Stanzie Tooth is an artist currently based in Berlin. She recently completed her MFA at the University of Ottawa.
From exhibitions to grant applications, artist statements are a much-used tool in the art world. Why then, if they are so critical to the experience of an artist’s work, are so many artist statements so bad?
Further to the point, why do so many of us (us being not just artists, but curators, arts administrators and consumers of art) hate them so vehemently? Too often I have read overblown, wordy statements that add little to my experience of an artwork, save to let me know that the artist is in some way aware of philosophy, and/or politics, and/or art history or something, something—I think you get my drift.
Recently, my issues with artist statements were put to task when I was working as a TA for university art courses. I watched enthusiastic, engaged and talented students reduce their own work to such generic and wordy prose—hell, I’ve done it myself—and it made me want to get down to the how and why of it.
Let me step back for a moment and say: I get it. I know why artist statements are used and why they are needed (sort of). In a culture where so much verbiage and media is attached to an artist’s work, the artist statement is, at its best, a way to give the artist agency in the dialogue about their work.
It is a chance to provide additional insights, to expose research and process, and to support the work and its reception. I know many artists who find the statement to be a critical part of their process and they consider a project to be complete only when they have finished the statement: a sort of reflection and contextualization to cap off their experience and send it into the world.
In my career I have written (or assisted in writing) statements for many, many other artists. I find this process comes naturally to me and is endlessly rewarding. I speak to artists and ask questions to help them interrogate their ideas about their work and what it does/is. Then, I assist them in putting language to the elements that are necessary for the audience, all the while working to establish a voice, a style of writing, which suits the work.
Often through this process of developing a statement, I discover new and exciting things about the work that, while not replacing the experience of the artwork itself, adds to my understanding and helps me to connect the art to other tracts of thinking that I might have missed from first impressions.
When I write about my own work, however, I am a mess.
The objective and calm voice that I loan to others seems to wither and I lose the script. Somewhere between not wanting to inflate the work, and conversely, not wanting to sound stupid and simplistic, I fall short and ramble.
As a result, I often reflect on my own statements as being passive and too broad in their scope. My experience is not uncommon. When I work with other artists they usually give a similar account. So, how do we achieve this critical distance, this confident voice, for ourselves?
While working as a teaching assistant for university art courses, I asked myself these very questions. I had been tasked with overseeing an artist statement assignment for an upper-year studio course. I was enthusiastic about this exercise because this particular group of students was fantastic. In critiques they spoke so eloquently about their own work and each others.
What a shock it was then, when they handed in a stack of near carbon-copy statements laden with distant, academic verbiage.
There was an eerie consistency to not only the thematics discussed, but the writing style and tone. They had all done their job. They had written an artist statement as they had been instructed throughout years of university, so what went wrong?
When I handed back their papers, I asked them to reread their own statements and then conducted the following exercise.
“Everyone close your eyes please,” I said. “Now, raise your hand if you made reference to psychology, the psyche, or the unknowable mind as a primary theme in your statement.”
About 90% percent of the hands shot up. I asked them to open their eyes and see the results. “See—all of these people wrote about very similar things in their statement, and yet, all of your work so different.”
We proceeded to do the same exercise with a few other themes/topics and virtually no one was left out. One student asked,“But aren’t these topics so big that there is room for everyone to deal with them?”
I admitted this is true, but asked in what ways they had made their statements distinct and descriptive of their own work. Adding that if I couldn’t, barring the artist’s name, connect the statement to the work, that the statement wasn’t serving the art.
The conversation continued but the crux of the issue then, and now, is this: the academization of art teaches a certain style and standard for writing. This style usually values what I refer to as capital “C” Content: the theoretical, philosophical and psychological frameworks (to name a few) for examining artworks as employed by curators, art historians and cultural theorists.
Young artists are taught to examine and write about their work in the same way that these fields do—but shouldn’t we be teaching them to write from the artist’s perspective?
I think that much of the self-consciousness experienced by myself and other artists is connected to the fact that we are often asked to speak about our work from the outside. Since the academic system is tailored to the writing of cultural theorists, art historians and curators, we are taught to speak their language and write in their voice.
We are writing from the point of view of the receiver instead of writing from the inside. It is no surprise that many artist statements sound distanced and convoluted.
We should stop looking at ways to fit artist statements into the mold of academic writing and instead, value them for their unique potential to bridge the world of images/sensations/kinetic experience and the world of ideas and writing.
As artists writing we often forget that we are writing in support of a visual, experiential (or sonic, or spatial, etc.) media. We get lost in the capital “C” Content to the extent that we forget about our own content, the experience, that we have created.
I still struggle to write my own artist statements. As someone who gets their hands dirty every day in the studio, I struggle to explain my weird little world of making to others. As an MFA grad I’m armed with a lot of language that the outside world would use to dissect and interrogate my work, but I’m hoping to find a different way to tell you my side of things.