Tech University - Appalachian Center for Craft - Clay Studio
Vince Pitelka, 2009
How to Write an Artistís Statements
ďArtists can no more speak about their
work than plants can speak about horticulture.Ē - Jean Cocteau
ďWriting about music is like dancing
about architecture.Ē - Elvis Costello
ďI want my work to speak for itself.
If I wanted to say things in writing I would have become a writer.
Iím an artist because I want to say things visually.Ē - Anonymous
As artists/craftspeople you will often be asked to
provide an artistís statement. Itís standard practice for most show entries and
grant applications, and is expected by curators, dealers, and collectors. Your
artwork must speak for itself visually and experientially to earn validity as a
work of art/craft, but that in no way diminishes the value and importance of a
well-written artistís statement. Such a statement can significantly enrich the
experience of viewing, owning, and/or using your work. You have invested skill
and labor in creating your artwork, and should be proud of the product. It only
makes sense to do whatever possible to enhance the viewer/userís understanding
and appreciation of your work. Writing an artistís statement also helps you to
clarify in your own mind what you are doing and why you are doing it.
As indicated by the above quotes, a remarkable amount of misunderstanding and
hype surround the concept of an artistís statement. A common myth is that it
must sound intellectual and erudite, elevated above common everyday speech.
Thatís appropriate only if the particular artist naturally communicates that
way, if the content of the work requires it, and if the intended audience will
understand it. Even when a statement is written in an intellectual and erudite
fashion, thereís little room for ďartspeak.Ē This is also broadly misunderstood,
and in a classic case of anti-intellectualism in the arts, an artist who writes
fluently in the language of art historians and critics risks being accused of
artspeak. Artspeak is very different from intelligent art writing, and involves
the use of fashionable jargon that deliberately conceals and confuses truth and
useful information, usually in an attempt to veil a lack of true substance and
significance in the artwork. Even if your art specifically addresses popular
fashion and jargon, an artistís statement can still use the terminology clearly
Why is it that artists/craftspeople are so often hesitant to write about
themselves and their work? Artists make art because they prefer communicating
visually or have something to say that can only be said visually, and writing
about it can be a challenge. Most of us communicate with words primarily in
speaking rather than writing, and we generally speak easily and intuitively
without having to consciously ďcomposeĒ what we say. Sitting down to write, we
start thinking of composition, sentence structure, and grammar, and become
self-conscious about our choice of words.
To some people, it seems pretentious or self-important to write about oneís self
or oneís work as an artist. But when your artwork is on display in a gallery and
a viewer expresses interest and asks about sources of inspiration or the
techniques used, doesnít that lend greater validity to your efforts? In the
gallery setting, most artists are pleased to talk about their work and answer
questions. Aside from the challenges mentioned above, why should it be different
in a written statement? An artistís statement provides answers some of the
viewer/userís common questions. As emerging artists/craftspeople, you must
believe in yourself and your work. An effective and honest artistís statement is
good evidence of your confidence and commitment.
Non-artists often do not understand artists. Thatís part of the reason we write
artistís statements. But artists often do not understand themselves. For many of
us, our sources of inspiration and the reasons we make art remain something of a
mystery. You donít have to understand those things to make good art, and in fact
the mystery of artistic creativity is often a very important part of how artists
work. If this is true about the way you work, then thatís what you write about Ė
working from intuition and subconscious drive without questioning the reasons.
Donít feel compelled to reveal things that are best kept a mystery.
You are under no obligation to explain content and meaning in your work, other
than general discussions of your sources of information and the subjects you
address. Avoid explaining content and meaning in such a way that you
unnecessarily define or limit the viewerís experience and interpretation, as
explained below. Donít ever over-explain your work.
General Guidelines for All Artistís Statements
Write in the first person,
using the present tense except where the past tense is required.
Write in your own words.
Donít try to reinvent yourself as the artist you want to be. Keep it honest
- a true reflection of who you really are as a person and an artist.
Always keep it under one page,
and preferable just a few paragraphs. Err on the side of short rather than
long, but donít make it so short as to seem flippant and shallow.
An artistís statement should always be
printed on plain paper with no decorative borders, images,
ďscriptĒ fonts, or other aesthetic design elements. Donít make it compete
with the artwork.
An artistís statement is usually more
about the artist than the artwork, and addresses the artistís
reasons and context for artistic creation.
Use the dictionary and thesaurus.
Donít use a word unless you are sure of its meaning in the particular
context, and donít ever use a complicated word when a simpler one will
Consider the quality of prose in your
writing. Donít let that interfere with meaning, but try to
write with a cadence and tone appropriate to your work.
Remember that most people have short
attention spans. Donít drown the reader in detail. Make your
statement only as long and complex as it needs to be, but at the same time,
donít simplify the substance out of it. As in design, an excess of
complexity can be chaotic and confusing, while oversimplification can seem
boring and vacuous.
What does it mean if you donít have much to say
about your own work?
