Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Writing an Artist Statement


This afternoon, James was labouring over an artist statement for the book he is working on. He asked me to hear what he had written, and it was, as usual for him, beautifully worded and gracefully reflective. It certainly would have been fine as it was, but something about it niggled at me. It sounded like a perfectly good artist statement, but that was the problem. Most artist statements sound lovely but really don't get to the heart of the matter. When I read what the artist has to say about his/her work, I want to know what motivated them, why they chose to work with the materials they did, how they approached their subject. Sort of the nuts and bolts. Let the curators and critics write the fancy, high falutin' interpretations of the work, that's what they are there for.

I was thinking about this as I stitched away on one of the birds, and I realized that not once in my four years of art school had we been asked to write an artist statement. Even my class in Professional Practices had neglected to cover this very important skill. We would talk about our work in crits, but it's a very different thing to have to write a succinct, intelligent statement that clearly communicates to a viewer why you have done what you have done. This probably accounts for all the vague, pretentious or nonsensical artist statements that I have read over the years.

Yet it is something that every artist is asked to do at some point, whether you are showing your work at a gallery, applying for a grant or residency, or putting together a website. And it's a daunting task. Even though I am pretty comfortable with writing, when I have to devise an artist statement I sit for ages in front of the blank screen, with the cursor blinking mockingly at me. It seems impossible to distill the vast, floating, altered state of being one experiences when in the flow of creating art into a few evocative words. Eventually, I manage to come up with something that I think does what I want it to.

Here's a few tips (at least this is what works for me):

  1. No one will ever complain that you didn't use big words. Keep the language simple and conversational.
  2. Explain your motivation - tell us what was so important to you that it wouldn't leave you alone until you dealt with it, explored it, brought it to life in your work.
  3. Talk about your materials. How does the media you chose express what you needed to say better than anything else?
  4. Dare to be passionate. That's one of the reasons non-artists love us.
  5. What have you learned from this work? What is the truth you have brought back from the wilderness?
  6. Avoid artspeak at all costs. Even if you know what it means, not everyone else does.
Yes, it would be wonderful if the work could speak for itself. And of course it does, on its own terms, but remember that the viewer hasn't been living, breathing, and sharing a very small apartment with the artwork in question as long as you have.  Imagine that you are at a party, introducing a couple of mutual friends who have never before met. Now put your work in the place of one of those friends. Like most polite people, with a couple of sentences, you would want to give your other friend a bit of information about your art, maybe something they might have in common or some shared experience - enough to get them talking on their own. That's what a good artist statement should do.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this and for the last post.

    I have copied all the tips about working hard and about artist statements and have printed them off.

    Maybe it is the new year ambition, but January seems to bring forward a lot of need to write statements and finish up work.

    I love the idea of introducing your work as if it was a friend - to another friend.

    best regards

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  2. when/if I ever need another artist's statement I'll pay you to write it! :)

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  3. Well said. Oh if only other artists could take this to heart! I have a horror of Artspeak - probably left over from my short time at art school in the '60's. Gah!

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