Words are powerful. Whether we’re speaking words aloud, whispering them, thinking them, or sharing them in writing, the words we choose have the power to change lives. They can, indeed, create or destroy. They can help or they can hinder.
In writing an artist statement we need to give close attention to the words we choose. The right words will draw others to our work, give them an introduction to who we are and what our art is all about; the wrong words can cause others to shrug and turn away without really seeing our art.
There are two key points to consider in writing an artist’s statement: specificity and jargon. We should strive for one and avoid the other!
Specificity means pinning down our words, choosing ones that accurately describe what we’re trying to say. That’s not always easy, especially when we’re working with something as intangible as art concepts. The tendency is to use “big ideas” — otherwise known as abstractions or generalizations.
Consider these large-scale ideas:
All powerful words in their own right, make no mistake about that. But words such as these are a bit too big, too vague, too obtuse to convey specific meanings. These are words that can be defined in many ways, words that don’t carry universal meanings. Because these words have so many possible meanings and can be interpreted in so many ways, they actually become meaningless in the context of the statements we need to make about our art.
Abstract words are often described as “words about things we cannot touch, things we can only feel.” I like that description. We need abstract ideas and concepts, and they may well be underlying facets of our art and process, but even so, we need specific words to describe our art and give it true meaning and value.
How do we do this? Good question. One answer involves a strategy known as “Draw-Label-Caption” in which we draw visual images of abstract concepts. Play along here for just a moment. What image comes to mind when you think of KNOWLEDGE?
I immediately see books. To me, books give knowledge, reading is a fundamental means of achieving knowledge, and the old adage is true that “the more we know the farther we’ll go.”
How about another? When you think of LEISURE what pictures come to mind? Or when you think of FRIENDSHIP, what images do you see?
Once we’ve pulled specific images out of the ether, we can better understand what we’re really trying to say, what aspects of the abstract are most important to us, what ideas we need to convey in order to get our point across. We can further refine these ideas through labeling and captioning the images we’ve drawn.
It’s not an easy process, but turning abstract concepts into concrete ideas is an essential step in writing an artist statement. These ideas — the specific images, the labels, the captions — provide a solid foundation upon which we can build.
So, be specific.
A good artist statement should be concise. We not only want to stay away from broad generalizations, we want to also avoid artistic jargon. What’s that? Well, you’ve probably heard it and read it many times! It’s all those snooty-sounding, condescending, overblown, fanciful words and phrases that the art cognoscenti love to throw around like confetti.
This is why those “artist statement generators” make us laugh. They randomly take pretentious ideas and put them together in ridiculous ways. Yes, it’s funny. But it’s not funny if we incorporate that artistic jargon into a real artist statement.
So, back to jargon. What is it, really?
Every group, every profession, every industry has its own jargon. It’s a language made up of words that have meaning for those in the group, but which really don’t mean much — if anything — to an outsider.
Here are a few key points about jargon:
• Jargon is the complex language used by experts in a certain discipline or field. This language often helps experts communicate with clarity and precision.
• Jargon is different from slang, which is the casual language used by a particular group of people.
• Critics of jargon believe such language does more to obscure than clarify; they argue that most jargon can be replaced with simple, direct language without sacrificing meaning.
— Richard Nordquist —
Disjunctive perturbation, realm of discourse, sublime beauty, the substructure of critical thinking, hyper-contextual, polemical, anti-didactic, deconstruct, deconceptualize…
I could go on and on. Most of these words and phrases, by the way, came from The Instant Art Critic — another art humor site where one can immediately generate a critique for any work of art.
How about this recent work of mine — another cloud study — which may or may not be finished?
“The aura of the purity of line herein makes resonant the distinctive formal juxtapositions of this work.” THE INSTANT ART CRITIC
Not an apt description of the work, of course, but even if it were, would you have any idea what it meant? I’m not sure I could “translate” this into understandable English.
The whole idea is to avoid jargon — pretentious or otherwise — so that anyone reading your artist statement understands what you’re saying. Communicate information about your art, share your thoughts, explain your process — but do it all in a clear, concise way.
While writing this post, I did my usual bit of browsing and found some delightful quotes about the words we choose and use. This one seems particularly appropriate:
Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.
A good artist statement is, in fact, an important marketing tool. Get it right, and you’ll draw others to your work in favorable ways. Get it wrong, and you might end up missing out on many opportunities.
But… wait! Yes, there’s a bit more to be said about writing your artist statement or mission statement. So, I hope you’ll check back tomorrow for a few additional thoughts about the writing process.