Artists Statements – Are You Talking to Me? Language Games: Obfuscatory Language in Art Photography

Google search on Artist Statement Images screen grab

*From the verb obfuscate meaning to obscure or perplex.

Welcome to a post about Artist Statements. Love them or hate them, they’re part of the artist’s arsenal. I posted this yesterday on the New York Photo Festival 2011 blog where I am a guest blogger, however, I will also be cross-posting all my posts here in my cyber home too. And thanks to those who sent in some more funny photos, I will be posting all the ones I receive without filtering, unless of course, they are offensive or unsuitable. Keep sending them through.

An artist (or artist’s) statement is a short text by the artist that helps explain and give a context to the work. It all sounds simple enough but the reality is far from straightforward. One of the recurring debates facing photographers and visual artists in the fine art and art photography arenas today is the language used in artists’ statements.

Here’s a taste of some of the views from photographers, visual artists and publishers on why they are important as well as some comments the writing of the artist’s statement. What do you really think? Do you have any tips for writing an Artist Statement? Are there some examples that you think have got it spot on in terms of language, tone, length etc? Please comment below and I will then collate some of tips on writing Artists Statements to share.

A couple of recent discussions on a closed network Flak Photo Network managed by Andy Adams of Flak Photo turned up some interesting insights and salient points recently concerning writing artists’ statements in general and the language that is sometimes used, including the (in)-accessibility of some writing. You’ll need read more to enter the debate…

Lewis Francis:
It was stressed again at a seminar recently how important it is to speak the language of fine art photography in order to progress as an emerging artist. Is this a foreign language to anyone else but me?

Eye Caramba then makes some interesting points:
I spent about five years as a photo editor and was sort of amazed at how self-important artist statements can be. I recognize, and love, that photography can be important, life changing, awareness raising, haunting, process celebrating, but to say something is visceral doesn’t make it so. One person’s poetry is another person’s psycho-aesthetic wretching. Self-importance is one of the most common over-reaches in the “language” of fine art photography. I have to admit that my own take is something of a cop out. I love language and I love photography – and I do work seriously – but I sort of refuse to self-celebrate with ten-dollar words. I am not sure I have always done the right thing at every turn as I am still rocking some very chic obscurity but I think I am being honest by not claiming the poetic everything stuff, even if I do hope an image jangles your zipper here and there.

I add my tuppence worth:
I agree that there is a lot of BS out there. I use a simple rule of thumb, drawn from my experience in journalism, I ask who the audience is? Too often people write without thinking about who they are communicating with. Texts/statements, for me, should assist in understanding work not make it impenetrable, unless that is an intention. I love words and language too but I despair at non-sense and hackneyed meaningless phrases.

Christophe Dillinger:
Well, if you guys consider that talking about your work is important (and I personally believe that this is the case), then I can’t understand why you would feel so strongly against artist statements and blurbs about a series. I mean, it’s like talking with a pen, right? It is also a way for me to refine one’s thinking, to find the proper words (when in a conversation we could get away with a “know what I mean”) and, sometimes, to rediscover one’s work through somebody else’s eyes, someone who’s never heard you speak….

Later, in response to the comment: “I’ve read ‘artists’ statements before that I’ve read and read and read and STILL not understood the rambling nonsense”, Dillinger adds:
If we don’t understand what someone says, it is not necessarily the “fault” of the interlocutor. There is always the solution of learning their language. I mean, blaming the artist and asking them to make things simpler is the easy way out, I think. What feel like nonsense to you is not nonsense to the artist, so why should they “dumb down” their language? It’s a bit like listening or reading a foreign language: you can either dismiss it as gobbledygook, or learn it. No?

Garrett Williams:
There are extremes in every profession. I’ve read a lot of indecipherable, meaningless words, too. My feeling is that I’m the artist, my purpose in making it is to communicate, so an honest, plain language explanation for people (especially who feel they don’t understand art) is the best service I could do for them and for my photographs.

Sylvia de Swaan at Insight Out writes:
I’d like to add that an artist statement develops over time – along with the work itself. Each time one edits the photographs, prepares for exhibition, publication or competition, it’s worth reviewing if the statement still is relevant to the work. Visual art itself is a vocabulary that one doesn’t necessarily get at first sight – worth coming back to again and again to wrest its meaning

At its best, an artist statement is a metaphoric equivalent of the work… and though I do think it’s important to take into account one’s audience, if one does that too much one might fall into the trap of doing work that is facile and simplistic. There will always be some people who don’t “get it” – not because their dumb – just because they’re into another language.

