Why I Don’t Like Artist Statements

Look at the pictures. It’s not that complicated.

That’s what I want to say to photographers, curators and others who insist that exhibition-worthy photography requires artist statements.

Explaining the Obvious

The artist statement is a written statement of a photographer’s intentions, justifying his or her work. They are supposed to be brief, but seem to have gotten more verbose over the years.

Maybe I’m missing the point, but isn’t the beauty of photography that it provides a simple, direct way to communicate with your audience on a level that almost anyone can relate to?

You observe, take a photograph, print it or process it in a way that conveys the feeling you had when the image was taken, and then either exhibit it or publish it.

If the photographer has a story to tell, this should be clearly obvious to the viewer, shouldn’t it? The image is a success because the message is understood.

So if you need an artist statement to explain what you’re doing, haven’t you already failed?

Inferiority Complex

Artist statements for photographers first gained popularity about 30 years ago, and today are ubiquitous. Why is this?

Here’s my theory.

While on the one hand the public has come to embrace photography as art, I’m not sure how many photographers truly think of themselves as artists. Deep inside, many of them feel they don’t belong in the same league as painters or sculptors.

So perhaps the artist statement is a form of compensation. You know what they say about artists with really long statements, right?

Trained in Vain

I originally trained as a painter before I realized I would make a better photographer. I was admitted to l’ecole des Beaux Arts in Montreal.

In those days, you got admitted by showing up with a portfolio of your work. If they liked your stuff, you were in. They did not care about your marks, because they knew grades had very little to do with talent.

These days, photographers usually study at universities. They are admitted based on their grades and, once enrolled, they begin signing up for photography classes. These courses are formalized in an academic structure so that students can be graded and diplomas handed out.

This formalization, in many cases, includes the homework assignment of writing an artist statement. The more cryptic art-speak used in this process, the better.

What better way to attempt to separate yourself from the ignorant masses? Especially when those masses are all carrying digital SLRs.

Playing the Game

I try to avoid writing statements regarding my own work. I only give in on this issue when I am given no choice by the curator, gallery owner or publisher.

When I am forced to play the game, I roll my eyes upward, take a deep breath, and try to compose something simple, short and honest. I use words and sentences that an average high school student would understand.

Frankly, I would much rather that third parties like curators or gallery owners wrote these statements themselves. It would be valuable to learn why a gallery chose a particular artist, and what is it about their work that attracts them.

Their comments would be far more interesting than some photographer droning on about his or her own work.

36 Responses to “Why I Don’t Like Artist Statements”

  1. My "statement" for a couple of years has been: " I take the photograph, you do the rest." It's a bit smartass, but it's also intended to make the point that the medium is the message. If it doesn't work visually, no end of blather will make it successful to the eye.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Iv'e managed to reduce my artist statement to nine words.

    Exploring the Wonder…
    Seeking the Edge…
    Making the Photograph.

  3. I went to an art school rather then a university with an art department. I found my teachers who were often practicing artists were completely obsessed with the idea of writing an artist statement. They had this idea that if you can't write a statement you can't be an artist, students would stress more about the damn artist statement then the actual art. Most of the work I produced was documentary nature and in my opinion required no artist statement, it told the story without me spoon feeding it. Any teacher who did not approve of my artist statement free lifestyle would get a well written pile of BS where the vertical margin would spell BULL S**T. Only one teacher ever caught on and surprisingly passed me anyway.

  4. "The more cryptic art-speak used in this process, the better."

    Mystification is the name of the game.

  5. Agreed. Unless it's a short explanation of the physical process involved in creating something I don't want to read any bullshit statement from photographers, painters, or sculptors. It avoids me having to put my finger down my throat to throw up. 🙂

  6. While I agree on the general opinion that long, protracted statements about the artist is unecessary, I believe that people will tend to buy a piece of art if they have some knowledge of the work and the artist. Given two pieces of art, both are being considered to purchase, I will choose the piece I have more information about so I have something to share with visitors when it's on display in my home or office.

  7. Jeff, more information about the piece or general information about the artist and his intentions? I completely agree about the first, but the second is really not so necessary.

    BTW, for all that photos are supposed to stand by themselves, sometimes additional information is necessary to really appreciate what you're seeing. Maybe more in documentary than in art photography, but still...

  8. I think what you wrote at the beginning should be your statement.

    "Look at the pictures. It’s not that complicated"

  9. It's mostly about ego and people enjoying talking about themselves. I particularly dislike those statements that tell me what I should feel when I look at the photos, and I don't understand why artists talk about themselves in the third person. Most awful is academic and stilted language, I'm all for keeping it simple.

    Sometimes though the context of a show needs to be explained, and often technical notes are useful.

  10. "The more cryptic art-speak used in this process, the better."

    Recalls to mind the words of Goethe: When ideas fail, words come in handy.

    The only good artist's statement I've ever read: It doesn't matter what I say, it only matters what you see, by William Greiner

  11. Looks like everyone is pretty much in accord on this one.

    On the commercial level much of the art world is a load of deer droppings. Absolute crap sells for millions whilst stunning work goes without notice. Spin and hype. It's all about marketing.

