Dr. Karen’s (Partial) Rules for the Artist’s Statement

It may surprise you to hear that I edit Artist Statements, but I do.  Not a ton, but enough that this post has become necessary.  I want to urge everyone to read this excellent post on the subject by Ben Davis, which targets the kind of overblown, pretentious language that this genre is so prone to.  And read this, by Daniel Blight, “Writing an Artist Statement? First Ask Yourself 4 Questions.”

This is how Blight starts:

“Combining radical notions of performativity and the body as liminal space, my practice interrogates the theoretical limitations of altermodernism. My work, which traverses disparate realms of object-making such as painting and performance, investigates the space between metabolism and metaphysics and the aporia inherent to such a discourse.”

Are you impressed yet? These forms of writing are scattered across the contemporary art world. You can find preposterously complex, jargon-laden artist statements on the websites of galleries and pop-up project spaces all over the English-speaking world. If you don’t believe me, join the e-flux mailing list. I regularly visit such exhibition spaces in London and beyond, and read – with total, dulling indifference – the often pompous ramblings of what Alix Rule and David Levine call International Art English.

This is a dialect of the privileged; the elite university educated. If you can’t write it effectively, you’re not part of the art world. If you’re already inside but don’t understand it, you’re not allowed to admit it, or ask for further explanation. This kind of rhetoric relies on everyone participating without question. To speak up would mean dissolving the space between inside and outside: quite literally, the growing boundary between the art world and the rest of society.

While Blight starts from the position that hyper-pretentious, overblown language is the norm in university art settings, I want to strongly argue that it should be the norm nowhere.  It is bad writing that obscures your work instead of describing it.

Note what is said in this interview with artist Kathleen Caprario Ulrich, in reference to her Artist Statement:

VKA: Who were you talking to when you were writing the old statement?

KCU: I was talking to myself. I was coming from a place of emotion. I was BS-ing myself. At one point I said something like, “I hear the murmurings of paint.” That’s so embarrassing! Such purple prose! It’s so easy to fool yourself when you’re writing from a place of emotion, with no intellectual critique.

VKA: But the artist wants some emotion in their statement.

KCU: Yes, I was searching for an emotional truth. But an amateur is someone who makes art for him or herself and says to hell with everyone else. A professional engages with the world dynamically. They critically analyze their own work. There’s a dialogue of the mind; the professional is engaged in what’s happening in the world.To be a professional requires both sides of the brain, but they don’t always fire at the same time.

Here are a few rules to get you started:

  • Don’t exceed one page. Remember, SC’s read a lot of these statements. They will like you for saying what you need to say briefly.
  • Use a What-How-Why three part organization.  Make sure the “What” is very specific: is it painting? an installation? a sculpture?  of what?  where?  The “How” has to explain the technical aspects:  what material do you use, how?  The “Why” must make a conceptual case for the art.  Don’t succumb to the wooey and emotionally overwrought.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Just like the cover letter, your artist’s statement will differ depending on whether you are writing for a gallery opening or for your academic search committee. For the search committee, write it with an interested, educated lay audience in mind. This means: Clear, descriptive, jargon-free language. The statement is there to get people interested in your work- not to hit them over the head with technical jargon. If you’re to teach undergrads and graduates, you need to show that you are a good communicator. This starts with your own work.
  • Your artist statement does not serve as a confession booth where you unload your innermost feelings- save this for a therapist or a priest. If your art has a very personal component, state it clearly and move on.
  • Avoid third party statements- reviews, curators, professors or gallerists- it’s braggy and says nothing about your art.
  • No comparison to other artists- if they are well-known it’s presumptuous, if they are obscure, nobody knows them anyways. If you have been influenced by someone state this briefly and move on. In YOUR statement you need to focus on YOUR work.
  • Don’t engage in ideological battles and arguments- you can talk about your art without saying how terrible so-and-so’s work is.
  • Finally, AGAIN, do not use cliché language. See the blog posts:

“Banish These Words”

“Banish These Words 2014”

“Adjectives Are Not Arguments.”

“Grad Student Grandiosity”

For artist statements I’d add “creative” and “inspire” to the list of verboten words.

“Creative” is the equivalent of the sentence “I start my class on time”- as an artist it’s the bare minimum that is expected of you. “Inspire” and all its derivatives are also non-starters- if you weren’t inspired by something, you wouldn’t be an artist.

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