I’ve been thinking about posting this for a while – it’s an experiment. Please comment if you have anything to add, you disagree with, or if you like or dislike the post. There may or may not be more like it in the future, depending on the response (or lack thereof).
Like making art, there are no steadfast rules to writing artist statements – and even the best of us fail sometimes – but there are of course some decent guidelines one might consider following. Below is an ongoing list I’ve started giving to my students: 3 things that should be in an artist statement, and 7 guidelines for sticking to them. Bear in mind here that there are two kinds of artist statements: one for an individual work, and one for your overarching practice. Always start with the former (which is what these guidelines are about); the only way to know what “all” your work is doing is to be familiar with each piece first. Hope this helps!
Art work descriptions and statements should be about 300 – 500 words, and strictly address the following:
- What “is” the work? Describe it as an object, installation or situation in a way that enables visual and/or sensual comprehension. This is not what the piece is “about.” I mean it literally / physically: what are your art piece’s individual components and materials, and how do they work together as a whole?
- What do we see or experience? If it’s an installation, consider a walk-through, a description of how it looks, sounds, smells, feels (again, not emotionally or conceptually, but physically), and what actions viewers have taken in and around it. If it’s a situation, describe the relationships (and power structures) you are intervening in and how participants might perform them. Many works would likely need to address both what we experience and what we do as an audience or participants in front of it / around it / with it. How do viewers relate to the work, to the artist, to each other…?
- What’s at stake? Why is this important to you? Why should it be important to me / others? You can briefly address or allude to conceptual issues here, but be specific rather than general. How does the piece itself address these concerns? How do we encounter them in our experience of it, and what value lies in that encounter?
Some guidelines to follow:
- This is not a mystery novel. Start with a one-sentence description that encompasses all of the above to some extent – especially what it is – then unpack each of the listed items as is needed.
- No generalizations. Do not make assertions about art works in this field generally being “like this” or how “the majority of people” think or act a certain way; rather explain your interests in certain areas of investigation in implicit relation to (un)said state of the arts.
- Avoid phrases like “viewers will experience.” You do not know what they will experience, and most readers will think it arrogant (if only unconsciously) if you try to pull this off. If you desire this approach – to describe what the piece does to people – say what you (personally) see or have made in the work, or what viewers have actually said or done (“in the past, I’ve seen participants…”), rather than asserting what they will do or say in the future.
- Do not put all your interests and tie-ins and interwoven ideas here. This is a concise description of the work – what it looks like, what we experience, and what is at stake – that can be read into by others, and everything else should be built into the piece itself. Feel free to be ambiguous with a small amount of language, to allude to larger / more concepts towards the end, but you must explicitly state one through-line only in this statement.
- No undefined terms. Do not use words like “performative,” “poststructural,” “deconstruct,” or “postmodern,” “other,” “gaze” or “feminist,” without defining them. If you can’t describe what you mean by these kinds of jargonny words in a short sentence (which is preferred to actually using them), then you yourself do not understand clearly enough what they mean in/to your practice/this piece, and so neither will we, the readers. Even poetic, simple terms – especially hyphenated ones – should be avoided unless you explicitly describe what you mean by them.
- DESCRIBE. Remember: an artist statement should enhance my experience of your work by describing it, not justifying it, obscuring it, or simply listing the ideas you were thinking about or papers you were reading whilst you were making it. The biggest mistake artists make here is to think that because they were reading or thinking about a specific concept when they made the piece, then the piece is about that. Listen to critique, watch others with the work, and relate what it is actually doing and how. The statement is about looking and watching your work then describing what you see, not producing a project then justifying its existence.
- Excite your reader. This should be fun and interesting. If it’s not, you lose me. Think journalism: first summarize the whole thing, but simultaneously make me want to read on (and experience the work for myself); the rest should unpack it, give me a sense of some understanding but also make me want to see or research more on you and the piece…
Hope this helps! I welcome other advice for this ongoing list, and if the response is good, it may turn into a series about writing for artists. Next up would be a short piece on “positioning.” Trust me, I hate using advertising jargon here; but the truth is, you can’t please everyone (and if you try to, you will either fail, or make something very mediocre), and so it’s better to understand who your audience is – buyers, curators, appreciators, fellow artists, gallerists, academics, and any of the subsets and descriptors within them (being as specific as possible) – and what kind of language to use to best grab their attention and interest….