“My motif is the deconstruction of mutant rulers from the fragmented hierarchy within the unsafe vision of postmodern classicism.” This is an artist’s statement that accompanied a loose painting of a drooling dog-like figure exhibited in an art school faculty show.
Jargon generally refers to a mode of speech or writing that is familiar to a group or profession. In the case of “Artspeak,” it’s often not familiar to anyone. This arcane writing style can result in a vocabulary of obscurities. Beginning with early critics such as John Ruskin, (Modern Painters, 1843) a new language was created that became impressed with its own importance and gravity. It soon infected academia. Today, some of the more spectacular examples are in artist’s statements.
How come? Perhaps it is felt necessary to obscure in order to add magic, complexity, interest or desirability. Perhaps people expect there ought to be more to it than meets the eye. Maybe there is. Artspeak certainly gives employment to those who would fill columns in papers and magazines. University art-philosophy chairs are a growth industry. Perhaps I’m operating from the boonies, but a few of my friends are artists and for some reason many of them feel a work of art ought to speak for itself.
Here’s an idea: The next time you’re invited to write an artist’s statement, ask a respected friend to do it for you. Take the time you would have spent in writing and try to make your actual work speak more clearly or more closely to the heart. Tell your friend to tread lightly. There are people out there who think that heavyweight words are most in need for lightweight work.
PS: “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.” (Jean Cocteau)
PPS: “Language communicates some things so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available.” (C. S. Lewis)
Esoterica: In the urge to label there are those who would put a name to what we do. A book that sheds light is Artspeak by Robert Atkins. Neo-Dada, Nouveau Realisme, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Sots Art, Cobra, Transavantgarde, Neo-geo, and many others are defined and their practitioners revealed and discussed.
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
Sheds more light
by Phil A Bagby, New York, USA
If you are going to paint something like a barn or a few trees or a vase of flowers — what’s there to say about it? However, if the work is layered, with a multiplicity of meanings, it is valuable to have something written by the artist or other informed commentator. Let’s be serious—a lot of art is not readily accessible to the general public. It may have complex symbolism, personal icons, and things to say about the society from which it springs. Anything that sheds more light on the magic of art is worthwhile. Just because some things are difficult for you to understand doesn’t mean you should dump on the idea.
(RG note) Free book. We’re going to send out a free copy of “The Painter’s Keys” to the writer of what we think is the best letter in each clickback. Phil’s letter (above) wins this one. Poetic, informative, inspiring, empowering, heart warming, or (especially) disagreeing with me will be given special consideration.
The Kaiser’s new clothes
by Monika Elseroui, Graz, Austria
The sort of wordiness we are dealing with reminds me of a children’s tale where the Kaiser got new clothes and everybody had to be convinced that he was wearing very special clothes while the truth was that he didn’t wear any clothes. Hopefully there will be in the near future like in the children’s tale many children telling the public that the Kaiser doesn’t wear any clothes at all.
Ordinary people who happen to be great artists
by Lesley Humphrey
“Artspeak” has raised its ugly head in a strange way in recent times. I was chastised from my gallery for having a severe “lack of it” in a magazine article that provided a retrospective of my life and work. When the talented writer from a magazine came to my home for an interview, she asked me, “What would you like the public to know most about you?” I thought of all the articles I had read as a fledgling artist, making those people sound larger than life, and completely unattainable, and how miserable I felt in comparison. My answer to the writer’s question was simple; “Make me sound real.” Maybe there was someone out there for whom life did not resemble something out of an epic, but was like me, a mother of three and wife who managed to squeeze art in between the cracks. That article had the result of resonating with many other ordinary people who happened to be great artists. Since then I have been asked to do workshops nationally and internationally. Even more important, those who attended the workshops were real people, and friends for life. My gallery and some collectors were a little disappointed that it didn’t make me sound “magnificent.” Clearly they’ve never been in my position, for if they had, they would have realized… it did.
by Andrea Pratt, Delta, B.C. Canada
My first reaction on reading “My motif is the deconstruction of mutant…” was a smile. It seems to me that this artist is poking fun at the whole concept of ‘artspeak,’ and having to make a formal statement for an exhibition, in a highly effective manner. I like the statement made by the Jeffrey Tambor character in the movie Pollock. To paraphrase: “It’s all just surface and paint, surface and paint…”
Immediate and unfiltered
by Radha Saccoccio, Manhattan, NY, USA
Let art speak for itself. Allow the audience to realize their own authentic response to a work of art. I feel it is a weakness in our society that people need to be told how to respond to art. They need so much information. They don’t trust their own experiences. Written information about visual work should be secondary at best. Perhaps I will be accused of being a purist, or worse, but I feel this sort of approach to art should be preserved. It is built out of the core of our beings. It is immediate and unfiltered. A primal kind of experience.
