We can’t tell you how often we come across artist statements that try too hard to be analytical, clever, academic or progressive. It’s so often, in fact, that the majority of us artsy types forego reading statements entirely. Art critic Roberta Smith says, “I think the work of art, whatever form it takes, is the artist’s statement. And I don’t want a secondary statement –unless I have real questions – from the artist or from the dealer or from anybody.” Like Smith, we evaluate the art on its own terms. But for non-artsy types, an artist statement provides the viewer with a lens through which to view your work.
At NINE dot ARTS, we have a sneaking suspicion that some well-intentioned yet ultimately misdirected person set this whole convoluted-is-best artist statement trend in motion. Perhaps it was an MFA thesis advisor or art critic or gallery owner or even Calvin and Hobbes? The world may never know. As with any art form, the artist – whether visual, literary, musical – must decide where on the understandability spectrum (from instantly accessible to utterly challenging) she wants to be. An artist statement is no different. Yet, as anyone who’s ever read Lydia Davis orGertrude Stein knows, even the most foreign or conceptual pieces of writing can be grounded in clear language even while the work as a whole remains opaque.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about the artist statement is expressing in words what you’ve already expressed through color, line, shape, texture, form and composition. After all, as an artist you’re visually not verbally oriented. Despite your visual proclivities, one thing remains clear: hope for the artist statement lives! You don’t have to wallow in insecurity, hifalutin terminology or fear of overexposing yourself or your work.
Robin Grearson, in her essay “In Defense of the Artist Statement,” says, “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.” In other words, what drove you to make this painting/sculpture/photograph/drawing/print? What about you is unique? Chances are, this is the same thing that makes your art unique. Your statement should be specific to you and your work alone. Sometimes artists (and writers for that matter) try to be general in an effort towards inclusiveness. But paradoxically, the specific not the general becomes universal.
How many artworks explore the relationship between pop culture and the economy? Hundreds if not thousands. But what other artist explores that relationship like Willem Volkersz? None. Volkersz emigrated from Holland in the 1950s, subsequently went gaga for American pop culture, and cruised the West Coast (splitting his time between a motor scooter and a car) to document thousands of billboard and neon signs while collecting kitschy postcards and souvenirs. Those photos and tchotchke epherma then became the fodder for his mixed media pieces that smartly and playfully integrate painting, neon lights and found objects to simultaneously celebrate and question consumer culture and American society as a whole. As Grearson says, a highly specific artist statement like Volkerzs’ “allows a viewer to locate something of the artist within [his] images.” As a viewer, you can connect to Volkerzs road trip, his astonishment at the world’s largest ball of yarn, his affinity for porcelain deer. An artist statement is therefore expansive not reductive. It opens up associations for the viewer, recontextualizes the work and deepens the viewer’s understanding.
Now that you’re on board with the artist statement, where do you start? Yourself! As logical and simple as it seems, examining yourself and your artistic practice could be quite frightening. Jackie Battenfield, in her book, The Artist’s Guide, describes her initial struggles: “Writing about my formal concerns and process felt boring. The more I worked on my statement, the more depressed I felt. I concluded that my work was meaningless because I couldn’t figure out how to express what it was about.” That’s a dark place for sure, one you don’t have to be in. Ask, instead, the following questions:
· Why do you create art?
· What inspires you to keep doing it?
· What is specific to your work and no one else’s?
· What is your process for creation?
· Why do you use certain materials?
· How does this piece/project fit into your body of work as a whole?
· What would others want to know about this work?
· What does your work look like?
Take your time and be thoughtful, really explore the answers to each of these questions. If you’re too intimidated to start writing, you could try talking into a recorder or inviting friends and fellow artists over for an informal discussion about your work (also recorded). After you’ve got your initial thoughts laid out, read through or listen to everything multiple times. Comb through the raw material for repetitions, interesting phrases, key elements.
Give yourself time to mull everything over, really letting it stew in your brain. Let yourself meditate on it while driving, showering, making dinner, basically any time except when you’re practicing art. By doing this, you’ll let your subconscious do much of the work for you. Some writers call this pre-writing. Roxane Gay, for example, did most of her revising for An Untamed State before she even set fingers to the keyboard. She thought long and hard about her story, working out plot details and structure ahead of time, so that by the time she sat down to write the novel, she produced the first draft in weeks.
Next, start a rough draft. Your goal is to create a two to three paragraph statement that “provides the reader with information about your sources, ideas and inspiration,” as Battenfield says. This statement will be used on your website, in a press release, application or proposal. A well-written statement will make you stand out to curators, art consultants and juries.
One of our favorite revision strategies is to start with a new, blank document. You can still have all of the previous notes nearby, but starting a new document keeps you less tied to what you’ve already said and more focused on what you’re going to say. Essentially, a fresh page helps to keep you imaginatively unfrozen.
The most important thing to remember in the rough draft phase is to turn your inner critic off. Creative writers have any number of strategies for doing this: waking up at 3 am, reading a book upside or backwards for five minutes beforehand, being naked like Victor Hugo or Benjamin Franklin, going to the same coffee shop like Richard Russo, working at a stand-up desk, in the bathtub, the list goes on. The most exciting thing about writing, unlike an artwork, is that you have zero chance of ruining it. You won’t accidentally over process/chip off/paint over a key element. In the off chance that you do screw it up in a later draft, you can always go back to the one before it. Feel free to make a mess of your first draft because you’re going to have countless opportunities to clean it up.
On to revision. Revision is not simply about copy editing and grammar. Rather it’s about re-imagining what, how and why you’ve written. Your goal is to craft a clear, concise statement that illuminates your work for the viewer and lets her see you in it. As anyone who’s ever attempted to write knows, this is a feat easier said than done. Even Ernest Hemingway didn’t get it right in his first drafts. He rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he got it right. We’re not saying your statement needs to be rewritten that much, but probably you need to take a few stabs at it – at the very least.
Just like creating an artwork, revision requires the simultaneous act of divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result.) Revision, therefore, is just as creative as initial drafting. If you look at writing and revising your artist statement as you do your art, chances are you’re going to enjoy the writing process more, you’ll have a better statement and you won’t leave people scratching their heads about your work.
Finally, give your statement to other people for commentary – artists and non-artists alike. Get as much feedback as possible. There will, of course, be off-the-wall comments or comments so highly specific that that one person, that you can (and probably should) discard those. On the other hand, when multiple people say the same thing or point to the same section, that’s your clue to rethink what you’ve written.
“Writing,” Steve Almond says, “is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less.” In that regard, it’s the same as painting, sculpting, printing or photographing. Every line, every color, every shape is a choice you make. Those choices, as you know, have specific ramifications on the viewer. You didn’t develop your artistic prowess overnight, so be patient with yourself as you develop your artist statement. And remember, you’ve got an infinite number of chances to get it it right.
Image from twistedsifter.com