in meaning and jumps from one idea to the next.

        Believing that artists should employ someone to write about their work is what I find more insulting.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-A-Bowles/721363467 Jeff A. Bowles

          I think that asking a visual artist to interpret their work in text or an essay, is like asking Charles Schulz to talk about Peanuts (“it’s all in my work,” he would respond. “Read the strip.”)

          Accompanying text can put the work into a context (“at this time in the artist’s life…” is usually a distraction, but “at this time in the art world, this is what else was happening in the galleries down the block from where this artist worked…” might be helpful. (“This painting is one of a pair, the other painted by Van Gogh at the same time of the same subject. The Van Gogh is in Amsterdam…,” is invaluable.)

          The implication that an artist needs to hire a writer, is unfortunate. The artist might need to provide copy, sure. But it is his or her business whether it is self-written, or pinched from a bad Shakespeare sonnet, or written by a good friend who knows the language.)

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

            Flannery O’Conner had the same POV. She’d say, the story is about the story. She said she wouldn’t have written the story if I could be said another way. I disagree with her, btw: a summary is a summary; an outline an outline; a map, a map: they are OF things and provided milestones and guidance. What is amazing is that one can project many “truths” or “facts” on a thing and people will then see it differently. Make of that what you will, it certainly speaks volumes about spin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexis.becker.583 Alexis Becker

    You’re suggesting that you want artists to be honest/pour out their bloody but still-beating human heart as though its some kind of free space, but it’s as much a manifesto (in terms of tone, language, ambition, and assumed audience) as it is a space to promote your writing abilities, and all artists who are in any way professionally minded are aware that this feeds into how their professional standard will be judged (not to mention they’re probably as well informed about the conditions/context of their work as the gallerists/curator). I’ve no doubt this self-awareness and outside performance pressure feeds into what does seem to be a frequent hatred for the statement. It’s an important skill to learn well (and something that seems to be still not taught very well), and as you say, no-one on any level of the chain appreciates excessive jargon, but to choose to not write this way and still appear professional is an extremely difficult thing to do, and a choice that feels like it will impact majorly on your professional fate.

    Also, it’s not about privileging people who get visual languages, it *is* a visual language (mostly), the success of the artist practice is partly about bridging the gap between a private visual language and a public visual language (a lot of artists just aren’t good at this or are still figuring it out, that’s why a lot of people are left thinking they don’t get it!). The difference is whether you’re engaging with the public willingly, or just addressing a small crowd of peers.

    • JosephYoung

      Professionalism is fine but it has little value for the artist in itself–first has to come expression. The author of this post recommends expression in the artist statement too, which seems to me very good advice.

  • thom thom

    I think the worst artist statements say too much. Certain things should be left out. If you explain everything, it is like reading the end of a book to everyone before they can get in there and dig around for themselves.

    I disagree with the importance placed on why an artist chose to do something. I agree it should always be in there but placed lightly. It should highlight the beginning of a journey for the artist, without talking about the artists feelings on the subject. If it is like this then I jump board with them and off we go. Don’t tell me too much!

  • http://profiles.google.com/caldwell.brobeck . HalifaxCB

    So you want to see “the bloody but still beating human heart of the maker” in something “no longer than a tweet”? Good luck with that.

    Some art does require an artist’s statement. But not very much art does. If you are serious about “connecting the dots” with respect to some piece of art you find intriguing, get familiar with the artist’s body of work, learn something about their studio practice. If possible, make personal contact with the artist in order to develop that intuitive, subconscious understanding that is critical to art appreciation. If you are reading a new book in a foreign language, would you insist on the author inserting an introduction in your language just so you are sure you get it? This is what you are essentially asking artists to do.

    In our atomized, commodified world, words – particularly in the social media – play a role not dissimilar to how Georg Simmel saw money in The Metropolis and Mental Life. In the case of art, the requirement for an artist’s statement is an attempt to reduce the complexity of autonomous, subjective, individual expression of existence to an objective level so that the viewer does not have to risk interpreting work in light of their own perceptions.

    But this is the very antithesis of what art is all about. The artist has already accepted the risk of putting forward their interpretation of some aspect of the world by creating the work and putting it out in public. If the artist feels a statement is called for in order to steer the interpretation (for example), fine and good. It is their choice. But the absence of a statement should also be taken into account; the artist in that case is choosing not to control the dialogue but instead setting up the conditions that allow for freely reflexive interaction – which can be painful, but in the long run is much more rewarding.

