Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Would You Like to Make a Statement?

Ok - so I am so behind on this and I'm sure everyone has long moved on but I gotta put my spin on this. Thanks to Chris Jagers who led me to the excellent interview of Tyler Green, who seemingly is almost always dead on. The lightening rod within the interview seems to be the question of the importance of the artist's statement - or as Green states, "Text-Love". Funny because I see something more urgent within the interview. More on that later - for now here's the jist of the artist statement debate.

Tyler Green

Yes. Blame art schools, which require artists to produce statements and such. Then blame galleries for including artist statements in press releases/etc. Written artists’ statements are a total waste of time. When an artist receives his/her BA or MFA, he/she should be required to burn anything resembling a written artist’s statement. An artist’s statement is his/her work.

(BTW, curators are responsible for text-love too. They’re in love with wall-text. The Whitney, in particular, seems unable to present an exhibit without accompanying novel-length texts. This year’s Whitney Biennial was a bad show for plenty of reasons, but the thousands of words of wall-text the show apparently ‘required’ should have been a tip-off to the Whitney that it had a disaster on its floors. Same with another recent Whitney curatorial clumping: “Remote Viewing.”)
This response produced a spirited reply over at Art Fag City and at Deborah Fisher respectively.

While I agree that wall text* and artist statements are often poorly executed, I think it is a mistake to lump the two text related activities together, because the assumption is then that the purpose of an artist statement is solely to do with the viewer and the mounting of exhibitions. Artist's statements are not a waste of time, and to suggest otherwise does not take into account the value in articulating ones art making objectives. Since the rules of writing require focus to build effective arguments, the practice can in turn have significant payoffs in the studio. It can help an artist find focus in the studio if this is lacking, and can also lead the artist to some clarity on whether the work they are making supports the statements they have spelled out. Greater standards need to be applied to the practice of artist writing, because it is a proven means of advancing art.

For this reason I am almost always dismissive of work that is accompanied by poor statements. It is indicative of an artist who is either not sufficiently engaged in the work they produce, or merely submissive to the rules of formalism. In either case, the work has limited value. Moreover, history proves this point several times over. With only a few exceptions, the major artists of the 20th century have all written statements on their work that match publication standards. If we are to learn anything from history, it is that the best artists do not work solely within the confines of their studio.
Deborah Fisher in response to both:
The thrust of the AFC argument is that statement-writing clarifies "artistic objectives" and helps artists to build effective arguments. But art is not a term paper, and great art is great because it denies one clear argument or objective! To frame one's art verbally, with an artist's statement, is to close doors that could remain open, and to depend on verbal explanations of visual and spatial expressions dulls the potential for art to actually do that voodoo that it does so well. Visual and spatial expressions of ideas are non-linear, non-hierarchical. Multiple reads can co-exist in time. Writing doesn't kill this. But writing an artist's statement can.

The artist's statement as taught in school asks me to tell you what my art means. It answers the questions: What is my art doing? How is it doing it? Why is it doing it? And these are great questions for a viewer to ask themselves when looking at a work of art, but my relationship to what I make is different, and these questions are uniquely unimportant to me. These questions privilege one meaning, expressed in a linear fashion, over the tapestry of simultaneous and interlocking meanings that compel me to create visual art. The whole reason I make visual art and don't write for a living is because of this tapestry and what it can do, and the very nature of this love affair I am having with this tapestry of meaning is that it is impossible to verbalize with anything other than the most hackneyed, imprecise, insufficient metaphors.

I make art specifically because I am trying desperately to understand something that my verbal self can't touch. Writing a statement about what my own work means is therefore an unhelpful enterprise. This is not because I am an illiterate artist, but because I am compelled to make visual art for specifically nonverbal reasons. I want to embrace paradox, not resolve it. I want to ferret out all those fat spaces of uncertainty and becoming that an essay cannot get at.
All have very valid and I think sincere takes on the malady know as the artist statement. All the posts mentioned above actually prompted Chris Jagers to remove his statement from his artist site. I think he should reconsider that move. Here's what I think :)

Tyler is right to critique the simplification of the artist statement and the narrowing effects it has had on how art gets consumed. That's why it is there after all - packaging of the art. It tells people (including the gallery) how to understand the work and where to file it - under rock, electronic, hip hop or folk? It is also another example of how an arts education is producing standards - but weak standards. Let's face that head on ok? If a school actually takes the time to address professional issues, (I'm wagering most don't) such as a statement, do you really think they are helping to make these statements instructive or cogent? In my experience, no.

