In Defense of the Artist 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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