    • thom thom

      A really good artist statement won’t, in my opinion, “control the dialogue” as you say. If, for example, an artist paints portraits of convicts, we can be told in the statement that these are convicts. Doing some extra research can of course inform us of this fact OR the artist can just come out and say it. And why not?! I think you assume wrongly that the public is too lazy to dig. The amount of digging we can do past this point is still endless, the dialogue is still open. Very little is controlled.

      I would agree that we can enjoy finding out things on our own, but there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to avoid getting some information right away. Personally, I am pretty busy.

      As for the importance of maintaining subjectivity, if one isn’t overwhelmed with subjective responses to artwork, then the work is lacking something or the viewer is doing something wrong. Subjectivity is unavoidable if you develop some skill at experiencing art. The amount of subjectivity can be increased, or utterly squashed by an artist statement. Even so, it’s going to be there, like it or not.

      I think the real trick is to prepare a statement that opens up multiple avenues of dialogue. Avenues that can’t even be controlled by the artist. And incidentally, once the artwork is out there, it is absolutely impossible to control the dialogue. Good work has to be able to stand on its own as well, but we are language driven.

      • Cary

        There’s a difference between “an artist’s statement” and saying that
        some portraits are portraits of convicts. If all the portraits are, it
        could be the title of the show; if only some, they could have “from a
        series of portraits of convicts” attached to the title. Its OK to ask
        for more info if one is curious but it shouldn’t be a requirement that
        the artist volunteer more before taking a look at the work. There’s an
        unfortunate tendency for insecure or non-visual people to make that
        demand.

        • thom thom

          Please, artist statements can be anything.I am not terribly put off if there isn’t an artist statement. Typically, I look at the work first and accompanying paperwork last, then the work again. Unless I can’t get the wheels turning without a nudge in the right direction, then I am out the door. It could be in the titles, the bio, the exhibition name, or in the work itself or whatever.

          Lumping people into “visual” and “non-visual” groups assumes that art is visual. That is narrowing it down quite a bit.

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

    I don’t think the example given is any better than the other kinds of artist statements. I dislike the statement that begins with “I am interested in…”. This is as superfluous as any other approach.

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

    Having the artist tell the viewer what they are “interested in” is no more interesting than reading a list of their favorite albums.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mila.boyko.39 Mila Boyko

    As a former museum curator, current art advisor, I am hugely in favor of clear artist statements, and wall text, to empower viewers/collectors. The “let the art speak for itself” philosophy, combined with obtuse art speak, has done severe damage to the building of a more robust art market on the middle to lower end. Art is communication on multiple levels. Why not invite more people into its circle with an engaging statement? I have interviewed at least 60 artists and can share that those that had a hard time expressing their vision, were swimming in the shallow end… A professional writer or curator can polish an artist’s draft, but if the artist cannot articulate their unique motivation/inspiration, likely there is just not too much to see. P.S. I think Artist Statements in the past few years are greatly improved in general!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jmgray32 Jonny Gray

    Put an artist statement with works and you create a relationship between the words and the visual. I have certainly experienced works that were enhanced by the artist’s statement. I’ve also had works I admired undermined by the artist’s statement. Some really rude, vapid, and/or smug people have created some really amazing visual works. On the other hand, I’ve also been persuaded by the artist’s words to give something a second (third and even fourth) look because of what they’ve shared in his/her statement.

    But so, here’s a corrective: SOME artists work visually and aren’t very good with words. That is not a given. And just because you can work a sentence with finesse doesn’t mean you are somehow, ipso facto, less effective with visual media.

    Nor are visual artists the only kinds of artists who have to write artist’s statements. Musicians, directors, and performance artists also find themselves in the position of having to write these things.

    They are hard, I think, because they ask us to go meta…and yet still be artists when we are looking at our own work.

