Are "Artists' Statements" Really Necessary?

Not so long ago, it was believed that art spoke for itself, but no longer. Art museums have made their wall labels longer, offering more information to visitors who now spend as much time reading as looking.
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Not so long ago, it was believed that art spoke for itself, but no longer. Art museums have made their wall labels longer and longer, offering paragraphs of background information and interpretation to visitors who now spend as much time reading as looking. Deconstructivist critics, for their part, have announced that art itself is simply "text," which needs to be deciphered by a critic in order to be rendered intelligible by the public.

Increasingly, artists have become part of this word culture. More and more of them now write Artist Statements, which are tacked up on the walls of exhibition spaces where their work is displayed or that accompany packets of slides mailed to art dealers whose galleries they wish to join. Many artists and dealers dislike the trend or are unhappy with most of the artist statements they see, but the growing number of these documents in the art world is undeniable.

An artist statement presumably offers some information about the art one sees -- such as, who the artist is, how the work was made, the artist's philosophy and belief system as well as how the art fits either within the artist's overall body of work or into the political and cultural times -- and would enable a viewer to grasp something essential about it. Frequently, however, these statements draw negative reactions for what they say (or don't say) and how they are written. "A lot of artist statements are just hot air or sales pitches," said Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion.

"I don't allow statements in the rooms where exhibitions take place," Ivan Karp, director of New York City's O.K. Harris gallery, stated. "They are generally cryptic, esoteric, ungrammatical and besides the point."

"Most artist statements, 99 out of 100, are not useful, and they're often ludicrous," Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward Sozanski said. "A poorly written statement has turned me off an artist's work. Being a literary person, I am influenced by the way people speak and write. A badly written or poorly conceived statement pushes me in the wrong direction. It shouldn't, be a bad statement makes me say, 'To hell with it. That person doesn't know what he's talking about."

"It's rare that any collectors read them," said Christopher Addison, director of the Addison/Ripley Gallery in Washington, D.C. "If collectors want to know more about the artist or the art, they'll usually ask me directly. I have found that it is mostly artists who read these artist statements, in order to see how other artists write them and what kinds of things they say about their work. Artists' agents and others who create press packages for artists recommend that artists include some sort of statement as part of the supporting material. After a while, with everyone doing it, they seem pro forma."

It is undoubtedly true that one of the reasons for the proliferation of these statements is that artists' advisers, career consultants to mostly younger or less established artists, unaminously recommend that artists include them with any written or visual material they send out to collectors, critics and dealers. "An artist statement exists in another dimension than just the art itself, that is, the psychology and personality of the artist," said Calvin Goodman, an artists' advisor in Los Angeles and author of The Art Marketing Handbook. "The statement is directed at the purpose and not just the appearance of the art." He added that "it is important that an artist makes a statement that is different than every other artist statement." Obviously, artists must now compete, not only with images but, with their commentaries.

Clearly, there are two issues here: The first is whether or not to include an artist statement as part of an exhibition or in a packet of slides sent to a dealer; the second is how to conceive of, and write, a statement that helps the viewer appreciate the artwork and, at least, doesn't alienate readers. On both subjects, the opinions one often receives are contradictory.
Certainly, there are occasional instances when an artist statement is, not only helpful to the artist but, important in itself. Henri Matisse's likening of his art to a "good armchair" in a 1908 journal essay, entitled "Notes of a Painters," established a way for contemporary collectors and future art historians alike alike to appreciate his painting: "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue." An even more oft-quoted artist statement, this by Robert Rauschenberg, was included in the catalogue of New York's Museum of Modern Art's 1959 "Sixteen Americans" exhibition: "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)"

With both Matisse and Rauschenberg, their statements describe an approach to making art. Matisse's essay reveals his method of capturing sensations of form and color within a composition, noting his indebtedness to Paul Cezanne and his differences with the Impressionists; Rauschenberg's comments are Duchampian without ever mentioning Marcel Duchamp.

Most art dealers claim that an artist statement is never an important consideration in selecting an artist to show or represent and that a poorly written statement may have a detrimental effect if the artist's slides had otherwise interested the dealer. No one believes that an artist should be judged on the basis of his or her command of the English language but, as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania gallery owner Charles More noted, "a badly written statement colors the work negatively for me."

Many others agree. "What they say about the work often totally destroys my interest," David Cohen, director of the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregon, said. "If the artist is inarticulate or doesn't sound confident about what he or she is doing, I become very reluctant to make an investment in that artist." He added that "we are rarely interested in artists we don't already know about, so the statement doesn't matter much."

Margo Dolan, director of the Dolan/Maxwell gallery in Philadelphia, concurred, stating that "being articulate is a major basis on which we choose to represent an artist."

Another art dealer, Stephen Rosenberg of the Stephen Rosenberg Gallery in New York City, was not quite as harsh, noting that "bad writing may not turn me off art I like, but it may let me know something about the level of maturity of the artist I'm dealing with."

While dealers may not be as interested in a formal artist statement, which usually takes up between one-half and a whole page, any packet of slides sent to them by an artist should include a cover letter and a resume. Artists need to introduce themselves in some manner.
Both Cohen and Rosenberg stated that they have included artist statements in exhibitions at their galleries. They and other dealers point out that visual literacy is not always high with the public, and visitors to galleries need -- and are often grateful for -- any help they can get in understanding what an artist is doing and why the artist is doing it that way. In general, it is those visitors with less knowledge of contemporary art who are more apt to seek out a statement. In addition, no evidence exists that these people become collectors through reading artist statements. However, Cohen stated, "we must educate the public before they're ready to buy things."

Artists should probably consult with the dealer or gallery owner what might be the most appropriate information to include in a statement. Perhaps, describing the technical process is appropriate in certain instances where a viewer's first reaction may be "How did the artist do that?" For artists who have had significant events occur in their lives, such as living in a particular foreign country or being taught by a noted artist, biographical information may be most pertinent. A discussion of an artist's thought process is also often useful, as the visual language of art may be more difficult for viewers to understand than the specific ideas behind an image, as well as how the artist's ideas (and works) have evolved over time. Whatever the content, "a statement needs to be written in a straight-out language, like you're talking to someone," Barbara Krakow, an art dealer in Boston, stated.

"Grandiose statements about the nature of man or how the artist is at one with God or why the world needs peace should be eliminated completely," Stephen Rosenberg said. "A lot of the artist statements I read sound as though they came from the Miss America contest."
Not every artist is willing to write a statement or needs one. Big name artists generally don't need to write one because other people will write about their work for them. Other artists who find the process of writing overly difficult, or whose results are full of art world jargon or read as labored, may choose to ask someone else to write the statement for them. In many instances, the gallery will create its own press release that provides the type of information an artist would otherwise include in a statement. Edith Baker, an art dealer in Dallas, Texas, stated that "some of my artists are wonderful writers, but most of them are not. I may try to edit what they have written or just incorporate key descriptive phrases from their statement in a press release."

Rosenberg said that he often helps the artist draft a statement: "It's not censorship, but I try to make sure that there are complete sentences, that it is logically consistent, that it doesn't go on and on or is redundant."

Another approach that certain dealers have tried is creating a video that runs continuously in the gallery during an exhibition. The video shows the artists at work and/or answering questions about themselves or their art. As many artist statements are written as though answering questions that the artist would hope someone might ask about his or her art, this alternative to the written statement may be quite useful if done well.

Not all art needs to be introduced by an artist statement. A statement actually may detract from artwork that is self-explanatory or that is ambiguous by being overly directive. When done well and for the right kind of artwork, an artist statement may expand the audience with whom the art is in dialogue.

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