artist statements

Emily Murphy asked her facebook fans what their advice was on writing an artist statement. There were some good comments on what specific kinds of things seem to work, but (as usual!) I was on a slightly different wavelength. Mostly the comments were about “keeping it real”, “Down to earth”, and just like you would tell it to a new acquaintance, all of which I personally approve. What I think is misleading is that these answers seem to suggest that there is one kind of idealized statement that is supposed to cover all applications.

What if, for instance, you or your art was anything but down to earth? Would you want a statement that misrepresented you and your work in this way? Maybe, depending on the circumstances. Right? But maybe not. What if you felt describing your work in a way that was down to earth was only selling it short? Your work is extreme and your statement about it should also be extreme. To say anything different would only be sugar coating it for a timid audience, making palatable words for our shocking art. So it seems like there are two broad categories of artist statement that can either reflect the artist and their work or reflect the audience it is aimed at.

An artist statement is essentially our vision of beauty, our inspiration, the things we strive for, and what ever else matters to us artistically, put into words. But as always with words this is an imperfect translation. The map is not the territory, and also each person in the audience can interpret it slightly differently. And the same dislocation occurs between ourselves and our work, doesn’t it? Our art tries to capture all those things we like to do and think about, but it only ever does this imperfectly, and that’s why we keep trying to do it better and better,  and are constantly evolving. And even if we hit the nail directly on the head just that once, as soon as we have moved off in the direction of some new interest this perfect statement no longer truly represents where we are right now. It is a statement about who we used to be.

So there can’t really be just one statement that covers all necessities. My advice on Emily’s thread was to just be yourself. In as much as an artist statement is our selves and our work put into words we should remember that our art itself is only something about ourselves put into material form. Our art doesn’t lie about ourselves and neither should our written description (A review by someone else is different because it is that person’s perception of what you do, and they can get it or not, say what you agree with or misinterpret things horribly. What would it be like for an artist to misinterpret what they themselves were actually doing? Does that even make sense?). We can stretch the truth, especially if we are trying to impress some specific audience, but we are always writing about ourselves, not somebody else.

So, if you are an arrogant s.o.b. (supreme organic being) you probably are not interested in hiding that. You are the best the world has seen and there is no reason to disguise it. People should be grateful to you for sharing of your brilliance. If you are humble to a fault you will have a difficult time presenting yourself otherwise. Down to earth? You will keep it real as only you know how. If you are a poet you will write something poetic. If you are impressed by big words you will fabricate your scintillating explication. If you are motivated by ethereal esoterica you will give them your best academically honed art-speak. Funny? Write something humorous. A romantic? Something filled with longing and desire. These are simply who we are. And in the same way each person’s art is different from that of others, so too are our descriptions of ourselves. So, be yourself.

Unless the situation requires something different! Unfortunately we don’t just write artist statements to display our true selves to the world. Sometimes we are using these descriptions with an ulterior motive. We want to get into grad school, so what is it they want to hear? What is the particular flavor of the academic department in question? We are putting our work into a prestigious gallery, so what do they want it to say? And unfortunately because galleries are in the business of selling art they want statements that will sell an audience, not necessarily who you really are. The truth is irrelevant if they can make money off a misrepresentation. As long as it is believable. And museums that only show the great geniuses? They don’t want to hear about your down to earth humble pie. They want what makes you extraordinary. Your blue-blooded genius not your bloody blue jeans. Why are you so exceptional that you even imagine you can be represented in these hallowed halls?

So there is no one right answer, is there? Just what do you want to say about yourself? Is this what’s most important or are you trying to make an impression on some specific audience? And occasionally this is necessary. But how often do we do this with the stuff our statement is supposed to be about, our art? How often are we only giving the audience what it wants? If that were the way things are then everybody would be glazing their pots blue, putting broken glass in the bottoms, and decorating them with colorful eye catching images. And many of us are so in tune with the collective conscious of our mass market that we do these things naturally.

But not all of us. Many artists strike out on their own, with their own visions of The Beautiful, their own inspiration and values. For most of us our art is unique, as different from other art as we ourselves are different from other people. Telling us that there is only one right way of writing an artist statement is like saying there is only one right way of being human. It takes all kinds and we all are different expressions of what it means to be a person, an artist. Embrace this! Be yourself. Live your uniqueness. Give them your independence.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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5 Responses to artist statements

  1. Becky says:

    Scintillating explication? I had to look that up. I must not be a big word kinda girl, and that’s ok. 😉

    I’ve written an artist statement before and promptly ‘lost’ it (read: threw it out). I suppose I should write another and have it make sense. Perhaps it was ‘lost’ because it wasn’t that great, or it didn’t really explain who I am and why I do what I do. I think I probably fit into that category of ‘humble and somewhat down to earth’. That’s probably environmental though. Living where I live, there aren’t crowds of people telling me how wonderful I am thus breeding the arrogance that I’d need to be full of myself. It’s probably better that way. I don’t think I could live in a cut-throat art scene, or would want to. Imagine the constant pressure to be wonderful!