  • 3rdrailpopnfresh

    How is seeing a dog run over by a car the whole story? It’s still mumbojumbo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1016482409 Walter Zimmerman

    As a long-time artist, and as a former professor of art, I have two responses to your observations. One: I would suggest that, in my experience, what you yourself expect from an artist’s statement is significantly different from the expectation of the preponderance of gallery visitors, who actually do want to find, in black and white, the ‘meaning’ of a piece of artwork, and are often quite upset when such almost mathematical reductions of visual experiences aren’t presented to them. People can be so timid and frightened when confronted with new visual experiences, and think they need such tender hand-holding. Two: Just as, again in my own experience, the making of the work reveals why it needed to be made in the first place (I work quite intuitively, rarely from a blueprint in any sense of the word), writing an artist’s statement, for me, can aid me in continuing the clarification process that art making can be. I agree that the most effective statements I’ve ever either written, or read, are clean, specific, economical, free of generalities, and incisively personal in tone. And, those statements lead the viewer right back to the work itself, which is the whole point of their being in the gallery in the first place, isn’t it? If it were possible to reduce our visual arts to a series of paragraphs on a wall, wouldn’t we’d all be poets? And save God only knows how much on studio rent…

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mouse.of.Terrors.and.Cheeses Chloe Mariah

    I don’t see how it’s discriminating to non-visual people when the art itself is visual. It’s no different than saying that if the conductor doesn’t write a music statement that covers his overall style and why he chose this or that in the context of his work and the composers’ work, then the music discriminates against the hearing impaired. A musical performance may give you an overview of, say, Mozart’s life, and say something like, “And we transposed this in the key of such and such for the sake of modernizing in the style of such and such…” which will make no sense to the non-musical, anyway. If you can’t access the piece musically, the introduction won’t matter, and generally, in my experience, introductions to music are for music people to engage with a piece of history or some technical work. But, the artist’s statement isn’t like that. They don’t say, “Hello, I’m so and so, and tonight we’ll be viewing a piece that I did based on the symbolist movement. Here’s some trivia about Redon and some fun facts, and I decided to ask What if Redon were a postmodernist who read Pynchon? Enjoy.” But, with or without introductions, the hearing impaired are not going to fully appreciate music, and may not be able to appreciate it at all. The text won’t change this. Saying you need text for visual art because non-visual people will be discriminated against is like saying you need to dance for architecture because kinesthetic, non-visual learners who cannot do math won’t understand. Well, they may enjoy that dance, but that’s not architecture. You may enjoy reading, but that isn’t the art, and if you aren’t visual the text won’t help. This is doubly true if the statement was written by a non-writer trying to sum up conscious and unconscious feelings in a snappy, one-page-or-less format that also covers her overall style and choices in a neat, little info-dump. You’re saying you need bad, and potentially inaccurate text to access a piece you cannot understand through the medium it exists in. That’s not discrimination. It communicates visually because it’s a visual art, and that’s how it functions. I’m not saying artists shouldn’t write or know how to write, but, frankly, most can’t write very well at all. Maybe we should work on teaching artists how to be aesthetic philosophers and critics, as well, so that they can write about their works in article form. But, that’d be a different matter from the artist’s statement and still wouldn’t mean that the art itself isn’t visual and needing to be accessed visually.
    Hell, in literary analysis, only using what the author said is even hugely frowned upon in many discussion because of all the unconscious variables and how the text exists in the world outside of the author’s intention (eg Shylock in The Merchant of Venice). There are complex theories that deal entirely with this, and books and books of criticism –about reader’s response, about deconstructionism, about eco-criticism, about psychoanalysis, about different socio-political theories like feminism, new historicism, and so on, that would change how one might look at a text outside of what the author may have even intended, at least consciously. The mad-woman in the attic texts about Jane Eyre jump immediately to mind, and have been greatly influential. So, even if you want the artist to write, there are scores of thinkers who will still call bullshit on the idea that you’ll get an entire aesthetic experience from a card that says, “My intention is this!” True, but what about the cultural context? The audience’s response? The context of time, space, and limitation? What about the delight of gazing?

  • JosephYoung

    I’d love to see an artist statement that is “silent and purely visual”! if the real purpose of the artist statement is to deepen the viewer’s experience, then that statement is no less than art itself. In other words, artists can–I’d love it–expand the very definition of the statement. Of course, not writing one and not wanting to is just fine with me.

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

    Goodbye Manifesto, Hello Marketing 101.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

      Both are lovely!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jezra.kaye Jezra Kaye

    Wow, you’ve sure stirred up some powerful feelings! As a speechwriter, I love your suggested approach, and wish that EVERYONE would learn to make a clear, simple statement of where they’re coming from. (Your and Jesse’s examples are excellent.)