Tyler is somewhat overreaching in conflating artist statements with wall text. I agree that wall text is overly dense in many cases and irritating to the initiated, but time and time again I see that people outside of the art bubble really do get a valid entry to the works thanks to wall text. I think it is better suited to historical exhibitions though and should never outway the visual work. It should be viewed as a supplement not an equal unless your work is TEXT. It is important to note that an artist like Carrie Mae Weems currently doesn't use wall text or labels because she wants the viewer to engage with the work first and then read later if they like. That's a big political statement within a large political body of work. It says - I'm an artist first and this a poetic space first - other politics and history come second within this created world. It is a challenge to the viewer to figure it out and a challenge to herself to make works that speak clearly - speak visually.

Paddy suggests that an artist statement is critical practice for an artist. That it helps an artist to locate themselves and done correctly, can inspire and be a part of one's art practice. I agree with that too. Every artist should explore writing on some level because I do think that in most cases she is correct. It is important to be able to convey your thoughts on paper as it may open up some blocked pathways. I think it is also important for artists to speak in public as much as they can for the same reasons. It acts as a spring board. You can hear yourself in the public sphere and it helps you edit out what isn't clear or making sense. It may inspire you as well. Where I think Paddy runs off the road though is when she suggests that bad artist statements are a direct link to bad art and dumb artists. This is very elitist and self righteous and frankly too narrow. Plenty of bad artists are good writers and talkers and vice versa. One's reading list is never going to make the work or make the work good.

Look, I've read hundreds of crap statements that slaughter the english language and amount to the worst pile of gibberish on the planet. To say they are inane is to be polite. Is it all the artist's fault though? On one level yes, but I think we have to look at the overall education failure. I'm speaking to high school education, not everyone has the same educational experience. Far too many students entering college have sub-par composition and language skills. Some students I had once were really operating at a 9th grade level despite being in college and despite being generally bright and interested in the larger world. An arts degree doesn't fully address short comings because the focus is so much on studio hours that the humanities are sort of deleted. It is a shame because these young artists aren't being helped. It leads to junk statements. An artist needs to address this if they are intimidated with writing. They need to practice and find someone who is comfortable with writing to help them as an editor. The last thing an artist needs is for the gallery or the curator to do all the talking for them. You have to be able to speak for yourself and write clearly. The best advice is to write from the artist perspective and not to act like a curator or an art historian. Be clear and make demonstrative statements. Then let the work do the talking.

For artists who do have a writing "gene", I think Deborah hits it dead on - the catch 22 so many of us face. How to be literate and accessible while maintaining the primacy of the visual without be trapped by this question:
"what is your work

This is the most feared question I ever face - and I can blab for hours about what my work is about. I hate the question for all the reasons Deborah mentions. I always seem to fail at it and I always feel that I cheat the work when I try to 'nutshell it" for someone. Because honestly, on many levels I don't know what the work is about -beyond it is about itself, and me and everything else under the sun! It is about discovery and mystery and struggle with materials, feeling and ideas. It is the intangible and it owns me.

Sometimes I just want to say its about life - ya dig?


chrisjag said...

Good summary of all the viewpoints.

I never did take my statement down - just tempted.

highlowbetween said...

Glad you left it up - its good for a website I think.

Steven LaRose said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steven LaRose said...

I wonder if visual artists have been limited in writing about their art by the stifling history and influence of modern art criticism. Why aren't musicians held to the same cross-disciplinary standards? It is weird. If I could write better would I be a better painter? I'm positive the answer is NO. But if I could "think" or "feel" better, well, thats a different story. And yet, if I were teaching third year college art classes today, I would require that every student have a blog (with text).

sorry for the double up, blogger is wiggin' out

highlowbetween said...

yeah they should be requiredto have a blog. It may be the best way to eliminate artist statements inthe end. For me the writing should just be a process and not a definition of I am this and this is about that. Musicians have the advantage of mathetical communication which happens wthout people even realizing - its a feeling or as I posted earlier "tone" that you can relate to. Music is also mass produced so there is advantage and disadvantage in there soemwhere. Art criticism is a good point. I think that speaks to the fact that the Humanities have tried to quantify themsleves into a capital that is respected more in a science/math oriented society. America doesn't understand poetry any more than it does art criticism.

geoffrey said...

