Writing about art is hard. Writing about art that you made can be even harder. We hear artists say, “If I knew how to describe my work in words, I’d be a writer, not an artist.” While this may be true, what’s “truer” is the fact that at some point, you as an artist will be asked to write an artist statement—and whether or not it is good, will matter. So, what makes an artist statement “good”? Whether you’re applying for a residency or grant, or you just want to perfect your elevator pitch, here are a handful of things not to include in your artist statement, plus a few tips to make the process a little less excruciating.
1. Your Artist Statement Is Not “A Piece”
Resist the temptation to use this as an opportunity to write a poem or subvert the “institution of the artist statement.” We get it; you’re an artist. We really do just genuinely want to know what your art is about. Please tell us.
The night, the sex, the wandering… and the need to photograph it all, not so much the perceived act but more like a simple exposure to common and even extreme experiences… It is an inseparable part of photographic practice, in a certain sense, to grasp at existence or risk, desire, the unconsciousness and chance, all of which continue to be essential elements. No moral posturing, no judgement, simply the principle of affirmation, necessary to explore certain universes, to go deep inside, without any care. A ride into photography to the vanishing point of orgasm and death.
I try to establish a state of nomadic worlds, partial and personal, systematic and instinctual, of physical spaces and emotions where I am fully an actor. I avoid defining beforehand, what I am about to photograph. The shots are taken randomly, according to chance meetings and circumstances. The choices made, considering all the possibilities, are subconscious. But the obsessions remain constant: the streets, fear, obscurity, and the sexual act…. Not to mention perhaps, in the end, the simple desire to exist.
Beyond the subject, the lost souls and the nocturnal drifting, the scenes of fellatio and of bodies in utter abandon, I seek to reveal some kind of break up through the mixture of bodies and feelings, to reveal fragments of society that escape from any analysis and instant visualization of the event, but nonetheless, are its principal elements.
I built up something by having disturbed something: destruction becomes construction. Action interrupts contemplation, as the means of accepting something among many given alternatives, for accepting nothing becomes chaos. A system became necessary: how else could I in a concentrated way find something of interest which lends itself to continuation? My systems are numerical concepts, which work in terms of progressions and/or reductions akin to musical themes with variations. In my work I try to expand and contract as far as possible between limits known and unknown. Generally, I couldn’t talk about limits I know. I only can say at times I feel closer to them, particularly while doing or after having done some conceptual series…. The most simple means for setting down my ideas and conceptions, numbers and words, are paper and pencil. I like the least pretentious and most humble means, for my ideas depend on themselves and not upon material; it is the very nature of ideas to be non-materialistic. Many variations exist in my work. There is consistent flexibility and changeability, evidencing the relentless flux of events.
Hamburg, 1968, as quoted in “Artists on Their Art,” Art International 12, no.4 (20 April 1968): 55.
photo credit: D. Lasagni
An artist’s words are always to be taken cautiously. The finished work is often a stranger to, and sometimes very much at odds with what the artist felt, or wished to express when he began. At best the artist does what he can rather than what he wants to do. After the battle is over and the damage faced up to, the result may be surprisingly dull—but sometimes it is surprisingly interesting. The mountain brought forth a mouse, but the bee will create a miracle of beauty and order. Asked to enlighten us on their creative process, both would be embarrassed, and probably uninterested. The artist who discusses the so-called meaning of his work is usually describing a literary side-issue. The core of his original impulse is to be found, if at all, in the work itself.
Just the same, the artist must say what he feels:
My work grows from the duel between the isolated
individual and the shared awareness of the group. At first I made single figures without any freedom at all: blind houses without any openings, any relation to the outside world. Later, tiny windows started to appear. And then I began to develop an interest in the relationship between two figures. The figures of this phase are turned in on themselves, but they try to be together even though they may not succeed in reaching each other.
Gradually the relations between the figures I made became freer and more subtle, and now I see my works as groups of objects relating to each other. Although ultimately each can and does stand alone, the figures can be grouped in various ways and fashions, and each time the tension of their relations makes for a different formal arrangement. For this reason the figures are placed in the ground the way people would place themselves in the street to talk to each other. And this is why they grow from a single point—a minimum base of immobility which suggests an always possible change.
In my most recent work these relations become clearer and more intimate. Now the single work has its own complex of parts, each of which is similar, yet different from the others. But there is still the feeling with which I began-the drama of one among many.
The look of my figures is abstract, and to the spectator they may not appear to be figures at all. They are the expression, in abstract terms, of emotions and states of awareness. Eighteenth-century painters made “conversation pieces”; my sculptures might be called “confrontation pieces.”
Louise Bourgeois, 1954
SOURCE: Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, Ellen G. Landau, ed., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005, 180f. Originally published in Design Quarterly, no. 30 (1954), 18.
I hate artist statements. Really, I do.
As an artist, they are almost always awkward and painful to write, and as a viewer they are similarly painful and uninformative to read.
I also don’t know who decided that artists should be responsible for writing their own “artist statement.” Maybe it was an understaffed gallery in the 1980s, or a control freak think-inside-my-box-or-get-out MFA program director, but regardless of how this standardized practice came to be, the artist’s statement as professional prerequisite (at least for artists who have yet to be validated by the established art world) has long overstayed its welcome. And I don’t think a new one should be required in its place. (read)
by Iris Jaffe
Considering the fact that I was born deaf, my learning process is shaped by American Sign Language interpreters, subtitles on television, written conversations on paper, emails, and text messages. These communication modes have often conveyed, filtered, and limited information, which naturally leads to a loss of content and a delay in communication. Thus, my understanding of reality is filtered, and potentially distorted. This is part of the core of my practice as an artist and I am now taking ownership of sounds after years of speech therapy. Instead of seeking for one’s approval to make “correct” sounds, I perform, vocalize, and/or visually translate them based on my perception.
As a visual and performance artist, it is always my intention to approach sound by constantly pushing it to a different level of physicality, and despite my complex relationship with Deaf culture, I attempt to translate sound while unlearning society’s views and etiquettes around it. Using my conceptual judgment and compromised understanding, I challenge and question its visual absence and sometime tactile presence. Fortunately, with today’s advanced technology such as computer programs and high bass speakers, I have been given alternative access to sound. It does not necessarily mean that it’s a mere substitute or replacement of sound.