Portfolio Article and Information on “The Artist Statement”

(Reprinted with permission from Lenswork.com. Issue #103, Nov-Dec 2012 )*

The Artist Statement

The first thing I ever wrote was with a crayon — Crayola Burnt Sienna, as I recall. [I see you stifling a yawn.] Then, in first grade, I started using a #2 yellow pencil [You interested yet?] and now I use computers and Microsoft Word version… [“AAAARRRGH!” you say, as you throw LensWork across the room in frustration.] But, wait, I have a point. This is precisely the reaction of most readers when presented with an Artist Statement that begins with, “My first camera was a . . .” Who cares?

Let’s be honest — don’t we all know that artist statements are rarely read? Ever stop to ask yourself why? Could it be that they are boring, immaterial, poorly written, or simply useless? You can fool me once, but after a few hundred piffly artist statements, can you blame me if I stop reading them?

It’s too bad. The artist statement has a very important role to play in the presentation of art — be it an exhibition, a book, a digital publication, a magazine publication, or a portfolio. As you can imagine, we’ve reviewed thousands of artist statements over the years. With that in mind, let me share a few ideas that might help.

It Ain’t About You, My Friend
I’ve come to the conclusion that for many photographers there’s tremendous confusion between the role of the artist statement and the role of the artist’s biography. Far too many times, a poorly written artist statement reads more like a personal history. Save that information for your biography or curriculum vitae. Instead, make the artist statement about the work the viewer is about to see. It is almost your one and only opportunity to talk about the work itself. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that most artwork requires some sort of introduction that helps the audience understand the work — or at least understand it more deeply. Think of the artist statement as your opportunity to be a docent for the work, rather than an autobiographical statement about yourself.

I’ll go even further. If the attraction of viewing artwork is a function of one’s connection to the artist, then the only people who will be interested in your artwork are those who know you (friends and family) or those who know of your celebrity (a dubious strategy often employed in today’s big-time art world. Rather than artist statements, with this latter strategy you would need talented and effective press agents who could help you cultivate a pop culture buzz. Good luck on that.)

Use first person with extreme caution
The first rule: Never start an artist statement with the personal pronoun “I.” The minute that first sentence starts I saw…, I felt…, I went…, etc. we immediately know the artist statement is written from a photographer-centric point of view. Because the artist statement should not be about the artist but rather about the work, the first sentence needs to focus our attention on the content of the art.

Like everyone else I suppose, when I write text for my artist statements I find it incredibly easy to slide into some form of first-person narrative. That personal pronoun is a dead giveaway; I use it as a yellow flag. Anytime I see the word I in my text, I step back and re-examine what I’ve written to see if it can either be rewritten without first-person, or whether I should eliminate the thought entirely. Usually, I find I eliminate it because it pulls the reader’s attention away from my work and back to me — the last thing I want as the viewers’ focus of attention. Rather than, “I was amazed how beautiful the light was,” try something like, “The angle of the light made the landscape glow.” You get the idea. Not first person personal, not third person detached — find the midpoint that focuses attention on the external.

Whose Motivation?
Nothing pulls an artist statement off-track so quickly as the confession of the artmaker’s motivations. Whether you are motivated to make your art for mercenary commercial reasons, altruistic benevolent ones, or some form of auto-psychotherapy, it really makes no difference to viewers why you put your time and energy into the production of this artwork. Again, such a statement says more about the photographer than it does about the work.

True, artist statements should be all about motivation — but that is to say, the necessary motivation a viewer needs to engage the work with focused attention. Why should the viewer care what you produced? What is their motivation for spending their precious time viewing your work? Why should they give your work the gift of their attention? This is the only motivation that needs to be addressed in the artist statement. In fact, it’s the only reason the artist statement should be written at all. This introduction to your work has the solitary purpose of whetting the viewer’s appetite and piquing their curiosity about what you’ve produced. At the conclusion of the artist statement, the reader should be even more excited to see your work. Artist statements should build anticipation as well as pave the way for deeper understanding. If it can accomplish these two goals, it is an asset that will serve the artwork well.

