Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writers’ Statements

I was participating in an online artist discussion group recently, chattering on glibly about the subject at hand, it being that day the rampant pretentiousness of Artist Statements – those dense, enigmatic attempts at prose composed by people who are supposed to be better at expressing themselves pictorially or sculpturally than verbally, and seem to go out of their way to use the required Statement to prove it.

Anyone who has visited a serious art gallery or museum display has encountered these forced treatises, printed on a piece of grey cardboard, stuck to the wall near the entrance to the show. Those who take time to read them come away either scratching their heads, or nodding knowingly, chin-in-hand, with a satisfied expression of  ‘Oh, now I get it’ on their placid faces.

(Okay, I made that second part up. I’m sure it happens, but I’ve never seen it.  Outside of my own shows, of course.)

It seems that artists (in this discussion group at least) fall into one of three categories: 1) Those who stand by their Artist Statements (or Artist Statements in general) as verbal bridges from the heart of the artist to the mind of the viewer, or/and an essential introduction and/or explanation of the artist’s body of work; 2) Those who view the Statement as a nonsensical exercise, made worse by the fact that the artist either has no idea of what they are trying to say, either in their work or in their Artist Statement, or they haven't figured out how to say it very well; or 3) Those of us who appreciate a hint or two regarding an artist’s intent, but wish they could say it just a little more clearly.

Statements stating stuff like “My work expresses the Existential Angst inherent in the Universal Conundrum of the Individual contemplating the Other…” just doesn’t cut it for me. 

Or for a bunch of other people, either, artists and non-artists alike.

We either would like to be told outright what’s going on, or be left to our own devices to figure it out for ourselves. Both approaches have their merits. But being told you are being told something by something that is actually telling you nothing, well that just doesn't help anyone, does it?

So how do these dreadful things happen? Why are they so pervasively and consistently bad? Why do they persist? I confess, it’s a mystery.  It is as though fine art majors are required to take a course in Obfuscational Scriptology, and can only pass the course, and earn their art degrees by creating three paragraphs of indecipherable malarky.

I was fortunate in that during my brief foray into academic studio arts, I was blessed with professors who discouraged attaching verbal descriptions to our artwork. I was never required to pen an Artist Statement of my own. (Whether or how this contributed to my developing an entire body of verbally-based humorous drawings remains material for another discussion. Pretty much begs one, as a matter of fact.)

But not every Art major is so fortunate. One outside the institution would have a hard time imagining the pressure placed on art students to comply with such conventions, in a competitive academic environment that causes them to wring out and simmer down entire vocabularies in order to render a few passably obscure paragraphs detailing, but not really, the scope and meaning of their work.

Upon entering the world of gallery presentations, I have from time to time been obliged to yield to convention, and generate my own version of an Artist Statement. On the few occasions that I tried to get by with stating clearly that “I draw funny pictures”, I’ve been told to please take the process more seriously. At such times I must confess that I have been tempted to parody the process with a balance of bland descriptors as apparently dense and profound as they are substantially empty and superficial.

But that takes work, and if I wanted to earn a living through honest labor, I’d never have become an artist in the first place.

Fortunately there is a technological solution:

Googling the phrase “Artist Statement Generator” provides anyone with artistic talent (or without any, for that matter) and an ability to read at the third grade level a variety of useful tools that will allow them to produce museum-quality statements in an instant.

Give it a try. Even of you aren’t an artist, it will make you feel and sound just like the real thing.

Another alternative would be to dispense with the pretentious gallery practice altogether, leaving it to the artist to decide if a statement is necessary or advisable, according to their ability and interest in completing the literary exercise. 

After all, requiring artists to engage in a separate art form to explain their primary art form is ludicrous. As Isadora Duncan famously remarked, "If I could tell you that, I wouldn't have to dance it."

Or, as pointed out by Houston-based painter & sculptor Barbara Bliss:

“I wonder how this would work: How about every time a poet writes a poem, or a novelist a novel, or a journalist a feature--that writer is required to paint a picture depicting their writings so that the publisher or general public could better understand what they're trying to convey?”

I know I’d like to see that. 

As long as it doesn't put another editorial cartoonist out of work…
Wallet Biopsy
(I'm just cutting up.)

1 comment:

  1. Agree with your thoughts on the matter.
    Let us all revolt against the Artist's Statement !!