Artist’s Statements – Part Two

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I have written an earlier post on Artist’s Statements. I then posted links to this on Facebook, and asked for input, the ‘wisdom of the crowd.

Several reactions were noted, from professional photographers and serious amateurs. Here is the thread:

Deanne:

Antony Gormley gives an official ‘reason’ for all of his art.

I however suspect he just likes to have fun … http://www.antonygormley.com/projects

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Fadi: I very much dislike artist statements. Not out of principle, but because so many aren’t different at all from the ones generated by ‘Arty Bollocks.’

I had two US shows this year and I insisted not to go beyond a three-sentence simple description, like Robert Frank’s Guggenheim application. (Which isn’t an artist statement, but close enough).

Both times the gallery and museum curator politely told me that my statement was not sufficient, so I invited them to write it themselves, since I don’t have the pull to insist they go my way.  I can’t remember what the results were anymore, but I know one started with: “My work is a progressive exploration of the American rural condition.” I’m still embarrassed by it.

Fadi BouKaram. 2014. Girl playing football on her First Communion day – Bikfaya, Lebanon.

‘Like many of those roaming the streets with a cam, I’m drawn to the odd moments of everyday life. Living in Beirut, these odd moments have an additional dimension as the city keeps losing any resemblance to the one I grew up in. My long-term goal is to be able to translate the city’s schizophrenia to a language that could be understood elsewhere’.

Mick: Interesting, and thanks, Fadi. I guess you might distinguish between a ‘project description/written narrative’ and ‘artist statement’? Not trying to put words in your mouth – it’s just that I have obviously heard you talk about your work.

Fadi: I never though about the difference. You mean the ‘artist statement’ should be written irrespective of the project?

Mick: Fadi, that’s part of the theory, yes. See the Kandinsky example in my post, where he wrote a whole book about what he was up to. Not a ‘statement’ but a really deep examination of what he was up to.

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EdmondI think it very much depends. The photographers and painters in your article are all people of talent, vision and wisdom, producing work which has substance. I’ve seen some greatly personal fine art work where the artist’s statement had made me open my mind and understand a lot more about the work and the philosophy behind it. I’ve also read so much utter nonsense, from pretenders being pretentious, that it’s almost sickening!

When a pretentious artist’s statement is being used to camouflage terrible work so it appeals to the stupid and gullible, then of course, I have no patience for the work or the words. When an artist’s words make me open my mind and my understanding of their work goes up to another level, then I openly welcome this.

Edmond Terakopian. 2018. Twice The Fun. A child runs around whilst bathed in rays of sunlight in the turbine hall. Tate Modern, during a heat wave bank holiday. Bankside, London. Shortlisted in the British Photography Awards 2019.

Mick: Thank you Edmond. Do you ever use such statements?

Edmond: Yes, but only short, descriptive ones for a project (mostly for exhibitions). I would liken it more to a caption about a project than a statement. I think photography (like other creative creations) is a communication, so having to explain everything about it is like repeating every sentence in a conversation. If the pictures don’t bring an emotional and thought provoking response (this can be something as simple as a giggle to something as profound as a life changing realisation), then no amount of pretentious nonsense is going to work on anyone with any intellectual depth.

So for me, a caption can help explain the reason behind a project and give the viewer a little geographical and historical context. The rest, is up to the photographs to do

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Neil: 1. Art should speak for itself … 

2. however, if it is research, I think a short abstract – as much as what would be used on a research paper is very valid.

Btw have you looked at any research using A/r/tography – you may find it interesting.

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MikeI might have to respond more fully in a less public forum. I am a member of the AHRC peer review college, so I have seen quite a few project statements, and have written a few of my own as part of grant applications (some successful, some not). But the concise answer would be that there is a spectrum between arty bollocks on one end, and useful structural reference points at the other. Most probably lie somewhere in the middle, while the most “visible” tend to be those toward the arty bollox side.

Personally I’d rather do without them but, for the purpose of applying for money, they are probably a necessary evil

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James: Research the Grayson Perry Reith lectures on BBC.

