BETTER THAN SEX! (Artist's Statements 101)
Once upon a time I worked for a large fast food corporation that was so enamoured with the latest and greatest business management fads and fashions ("paradigm shift", "continuous improvement", "team management", "empowerment") that one day they put all the senior management into a hotel meeting room with an expensive consultant/moderator and we spent FIVE consecutive days developing a corporate Mission Statement. Remember those? After tanker truckloads of coffee and reams of newsprint taped to all the walls and windows listing multiple suggestions and options extracted from us over five painful days, we finally, through democratic processes, came up with something totally inane like "Our mission is to exceed our customers' expectations by continuously striving for excellence". I have to wonder how many of them can still recite that mission, whatever it actually was.
I can only speculate the concept of the "artist's statement" must have had its roots in the corporate "mission statement" movement, and based on the difficulty most artists have coming up with their own statement, it is an exercise that often produces equally inane results. I suspect that art school students these days are taught Artist Statement Writing as a high art form in itself, and from what I've seen, high grades in obfuscation are now more important than good grades in art skills for graduation. In his essay "How Art Can Be Good", Paul Graham says: "What happens in practice is that everyone gets really good at talking about art. As the art itself gets more random, the effort that should have gone into the work goes instead into the intellectual sounding theory behind it."
Here's an artist's statement I'd like to share with you that clearly demonstrates what Mr Graham was talking about. I lifted it recently from a gallery invitation to a showing of this young man's paintings.
"Residing within the traditional genre of landscape, my paintings straddle the liminal space between image and object, pictorial illusion and material plasticity. Lavishly exceeding the confines of the support, the paint reaffirms the objecthood of the painting as a whole; conflated with the illusion of the sublime landscape, this painterly declaration of objecthood creates a deliberate contradiction in which the whole simultaneously oscillates between a simulacrum and the original."
I swear that is a real, complete, unedited statement, actually published by a prominent gallery operator to explain the artist's work. Can't you just hear John Cleese prattling off those words in a Monty Python spoof about art? I had to consult several dictionaries before I found one that contained "liminal", and none of them had any record of "objecthood". Go ahead, read it several more times. I defy you to tell me what you know about this guy's painting from this statement. What it tells me is the guy can't write worth shit, and if this gibberish is needed to explain his work, then he probably can't paint either. As it turns out, he paints landscapes as they would appear to someone seriously myopic and astigmatic that has misplaced his prescription lenses - very blurry, out of focus things that might be hills.
Painting is a visual art, and as such, surely it should not require the artist's verbal explanation of what, how, and why he creates his art. Once that painting leaves the gallery or studio, it has to stand on its own merits. If the painting moves you, the artist has succeeded, and if it does not speak to you, the artist's explanation is irrelevant anyway. But for some reason, many galleries and organizations require artist's statements, and a whole industry of consultants and courses has sprung up to help the struggling artist write his own, unique statement. The reality is, most artists simply create their work because it is what they love doing - nothing deeper or more complicated than that. If a statement is necessary, it should be enough to say: "I paint landscapes because it gets my rocks off!" That covers the how (paint), the what (landscapes), and the why.
Making art is like making love, and it should be obvious from your work if you reached a climax. Who needs to read your Artist's Statement about how and why you got there any more than they need to read a Mission Statement to appreciate the burger they're eating?
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go work on my artist's statement that some gallery insists on reading before my submission for a solo show will be considered. I wonder if I can get away with calling it my Artist's Story rather than "statement". "Story" I think I can handle.