A few thoughts on artist statements

Editing Art Collector I’ve seen a lot of artist statements – on gallery floor sheets and websites, media releases and exhibition invitations. Some are well-written and some are, to put it mildly, just not. Here are a few thoughts on what sets the good ones apart.

1) Diplomacy

There are different views on this, depending on how important you rate the artist’s intent, but I think the best artist statements I’ve seen are diplomatic. They aren’t didactic, but instead suggest a few different ways into the work and quietly leave it at that.

For the most part artist statements are read by people who have just walked into a gallery, often before they’ve taken a good look at the art. They could have been following the artist’s work for years, or maybe they’re encountering it for the first time. Either way, they’re (usually) not idiots. A little bit of space to think things through is a sign of respect.

2) Form, function and all that

It might seem like a more definitive approach is called for. After all an artist statement is a statement of the artist’s intent. But how much are you ever going to achieve in a few short paragraphs? It’s a teaser. It can never be a thorough going essay on all the finer points of the work.

3) Yes, we all know you’re terribly clever

Younger artists in particular seem to write their artist statements for their thesis supervisor. At least, sometimes the inner cynic wonders whether the goal was scoring points rather than guiding viewers to and through the work.

Sometimes the language needs to be difficult because the ideas are difficult. But the trick is in knowing when this is the actually the case and when being verbose is just intellectual vanity or, worse, just a thoughtless rehash of artspeak cliches.

4) Umm, say what?

Of course, the worst misdemeanour is when an artist has no idea what they actually want to say. But their dealer told them they needed a few words and hey, the mill needs a bit of grist.

It’s no easy feat to talk about your own work, I respect that. But it’s never a good feeling to walk away from an exhibition wishing you’d never read the artist statement, that it’s ruined the art for you.

Is it unfair to expect artists to be good writers – diplomatic, clear and concise – on top of everything else they have to be good at? Probably. But I think that’s just the nature of the beast these days, both because of the way the wheels of the contemporary art market are greased and because sometimes it’s just plain good manners, like opening doors for others.

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