His comments there reinforce my view that artist statements are tools of the art establishment – ‘art speak bollocks’ that over intellectualises the subject, puts off the wider general public, but positions academics, gallery directors, curators, et al as superior beings

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David:  I distrust “Artists Statements” – they seem to be a feature of the Art Industry, designed to give Marketing some help in formulating its message. Is this an “Artist Statement”: https://lik.com/pages/biography

“Peter Lik has spent over 35 years pushing the boundaries of fine art. A self-taught pioneer in the field of landscape photography, he has become synonymous with pristine images of cascading waterfalls, ethereal mountain peaks and peaceful desert canyons”.

I would regard that as entirely misleading (I find his work conventional, meretricious and reliant on immediate impact – in no way a pioneer of landscape, although he does point his camera at some impressive geographical features and is very adept at holding it still).

Peter Lik. 2016. Rouge.

He seems to have a statement for every year:

“In 2014, Peter shattered all world records by selling the most expensive photograph in history. Phantom, his black & white masterwork depicting a ghostlike image at Antelope Canyon, was acquired for an astounding $6.5 million. To accompany this sale, Peter’s images Illusion and Eternal Moods were also acquired for $2.4 million and $1.1 million, respectively. Along with his sale of One for $1 million in 2010, Peter now holds four spots out of the top twenty most expensive photographs ever sold. These historic acquisitions not only gained Peter international acclaim, they secured his position as a leader in the field of fine art photography”.

See Craig Hull here: https://expertphotography.com/peter-lik-debate/ He is doubtful about many of Lik’s claims for himself. Not sure when this was written (I just found it) but I had a similar, but less well formulated, reaction in 2015: https://flic.kr/p/ANCHfe.

Mark Rothko. 1959. Red on Maroon. Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01165

Rather a long post but it explains why I mistrust any kind of artist statement – I rely on well-respected critics to tell me what I should think about a body of work. I did spend some time staring at the Rothkos in Tate Modern https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/display/in-the-studio/mark-rothko? recently, and I simply can’t take Rothko’s statement seriously either – I can see something more than is apparent in reproductions, but they really don’t engage me. YMMV, obviously.

I think art is subjective. There is no universal metric for “art quality” (apart from Peter Cook’s “the eyes [or bottoms] follow you about the room”) and (Duchamp) the audience contributes about half of the “art experience” for itself.

An Artist Statement seems, to me, to be an attempt to bully the viewer into a certain PoV – great for gallery marketing departments – or, at best, an encouragement to lazy viewing. Of course, if my MAVC asks me for one, I’ll do it.

Mick: I love the Lik references … I smell BS. But I do quite like the Rothko comment as it rings true to me.

James: Never heard of him, but then I’m not a landscape man.

David: Not heard of someone whose “images can be viewed in luxurious hotels, prominent estates, leading corporate offices and in all of his galleries around the US” Shame on you!  After all,

“It all started in the suburbs of Melbourne with a Kodak Brownie camera given to him by his parents on his eighth birthday. His first photograph was of a spider web with dew on it. From day one, nature was his favorite subject”.

David: Mick, That’s the point, surely? What is true for you may not be true for me. I respect Rothko because enough people I respect love his work. But it doesn’t really work for me.

J.M. Whistler. 1875. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The Detroit Institute of Arts

David: On pretentious bollocks, OTOH, Ruskin was an impressive and insightful critic. But I hate his favourite picture “the awakening of conscience”; and I wish he hadn’t put down what he thought of as pretentious bollocks with “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face and expecting to be paid for it“. I like Whistler.

Tate on Ruskin versus Whistler

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David L-BDepends on the integrity and eloquence of the artist and the quality of their work. Bullshit in bullshit out. Brilliance and real meaning in, brilliance and real meaning out.

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Graham: Project or, even, genre-specific statements – fine – but overarching artists’ statements, far too pretentious. Does it help the viewer to put the work in context? If not, don’t include it.

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Paul: As long as you don’t call yourself a “Fine Art Photographer” you’ll be fine ..

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Nick Turpin. 2018. On the Night Bus.