    I’ve been off FB for the last week, so I didn’t see Emily’s post, but here’s my take on what an artist statement should be (not that you didn’t cover it sufficiently). I think an artist statement should absolutely convey the intentions of the person, their work, why they do it, and what they hope people gain from it. Here’s what someone suggested I write for mine (an instructor from a class I took once). “I make functional stoneware pottery for everyday use.” Really?! THAT’S an artist statement? That doesn’t convey anything except the physical intentions, and that’s not enough. It’s flat and could describe any functional potter’s work. There’s no personality to it, and if something so personal as an artist statement has NO personality, what’s the point of writing it? Maybe that’s why I haven’t given it another try… my first attempt was squashed by an instructor and whittled down to eight words with no soul. Perhaps I’ll work on that today as I have a place for it on my website that is sitting empty.

    Again, a wonderful post. I always like reading blog posts that make me think. There are too many out there that require little or no thought at all for a comment and that gets old after a while. Have a good day, Carter. 🙂

    • Great reply as always Becky!

      I am so sad you had that negative experience, but I have to say I know potters who think the same as your instructor. There is a friend of mine who absolutely hates having to do an artist statement so he usually ends up with the no frills one liner that your instructor foisted on you. And this friend of mine worked as a production potter in England as a young man, went to art school where he investigated a huge number of techniques and media, moved to the states and got an MFA at the university here, makes better pots than I ever will, has more creativity and adventure in his art than I do, and still doesn’t have much to say for himself.

      I think some folks are just like that. I wouldn’t let that instructor’s opinion get you down, that was just him putting forth his own feelings. What’s important is how you feel. But many of us just make what we make and don’t think about it much. Or we dislike how over thought some artist statements can be. Our reasons for making what we make are often at an unconscious level, so we have to train ourselves to identify what we are looking at. And its not easy! Putting this stuff into words is sometimes even harder than putting our ideas into the clay. But don’t let that discourage you! Difficult isn’t a bad thing, it just takes more effort getting where you want.

      And you don’t have to come up with the right one on the first go. Maybe try several different ones that approach it from different angles and have little to do with one another. Maybe even ask someone else’s opinion to see if what they are seeing agrees with you. And if it doesn’t, it is simply off the mark or leaves out the important stuff like your instructor did. Maybe try writing a sample artist statement for someone else, your child (if you have one), or your pet (if you have one). Here’s something I just dreamed up for my cat Girly Girl.

      “I was raised by twelve feral cats behind an old abandoned shed somewhere out in the woods until I was taken in by some humans. This is the formative experience that shapes who I am as an artist. It is the call of the wild that means the most to me, the adventure of the hunt, and certain smells. Some people think I’m lazy, but I’m really just uninspired most of the time. But a little whiff of catnip or a gentle scratch on my belly usually gets me up and going!

      And when I’m in the mood my art is all about process. I like to play with my subject matter until it stops squirming. And don’t let them tell you that I don’t have a sense of humor. Sometimes I will back off a bit, wait until my little toy has recovered some of its senses, and then WHAM! I will pounce again! Mostly I am interested in the process and all the gory little things that happen along the way. The end product isn’t as important. Occasionally I will gnaw or nibble a bit, and sometimes even eat the whole thing, but that isn’t really what drives me. And, on those occasions I am really pleased with what I have created, I will leave my art project for an audience to appreciate, in a shoe, beside the bed, in the hallway where it can’t be missed. In this way I give back to the world that has provided so much for me.”

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I aspire to Girly Girl’s love of process. But I hate going to all that trouble only to end up with lots of headless, disemboweled corpses laying around.

        • Hah! Me too, but I think she looks at her little trophies as icing on the cake. And since she doesn’t have to clean up after herself it is never a trouble on her part. She gets all the ‘fun’, and the rest of us just have to deal with the consequences.

          Its actually pretty sad how much carnage is left behind in my garden. I cry a bit with every new corpse and do my best to rescue the ones I can save. I guess when it comes down to it I really hate her ‘art’…. Maybe I’m not that much an art lover after all.

          Oh yeah. This was supposed to be about artist statements not the art behind them. I guess I may have been overplaying her activities as an art form for the sake of an example of a practice exercise in writing one. Yeah, that’s what I was doing. Yeah.

  2. Pingback: The blog year that was | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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