  12. I couldn't agree less you less. A statement about the photo is important as to location, subject and reason for photo. Technical stuff is not artistic, communications are.

  13. A couple of days ago I was sent an email by a state wide tourist magazine that had found one of my shots on Flickr they liked and wanted to run. After everything was worked out they wanted me to write up a "small blurb" about the shot. I did not feel right about describing the shot since it's up to the viewer to take away what they want from the image and far be it for me to tell them what they should be looking at so I just wrote up a few sentences on where the location was and left it at that. I'll see when the issue comes out it they used my description or if they made up one of their own.

  14. Either the image works, or it doesn't. And if it's not a good image, no amount of writing -- rationalizing -- about it is going make it good.

    Technical info -- location, exposure data, etc. -- is good for those of us who are interested in it -- but it isn't a statement. When I was studying photography, our statements could not include technical info.

    The problem is that artists' statements are all too often merely an attempt to mask the decided lack of quality, intelligence, emotional or psychological depth, beauty, and, well, ART in the work. If the photographer can "conceptualize" what he or she is trying to achieve, it doesn't matter how bad or shoddy the work is.

    Oh, well, the art schools do have to justify the huge fees they charge, don't they?

  15. I never read the silly darned things anyway. Last year one of the clubs I belong to required an "artist's statement" for anyone exhibiting in their annual print exhibition. I'm no longer a member of the club.
    Maybe the curators demand them because they need something to explain to them why THEY do what they do.

  16. Spot on. I'd go further - I tend to get arse-clench when I see titled photographs. I don't mean descriptive titles - location, subject, etc - but those intended to reveal the inner Profound ('For The Light Shall Rise Again' was a recent and painful encounter), when all they do is to flag the inner Trite.

  17. I couldn't agree more. Too many words can't compensate for weak images and tend to clutter strong images.

    Artists statements are rather akin to people constantly talking about the "Zen" of their photography. Those who constantly talk about "Zen" simply don't get it, almost by definition.

    I seem to recall Minor White's notion that creative viewing, projecting one's own thoughts on to a good image, was the other, equally important, part of the photographic experience. How can the viewer do so when already told what they were supposed to feel?

  18. I like this. I thought about it as well. For sure the pictures are most important when it comes to a photographer work. As the writing is important for a writer.

  19. wow i couldnt disagree with this post more. I am so distraught as a student, in a public four year school, to read something like this on blackstar. Artist statements are not to just explain the oblivious, by saying this you are basically saying there is no underlying meaning to photographs, saying that photographs are just simple in their own content. When in reality photographs can be complex pieces of art and the artist statement can explain and educate the viewer in that complex meaning. A photograph is an important piece of art and all i see in this post is an show that photography is no more then a photograph. Also the knowledge of how photography students are trained these days is completely absurd. The artist statement is not the difference between photography students and all those other people with DSLR's An artists statement is a minor portion of our education, though important it does not overtake our photography education. I think it is ridiculous to assume photography students are taught in an academic structure. My school runs on grades yes, however our education is hands on our projects consist of us writing up what we will be photographing and not on grades alone. If your "typical" structure falls under sitting in class writing and learning about a camera you are far from wrong about how schools are running out there these days.

  20. One of the greatest gestures of arrogance some artists make is to assume that an audience is willing and interested in learning the private language of that artist. This is most egregiously demonstrated in certain musical works that assail the ear, but can be explained theoretically. Well, who really cares if the composer has invented a unique musical system if the work is really off-putting, and inaccessible. Photographs, too, that look banal, boring, static, etc. and do not invite the viewer in can be justified and explained by endless theoretical blather, but I, for one, have no interest in them visually, and certainly will not extend myself to read the "artist's" exegesis of why I should. It's not that I won't give myself adequate time to digest something I've not seen or heard before, it's that the "statement" isn't going to make any difference. If the emperor is butt naked, he's butt naked.

    Oh, and by the way, does the work of generations of wonderful photographers and composers who never even heard the term "artist's statement" count any the less for there being none?

  21. Dan, as an art teacher myself, I get that students are told to write these things to develop and add clarity to their work. However, schools have writing standards they have to meet and writing insincere or contrived statements is a way to fulfill this. Sometimes they are useful but i agree with the rest of the posters. i hate them. And i hate writing them. if you want to leave a statement great. Write one. but they should not be mandatory by any means. if an artist wants his work to "say a thousand words" on its own, then they should be able to do that. Not every piece of art has to have a double meaning nor does the meaning have to be spelled out.

  22. Just occured to me: the artist statement is suspiciously like the "mission" statement various companies paste on their sites.

  23. Ya, and we all know how sincere they are about their mission statements.

  24. I just came across this in my cybertravels. It's about writing a manifesto, but could just as easily apply to artists' statements.