Nick:  It depends if, as an artist, you are trying to do something with your art. If you are trying to achieve something then I think you should state what it is you set out to do and the viewers can be the judges of your success.

I personally dislike artists that take no responsibility themselves and push it all on the viewer. “My work raises questions to which there are really no right or wrong answers”.

Then you are doing nothing, wasting your time and ours.

Mick: Totally. Did you ever write something on the ‘Buses’ in advance, or was that a retrospective summary?

David: I profoundly disagree, I think. One does art because one has no choice – it is something one must say/do. Whether it has some meaning or purpose or use is a post hoc exercise, undertaken when you need to get it displayed in a gallery or pay the mortgage. IMO.

I think pushing it all onto the viewer is unfair – I do usually supply titles, eg. But, the viewer taking about half the load seems fair. Sometimes there is more in a picture than the artist consciously realises, and sometime that makes the work more interesting?

Nick: I don’t think you can always write a statement about the work right at the beginning because the best photography is often produced through a revelatory process.
On The Night Bus did start as a single picture but it wasn’t until I worked on it that its full scope began to reveal itself to me. I am drawn to certain subjects and I could write generally about that and within that are the specific projects or series that express and explore aspects of my overall theme … commuters, bridge users, advertising etc.

There is the concept and there is the work, you have a problem if the concept is better than the pictures. My best projects come from the work first of all, often one photograph that I recognise something special in and that specialness is what often becomes the concept and I like to write about that once I have found it.

This way the work is able to stand on its own but reading the statement can add understanding.

David: What if the viewer sees a different concept in the work to the one you intended?

Nick: That’s fine but it’s just lazy and intellectually unrigorous for me not to have intent in the first place.
If I don’t care about the meaning how can I expect others to.

David: I think that is a fair point, but I’m not convinced that it is a necessary one. I can imagine a “great” artist just painting what comes into his/her head, seeing themselves as a “conduit from God”. Not that I believe in God, of course … IOW, does art have to be intellectually rigorous and mustn’t artists be lazy? Yes in both cases if one is on a fine-arts course 🙂 But, in general?

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Graham: There is a valid argument that says if you don’t understand then ridicule it

https://www.nytimes.com/1976/02/20/archives/tate-gallery-buys-pile-of-bricks-or-is-it-art.html

Tate Gallery Buys Pile of Bricks—Or Is It Art?

Carl Andre. 1966. Equivalent VIII. Purchased 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

David: Indeed, but that’s not very productive. Starry Night was pretentious once … And that is a good NY Times article, IMO. Art generates art. Perhaps the “artwork” isn’t the pile of bricks, but the carefully arranged bricks plus all the furore around them. It seems to be a popular artwork with visitors, these days, anyway

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Nigel: As an observer I find that pseudo spiritual twaddle on display at some exhibitions rarely explains the reason for the artist’s state of mind although sometimes I have been tempted to read it twice usually when I have failed to see any comprehensible reason for the work.  Cynical? Perhaps.

On the other hand a well written piece that talks about the artist and the inspiration behind the works can be almost as interesting as the exhibition itself.
Somehow I see you in the second category Mick.

Mick: Thank you, on several counts. I sometimes think that photography tries far too hard to justify itself. It needs less BS and more ‘just being’. This is probably like other arts, but given photography’s relative immaturity, it just tries harder … too hard

David: Exactly. Photography doesn’t have to find special tricks to make it “art” – it doesn’t need to be blurry, or use difficult-to -master techniques, or be extra large, or whatever to be Art, it just is Art, if someone wants it to be. Not necessarily good art, but that’s a different question. And some people think that their photos are just “craft” and that’s fine too. But I might buy it and promote it as Art, regardless, in my gallery.

There’s a book by Leo Tolstoy called “What is Art?”. Spoiler alert: “Art is an organ of Mankind’s life, which transmutes people’s reasonable consciousness into feeling“. And, the last line in the main body is: “the task of [Christian] art is the realisation of the brotherly union of men“. I take “Christian” out because I’m an Atheist but that still seems to be one reasonable answer to the question, even though it comes from the 19th century.