Subjects Most Often Addressed in an Artistís
The materials and the specialized
processes and techniques used in the work. Avoid unnecessary
use of technological jargon, but do include it when it is relevant, with
proper explanation of meaning. Donít go into too much detail, but be
specific. Especially in craft, love of materials and process is a key
motivation for the artist, and the viewer/user is often fascinated by this
information as well.
Why you make art/craft,
possibly including specific and pertinent aspects of your background that
caused you to become an artist/craftsperson.
Why this kind of work is important to
you. Why this medium? Why this style?
Your influences or sources of
inspiration, possibly including family history, a defining
personal experience, a psychological or emotional state, a historical or
cultural situation, a place, individual or groups of historical or
contemporary artists/craftspeople, a particular movement, concept, or
direction in art/craft/design, a particular style of form or surface design,
a specific traditional process or technique, or a particular functional use,
such as pots for the table, garden sculpture, or decorative vases.
Subjects that Can Be Addressed in an Artistís
Discussion of specific content and
meaning. Explain the specific content or meaning of your work
only if you want it to be unmistakable. In some cases, such an explanation
will not diminish the viewerís appreciation, and may well enhance it,
especially in fine craft. For example, if you make tableware designed with
utility and ergonomics as primary considerations, it would be appropriate to
make that very clear, perhaps by saying ďUpon seeing my pots, I want the
viewer to clearly understand how they work and to anticipate their use.Ē On
the other hand, if you make work with complex concept and/or narrative,
revealing exactly what you want the viewer to ďgetĒ from the work pretty
much curtails individual interpretation and denies much of the potential
experiential impact. Donít underestimate the viewerís ability to come up
with an interpretation more powerful and personal than your own. Donít deny
them that possibility unless the act of communicating specific content and
meaning is a higher priority than maximizing the viewerís experiential
response to your work.
Discussion of very personal and/or
intimate experiences or circumstances can be included if they
really drive your work, but must be addressed carefully. Otherwise, they can
be ďtoo much information,Ē alienating the viewer before they have a chance
to take your work seriously.
Quotes from artists or writers that
are pertinent and offer clarity or insight can be included as
long as they are not directly about you or your work. From a marketing point
of view, appropriate quotes often carry special cachet.
Subjects That Do Not Belong in an
Itemization of honors or awards
- these belong in a resume. Donít try to impress people - it will have the
Education or professional experience
- same as above, unless they are specific to particular narrative content
and direction in your work.
Self-review or critique of your work,
or declarations of your level of expertise or experience.
These always come across as self-absorbed and arrogant. Donít boast, and
donít compare your work to that of other artistís/craftspeople.
Language that implies how the viewer
should respond to your work. That leaves no option but to
either agree with you or dismiss your work.
Marketing or pricing information.
Quotes/testimonials from other people
about you and/or your work. They almost always come across as
pretentious name-dropping, and/or they make you sound desperate for
How to Go About Writing an Artistís Statement
Start keeping lists of
all the specialized words, phrases, and sentences you can think of that
connect with or describe your work, including anything referring to concept,
content, process, technique, materials, inspirations, influences, etc. Trust
your intuition Ė write down whatever comes to mind, even if your rational
mind questions it. Try to let this be a very loose stream-of-consciousness
process. Any time you are unsure of a word, look it up in the dictionary.
Consult the thesaurus and add other appropriate words you find. Once you
have accumulated a big collection, start categorizing them. Out of disorder
will come order, out of chaos will come clarity.
List sources and inspirations.
Think of everything that catalyzes creativity or provides content/concept
for your work - every source of information or sensory input that inspires
and steers your work. What makes you want to create the work you are doing?
Experiment with simple sentences explaining your sources and inspirations.
All work has meaning
(narrative content). For your own clarity, write simple sentences that
explain what your work means, literally and figuratively, and what message
or content you want to viewer to get from your work. This probably will not
end up in your statement, but the act of writing about it can be very useful
personally, and will help to define what you do want to include.
List the important materials,
processes, and techniques used in your work. Create simple
sentences explaining their use as pertaining to your work. Donít discuss the
ones that are obvious or irrelevant. Focus on ones that are innovative or
Start stringing words and sentences
together in coherent, organized paragraphs, and whenever
appropriate, include specialized words, phrases, and sentences you have
As a general organizational guide,
start with a brief overall description of what you do Ė the
type, form, media, and size of your work. In the next paragraph, talk about
key sources of inspiration and the reasons why you make art/craft. Next, in
very generalized terms, you may wish to say a bit about content and meaning
Ė what you are trying to communicate through your work, but remember the
caveat above Ė donít fully explain this unless you want it unmistakable.
Finally Ė the nuts and bolts Ė a brief description of material, process, and
As your statement takes shape, have
other people read it and evaluate it for clarity and meaning.
Include non-artists and people unfamiliar with your work. If multiple
readers ask for clarification on some aspect of the statement, it obviously
needs more work. When people who know you read the statement, ask if it
sounds like you. Remember, it must be written in your own voice.
Update your statement frequently,
so that it remains current with your work.