Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Artist Statement Part 3: What to Avoid when Writing your Artist Statement

The Artist Statement Part 3: What to Avoid when Writing your Artist Statement

There are good ways and bad ways to write an artist statement. The success of an artist statement, based on my experience, often depends on what the artist leaves out. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on the subject, but I will say that I’ve read thousands of statements as the senior editor for Thus, I have a few suggestions that I think may help artists who are striving to write an effective artist statement.

Avoid cookie-cutter statements! It might be OK to observe a sample artist statement, but don’t simply change a few words and call it your own. Chances are that others have had the same idea. You risk appearing very unprofessional. Instead, try to write a statement that is unique. Just be honest. For example, if you don't talk with 'big words' in person try not to use them in your statement. You want your statement to be a reflection of who you are-- not what you can look up. Keep in mind that plagiarism in any form can be an instant turnoff if discovered. Don’t risk it.

With the above in mind, you should also avoid services that provide an artist statement for you. If you do a few searches online you will find companies that offer artist statement services. If you are stressed out about an artist statement you might be tempted to use those services. DON’T. It will not look good for you if people find out that you hired someone to write your statement. If exposed you risk damaging your reputation… especially if you try to use that statement when applying for a residency or school. You must also consider that most likely those companies shell out cookie-cutter statements in the first place-- all warning signs scream SCAM. Save your money while securing your dignity at the same time!

In regards to writing your artist statement there are other issues to avoid within the context of the statement itself. For example, don't mention your childhood unless it is relevant to your work today-- and even if it is be careful about going into details. People don't care that you picked up your first crayon at age 1 nor do they care if you started drawing circles at age 3. The same goes for mentioning grade school art awards or even high school art awards-- no one cares!

You would be surprised how many artists mention these rather trivial events as if they are markings of genius -- and they are trivial. In the big picture said accomplishments have little value. Furthermore, including pointless information like that will make it appear as if you are mentioning your childhood accomplishments because you have nothing else to speak of. Again, if your childhood is relevant to the art you make today be sure to make the mention of your childhood relevant in your artist statement!

Avoid bravado charges such as, "I was born an artist!". How do you know that you were born an artist? Can you remember thinking that far back? Did you come out with a brush in one hand and a palette in the other? Perhaps you had a tiny camera in your hands? I think it is safe to say that there are millions of artist statements containing the ‘born an artist’ line. Again, you want your artist statement to be unique AND to be taken serious. Powerful artwork is often based on life experience-- not raw talent alone-- so focus on that instead of making bold claims about your inborn genius.

Some other things to avoid concerning your artist statement:
1. Depending on the situation you want to avoid "I try", "I want", or "I hope". You want to avoid them if it makes you appear negative or insecure about your art. For example, you don't want to say "I hope that the viewer will see...", you want to say "The viewer will see...". You want to use words that show that you are the master of your artwork instead of your artwork being the master of you. You want to show that you are in control and that you have confidence in your ability. Just be wary of coming off arrogant. It is a balancing act.

2. Avoid projecting the idea that your work alone can change the world. Even if your art has a positive message you will want to avoid being overly positive-- as in sappy. "My art will bring love to the world" or "my art will bring peace to the world" should NEVER be in an artist statement-- and yes I have seen statements containing lines like this. You will find that most people will not take that serious. You don't want to come off as if you think your art will change the world because at that point you have to defend the reason why you think your work is so great and so inspiring compared to hundreds of years of art history and compared to other contemporary artists-- which number in the millions if not billions worldwide.

3. Avoid the superhero/mystic complex. Don’t mention things like, "my work is magical", or "as if by magic", or “my art has the power to” because most people simply won't buy into it. They will simply see it as fantasy. You may honestly feel that your art is magic or that it has power-- maybe it does-- but that does not mean that you should mention that in your statement-- especially if you are writing it for an application. I suppose it does depend on the context. Still, you would be better off mentioning those things in your other art writing instead of your artist statement. Be tactful.

4. Avoid being the leader of your own rebellion. The rebel image has worked for several artists, but that does not mean that it will work for you. Thus, you should probably avoid mentioning things like, “my art is a revolution“, or “I’m searching for a new art!“, or “my art will awaken the masses”. Honestly, can you defend your art as being the art of tomorrow? Can you honestly say that your art is a sign of the direction the art world is going? Can you say that your body of artwork will cause a revolution while keeping a straight face? I hope that you can defend all of that.

5. Avoid pointless information about your process. You should focus on the here and now when writing an artist statement as far as your process is concerned. You want your statement to be fresh-- to reflect what you are doing now. For example, there is no point in mentioning that you worked in a different medium a decade ago unless it is relevant to what you are doing now. If you were a painter who now focuses on sculpting there is really no reason to mention your experience as a painter unless it is directly linked to your work as a sculptor. You don’t want to confuse people about what exactly it is that you do today. In other words, you don’t want them to ask “where are the paintings?” when they should be concentrating on the sculptures you have been creating for the last decade.

6. Avoid displaying an outdated artist statement on your website. I see this often. Someone will have an artist statement that they posted a few years ago on their website only to tell me during the interview process that the statement is no longer a valid representation of their current art. If your artist statement is no longer valid you should probably update it with one that is. In that sense, your artist statement is an on going process. You can’t simply write it, post it, and forget it without causing confusion at some point.

7. Avoid remarks that readers may find offensive. For example, if you have a degree in art you probably don't want to come off as if you think that you are better than the next artist-- or viewer-- because of that fact. The same goes if you consider yourself a self-taught artist in that you don't want to downplay the education that others have received. Avoid mentioning things like, "as a self-taught artist my work is more pure", or "as a self-taught artist my art has not been stained by art school". You never know who will be reading your artist statement and you don't want to get off on a bad start by offending someone who does not share your elitist views-- whichever side they fall on.

Artist statements come and go. Your statement should change as much as you do. After all, it is a reflection of who you are and the work that you are creating at this time. Thus, it is vital to keep your artist statement up to date. Don’t post it online, use it for an application process, or hand it out at an exhibit if it is not relevant to your current artwork.

In closing, remember that you don't have to lay everything down on the line with your artist statement. It should not be considered the final answer as to who you are or what your art is about. In fact, it should spur readers to ask further questions about your art and process. View your artist statement as an open invitation to the reader to learn more about you and your artwork. If anything you may want to write an artist statement simply to document where you were at with your work at a specific time.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


  1. This is very helpful... Thank you very much.

  2. Thanks Brian, good input and great timing. Updating my website and wanting to fine tune what I say about myself and my art. All the best, Jennifer Hayes