    Far from wrenching your bloody, still-beating heart out of your body, this statement can be a way to reclaim your humanity, to assertr that your experience, your perspective matters.

    It doesn’t diminish your visual statement to also state this in words, and it may help the rest of us connect.

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

    Hi Robin,
    Thank you for writing this response piece to my essay. It touches on a number of points that I feel I did not clearly address in my initial article, and offers a nice counter-perspective. I am currently under project deadlines that require my full attention, but I would like to write a follow-up piece in the not too distant future to better clarify my position. The initial piece seems to have been misinterpreted in various respects and there are a few related issues that I feel are worth additional consideration – IJ

    • http://www.facebook.com/grearson Robin Grearson

      Hi Iris,

      The comment threads here and on various FB pages comprise great insights on this topic, and all of it has been helpful for me. I think the only point I would clarify with respect to my essay is that I encourage any artist who lacks confidence in their writing to hire a professional to help, but that an artist should remain the primary author of any message that is attributed to him or her.

      If the document were referred to as an artist’s statement instead of an artist statement, perhaps it would be more readily understood that the statement is an opportunity for the artist to say something about a body of work–if he or she wants to or needs to, to fulfill professional obligations. If artists truly refuse to speak about their work, I don’t think that delegating the written expression of their ideas to a third party is the best compromise. These statements are not likely to add the artist’s insight to my experience as a viewer and may potentially misrepresent the artists and their work.

      Look forward to reading your follow-up!

      -RG

  • http://twitter.com/elisapritzker elisa pritzker

    The curatorial entity is interested in hearing words that accompany the visual expressions but unless it’s a need for the visual artist to write too, I think we have to elevate the visual language as an experience by itself…as a different way of human communication.

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

    It is easy to see judging from the slew of comments before mine that many are in favor of an artistic experience that allows for ambiguity; art, in such a view, is not entirely compatible with verbal and written language to begin with. Art is not inherently antagonistic to text, however, and rather than limiting your potential audience by simply accepting the limitations of one’s own artistic production, I think that written statements yield many opportunities to enlighten otherwise confused viewers. Artists are free to do as they please, but Calvin and Hobbes are clearly a satire of a culture that sees many artists as elitist intellectuals who choose to remain insular and make art based on precedents few understand. There’s no reason to be offended by the strip unless one fears it actually yields a semblance of truth; Calvin is actually correct in asserting a statement “says” more than an ambiguous artwork because language at least has rules for syntax and grammar that allow for meaning to be conveyed, whereas art since modernism trends towards looser rules for image making that don’t rely on direct relation to the embodied, representational world for meaning. A reasonable reaction to the Calvin and Hobbes strip would be to either acknowledge the shortcomings of pure visual experience and attempt to reconcile this through a statement as context, or to ignore the masses that do not have the patience to designate meaning for themselves.

  • Ben Rains

    Let me reframe the problem in a way that’s appropriate for those of you who are more verbally oriented than visual to help you better understand its frustrating nature: Draw me a picture of what you write about and the things which motivate you to write. Do it with just one drawing though–one that isn’t overly complex–and be original.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.dell1 Larry Dell

    “Trust the tale not the teller.” D.H. Lawrence

  • annell

    It seems the artist statement helps the artist to know if he is “on track.” I like what Ben Rains had to say, that makes sense. If you don’t write well, are aren’t sure about what you write, I think it would be OK to get help. After all, we are focusing on our own personal visual language.

  • samthor

    Yes the art is to be appreciated and understood visually. But we still communicate verbally; hence the artist statement. I think most artists balk at the idea of writing because they really don’t know what they are doing to begin with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.marin.14268 Kevin Marin

    Maybe we should have writers make little drawings/sculptures/videos/etc of what they think?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I do that already, they are called GIFs ;)

      • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.marin.14268 Kevin Marin

        I was waiting for that!

