Monday, September 15, 2008

My Art Advice: The Artist Statement

I’ve received several questions concerning the need for having-- and the frustration of writing-- an artist statement. This is a topic of interest to me. I find the fact that there is debate over whether they are of importance or not to be fascinating. It amazes me that there are so many people with strong opinions involving the composition of a relatively brief text-- in some cases less than 100 words. I think the blunt of the loathing is due to the fact that an artist statement demands a lot from the artist writing it. The artist statement is pushy-- it demands that the artist justify his or her art and to reveal the intended purpose of said art. In other words, the artist statement can push artists out of their safe zone. This is very true when you consider that most people are their own worst critic. That said, I think writing an artist statement is important for that very reason. Artists need to critique themselves.

Writing an artist statement forces an artist to critique his or her practice and artwork in as few words as possible-- few words that can say a lot. One could say that writing an artist statement demands the artist to expose himself or herself to a tightly controlled frame of writing that spurs self-reflection. Almost as controlled as some of the brief conversations we may have about our art during chance introductions if there is an opportunity to do so. In that sense I think the artist statement can be a powerful tool in developing the ability of an artist to communicate verbally about his or her art during certain encounters. Writing an artist statement can help prepare an artist for situations when he or she may need to speak clearly and concisely about his or her art. Stumbling with your words can make you appear foolish, correct? Writing an artist statement is the perfect training ground for learning how to speak about your art without pause. Thus, I think it is good practice to write an artist statement-- to tackle what may seem difficult-- even if the artist never reveals the statement to anyone else.

I’ve noticed two opinionated sides when it comes to the need for an artist statement. The supportive side will claim that the artist statement is of importance because it helps guide viewers so that they have a better understanding of the art they are viewing. In the extreme people will go as far as to say that the artist statement is a reflection of how well the artist in question can communicate both verbally and visually-- implying that an artist who writes a poor artist statement is at least partially discredited as an artist-- as in the validity of his or her art may also be questioned.

The opposing side will claim that the artist statement is not necessary because the artwork should be the statement. People who oppose artist statements generally feel that the statement can become a distraction as far as the artwork is concerned. In the extreme those who oppose artist statements will go as far as to say that the statement is an insult to all visual artists because it cheapens the value of visual language by projecting the idea that visual art fails to communicate openly with viewers.

Regardless of your opinion about writing an artist statement you must acknowledge the importance of having one in the sense that artists are often required to submit a statement in order to be considered for an exhibit or to apply for residencies and other forms of financial or material support. Thus, it is often necessary to write them and to write them well. The artist statement is not going away any time soon as near as I can tell. Thus, artists need to consider that at some point they may have to write one. So why not just get it over with and do it, right?

There are good ways and bad ways to write an artist statement. The success of an artist statement, based on my experience, often depends on what the artist leaves out. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on the subject, but I will say that I’ve read thousands of statements as the senior editor for Myartspace. Thus, I have a few suggestions. Avoid cookie-cutter statements! It might be OK to observe a sample artist statement, but don’t simply change a few words and call it your own. Chances are that others have had the same idea. You risk appearing very unprofessional. Instead, try to write a statement that is unique. Just be honest. For example, if you don't talk with 'big words' in person try not to use them in your statement. You want your statement to be a reflection of who you are-- not what you can look up.

With the above in mind, you should also avoid services that provide a statement for you. If you do a few searches online you will find companies that offer artist statement services. If you are stressed out about an artist statement you might be tempted to use those services. DON’T. It will not look good for you if people find out that you hired someone to write your statement. If exposed you risk damaging your reputation… especially if you try to use that statement when applying for a residency or school. You must also consider that most likely those companies shell out cookie-cutter statements in the first place-- all warning signs scream SCAM. Save your money while securing your dignity at the same time!

In regards to writing your artist statement there are other issues to avoid within the context of the statement itself. For example, don't mention your childhood unless it is relevant to your work today-- and even if it is be careful about going into details. People don't care that you picked up your first crayon at age 1 nor do they care if you started drawing circles at age 3. The same goes for mentioning grade school art awards or even high school art award-- no one cares! You would be surprised how many artists mention these rather trivial events as if they are markings of genius -- and they are trivial. Who cares. Including pointless information like that will make it appear as if you are mentioning your childhood because you have nothing else to speak of. Again, if your childhood is relevant to the art you make today… make the mention of your childhood relevant in your artist statement!

Avoid bravado charges such as, "I was born an artist!". How do you know that you were born an artist? Can you remember thinking that far back? Did you come out with a brush in one hand and a palette in the other? Perhaps you had a tiny camera in your hands? I think it is safe to say that there are millions of artist statements containing the ‘born an artist’ line. Again, you want your artist statement to be unique AND to be taken serious.

Some other things to avoid concerning your artist statement:

1. Depending on the situation you want to avoid "I try", "I want", or "I hope". You want to avoid them if it makes you appear negative or insecure about your art. For example, you don't want to say "I hope that the viewer will see...", you want to say "The viewer will see...". You want to use words that show that you are the master of your work instead of your work being the master of you. You want to show that you are in control and that you have confidence in your ability. Just be wary of coming off arrogant. It is a balancing act.

2. Avoid projecting the idea that your work alone can change the world. Even if your art has a positive message you will want to avoid being overly positive-- as in sappy. "My art will bring love to the world" or "my art will bring peace to the world" should NEVER be in a statement-- and yes I have seen statements containing lines like this. You will find that most people will not take that serious. You don't want to come off as if you think your art will change the world because at that point you have to defend the reason why you think your work is so great and so inspiring compared to hundreds of years of art history and compared to other contemporary artists-- which number in the millions if not billions.

