A Quiet Talk about Artist Statements

by Robert Shaw

As a curator and a writer, artist statements are one of my pet peeves. In a word, I hate them. Why? Because far too many do not add anything to my understanding or appreciation of the work I am viewing, and those are the only reasons for writing or reading them. I also find that artists' statements often reflect the problems I see in the work before me. Too many read like personal journal confessions, rather than as guides or keys to the work itself. For these reasons, and because statements are required by so many shows and contests, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the purpose of statements and what this curator is looking for when he reads them.

Let me start with a few thoughts about the relationship between art and words. First of all, your work shouldn't require an explanation. If it doesn't work visually, the pen of Shakespeare isn't going to help it. Second, art doesn't have to be "about" anything. Art is by definition mysterious; it comes from and reaches places that can't be explained. And third, artists are often not the best judges of what their art means. Bruce Springsteen says, "Trust the art, not the artist," and he is speaking for himself as well as to fans who focus on his persona rather than his work.

Some do's and don'ts:

1. A good statement will clarify the work in some way or add some information that expands the viewer's understanding. It should help and encourage the viewer to look harder at the quilt, make them want to look longer and deeper.

2. You don't have to be a great writer to craft a good statement. Good writing is clear thinking. Take your time. Think carefully about what you want to say and then express your thoughts in the simplest and clearest way you can. The point of writing is communication. Read what you've written and ask yourself if it makes sense to you. Think about how others will read your statement. Try it out on some friends and see if they "get it."

3. Be concise. The longer the statement, the less chance there is it will be read. Less is more.

4. Don't limit the meaning of your work with your statement. Don't force a specific meaning on the viewer, who might find something you never imagined in your art. Leave room for viewers to explore the work for themselves.

5.Talk about the work, not about yourself. Unless they have direct bearing on the subject matter, biographical details are irrelevant. Avoid the word I whenever you can.

6. Engage and intrigue the reader. Tell a story or part of a story. Draw them in. Pretend you're standing beside them and letting them in on a secret.

7. Don't try to explain everything. A good statement offers hints and keys to the viewer's search for treasure, not a fully fleshed out map.

8. Read the best book about clear writing ever, a pithy 85-page classic by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Yes, the guy who wrote Charlotte's Web) called The Elements of Style. Another book I would recommend highly is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. You can buy both for less than $20, and they can help more than you can imagine.

Let me also share some words of wisdom from one of my mentors, a man named A. Hyatt Mayor, who was curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for many years. In a 1964 essay called "How to Bake an Exhibition," Mayor has this to say about label copy:

"The show can be explained in the foreword to a catalogue, but most visitors will get more out of very brief notes, in the style of telegrams, scattered here and there like a paper chase. In such diminutive essays, each word must act like a fish-hook to catch the visitor as he drifts along. One hook ill baited, or a paragraph that looks too long, and the visitor is on his way elsewhere. The writer must imagine his reader as an intelligent person whose frame of reference can be counted on to include the upper average of knowledge, but who may sometimes turn out to know more than the writer. This means that the captions must never talk down, must present new or heterodox ideas unpretentiously and that each caption should tease the reader by taking a different tone or opening on a fresh note."

All of this applies to a statement. If you want people to read what you write (and why else should you bother to make the effort), you have to find ways to make the experience pleasant, informative, and relatively painless. Brevity is the best method. Instead of drowning the reader in detail, give them kernels to chew on and ponder, little Zen koans that linger and reverberate. I really like Mayor's concept of the label as telegram. It's a great model to emulate. It also makes me think of Harry Smith, the film-maker, anthropologist, and culture shaker who put together the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. (If you aren't familiar with Smith's Anthology and have the slightest interest or curiosity about traditional American music, I can't recommend it highly enough.) Harry Smith is a whole 'nother story, but one of the many amazing things he did was to boil down the gist of the lyrics and meaning of each song in just the way Mayor suggests. The ballad of the Titanic, "When That Great Ship Went Down," is encapsulated into this headline: "Manufacturer's proud dream destroyed at shipwreck, segregated poor die first." Bam! How many hours did it take James Cameron's movie to say less? Try doing the same with any song or story you know. Then try it with a statement.

Here's another tip from Hyatt Mayor, this time about really looking at a work at art, from a marvelous essay called "A Truth or Two About Art History." (This and other Mayor essays can be found in a little book A. Hyatt Mayor: Selected Writings and a Bibliography published by the Metropolitan Museum in 1983 and undoubtedly long out of print. It's worth searching for.)

"If you want to get inside some painting, get a photograph and study it upside down until it you understand how it is organized. Then plant yourself in front of the original and start looking. You can keep your eye exploring if you draw it, no matter how awkwardly, or if you describe it detail by detail on a pad of paper. After about half an hour, a fog will lift, like breath leaving a windowpane, and you will enter. You will never forget the thrill."

Try it the next time you go to your favorite museum. Instead of wandering from gallery to gallery, choose one work of art to study ahead of time, go deliberately through the galleries to see it, and leave after you have completed the exercise. There is no better way to visit a museum, especially if you have the luxury of being near enough for frequent, targeted visits.

The same approach works just as well for quilts as paintings and also serves to remind what matters in any work of art -- the organic integrity and strength of the composition, which should be clear no matter how it is viewed or oriented. Try hanging your quilt upside down or sideways and see if it "works," or turn the latest Quilt National catalog this way and that before you read the statements. Or take a photo of your quilt and play with that. This can be a great compositional tool; a way to stand back from a piece as it develops and make sure you are on the right track.

I also wanted to share parts of a note Joan Lintault recently sent me that reinforces many of the issues I have tried to address in this and previous essays. Joan had this to say about explaining her art:

"My work is first and foremost about vision or rather the visual and formal -- line, shape, color, negative and positive space, and how these function on the picture plane I've created. I think that these elements are what make my work powerful. The fact that I choose to use a [particular] arrangement of images is secondary. The images are just the subject matter but are useless unless my elements are visually arranged.

I don't like to write about my work in terms of feelings or inspirational stories. I think that people (especially quilt makers) want to be spiritually uplifted by the story, to be engaged by the subject. The formalist aspects seem [to come] second or not at all. I am always asked to write the inspiration behind my work. I usually am at at loss for words. What drove me to choose those particular images I use is not one uplifting moment, but a lifetime of looking, reading, and being passionate about the power of the visual image."

If you are not familiar with it, Joan's work is well worth knowing. She has been making remarkable quilts since the mid-1960s and, as I have said elsewhere, is one of the most original and consistent of all artists working with the quilt medium, precisely because of what she articulates above.

© Robert Shaw  www.artofthequilt.com