Sunday, August 29, 2010

The world of me

JohnWilliams Waterhouse (1849-1917) Echo and Narcissus (detail). Copyright may apply.

It’s the eve of another art season and here I go again with my annual (semi-annual? daily?) rant about artist’s statements. As I’ve said numerous times before, when I am king, I will abolish them. It’s just not happening fast enough.
Every day or so I get a newsletter from NY Arts which, along with a lot of helpful, newsy articles, includes their seasonal “Editorial Preview” of an artist’s work, based on the artist’s statement. What it demonstrates is that a certain solipsistic way of writing and thinking about art has become an international epidemic.
Chinese artist:  “My work mainly comes from my own personal experience.”
Romanian artist:  “I see my work as a process of a constant production of the self.”
Another Romanian artist: “The essential relation is with myself.”
Italian artist:I developed this concept from a personal perspective; in fact, most of my artworks are autobiographical and describe a familiar conflict.”

American artist: “I was always defined (and profoundly accepted) by the identity markers that were given to me, Chicana, female, lesbian, working-class, etc. But, now I am expanding those ideas to include a larger worldview that positions me as a central part in the landscape of nature.”

Romanian artist: “I feel that my art is an uninhibited territory for me….All around, my works are thoughts and emotions turned from the inside out, like you would a stuffed teddy bear.”  

(Note: The preponderance of Romanian artists doesn’t necessarily reflect a particular cultural self-absorption, there were just more of them represented on the site.)

I mean, really, who gives a flying fuck where the work comes from or what the artist is “trying” to do? We don’t care! We don’t care about what you “want” to do, are “trying” to do, how miserable or fabulous your childhood was, or what you’ve always been interested/fascinated/obsessed with. We don’t care about your relationship with your culture, and we certainly don’t want to know about your relationship with your body.
Show me the money!
And I don’t even know what to do with this: “The entire series took over half a year to complete.”


Adeaner said...


Finally someone recognizes the emperor's new clothes. What a tregedy that in most cases, artists statements are worthless exercises in stupidity.
Upon finding painting I like, I want to see more of the work (good images) and am curious about the painting process as well as the mental process. For some reason artists get all confused and turn the whole thing upside down and inside out like they were talking to aliens from mars.
Just speak plain english(or whatever your native tongue is)and talk to us like we're just another human being who's interested in your work. All the fancy words in the world can't replace the beautiful simplicity of what you're doing if what you're doing is really making art and not spitting out mentally ill, junk.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, that said I'm guilty as well. The pressure a lot of artists face to appear intellectual is intense. I'm always badgered into writing and talking about my work to 'legitimize' it's place in the grand narrative of contemporary art. Not only do I have no interest in that when I'm working in the studio (or ever, really), I'm someone who makes pictures, not words. I have no power with words and am not a writer. So I've always felt my words cheapen the experience of looking at a picture. My favorite criticism that I get kind of a lot actually, is that my work is 'not conceptual enough'. I would love for someone to write an essay on the new meaning of a 'concept', -meaning your sales pitch, your ability to tie yourself to something else big and important. Scatter some stuff, leave your paintings unfinished, quote every historical reference in sight with no real insight whatsoever. And make sure to rarify your voice to talking points only. It's all gotten so boring and cliche that I can't force myself to look at art that hasn't stood some test of time. I saw the trailer for the new Matthew Barney video/movie thing, and couldn't help but want to see him in an interview where he says "I just like getting naked on camera, and sometimes I want people to watch me fuck a sculpture."

Anne said...

The most successful statements I've read are written with a non-art audience in mind, and make a connection between the work and any of the 6 billion living souls walking the planet rather than reinforcing a connection between the work and the few thousand who are already up to speed on the ideas that inspired it. Casting aside the vast number of statements that suffer simply from poor execution or lack of focus, it's these insider statements that bother me the most, because they divide a wider audience from the work. This does a disservice to us all, and then artists wonder why there isn't more widespread support for their efforts...

Ultimately, I don't think that the problem is writing an artist's statement; the problem is writing. Writing is difficult, even for writers. Artist's statements do add human (as opposed to monetary) value to their work given that, for most people, the gateway into reading a work of art begins with reading what's written about it. As artists, we need to remember that visual literacy isn't widespread among the population, and if we want to reach a larger audience, we have to accept that our writing must be clear enough for Aunt Rhodie to understand.

Regarding Anonymous 4:25's comment on using writing to appear intellectual, recall the old adage that there's a great deal more intellect in making a difficult concept easy to understand than making an ordinary one difficult to understand. If you're truly an intellectual, you'll 'appear' that way regardless. If you're an artist as well, great, but pressure to be a better artist can also be enough.

beebe said...

It seems like there is no way to write an intelligible artist statement--my art is THIS but it's also THAT and THIS other thing, and this one small element is THAT TOO but not the "THAT" I was referring to previously. These three things I just drew because they reminded me of childhood and I drew this building because I saw it on the way to the studio, and I drew that house sparrow because it's funny to me. It just sounds incoherent when you try to talk about the actual act of creation. So, instead, you just make something up, try to weave together language that doesn't make any more sense than just blathering on.