I'm glad you brought that up steven... that's where i was headed too- blogging. I think blogging finds a great common ground between a personal art journal/sketchbook and an artist statement. Even as political (or ridiculous) as my blog can get, i think it still reflects my work, or at least shows a compilation of my tinkerings.

I agree with you on these thoughts though HLIB, with a pull toward DF's camp mainly. Art is not a science experiment (unless it is). Any AS that sets the intention of the work instantly reads like one to me.

The thing here that really sucks is that a viewer will have the tendency to say "the work has failed" rather than "the statement failed" after reading a crappy paragraph.

highlowbetween said...

G - Yes I'm mostly in DF's camp but I also see some validity in statements but maybe that's due to my proximity to the machine. Honestly, I enjoy reading good statements, I get something from them. But again, they are supplements - not equal to the work.
That's a great point about how the crap statemnet could lead someone to believe the work has failed. I think that happens - I'm probably guilty of dismissing someone because they couldn't articulate in some instances or I didn't like what they were saying, their position or asumptions. I'm definitely someone who goes straight to work though and not a statement/wall text reader until after I have viewed the works. I hate being at a show and watch a line of people view and read the works in a chronological order, left to right. Its absurd.

fisher6000 said...

Top Eight Reasons Blogging Should Replace Artist's Statements:

1. A good blog post is around 500 words and can be scanned by someone at their crappy day job. No more swallowed-the-dictionary writing!

2. Geoffrey's Compilation of Tinkerings Maxim. Any blog entry is, by definition, not the last thing you have to say.

3. Blogs do not stand next to your art, cannot be confused for your art, and cannot prop up your art.

4. The success of a blog is determined largely by the number of links. Linking to what is outside is very different from cleaving to that special little nugget locked within the Individual Artist.

5. Comments, comments, comments.

6. Blogs encourage regular writing. No more constipated, vague language!

7. It's just a blog. Bloggers are, by definition, not authorities. They're just folks, and the writing bloggers do tends to be more exploratory than authoritative.

8. People actually read blogs.

highlowbetween said...

plus all the nifty pictures you get to use!
Are you suggesting my entries ar tooo looong? :)

geoffrey said...

HLIB- hell no they aren't too long! If you make em any shorter it just means i gotta go do my own work sooner... so for the love of all that is procrastination, please digress.

highlowbetween said...

Ok I'll keep talking long. On a perverse level I started getting into the "average length of time" people spend at HLIB and I wanted to raise the bar to 10 minutes. We have to over take Winkleman ;)

Steven LaRose said...

Sorry, my overly long length of time on this visit (does Sitemeter tell you this?) is due to the eventful distraction of my daughter twisting her second tooth out of her head.

What I was intending to do, before the Artist Statement Hoopla, was put together a body of work and then ask other people to write about it. I imagined, that over blog time, as I made the pieces, people would become familiar with the materials, the process, the tangential thinking and consequently, have some insights into the work. The statements would then be posted with 20 images on another blog or web page. This "home page" would be a place to send dealers, collector, and galleries and if nothing ever came of it, it would at least be a pretty cool virtual exhibition.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, other then confessing my plot for avoiding the Artist Statement.

highlowbetween said...

Done well it could be an interesting process - a sort of mail art thing - but more substantial. My only warning would be allowing so many voices into the process - if that would be a burden and overly affect the work. Otherwise I think it could be different way to generate some work. Having the homepage with the "results" would be advised I think. Having all the correspondence could be nice.
oh, and you'll need an artist statement...

Steven LaRose said...

For my final statement I was going to use something like; "on many levels I don't know what the work is about -beyond it is about itself, and me and everything else under the sun! It is about discovery and mystery and struggle with materials, feeling and ideas. It is the intangible and it owns me."

highlowbetween said...

its copy righted aleady :)

cj said...

I just happened to run across your blog. Thanks so much for addressing one of my biggest peeves- people demanding you 'tell' them what your work is 'about'. I hate artist statements except the ones that described the artist's style, techniques, use of materials. I want to work on learning what the work is about on my own not have a 'clearly defined explaination' from the artist. If they do have one then they should offer it to those who ask for it or after the work has been viewed. I feel these defined statements take away from the special communication that art has with humanity- its more visual than verbal and why can't we just let it be what it is- a unique expression from within?
Thanks for a must-read and a definite print/save. I intend on passing it on to others.