Writing the Artist's Statement | Brian R.

Writing an artists statement... Verbal diarrhea or essential explanation?

Oh my God! How to deal with this subject? 

It's horrible for those of us who think visually - by seeing something. Words don't usually convey enough or we are even word-blind and unable to say what we want to using words. Such is a nightmare. 

With the deadline for the next FSC book looming ever closer, I wrote this short essay to help my fellow members think a little bit more constructively about this subject. All artists seem to have something like a statement associated with their work. Just visit a gallery and look at the introduction on the wall as you enter an exhibit or the first few pages of a photo book (perhaps once you get past the initial essay), or the initial page of a web site and you will see them. They appear to be essential, but are they? 

They certainly are an established way to convey what it is you are trying to do with the work and appeal to those that are looking at the motives involved in a work of art, or who use words as their way of thinking. They are also useful tools used by agents and gallery owners to help sell the works they show and therefore stay in business. For them, this is the main concern, so a good artist statement is a really important item.

We all know our images should speak for and are supposed to stand all by themselves, but many people who read our books, or visit the galleries want to read about the work, the process, the thoughts, and so on that goes on in our heads as part of the creative process. So if nothing else, they are a way to explain the work to those who are (usually) unable or unwilling to produce it themselves. A statement about the work is therefore also a tool to help us communicate and whatever we may think about them, they are part of the art scene, so it’s probably better to master writing them, than leaving them as a side thought for someone else to write. 

WHAT? Someone else can write them? Oh yes. I know of several major galleries in my area where a staff member and even in one case, where the wife of the owner will write a statement for the artist if they don't feel up to it. Lucky for them! I don’t get that kind of luxury and I also think that I am probably the best person to write about my own work or at least do the first attempt at it.

So in the end, as much as we might dislike to admit this, statements are an important (even essential) part of, or at the very least, are an established element of defining or even at its most base, just selling art.

So then, having a statement for a body of work, or project, or even for just one picture is often all about editing. I know I use way too many words to explain something so when it comes to writing, when I can correct and change things before anyone else sees it, the watch word is EDIT. Editing is all about cutting things down to a minimum without losing the essential message or concept you are trying to communicate. Books and academic thesis have been written about this, but there are some simple “rules” we can all remember when it comes to sitting at a keyboard and typing:

  • Stay on subject: This should be obvious but if the subject is about fish, don't select images or words that are about cats. Fish have scales, not fur.
  • Consider the limits: Does the setting for the statement have space constraints? Is there a maximum number of words? Stick within it.
  • Remember what you are doing: Don’t write about the angst you have every morning getting up, write about the subject at hand.
  • Grammar and style: Use words that convey the idea and don’t overthink or complicate things.
  • As our marketing friends say, KEEP IT SHORT and SIMPLE or get to know the KISS principle. It has a lot to “bring to the table” as they say. 
  • Artist statements are also well known for the long and flowery phrases some people love to use. Here is an example of “artspeak” as its termed; 

"His early oeuvre exemplifies the concept of dysfunction so atypical in traditional sculpture."

What does this mean? I can come up with at least three variations of the meaning and am still a bit confused by the convoluted way these words are used in the second half of it. Don’t use such complicated artspeak. The best approach is to find a set of words that describes what it is you mean to say but does not leave your reader in the intellectual dust. Ask yourself what it is you are doing. Are you showing off a deep knowledge of a dictionary or trying to communicate something about your artistic work?

I know some people use an artist statement generator web site (it's great fun), but honestly, avoid the verbal diarrhea. Staying closer to a simpler, or at least understandable explanation of the work, and the result will be more likely to be read and appreciated by your reader.