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.