Artist Statements. Most experts agree they are as necessary for a professional artist as a portfolio itself. A study of art schools and universities conducted in 2008 indicated that as many as 90% of art programs touch on the writing of artist statements. While they are a relatively new addition to the artist toolkit (the artist statement became a thing in the 1990s) they have rapidly ascended to a place of high importance. And for many, they can feel like nothing more than a necessary evil.
Art is about creation, freedom of expression, and an artist statement seems to come with uncomfortable confines that can make it very difficult for some to convey the message they would like. Many artists feel that their work should stand alone, free from explanation and that an artist statement clutters up the purity of their vision. Artist statements have been the subject of debate, controversy, even of art itself. Artist Nick Fortunato infamously created the Artist Statement Generator 2000, a work of art aimed at sending up the artist statement.
In truth, an artist statement doesn’t need to be something to fear. Not everyone is a born writer and that’s absolutely OK. There are a few easy rules to follow to ensure that, at the very least, you are conveying the message expected and doing so in a format that fits in with the relative norm found throughout the art world.
Most experts agree that when it comes to writing a statement–or anything at all–brevity is key. Art is complex and explaining your vision may feel impossible in just a couple of paragraphs, but remember that the statement isn’t the work itself.
While some statements do find their way to some meaningful position within an exhibition, they are not inherently part of the work itself and therefore do not need to carry the same weight as the art. A statement is where you can set up your work, much like the introduction or preface in a book. Statements provide context for your audience whether they are gallery patrons, grant advisors, curators, or simply the general public visiting your website.
For this reason, it is absolutely fine and expected that you do not overdo the details in a statement. Stick to an overview giving the why, how, and what of your work, or even simpler – your process, describe how you make what you do. Keep things brief, ideally around 200 words. Much more and you risk losing your audience before they have finished reading about your vision.
Avoid using language that will confuse or alienate your readers. While there may be a tendency to want to elevate your artist statement, keeping your writing relatively simple will ensure that all audiences can be reached. General wisdom in the writing world varies as to what grade level writing should maintain for wide readability, but when in doubt it is safer to bring it down a bit.
This does not mean that your statement can’t make an impression. Some of the most impactful writing is hardly Shakespeare. It simply means that you need to be mindful of how your reader will absorb what you have to say. Avoid complex and lengthy sentences and too many big words for no reason. A good approach is to write the way you might speak if you were to explain your art to someone in a conversation. When writing feels more natural to the reader, they are less likely to lose interest.
One way to keep your writing honest is to consider your audience. Let’s face it, artist statements have a reputation for obfuscation. Artspeak is an immediate turn off for many, especially those outside the art world who may run for it when presented with a complicated description of art they are already sure they don’t understand. You want to connect with every audience through your writing. That means the grant board and the potential first-time art buyer.
There are a few aspects that every statement should cover in order to complete the picture, so to speak. As previously touched on these are the why, how, and what–the actual process. How you make art from be you a painter, printmaker, photographer, sculptor or something else.
A statement is not a bio, though usually, it is a good idea to include some background about yourself as the artist creating this work. Be careful not to lapse into a detailed history of your career and education, however, leave this to your CV and bio.
Generally, the artist statement is nothing more than an introduction. It has achieved some mythical status since its inception and for this reason can feel like a daunting body of writing you must perfectly craft in order to succeed. In truth, the opposite may very well be the case. By keeping your statement brief and to the point, you will likely find that it is better received than the myriad others that have given statements a reputation for being dense and pretentious.