Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Artist’s Statements: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them

September 13, 2012 - 9:47pm -- Carol Diehl

Nothing could bother me more than the way a thing goes dead once it has been said. 
Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them (1936).

Suddenly the crisp cool air of fall is upon us, and everyone in my inbox seems to be panicked about artist’s statements—although why anyone would choose to turn to me for such advice is baffling, as I‘m famous for wanting to abolish them.

One ex-student wrote that it’s the scariest thing he’s ever undertaken—but I’m not sure if the scary part is writing the statement, or showing it to me. Another fears that his teaching job depends on his treatment of the subject, now an integral part of any college art program. I tell another friend not to write one because he’s too well known and ask, “Would Picasso write an artist’s statement?”

The biggest reason I hate artist’s statements is because I’ve hardly ever read one that enhanced the art experience; most of the time they turn me off—or make me laugh at their earnestness and foolish rhetoric. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard arts professionals say, “I was interested until I read the artist’s statement.”

The other reason (or maybe it’s the same) is because what makes art ART is its ability to communicate without words—at its best it’s a distillation of life experience in visual form that has more to do with the emotions than the intellect. The way art works is, or should be, mysterious and ineffable. Break it down into nuts and bolts (description, influences, techniques, biographical trivia, etc.) and its effect dissipates. There’s a reason magicians don’t give away their secrets; artists shouldn’t either.

Words make things concrete when what we want is fluidity. I worry that this insistence on being able to articulate every step of their development makes students “think” when they should be “intuiting,” causing them to distrust what they can’t explain. When a teacher asks, “Why did you do that?” answering, “Because I wanted to” will not get you to the head of the class.

Gerhard Richtercan get away with saying, “I can’t verbalize what I am working on” * because he’s Gerhard Richter. It’s also why he’s Gerhard Richter. His writing doesn’t deal with descriptions or reasons for what he’s doing, rather the impossibility inherent in the endeavor. Agnes Martin also:

I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect — completely removed in fact — even as we ourselves are. (from Writings).

Not only are we expected to put words to the wordless, artists, whose lifestyles are generally hermetic, are also expected to speak articulately about their work in public—however few do it well. I will never take Dana Schutz seriously after hearing her give a talk (I won’t dignify it by calling it a “lecture”) where every word was preceded by “kinda” or “sorta” which made it a kinda terrible sorta talk—you’d think an MFA at Columbia woulda ironed those kinda things out, wouldn’t you sorta agree? Same with Matthew Ritchie, but for different reasons. 
I think about my friend, Fred Sandback, who simply refused to do either. When I asked him to speak at Bennington he said, “I don’t have anything to say.”

But here’s the Catch-22, which is that if you don’t write something down, someday, at a gallery somewhere, an intern is going to write a REALLY STUPID press release about your work. The message here is, be in control of your publicity and, if necessary, hire a ghostwriter or a coach. Whatever you put out there has to be the best it can be. Your art deserves it.

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