How Do You Write a Good Artist's Statement?

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Mel Bochner, blah blah blah, 2012.
Mel Bochner, blah blah blah, 2012.

Dear BURNAWAY,
What’s the best way to go about writing a good artist statement? Mine never turns out well. I’m no good with words, I feel like I can never say exactly what I mean when I try to write. Can you give me some pointers? Got a show in the works and need to send my statement pretty soon.
Writer’s-blocked in Savannah
 
Dear Writer’s-blocked,
Have you come to the right place! As always, congratulations on the show. I’m sure it will be stellar and you will sell everything and everyone will shower you with the love and admiration you deserve. Now, I’m happy you wrote in about the artist statement, because this is an area that needs some major discussion.
I’ve read countless artist statements that end up sounding like the handiwork of Miss South Carolina. You know the one:
“I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and I believe that our, I, education like such as, South Africa, and the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, our education over here in the US should help the US, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.”
There’s no need to treat your artist statement like some alien piece of literature. It should be clear and simple; free from the convoluted bullshit of two-dollar words and lacy art speak.
First, each artist statement you write should address the actual body of work in the show. Keep it relatively formal and precise, you want to show yourself as a self-assured artist, not a drooling puddle of emotion. This isn’t your diary, it’s a public statement. So touch on your immense love of cobalt, or how arches make you hot and bothered, whatever visual things excite you. Talk about what ideas interest you and how they relate to your project, what gets your art-motors revving. But, please, don’t pour your sob stories on us. One mustn’t dump one’s garbage on the heads of others. It’s rude.
Thus, refrain from writing about how you started drawing to get over a raging cocaine addiction or to cope with not making the cheerleading team in 8th grade. Save that stuff for your best-selling memoir. Save it for the enthralling posthumous documentary on your life, struggles, and legendary career! They’ll need those juicy deets to make a good trailer, dollface!
Next, try not to over-intellectualize your work or couch it in some esoteric philosophic theory that’s obviously far-reaching. It’s not impressive, it’s just obnoxious.
William Powhida, Artists Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive), 2009; graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18 by 15 inches. (Image: courtesy Charlie James Gallery)
William Powhida, Artists Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive), 2009; graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18 by 15 inches. (Image: courtesy Charlie James Gallery)

 
Additionally, people needn’t read about how art is “your life’s calling.” It’s clearly something you’re compelled to do, or you wouldn’t be having a show right now. You don’t have to explain why you “chose to be an artist” or how you used to fingerpaint when you were a toddler and it “just clicked for you at a very early age.” Just leave it out, we get it.
Alright, all those don’ts are to ultimately say this: Let your work do the emoting. Your statement is a chance to explain the more concrete details, but let your work take the wheel in the emotional/spiritual/feelings realm.
So what do you say your statement? Here are a few key points you want to touch on. First, explain what the work is—a looped video installation, a series of tar-and-feather paintings, sculptures made entirely of bread tags, whatever. Be detailed about this so that in the future if someone can’t see the work but reads the statement, they can get a good idea of what it was. Next, talk about how you made it: What was the process? What was your method?
After that, maybe you want to address the themes and ideas you’re working with—both formal and conceptual—or if you worked within any rule parameters or constraints. Another thing you may want to mention are the writers or artists you referenced or were influenced by during the process. That’s all you really need. Think of it as a springboard. You don’t have to give everything away, or map out your emotions, just give viewers some place to position themselves as they begin to explore your work.
While some people may be genuinely interested in your backstory, it’s best to keep your statement as much in the present-day as possible. Don’t spend paragraphs griping about growing up with an alcoholic mother, or the difficult time you had with public speaking as a child, or how you were depressed in college, or how you got your heartbroken really bad that one time. Because, though your intention may be to present yourself as heartfelt and open, it usually comes off as self-pitying or mawkish or petulant. And you don’t want that. If someone wants your full backstory, let them come to you and ask.
So, in conclusion, don’t take yourself too seriously with these things—keep it light and concise. If it’s dark and droning, you may be trying too hard. Go for clarity and a sense of joy and humor about yourself and what you’re doing; or at least pretend like you do, many more people will get on board that way.
Whatever you do, you don’t want to sound like one of those online generators of utter nonsense. Though they’re great for a laugh!
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected] 

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.