Understandable information please
by Barbara Mason
Artspeak removes the artist one more step from the general public. Most people like to know the artist as a real person if they have the opportunity. All this gibberish makes most people uncomfortable, they feel foolish they do not understand the lingo and uncomfortable about asking what it all means. Usually this does not generate sales. Would you buy an item from a store if you weren’t sure what it was and had no idea what the directions meant? I think it is sort of the same with artwork, the more understandable information collectors have the more likely they will be to buy work. So here is our real job as artists, educate the public about what we are doing and why and why it is important. What do we remember most about old civilizations? The art of course.
Regarding your previous letter about getting grants, I know artists who get them and I am always happy for them. I have never applied for one, it just seemed too much work for the return and too nefarious. The day job was a more sure thing for me. Having a good job helps. I am not waiting tables. I’m the type of person that likes knowing how much money I will have on payday and if I sell artwork I always consider it bonus money and spend it on art things, from supplies to subscriptions to trips. I work in my studio evenings and weekends and am pretty prolific. I could spend a lot more time marketing if I didn’t work, but if I had to make work to pay the bills, the joy of doing so might fade with the deadlines. It would become too much like a job. As it is, I am in the luxurious place of giving galleries work when I have it and never sending out pieces I don’t love.
Artists on artist’s statements
by Jawni D Littzski, London, England
I don’t like to read artist’s statements, preferring to see the work and come to my own understanding. The artist’s statement can ruin the artwork by being adverse to the viewer’s experience, or simply by being less profound.
“The artist is not responsible to any one… his only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does… The artist can ask no question, and he makes no statement; he offers no information, and his work cannot be used. It is the end product which counts.” (Georg Baselitz)
“I cannot expect even my own art to provide all of the answers – only to hope it keeps asking the right questions.” (Grace Hartigan)
“Talking about things that are understandable only weighs down the mind.” (Alfred Jarry)
“To feel the soul without explaining it, without vocabulary, and to represent this sensation.” (Yves Klein)
“The more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation.” (Hilton Kramer)
“Making social comment is an artificial place for an artist to start from. If an artist is touched by some social condition, what the artist creates will reflect that, but you can’t force it.” (Bella Lewitzky)
“It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work.” (Henry Moore)
“Those trying to explain pictures are as a rule completely mistaken.” (Pablo Picasso)
A journalist to Sorolla: ” Maestro, you have had such a brilliant success with works on social themes, will you please tell me what you think about them?” Sorolla: ” My friend, I just paint pictures – other people do the explaining!”
“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” (Voltaire)
“When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” (Henry J. Kaiser)
“One of the best things about paintings is their silence – which prompts reflection and random reverie.” (Mark Stevens)
(RG note) All of the quotes above are now in the “Resource of Art Quotations” This is the largest collection of art quotations anywhere, in print or on line. It is entirely the voluntary work of subscribers to the Twice-Weekly Letter, and it continues to grow all the time. If you are researching a subject or just looking for inspiration, please visit. Warning: Do not try to print it all out unless you’re getting free ink.
Nothing known about this artist
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
If artists would start refusing all requests for artists’ statements, maybe people would get the idea and stop asking. The best one of course is Balthus’ telegram in reply John Russell’s request: “NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.”
Your letter about artspeak reminded me of a book I read many years ago which was titled “Egospeak.” The book pointed out several ways in which language and everyday conversation is used to affirm or try to confirm status in society. It opened my eyes to the dynamics of many interactions I have observed. Reading this book was an excellent way to develop objectivity into the foibles of human language.
Prefers to remain silent
by Terri Steiner, Princeton, MA, USA
I’d prefer to be silent most of the time, just because I feel so inadequate in speaking- no, oftentimes I just don’t want to say what’s been said before, over and over! I don’t need to hear myself talk, like so many do. So I paint! I take comfort in my father, the man is so brilliant that when he does speak, it’s mostly over people’s heads — so I say — “still waters run deep.” I’m sure some intellectual, learned person out there can tell me who said that. Me, I’d prefer to FEEL it and paint it!
Keep it simple
by Judith Jones, Pleasant View, Utah, USA
There are times when an artist’s statement is useful. I’m on the board of our local art gallery. We feature local artists, the exhibits changing monthly. We do the publicity. Not long ago, I was trying to write an article for the newspaper about an upcoming group show. I had not seen the art, I only had the artist’s statements. I had a terrible time. Some statements were so obscure they were meaningless, funny even. One artist said that his painting had helped to fill his time since retirement — I didn’t think that that was going to bring folks to the gallery. I’ve found that one or two factual statements are enough. Your suggestion that a trusted friend write the statement is an excellent one. In the case of my own artist statement it is generally, “I’m in love with line and color. The rhythm and dance of line and the excitement and emotion of color are important elements in my impressionistic watercolors.”