60. Artists’ Statements
As one might expect I have a generally liberal arts approach to ceramics and the teaching of ceramics. Too much of what a potter does they do alone for them to have serious gaps in their abilities. The need to create an artist’s statement is a notable part of this and students should have to practice producing them.
Have you read many artists’ statements? Even the ones which have been fussed over for weeks and carefully proofread are often smarmy, meaningless jumbles of cliches. I’ve actually told my students that they simply could not use the words “nature” and “dynamic” in writing theirs. I probably should have excluded “synergy” and “spirituality,” too, but since they were new to the discipline that didn’t prove necessary.
I also varied the artist’s statement assignments as to length, voice (1st person ‘I’ or 3rd person ‘he/she’), and spontaneity. The first day of class the assignment was, “3rd person, less than fifty words, you have ten minutes, please write legibly.” Cruel, you say? This was also an unexpected moment of stress from my own life, and before a far more critical audience.
I was dropping off a piece for a charity auction and was asked, “Did you bring an artist’s statement we can display next to the piece?” A reasonable enough question, but I hadn’t planned for it. “No, but if you can get me a pencil and paper I can come up with something now,” I replied like it was no trouble at all.
Some people argue that the work should explain itself, that words should not be necessary and are too often used to justify or defend weak objects. I might well have refused to provide a statement, trusting to the eloquence of the object itself. But this was an auction whose participants didn’t know me or my name and were unlikely to gather the relevant information about me other potters would find evident in my pot.
Further, in the great contest (or series of contests) that is life, here was a large gathering of fellow artists, each with their own statements carefully crafted and open for comparison. How could I miss such an opportunity to compete, knowing as I did how mediocre the majority of the other statements were likely to be. For the poor staff who had the task of transcribing all those statements onto display cards the task must have been especially painful.
Mine I did as a personal ad, since I was explaining myself, not the pot, nor my relationship to the charity. “DWM, 37, father of two, seeks financially-empowered action-oriented patron for mutually beneficial exchange of assets. Overly serious inquiries should lighten up.” Or something to that effect. The staff praised it as one of their favorites. They certainly needed a break from all that “nature, spirituality, and consciousness.”
If you are afraid of words, or have been punished for the sentiments you have expressed in the past, you may need to make a special effort in this area now. Other people will inevitably wish to know things about you and the conditions of your work. Even if you respond with just a bare fact sheet some response will be necessary. And, after all, you are the world-wide expert on the subject of “you.” Think about the degree of privacy that you require and the level of curiosity appropriate for each audience. The statement you include for a job application or a NEA fellowship proposal is not the same as an off-the-cuff bit of humor intended to ease the mood at a local auction. Proofread carefully and seek outside opinions if you have the time.
And, please, when you read the statements of other artists do not consider them all to be role models. Everywhere we go there are people teaching us what not to do by their own flawed examples. Always seek to do better.
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