3. Avoid the superhero/mystic complex. Don’t mention things like, "my work is magical", or "as if by magic", or “my art has the power to” because most people simply won't buy into it. They will simply see it as fantasy. You may honestly feel that your art is magic or that it has power-- maybe it does-- but that does not mean that you should mention that in your statement-- especially if you are writing it for an application. I suppose it does depend on the context. Still, you would be better off mentioning those things in your other art writing instead of your artist statement. Be tactful.

4. Avoid being the leader of your own rebellion. The rebel image has worked for several artists, but that does not mean that it will work for you. Thus, you should probably avoid mentioning things like, “my art is a revolution“, or “I’m searching for a new art!“, or “my art will awaken the masses”. Honestly, can you defend your art as being the art of tomorrow? Can you honestly say that your art is a sign of the direction the art world is going? Can you say that your body of work will cause a revolution while keeping a straight face? I hope that you can defend all of that.

5. Avoid pointless information about your process. You should focus on the here and now when writing an artist statement as far as your process is concerned. You want your statement to be fresh-- to reflect what you are doing now. For example, there is no point in mentioning that you worked in a different medium a decade ago unless it is relevant to what you are doing now. If you were a painter who now focuses on sculpting there is really no reason to mention your experience as a painter unless it is directly linked to your work as a sculptor. You don’t want to confuse people about what exactly it is that you do today. In other words, you don’t want them to ask “where are the paintings?” when they should be concentrating on the sculptures you have been creating for the last decade.

6. Avoid displaying an outdated artist statement on your website. I see this often. Someone will have an artist statement that they posted a few years ago on their website only to tell me during the interview process that the statement is no longer a valid representation of their current art. If your artist statement is no longer valid you should probably update it with one that is. In that sense, your artist statement is an on going process. You can’t simply write it, post it, and forget it without causing confusion at some point.

7. Avoid remarks that readers may find offensive. For example, if you have a degree in art you probably don't want to come off as if you think that you are better than the next artist because of that fact. The same goes if you consider yourself a self-taught artist in that you don't want to downplay the education that others have received. Avoid mentioning things like, "as a self-taught artist my work is more pure", or "as a self-taught artist my art has not been stained by art school". You never know who will be reading your artist statement and you don't want to get off on a bad start by offending someone who does not share your elitist views-- whichever side they fall on.

In closing, artist statements come and go. Your statement should change as much as you do. After all, it is a reflection of who you are and the work that you are creating at this time. Thus, it is vital to keep your artist statement up to date. Don’t post it online, use it for an application process, or hand it out at an exhibit if it is not relevant to your current work. Remember that you don't have to lay everything down on the line with your artist statement. It should not be considered the final answer as to who you are or what your art is about. In fact, it should spur readers to ask further questions about your art and process. View your artist statement as an open invitation to the reader to learn more about you and your work. If anything you may want to write an artist statement simply to document where you were at with your work at a specific time.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senor Editor


Anonymous said...

Very good. However, you missed one point i have seen in artist statements, though of course my experience is no where near yours. It may be a local phenonemon in LA, though i have seen it online also.

Artist statements seem to always be written as if by a reveiwer. A rather flatuous, maudling one at that. This is the one time that "I" is a necessary pronoun, yet is avoided. To escape responsibility for its content. It is always in esoteric terms, talking about how "the artist aims to bring the emotions of the veiwer to a plane of deep contemplation and personal awareness". You know, it says nothing. And so lets the artist off the hook as far as a true statement of intentions and goals, you know PURPOSE.

I have been told by a producer friend of mine to do this, she actually rewrote my statement when I asked her to review it, a brilliant woman who ghost writes many movies also, but it was complete and total drivel. We often have the conversations i have had here. A Caribbean woman who should know better, but did graduate from Parsons, and as with Catholics and Jews, after years of training and work, hard to call a moron an idiot after years of paying and sacrificing for the "education".

So, yes, a one page
statement would be great, but find most artists avoid it like the plague. Or perhaps they all pay the same service to write it for them. While I can't stand most current day art reviewers, they created this style of verbious emptiness, one must actually know why one is doing what it is one is presenting. Again, you know, justify ones artistic existence, a statement of PURPOSE. But this is damn rare now. Perhaps unique. You can imagine what mine is like. And somehow managed to avoid both items #4 and 7.

Art collegia delenda est

PS. Cant wait to see how Hirsts auction goes after last nights financial meltdown, years in the coming. The art market has been fueled by such speculative greed, time to pay the piper. And art, as a rather unnecssary vice in its current form, is out the window. With many financial bankers, as 1929 is being repeated. Idiots.

Anonymous said...

My ongoing investigation into the Question of Intentionality has lead me to believe that the reason artists have such a hard time writing the 'statement' is simply this: The great majority of them have not the least glimmer of conscious awareness of why they do what they do.

Cheryl Ann said...

Thanks so much for writing about the Artist Statement. You really helped to clarify some things for me for when I go to write my next statement. Appreciate your time for blogging.

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Tristan said...

Great article. I used to be totally averse to the artist statement (and still have my moments of denial...) but I've found the statement is as good a device to clear my own head of thoughts as much as using it as a tool to describe my own work to others.

Great blog by the way.

Glenn said...

I find your advice here to be very valuable and practical. I removed my artist statement from my own website about a year ago, primarily because it was outdated, and chose not to repost it. I feel it's better used for residency and grant applications, or when a gallery requests it. I strongly agree that artists need to critique themselves but admit that I too shy away from this, more so in the past than now. It takes just as much time and on ongoing investment to be self-reflective as it does to actually create the work itself. Both need to be happening at the same time.