What is an Artist Statement?
To know what an artist statement is, how to write an artist statement, and why it matters, consider the following example:
Meet Pigcasso, the prolific painterly pig who has produced over 400 paintings in the past 5 years.
This year, history was made as a Pigcasso original, Wild and Free, was sold for £20,000, and became the highest-selling animal artwork to date.
But carefree abandon aside, you may be wondering what the major professional difference is between your average aspiring artist and Pigcasso? Regardless of how many paintings sputter out of this talented pig, Pigcasso has never and will never write his own Artist Statement.
Your next question logically should follow: yeah, but after selling paintings for that sum, who needs an artist statement anyways?
Your Artist Statement is what distinguishes your intention and passion from dumb luck and methodically distributed animal treats.
The Purpose of an Artist Statement
Some artists become visibly uncomfortable when the subjects of money and business enter into the artistic sphere. There is a sense, understandably, that a sales mindset detracts from the creative process and undermines an artist’s integrity. While this inherent fear of capitalistic contamination may be part of a larger issue in regards to being able to live from your artistic output, the idea (subconscious or not) of the Artist Statement as ultimately a Sales Pitch can become a put-off for many striving artists.
I can relate to the feeling of grudgingly approaching the task of writing an Artist Statement with similar disdain, and I know from experience and from my own failed attempts that this hidden resentment often results in a weak statement by being purposely vague or mysterious. I felt that I was forced to formulate something so abstract and thereby cram my creativity into a neat little box for the consumption of other people’s interests.
In reality, I wasn’t far off.
There are several functions of an Artist Statement. Though it can be an elevator pitch of sorts, it can also function as an important gauge of whether your work and efforts accurately reflect your creative goals and intentions. In other words, Artist Statements have both external and internal significance.
Your Artist Statement and Your Audience
There are several circumstances in which your artist statement will be someone’s first introduction to you and your work, making this initial impression an important one.
Artist Statements directly serve to summarize the work and intent of an artist when applying for grants, workshops, residencies, open-calls, and other cooperative projects. Most often, your Artist Grant will not only make the first impression, but it will also set the expectation of your work.
Those reading your statement have a direct need to find artwork that fits their own mission or concept. Although you cannot always control whether or not your own personal themes reflect an institution’s requirements, you can control how you come across professionally. For instance, your statement will be a signal of how ambitious and focused you are, contrastingly, it can also reveal how experimental or how open you are to opportunity. These distinct characteristics can become a cue for the reader about what it may be like to deal with you down the line on a particular project.
In addition to funding opportunities, artist statements are a chance to speak indirectly with admirers and viewers of your artwork. Whether printed in an exhibition pamphlet or on a gallery or personal website, your artist statement should allow your audience to be able to relate, understand, and appreciate not only the how but the why a work is made. This gained insight can lead to other opportunities down the line for both collectors, fans, and curators.
Your Artist Statement and Your Creative Journey
Writing an artist statement can often be a soul-searching task. It forces oneself to ask and re-assess the motives, themes, and drives which fuel an artist’s process. These motives can change over time, and therefore, it is also necessary to continually check back and if needed update your statement so that it best reflects your work.
Throughout your career, you will most likely develop a unique visual or aesthetic style that can be an identifying link through your work. You may use a certain visual language related to your medium that expresses your personality, but your Artist Statement will often be directly influenced by your life situation and the themes which occupy you most on multiple levels. For example, war, politics, moving your place of residence or even the death of a loved one can drastically impact the themes of an artist’s work.
In my case, moving to Germany and struggling to learn the language and integrate into a new culture impacted my artistic motivations tremendously. As war and political uprisings brought new waves of refugees to Germany, this inner unrest found an outlet through my artwork that was both personally and socially relevant. Needless to say, my Artist Statement also required a rewrite in order to reflect these changes.
Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until a curator who viewed my work asked politely if my Statement was “up to date?” I changed it immediately and replied with reciprocal courtesy, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention.”