In the 21st century, the cameraphone selfie doesn’t try very hard to be art but doesn’t it contribute to a gender-neutral “realisation of the brotherly union of men”? So, in Tolstoy’s terms, even the humble selfie, if shared, is Art, IMO….

Mick: Love this quote from Tolstoy:

Real art, like the wife of an affectionate husband, needs no ornaments. But counterfeit art, like a prostitute, must always be decked out‘. (Chapter 18)

D: Is that why the art in prestigious galleries is always dressed in an ornate gilt frame?

It’s a nice quote, but doesn’t it remind you of the British Museum when it stripped the top 1mm off its Greek marble statues, holding the traces of the original bright paints, because they “ought” to be pure white?

This is not strictly relevant but interesting anyway:

https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures/1930s_cleaning/cleaning_the_sculptures.aspx

But this, by Natalie Haynes (2018) is: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180119-when-the-parthenon-had-dazzling-colours

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Tony: Being associated with a photography gallery, I see a lot of exhibitions and projects and ‘artist’s statements’.

My usual approach is to look at the work before I read about it. This way I can form my own view about the work and then cross-check with the artist’s intentions. However, these are often unclear…

Some statements are extremely lucid and helpful; others are meaningless. In my experience many photographers make poor writers, as in life generally. The same is true for some gallery and festival curators. I sometimes wonder how a body of work can convincingly communicate concepts if the artist is unable to communicate them in language. Ineffablity, if there is such a thing, is not a good enough excuse.

Many think that images ‘speak for themselves’. This view seems particular popular among street and commercial photographers who have their ‘street cred’ to think about. Nothing wrong with this per se but actually many images don’t ‘speak for themselves’. The referents may be clear, but the senses are often hidden, waiting to be revealed through dialogue.

All that said, I can also enjoy photographs without a statement. But I will have done so without the opportunity of finding something out that is hidden or not shown.

I enjoy reading bold artist’s manifestos, which seem to have gone out of fashion. For example the Dada movement manifestos or the manifestos of the Stuckists. Getting an indication about what someone stands for, or stands against, seems to me to be central to any understanding of that person’s art, for art does not sit in isolation

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Jono: I hope that my pictures speak for themselves, if they don’t I can’t imagine there is anything I could say which would help. I did really like Jackson Pollock’s statement on your page

Mick: What’s the book?

Jono: When I was doing the LHSA talk I fished out some snaps from over the last 10 years, and it seemed to be a ‘body of work’ so I thought I might put a book together – I’ve done a first draft of it (which worked out well) and now I’m considering whether to put words in too.

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Steve: Students studying on Art Foundation Diploma courses had to submit a ‘statement of intent’ for their Final Major Project which in turn determined their grade at Level 3/4. As a moderator of this course,the final Evaluation/Reflection played a significant part in ascertaining if the original intentions had been met.

Only the more able students were able to produce an analytical rather than a descriptive account of their progress. The statement of intent was only 250 words and required students to list contextual references and practical considerations.

I believe that this approach stood students in good stead on their degree courses. Whilst agreeing it commendable for students I am afraid I have not followed the practice myself in the practice os street photography

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Some conclusions:

In talking about ‘Artist’s Statements’, we often confuse several things.

  1. A one-off title for an image.
  2. A project description for an exhibition, book or body of work.
  3. A conceptual or practical statement about an artist’s oeuvre or intent, overall.
  4. In all cases, something that is easy to understand and specific (not woolly) is advantageous.
  5. And pretentiousness in ‘photographic statements’ ranks at least equally with Arty Bollocks in some cases.

That said, whether these are written in advance of creating work or in retrospect is very much an open question

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Kandinsky, Wassily. 2014. Concerning the Spiritual in Art (Re-Translation by Golffing, Harrison & Ostertag). New York: George Wittenborn Inc.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1896 (1966 reprint). What is Art? Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1896. What is Art? Available at http://gbelic.org/courses/representation-language/readings/tolstoy-whatisart.pdf. (Accessed 30/12/2018).

Turpin, Nick. 2017. On The Night Bus. London: Hoxton Mini Press.