The problem at this point is systemic. Having somewhat recently gone through an MFA program, the main focus was on the statement--talking about the work, weaving a skein of bullshit around the work. The language surrounding the work and your inevitable defense of the language (and, secondarily of course, the work) is more important than actively making better work. There is no acknowledgment that making art is largely illogical and impossible to explain. Admit this publicly in grad schools and you'll be shamed and tsk-tsked by most (though not all) of your instructors and conceptually-based peers.

I'm guessing most of the artists you site probably passed through an MFA program in the last twenty years. It starts there. Then galleries come to your studio and they want to hear your schtick. You've got to make something up, right? So make up something vague and grand at the same time.

donna auer art said...

okay, so how do artists help reveal the mystery that is art? or explore with insight why we want to create in the first place? who better to do it than artists themselves, within the artist's statement? to write the statement is a revealing, interesting and difficult exercise, especially if one is digging for honesty. a bit more self awareness is always a good thing too - it matures us as professionals. and it does give something of the artist-as-person to the buying public. but to those who view artist's statements as so much verbiage, I would say, yes many are, so please don't read....

Chris Rusak said...

I think the worst thing about an artist statement is having to treat it like milk and condense it down into a can for those who need a concentrated sip before they seek a whole bottle.

I agree with Anne that statements can be an asset to an artist, if you can overcome the liability of having to write one effectively. I was forced into a do-this-now situation for a press release lately. You want me to sum it up in three sentences? Gimme a break. It takes me a paragraph just to get in the studio some days.

For whatever it's worth, here is my recent reaction to the necessity for an artist statement.

Donald V. Rainville said...

Reading Carol's comments and others... First I would say that yes, there is a certain expectation of an artist to write something syrupy deep. However, it is all B.S. and for the most part doesn't need to be there... But then I always wonder if there is an unwritten law among car dealers that they must make annoying adolescent commercials.

With respect to art... There is no great mystery, no matter how badly you want or believe one to be there... Can you manipulate a substance and create something appealing or can't you...? Gluing a wrist watch to a stop sign with bubble gum and wrapping it in duct tape doesn't count! Where's the talent??? If all you have conceptual talent then go make a movie or write a book... BUT... you don't belong in the visual arts. Artist comes from the word artisan. So, (humorously of course) I say when curators stop passing crap that looks like it was made by a 3 yr old into a show... by so called artist who I personally question could actually create something that speaks of talent... We'll stop writing mushy over thought statements...

Rico said...

Well done. Artist's statements exist largely as marketing tools and crib notes for the press. I can't tell you how many times I've unknowingly written my own review, or article!

No one wants to admit that our intentions as artists don't really matter all that much. In 100 years, the work lives and dies by itself, and our sacred intentions are irrelevant and lack context.

Perhaps we took Warhol too seriously and that's why we've ended up in concept-driven art and all that comes with it.

The studio blog is good counterweight to the Statement because so often the artist will write in a more personal (read less academic, less pretentious) voice and really illustrate the process of the work. I think people get more from that than from reading statements.

I wish we could through out the practice of artist statements, except for the artists' personal use. Talking about one's work does have merit, in that it gets us thinking (hopefully not over-thinking) about the work and what drives it and what works within it.

Donald V. Rainville said...

I agree Rico.... My wife and I have discussed specifically that many times, that it was the advent of Andy Warhol s art that began the practice of the concept being the focus of the art. Don't get me wrong I like Warhol s work, I just don't think it should have been allowed to evolve into what we see today.

But then this thread is about the B.S. in artist statements so I let my greater conceptual art thoughts go for now...

Kathy Hodge said...

Ha, One of my pet peeves! "and we certainly don’t want to know about your relationship with your body." ...sorry, your body is boring...

Thi Bui said...

I don't like insincere or self-absorbed statements either, but your rant leaves me with some questions.

So why don't we care about where the work comes from, or what the artist is trying to do?

What do we want to know from an artist's statement?

And what does that mean, "show me the money?"

CAP said...

The demand for artists' statements is fuelled by a faith in intention determining the work's meaning, as you rightly indicate, Carol.

It's not that artists can't wait to verbalize or articulate their projects, but that it's become an expected part of the deal. Artists do it now because they have to.

Even critics want to take their cue from the artist's best intentions, in advancing an interpretation or assessment. But this really reflects a lack of confidence in an historical framework and personal intuition. The critic turns to intention to skirt thornier issues of style and form, issues closer to home, of attitude and respect.

Failing intention, the other standard (and equally deplorable) route is to engineer some amorphous 'cultural' or ideological determinant for the work - so that the work is seen as a symptom of a spirit for a time or place. This too reflects a lack of faith in art, an anxiety for grander pictures that really have little substance unless one nails down subordinate categories first - like art! - like meaaning or reference.

I don't blame artists for making foolish statements - as much as institutions desperate for someone else to do their work for them, to provide interpretation that skips the interpreter in a bid to hear it direct from the horse's mouth. This is really to turn oneself into the other end of the beast.

Carol Diehl said...

To Thi Bui: I hope my next post will answer your questions. "Show me the money" is a common phrase from the Jerry Maguire TV show that means something similar to "put your money where your mouth is" or don't tell me about it, show me the goods.