So basically, although you are ‘selling yourself’ and your work through your artistic statement, having a well-crafted statement generally is in both your own interest as an artist and in the mutual interest of potential collaborators.
How to Write Your Artist Statement
Broadly speaking your Artist Statement should answer the question, What? How? and Why? The process of answering these questions includes the following:
- Review your Portfolio
- Identify recurring motifs and themes.
- Define your process and your relationship to your work.
- Build a narrative between your current and past works.
- Name your Influences.
- Decide how you intend your audience to React to the Work.
- Be Honest.
- Narrow down the essentials.
Review your Portfolio
The first step in writing your Artist Statement is to take time to review your recent work. Start with major projects or artworks in the last few years.
Pick out thumbnails or examples from the artworks to appreciate most or find best reflects yourself as an artist. Set up these works against each other in a way where you can compare them as a whole.
Identify Reoccurring Motifs and Themes
Start with finding stylistic patterns on a Macro-Level. Without going into details of each image, what stands out? What feeling does this emote? Are there colors or moods that link the works together? Ask yourself why you made these aesthetic choices?
Next focus on repeating subject matters and themes. Again start general and progress to specifics. Are you working in Landscapes, Portraits, or Abstraction? Are there specific locations, buildings, people, and objects that carry over?
Define your process and your relationship to your work
A process usually involves a doing or an active VERB. What is the active VERB in your process? Are you EXPLORING, EXAMINING, COMPARING, SEARCHING, EXPRESSING, QUESTIONING, IDENTIFYING, etc?
Labeling these action verbs will help you understand where you stand in relation to your artwork and what your role is as an artist in producing the work.
Build a Narrative between your Current and Past Works
Here, its important to describe how your current work fits into your larger body of work.
There are three stories to build on. Start with your latest body of work. What were the influences? How did you come to the idea to produce it? Why did you choose your specific medium or technique? Was your technique influenced by the theme or vice-versa?
Next Look at the work you did before the last work. How did your last work stem from the one before?
Finally, look at older works. Find a developmental story arc that led you to where you are now.
Name your Influences
You may also provide some insights into your inspirations and influences, citing other works, books, research, or events that compelled you to delve deeper into the subject?
Through your work, are continuing or breaking with a specific tradition? Does your work offer a new perspective on a subject matter which is already familiar?
Decide how you intend your audience to React to the Work.
Remember, communication is a three-way street. There is What you Say. There is What you Mean. And, there is What others Understand. Unfortunately, these three roads don’t always converge.
Ask yourself if what you are saying is what you mean, and how you want your audience to react to the work. Then, determine if the audience is able through your work to understand your message?
Avoid unnecessary ‘art speak‘, or trying to sound overly intellectual to impress. Oxford dictionary defines ‘art speak’ as, “obscure, esoteric, or pretentious language used to discuss art.” Art Speak is also referred to as International Art English or IAE, and it is often marked by the use of improvised nouns, or taking adjectives and forming them into nouns, such as visuality, culturality, ethereality, plurality (some of these words like ‘plurality’ may indeed be a word, but it is still somehow annoying). Other offenses include abusing prefixes like pre-, post-, hyper-, pseudo-, or over expanding the meaning of mundane words like ‘space’ or ‘field’.
Basically, if it makes you want to gag writing it, it will make others want to gag reading it.
Narrow down the essentials
Keep the information in your Statement relevant to your most current work. Although a good narrative arc is important, you don’t want to start a birth. It’s good to keep a long-form and a shorter one-paragraph version of your Artist Statement. Try to be as clear and direct as possible in your communication and avoid unnecessary repetition.
Remember, your Artist Statment is your friend, not only your Public Relations representative. A good Artist Statement will help you and others understand and respond to your work accordingly.
Investing the time and energy into formulating your ideas and drives, and updating this text continually, should not only keep you on the right path but help you move ahead.