    Manifesto Manifesto: a recipe for manifestae

  25. I agree that not all art needs an extremely profound meaning to be created, but at times, it needs this same meaning to stand apart from all the others. Do you just take pretty pictures? Is there a purpose? How does this process and technical knowledge of a camera or medium of preference change how you depict and represent your subject. Photography was elevated to Art because people expressed words and visual representations about their intent/reasoning behind what & why they did it while constantly pushing the boundaries of the medium and questioning the status-quo. Don't silence yourself by saying you have nothing to say about why you hang something as art, it can be concise, but somewhere in there you have an opinion, share that with people and your work will standout to be more than just eye candy.

  26. hi, thanks for this, I am posting on this topic on New York Photo Festival today, I have this week to post, i will add and mention you if OK and add link to this useful post, thanks Miranda

  27. The web handles all of this for me. I am too cool to actually write my own.(http://10gallon.com/statement2000/)

    Don Giannatti's Artist Statement

    Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of Goofy as a methaphorical interpretation of both Avedon and empowering.

    What began as a personal journey of frigginism has translated into images of enchiladas and ass that resonate with caucasion people to question their own blackness.

    My mixed media run embody an idiosyncratic view of Jim Jones, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between River Phoenix, apartments and grapes.

    My work is in the private collection of Gopher who said '"What the Hell are You Looking At?"!, that's some real pale Art.'

    I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of The MOMA. I have exhibited in group shows at Arby's and Jen Bekmann, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between my porch and Berlin.

  28. Where's the "like" button for the above post, huh?

  29. Wow! Donald's statement is one of the best ones that I have seen. Very very deep.

  30. I absolutely HATE Artists's Statements.... I have not read one yet that did not sound rude, inane, or pretentious.

    So, I never supply an artist statement about the work being displayed. I always simply make it a general bio like..... "Clarence is a Utah artist who has been trying to create for over 20 years. Visit his website to see more of his work."

    I have not met anyone yet that has actually looked at and read the artist statement with any real intent on being enlightened about the nature of their work that is being displayed. I also believe that if you have to explain your work then you have failed, or you are not in front of the right audience.

    I love art, but I HATE the business of art....

  31. Tongue-and-cheek comment:

    If photographers are required to write an artist statement, I believe that it's only fair to expect writers to put together a collection of photographs to explain their writings. Or perhaps musicians should paint paintings to illuminate their musical compositions.

    But seriously...

    It makes sense to discuss and define things in a common language. Yes, artist statements are useful tools of communication, even if they seem pointless. Also, I agree with Vlatko that an artists statement can give direction and clarity, like a mission statement.

  32. I struggle with this, as sometimes I understand the need for an artist statement at other times I don’t. For example if the work is to highlight something that cannot be seen, I was considering working on a piece myself about depression, (to do with the 1 in 4 people suffering) where you would not be able to tell who the person suffering was (this being the important point that it is a hidden illness) however without anything telling you this was what the work was about it would not be possible to know (perhaps one reason why I have not yet acted on my thoughts).

    That being said when the statement is something purely for the sake of “art” I find it as infuriating as the next person and sometimes think that if the art needs explanation then it has failed or even worse; that the actual art is in the writing and NOT the piece itself.

    However I do quite like to know about the artist, who they are, where they come from, what they are interested in, so I guess I’m on the fence 🙂

  33. Who was who said that "A picture is worth a thousand words.."? Whoever it was, art school teachers bought into it wholesale. I've just graduated art school after a former life as a journalist and photographer, and you wouldn't believe the crap we had to write for artist's statements. Whole lessons were devoted to it.

    And talking about sales, let's not forget that many galleries love these opaque strings of verbal gobbledegook as a way of jacking up their prices so that they can charge exorbitant amounts of commission!

    Personally I see it as a contradiction in terms - artists want to communicate with the masses but overblown, and pretentious, artists' statements often reek of elitism and can have the reverse effect of alienating the public.

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  35. A lengthy, cryptic artist’s statement is deplorable, but to claim that a work of art should stand on its own merits is to say, ‘My work of art is so good it doesn’t need explaining. If it has to be explained to you you’re just an ignoramus,’ seems to be the height of arrogance.
    People like reading about the photographs they’re looking at; they understand and therefore enjoy the photograph all the more. Again, it would be the height of arrogance to claim a work of art has failed if its context hasn’t been made clear, which is what an artist’s statement is meant to do, as I understand it.

  36. Not arrogance at all, and, yes, a work DOES have to stand on its "own merit." That "merit" however is decided upon by the viewer, or the listener or reader or watcher. Because whatever it is you "intend" in your work may not necessarily have anything to do with what the viewer experiences -- it's called the "fallacy of intent." If anything, a statement is the sign of arrogance -- it is at the very least smug and self-serving.

    And, by the way, being in love with your own vision is also a sign of arrogance. Anyone with the kind of attitude embodied in the comment that "My work of art is so good it doesn’t need explaining. If it has to be explained to you you’re just an ignoramus" is not just revoltingly arrogant, he's also NOT truly an artist, either.

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