On Statements



The other day, I had one of those email exchanges about artist statements with a friend. I’m writing “one of those,” because almost inevitably they gravitate towards the same kinds of sentiments. My friend’s comments about them were (I’m paraphrasing): “most” tend to be “unreadable” and don’t help the work (I am very generous rephrasing here), are they really needed and why does one have to write one?, and many are boring. I suppose it might be time to talk about it: How do you write a statement and why? Of course, it is much easier - and usually more fun - to explain how not to write an artist statement, especially if an especially egregious example is at hand. But that doesn’t help much if you have to write one. When you Google “how to write an artist statement” you get a lot of different results, so I figured I’d simply add my own perspective to the mix, hoping that some people might find it useful. (more)

First of all, why even write an artist/project statement? Well, you write a statement because that’s part of the game. That’s a pretty lousy answer, and there is more to statements than just that. But you need to realize that a) you should have a statement because you are expected to have one and b) you should spend a little bit of time on it, because a bad artist statement will make you and your work look bad.

Sending out a bad artist statement is like sending out a CV printed on crappy paper, with stains on it. It doesn’t help to make you (or your work) look very good.

But aren’t you a photographer, a visual artist? If you had wanted to become a writer you would have done so, right? Over the past few years, I’ve tried all kinds of approaches to deal with this seemingly clever point, and none of them worked very well. So here’s my latest attempt: get over yourself!

See, here’s the thing: If you can’t even talk or write about your own photography doesn’t that tell me that you literally have no clue what it’s all about? Doesn’t it mean that I could simply take the work and define what it’s about, twist and bend its possible meanings to make it fit my own ideas? Is that what you want people to do with your work - after you spent all the time getting it together? Probably not.

Of course, you could simply stick to your guns here and proclaim that you’re a visual artist, and that you can’t talk about art etc. - if you’re one of those people, simply stop reading this little article. It’s not written for you. I won’t be able to convince you.

Part of the reason why you want to write a statement is not because you have to, but because you want to own and have an understanding of your work. You want to know how to approach it, and you want to be certain that it’s done, that there’s nothing you need to add to it.

It’s very important to understand that this has nothing to do with an academic approach to art (another one of those oh-so convenient excuses not to write one). It is true that an academic approach to art employs writing, but that doesn’t mean that every piece of writing about art is academic.

I found that a good way to approach statements is the following: Write about your work before it is finished. It needn’t be catered towards an audience other than yourself, and it needn’t even be full sentences. I often tell people it’s a good idea to spend a whole week just with a pen and paper (or a computer), to write and read and edit and re-read and re-edit etc. - without looking at any photos. Once you’re certain that what you got in writing reflects the work pretty well, go back to it, and then keep going. You’ll find that some of the writing does indeed reflect the work very well, while some other parts don’t. That’s easy to fix. You’ll also find that editing the work suddenly is much easier, since your writing will provide you with pointers to use for an edit. So you’ll edit your writing, and you’ll be able to sort out some images that you might have had a weird feeling about, without knowing why.

One aspect of this approach is that it’s almost impossible to predict how it turns out (so badmouthing it without even trying is, well, just lame). Apart from all the things you can learn about yourself as an artist and about the work in question is that you can extract the statement from what you wrote at the end. How convenient! After all, the writing contains the essence of what you have been thinking about the work.

You might still wonder why I’m trying to make you explain your photography, and that’s one of the most common and pernicious misconceptions about artist statements: A good statement does not explain the work. It’s art after all, and there’s no need to explain anything. Explaining would be the other extreme: Instead of leaving everything possible, you’d restrict your work to allowing only one explanation. A good statement lies right in the middle somewhere - and that’s part of the reason why it’s so important to write one.

There are a few very common mistakes I come across fairly frequently. As I just wrote, don’t explain your work. If you explain the work you’re trying to restrict its meaning, which means that if someone agrees with the explanation, the work is obvious and/or boring. If someone disagrees, s/he is not likely to engage with it much more, either. You want to give the viewer space to fill, you want her or him to be able to discover things, especially things you might not even have thought about yourself.

It’s a bit like story telling - explaining everything ruins a good story. Leave room for some imagination - on your and the viewer’s side.

Another common mistake is to use the statement to describe the viewer’s reactions. You can’t do that. How do you know how people will react to the work? It works just like in the case of explaining the work, except that it’s even worse: When you try to explain something there still is some emotional space. But when you pre-define the emotional space what is left?

