A picture says a thousand words but can a thousand words explain a picture?
It is a question I have long asked myself as I have tried to translate a product of my right visual brain seething with curiosity and emotion into the logical left brain that produces the language of defined communicative answers. Sometimes I am the one seeking answers in what I have created but often it is others who see some collection of images, colours, shapes etc and go, “Why?!”
Being both a visual and linguistic artist I see benefits in having some kind of relationship between the defined world of language and the prisms of the visual realm. In this spirit, today’s post is consideration of pros and cons in artist statements.
NO! Don’t write them
- Don’t remove the mystery
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (above) is one of the most recognisable art pieces in the world but arguably it gained its status on the basis of the emotions the visuals evoked rather than the literal explanation for why the image was created. (The drawing is a visual response to the ideal of human proportions with geometry as described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius). I am inclined to think that if more people knew why Vitruvian Man was actually drawn then there would be less overall appreciation for it. The ambiguity of the visuals and the associations of square and circle with the mandala has given it a universal quality. On the other hand, the explanation is more of a niche concept. In this case, I say ignorance is indeed bliss!
YES! Write them.
- Provide a context for interpretation
A lot of western art educational institutions have devalued skills in favour of artists developing their own language. In addition, they have devalued working from pre-existing concepts in favour of developing new concepts. The consequence is abstract concepts communicated in visually abstract ways. Without an artist statement, audiences struggle to understand what is going on.
I have to confess that while I say this is a reason for writing an artist statement, I say that with an understanding that I think western art education has become too biased towards egocentric artist at the expense of the audience. In other words, I believe artist statements are needed more than they should be.
In contrast, the art of Beijing’s 798 district provided me my most rewarding art experience (from a patron perspective). The art was also virtually devoid of meaningful artist statements. One reason is that the art was very political and a defined political message would risk the exhibition being shut down. The second was that the art really spoke for itself as it explored themes of change, individualism versus community, Marxism, social order, militarism and free speech using highly skilled and pre-established visual languages. Because these were big questions of society, it was accessible to audiences. I really was a pig in mud.
I sometimes see the titling of a painting as the happy compromise that provides the context for interpretation while still providing scope for individual interpretation. I also see a broad artist statement for the exhibition as having educational value to help fill some of the information gap that makes art more rewarding to interpret.
Use as a sales technique
I once had an art teacher that had had a very successful academic career that included first class honours and a prestigious scholarship to complete a year’s residency in the USA. She was also one of the worst artists I had ever seen. She made abstract geometric paintings that revealed someone who lacked that innate eye for balance, form, composition and colour harmony. Furthermore, based on the visuals alone, there was no exploration of what might be termed society’s big questions. Her one talent was her gift with words. When I read her artist statements, I found myself wanting to see her art and feeling like it was going to take me on a journey of discovery and enlightenment.
I am convinced that it was her way with words that was also a secret to her successful academic career. With her way with words, she could front her examining panels and explain her work using all the buzz words like juxtaposition, exploration, imbue, and evoke. Distinction!!!
Again, I am lamenting a problem with art education here as I tell a story of what artist statements can do. Nevertheless, I do recognise that a bias towards words is the reality of how things work and if words can get the artist to the top of the mountain while the visuals alone would have them languishing at base camp, then by all means use the words.