  • Helen Glazer

    I’ve been on both sides of the artist/curator divide, since I’m an artist, but also held a “day job” a number of years ago running the exhibition program for a college art gallery, and have also served on selection panels for alternative spaces. I agree that the artist’s statement has its purpose, but I don’t think it’s so much about baring one’s soul, and I think the example of the “improvement” in Jessie’s essay about how she’s “drawn to sadness…like an old lady wearing too much makeup” and how being around death made her feel more alive, etc. just sounded hokey (“Look how deep I am! a person of unflinching honesty and vision! Others look away, but I stare into the face of death!”) Not to mention it leaves an unintentionally callous and self-involved impression, in that it makes her seem as if her main interest in people going through a tragic circumstance is to feed a romantic view of herself. For what it’s worth, that’s how those words struck me, as a good example of what NOT to do.

    As I said in response to the Iris Jaffe piece: 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 my artist’s statement to answer questions that people ask me all the time, even when they ARE looking at the actual works. So in Jessie’s case, if the photographs were OF people at a hospice rather than somewhere else, and how she went about getting their permission, what about these people she and her subjects wanted to convey, why she shot in color rather than black-in-white — those sorts of things would add some context. How it made her feel about herself, um, no.

    What I always tell people is, imagine a harried curator with a pile of applications in front of them, and try to make it easier for them to make sense of what they’re looking at on their monitor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christine.mannix Chris Mannix

    “So the short “why” for the artist statement is, in Iris’s own words: “ …
    visual artists are visual people: we communicate visually.” Yes, but
    then there are the rest of us. If you are going to privilege visual
    learners over verbal learners, fine, but don’t forget that you’ve made a
    choice. As for the purist’s argument against offering any text at all
    to accompany visual art — isn’t that like arguing that a novel is
    somehow diminished if it includes an illustration or, say, a cover
    image?”

    Right. Except that WRITERS AREN’T EXPECTED TO CREATE THEIR OWN
    COVER IMAGES. Gah.

  • Edgk

    Very wordy comments below…who said creative type aren’t full of themselves. Your example undercuts your point. Jessie’s revised statement amounts to nothing. If you can’t see that her work is concerned with death, sadness, and discomfort, then either she failed or you are unequipped to ever understand.

  • thom thom

    Artist statements that refer to visual things are crappy. And you are right, they are usually like that. Most artist statements use words to explain a visual language that needs no explanation.

  • Vicki Amorose

    Well…I wrote a book on this subject. It’s called Art-Write:
    The Writing Guide for Visual Artists. I’m a bit late to pick up this
    thread, thank you Robin Grearson and what a great discussion!

    My book is my opinion, formed after 35 adult years as a
    writer, artist, art lover, and former museum docent. I’ve worked in three
    galleries and managed one. My job as an educational media writer taught me how
    to present material for different learning styles, and when the grant for that
    job ended, I decided to tackle the subject of writing an artist statement.

    Why? Because the challenges involved in writing an effective artist
    statement, the confusion about its purpose, the rise of its necessity in the art market,
    and the lack of clear instruction all pointed to a subject I find fascinating.

    The connection between image and language has held my
    interest since my art history professor, Rudolph Arnheim, taught me that truly
    “seeing” art takes time, and that language shapes perception. I believe words
    are powerful. Words can be used to help the viewer “see” what’s in front of
    them (or at least be less likely to breeze past the work because they don’t get it
    immediately). My book is purposefully concise and straightforward. You may not
    agree with every word, but I don’t think you’ll find fault with my intention –
    to provide a helpful resource.

  • Cathy Lee

    As an art student at a top ranked art school, all of our professors have us justify everything we do. If we can’t support the aesthetic decisions we’ve made, everyone calls bullshit. Even if your decision was to go crazy and not think about it, it’s still a decision that backs up your aesthetic choices. A great artist/designer is a great writer, because you’re creating visual poetry and you’re articulating your thoughts/feelings through a chosen medium. Just as there are crappy economists and crappy engineers, there are crappy writers and crappy artists/designers, and in my opinion, someone who doesn’t know how to clearly support their aesthetic choices aren’t the best artists. If you can support all your visual decisions, then you can write a great artist statement. If your art is supposed to be only for yourself, why display it for the public? If you put it in a gallery, you are going to have an audience and if you’re trying to convey a message to the audience (especially if you’re making social/political work), why not give them context/intent? If the audience doesn’t want it, they can choose to ignore the artist statement. Even for me when I view art, I always read the intent because it creates so much more depth into the piece and I appreciate it more than just for its beauty.

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