Explaining your own intentions or your choices I never find to be a good idea, either. Don’t tell people why you’re doing things a certain way in your work. If you know why you’re doing it that’s great. And if it works that’s all you care about. If it does not work, telling people what you wanted to achieve won’t make it happen. Instead it will just give them another reason to dislike the work.

As a quick aside, this all ties in with whether or not there is a single truth in an image (or body of work), which is supposed to be defined - or introduced via the intentions - by the photographer. I don’t subscribe to that idea. There is no such things as a single photographic truth. Photography is very complex, and you are doing yourself no favour by trying to reduce your own work to something one-dimensional.

Don’t literally describe what people can see in your photographs. Your viewers are not blind! I know it sounds obvious, but it’s so common for people to do that.

One of everybody’s pet peeves is art speak. We all know there’s a lot of writing out there that can’t avoid quoting the usual suspects (Barthes, Sontag, Szarkowski, etc.). There’s more to art speak than those quotes - for example a kind of language that reads as if it was right out of a sociological seminar - and there isn’t enough time and space for me to dissect it here. But as a general rule, I’d probably say that you want to write your statement in the same language you’d use for a letter to someone who’s close, but not too close to you. I wager that that way you should be able to stay clear of art speak pretty easily.

Write your statement as you and not as the you you’d imagine to be if you were teaching “Semiotic French Postanalytical Metaphysics” at the Sorbonne (I don’t know whether there is such a thing as “Semiotic French Postanalytical Metaphysics,” and I don’t even want to know). Adding fancy quotes or lots of big words doesn’t add gravitas. It just vastly increases the risk of making things look pretentious (if not ridiculous).

And realize this about art speak: Most people have very, very good bullshit detectors. The last thing you want is those detectors to go off when they read your statement.

Now it’ll get a bit tricky: Your statement should reflect the emotional qualities of your work. Let’s use an example: If your work is very personal then it will just look weird if your statement is emotionally very detached. Of course, you don’t want to go overboard with the emotions (because then it’ll be either Hallmarky, kitschy or creepy), but your statement should reflect your personal involvement. In other words, it’s all about the balance, but there should be a tilt towards what really is at the core of your work. If the work is very conceptual then of course you want to talk about the concept, and getting too emotional won’t serve you well.

But, and this is a big but, you also don’t want to be too one-sided: What is it that might make your work interesting for other people? If you are working on your own family, people will not know the family, and we all know from having to look at other people’s vacation photos how tedious that can be. It usually only gets interesting when we get involved somehow, when there’s something that makes us think. This might be the hardest bit in a statement, because I just said that you should not explain the work. But in your statement you want to try to make connections between your own personal space and the space we all share (I’m being intentionally vague with my wording here, because I’m trying to cover a lot of different work).

Essentially, it comes down to this: Why are your family photos interesting for me? What makes me care about some intellectual concept you’ve come up with (especially if I’m not an intellectually inclined person)? What’s interesting about a certain kind of people you’ve portrayed? What kinds of questions do any of these projects ask me?

Again: Don’t write this down (“My work asks the viewer to consider…” is just bad), but keep in mind that you might want to steer someone a bit. Give them some ideas what to look for (something that’s not obvious), or throw them off balance: Whatever works.

People often ask me how they can know what other people might find interesting about their work, and that’s actually a very good question. Maybe you won’t know. And how do you start writing, when there’s an empty piece of paper in front of you? Usually, when I talk with somebody about their work, if I ask questions just long enough the artist tends to get passionate about it. Use that passion as a starting point to talk about your work. What is exciting for you about whatever it is you want to share? The one thing I’ve found is that while not everybody can write a good statement, most people are able to tell me why they’re excited about their photography. If you’re excited or passionate about your work, you can write about it.

At this stage, you might still be waiting for the magical formula to write your statement. The three steps that will allow you to write your statement in fifteen minutes. I don’t think there is anything like that. Do you really think your work is so simple and one-dimensional that you can sit down and write a good statement about it in fifteen minutes? I sure hope not.

Writing your statement should not be something you do when you assemble things to send off to a competition, gallery, … At that stage you need to have a statement at hand.

You might wonder why I’ve ignored the distinction between artist and project statements. While there is a difference in scope - your artist statement is usually broader - I don’t think there is a difference in how you write them.

Finally, I don’t know whether the above is helpful or useful in any way, or whether it simply adds more confusion to the whole topic. I hope it will be the former. At the very least, the above gives you a pretty good idea what I think about writing a statement.