The Universal
As a Scandinavian, I have been both culturally and genetically impregnated with the idea that braggadocio is unseemly. Perhaps this influences my thinking about artist statements, too. I find I am put off by artist statements that seem to be bragging about what the photographer uniquely saw, how wonderfully they’ve crafted their image, or (the worst of all) the thrill the photographer had while photographing that can only partially be experienced when viewing the work. As a baby boomer, I’ve been told that we are at the leading edge of the “Me” generation — but I just can’t let go of the idea that the best art is never so self-centered.

With this in mind, I’ve always felt that the core of the best art is some universal component that allows everyone to relate to the artwork. For example, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings are not about his relationship with God, but rather about everyone’s relationship with God. There is a universality in his art that allows each and every viewer to see themselves reflected in his paintings.

I’ve always felt the best artwork has this magical mixture of the personal and the universal. This applies equally to a well-crafted artist statement. Ideally, after reading the artist statement the viewer’s response is both empathetic and personal. We’d like them to think, “I understand. I feel that, too.” The worst thing they can think after reading a poorly crafted artist statement would be, “This artist is boring. I can’t relate.”

Short and Pithy
Shakespeare famously said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” If this is true for life in general, it’s especially true in an artist statement. Keep in mind that the time required to digest the artist statement is a diversion from the center stage performance. Almost by definition, viewers are anxious to get on to the main event. Artist statements should be short, easily read, and to the point. Condense your message to a couple of main points, not some rambling essay with a dozen observations.

Style
Use vocabulary wisely. Avoid words like hagiography, pusillanimity, and pinteriety. (Yes, I made up that last one, but doesn’t it sound important?) You wouldn’t use such words in everyday speech, so avoid them in your artist statement, too. I’m convinced there’s a special class that all MFA graduates have attended for the purpose of establishing such mellifluous and intellectually vapid writing styles. You will do well to relocate such training in the back corner of your brain where you store algebra, pluperfect verb tenses, and other useless tidbits learned in school. The most accessible writing is conversational in style, not academically obtuse or conceptually opaque. You may quote me on that.

The All-Important Title
We would all do well to accept the fact that not everyone will read the entire artist statement we’ve so painstakingly eked out. It is, however, a very safe bet that everyone will read the title and subtitle. These need to be crafted with the same care that you put into crafting every image. I spend at least as much time on getting the right title and subtitle as I do in crafting the entire rest of the statement.

Choosing exactly the right words takes time. I’m reminded of that old joke (forgive me if you’ve heard this one) of the husband patiently waiting in the living room as his wife prepares for a night on the town to celebrate their anniversary. As she emerges, he would do well to say something like, “Wow, what a vision you are tonight!” Imagine, however, if he selects a slightly different word and says, “Wow, what a sight you look!” Vocabulary is a tricky thing.

Note that the title of the artist statement need not be the same as the title of the portfolio or the project at large. The title of the project identifies what the viewer is about to see, but that can be easily expanded if the title to the artist statement adds and clarifies the project. By further including a subtitle in the artist statement, it’s possible to have three instantly-readable components that virtually everyone will read. Even if they skip the rest of the text, these three carefully crafted components can accomplish a great deal to set the stage for the work and prepare the audience for the experience.

Structure
Also, as best I can, I try to keep paragraphs short, lengthy passages set off by section titles, typography clean, and spelling (ahem) conventional. A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) unveiled a new portfolio at a workshop that proudly displayed his artist statement, beautifully typeset in ornate graphics, including an unfortunate extra consonant in the phrase “tits siren song.” A word of advice: Software spell checkers are not sufficient.

Story writers are often advised to have a beginning, middle, and end. This is good advice for an artist statement, as well. A standard structural technique that is both easy and effective is to begin the artist statement with some visual reference or concept which is then again referred to in the final sentences. With this in mind, my final piece of advice is to avoid writing your artist statement with crayon — but if you insist, you can’t go wrong with burnt sienna.

*Reprinted with permission from the editor of LensWork, issue #103, Nov-Dec 2012. Online at LensWork.com

This entry was posted in Portfolio Project.