Photographer and editor/publisher of SuperMassiveBlackHole magazine Barry W Hughes writes:
An issue I’ve had from beginning my Fine Art degree to editing SuperMassiveBlackHole some 10 years later is the over-reliance on clotted intellectual language used by artists, and others in the field, to support an artwork. I do not have a problem with images being accompanied by statements, especially in photography, as the photographic image is so prevalent in our current technological context, a statement, usually, is the best way to sort the accidental from the considered; the lucky from the practiced.

What I do have a problem with is artists who use a statement to flex their diction, without caring for a second as to why it is necessary at all. From an editing point of view, the first two sentences will tell me not only whether someone is currently or recently undertaking an MA (as they seem to be the main culprits, usually getting mired in the academic language that these courses insist on), but also how that person views their own practice.

If the artist feels they must write about their own work as though they are an academic considering someone else’s work, then it tends to suggest that the work is less authentic in its conception, and that it has been produced to satisfy a system, as opposed to an artist’s individual concerns. If the idea in word fits the idea in image, then it all makes sense and this could possibly lead the viewer to further revelations. If the idea in word is so deliberating misleading that it neutralizes the idea in image, then neither one, nor the other will succeed.

Finally, I think there is an element in the Fine Art world that not only worships the super intelligent but is snobbish about it. In an effort to not stand out, and to try to camouflage oneself against this foliage of intellectualism, artists tend to paint their faces with unnecessary language. What they don’t realize is, it is okay not to be Susan Sontag, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes or Guy Debord. You don’t have to be that great thinker, polymathic hero; you just have to be clever at what you do.

David Saxe at Black Star Rising in the States cuts to the chase in a post Why I don’t like Artist Statements, which has interesting comments too…

But if you’re really stuck there’s always the 10gallon artist statement generator, which takes key words and – tongue firmly planted in cheek – pumps out quasi artist statements. Now, if only some of the fields could be rejigged and there was an option to add a cultural theorist, preferably one with a surname beginning with B – Barthes, Baudrillard or Benjamin – then it could all start to really take shape. Till my next post.

9 responses to “Artists Statements – Are You Talking to Me? Language Games: Obfuscatory Language in Art Photography

  1. Pingback: Summarizing your photography in two words « Stockland Martel

  2. Pingback: A Photo Editor - Artists Statements – Are You Talking to Me?

  3. Very useful and interesting topic. And good timing as well, as there are some important competitions coming up quite soon.

    I’d like to compare artist statements to the short texts you can find at the back of novels. I tend to read some of the first sentences before I decide if it will be worth actually opening up the book. ‘What is it about?’ It works the same way before starting to view a photographic essay on the internet; I want to get some context before looking through, and that’s it.

    I definitely agree about the importance of knowing one’s audience before preparing and sending an artist statement, but also knowing the essentials of what the project is about in the first place. The ideal project is the one which starts with writing (or a sketch, a thought etc.) and continues with shooting and writing, overlapping each other, until it’s finished. And the ideal project is the one which you can easily summarize into one simple sentence without the need of thinking hard everytime telling someone about your new work. It should just… make sense.

    When you’re 100% sure of the essentials it makes it a whole lot easier to adjust the statement (make different versions) for the specific audience you’re going to present it for.

  4. “documenting change” – 2 words

  5. Pingback: » Artists Statements – Are You Talking to Me? Image Honey – doing more with images

  6. I have always found the artist statement to be the most difficult part of the work: I tend to hope that my pictures speak for themselves & will move the viewer without having to be explained; I find anything I may say will only skim the surface & might even detract the viewer from getting their own understanding of my work.
    Perhaps it is best to stay as factual as humanly possible (not an easy task), & just add elements of context?

    http://davidikus.blogspot.com/

  7. A good and interesting blog. I can’t help but wonder who the artist statement is written for: the artist struggling to convince themself that their work is ‘valid,’ ‘original,’ even ‘unique,’ or the insecure critic needing validation in their judgement of the work?

  8. Pingback: Quotables « graham dunn is a city of industry

  9. Years ago I made my way through a mountain of Bertrand Russell’s books (excluding mathematical editions, I’m not that smart). They are simple to read, clear, concise and with great insight into the motivation of human action. On reading one in particular I was hit with a wall of words and babble that was unlike all of Russell’s other books. Later on reading his autobiography, Russell stated that there is only one book he ever regretted writing, the one I never finished. He apparently he only wrote it because his contemporaries said his philosophy was too light to be taken seriously. Russell went on to say that in conveying an idea sentences should be as short as possible with words that are easily understood. Why do so many artists think that they are deeper and greater thinkers than what is possible the 20th centuries greatest philosopher.

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