Monday, May 11, 2009

A Few Additions to the Discussion of Artist Statements

Over the past few days, Conscientious has had a series of insightful posts about the positives and negatives of artist’s statements (here, here, here, and here). While most of the ground has been covered in a thoughtful way, I thought there might be a couple of nuances from a collector’s perspective that would be worth adding to the discussion.

For us, artist statements are like road maps: they give us clues to better understand the work we are seeing. Optimally, they should be as clear and to the point as possible, thereby making it more likely that any background information that is important is actually passed along and internalized. Statements that are lost in jargon and art speak miss the chance to educate us. Our attention span for this kind of stuff is short (press releases fall into the same category), so make it hard hitting or you’ll lose us quickly, and we’ll go back to looking at the pictures and deciding for ourselves.

The Silicon Valley style “elevator pitch” (a one to two sentence summary) is probably an oversimplified way of communicating for the art world, but the reason entrepreneurs use it is that it is the single easiest way to control the message to someone who doesn’t know much about you (and it's also the most likely way to ensure the message is passed on to another person without getting garbled). To my mind, the artist statement should have the same goal: convey the salient points quickly and cleanly, in the hopes that the reader/viewer will actually remember them.

In some ways, an artist’s career can be thought of as the ultimate exercise in word of mouth. Galleries are constantly trying to place important works with well known museums to validate their quality. Positive remarks by an influential critic are circulated to the mailing list. Select pieces are “placed” with important collectors, so that other collectors can see them and hear about them. It’s all about creating a positive feedback loop and feeding the beast, year after year, with each successive release of new work.

When you’re early in your career, there is no word of mouth yet, and very few opinions have been formed. This is the exact moment that the statement was designed for; it is the one opportunity to frame the discussion before it goes its own way. If you decide not to take it and leave the work open for interpretation, fair enough, but you missed the chance to anchor us somewhere.

Once you’re an established or mid-career artist, the word of mouth is in full swing, and many voices have added their opinions (valid or invalid) to the mix. The crowd has spoken and the collective wisdom drowns out much of the rest of the commentary. With each successive group of new work, the marginal utility/value of any single statement by the artist is decreased, because it has to compete with the larger and larger pile of consensus thought about the artist’s overall approach and history. Therefore, the statements at the beginning of the career are the ones that have the most power to direct the discussion; later on, the overall flow has a mind of its own that is nearly impossible to modify.

So our simple summary advice on statements would be the following: don't miss the chance to direct our thinking (especially early in your career) and make sure you do it concisely so it sticks.

No comments: