Content, Creativity, Image and Imagination

How To Make Your Artist Statement More Authentic – 5 Key Insights

Authentic and authenticity are are as good as gold in marketing messages these days – the words are meant to add a lustre of real truth to whatever is being sold, the feeling that a genuine connection is being made. It’s the experience and memory of that feeling, that authentic connection, which creates a stronger bond between the product and the person. Dove Soap does this with their “Get Real” campaign and while it’s easy to be cynical about a large corporation truly caring about ordinary women, it’s been a huge success for the brand driving up sales and making their video ads massively shared.

So what does authenticity have to do with an Artist Statement? I’ve worked with lots of artists of all different styles but their common denominator is an almost blinding pain when it comes to saying something meaningful – and relatable – about their work. The language becomes a chore and you get the sense that they’re just grinding it out in a dead voice or hiding their private truth behind a wall of big words. It’s often a missed opportunity to connect with and inspire whoever is reading and thoughtfully wanting to know more about an artist’s creativity.

Still, every artist that I‘ve ever talked to about their creativity has always revealed a rich backstory of ideas, emotions and associations that feed into their work. Hearing the reasons why people make their art is the favorite part of my job – their insights prove inspiring. And that connection – made in a way that’s understandable and evocative and genuine – is the crux of authenticity. It’s pivotal for pulling people closer to your art and making them think and feel more than they might without that insight.

How to give an authentic edge to your Artist Statement? Keep in mind that what you say may depend on who you’re saying it to – a statement for a grant application intended for review by an elite panel may differ than what you write for your website where a broad, diverse and possibly international audience may consider you work.

But what matters to both is that you be memorable and engaging and say something that sparks the reader to feel more in tune with your artwork. Here are some suggestions that I offer clients trying to puzzle out their Artist Statement – or really any piece of writing intended to create awareness for their artwork:

1. Talk about the source of your inspiration:

If you hope to inspire others with your artwork, start by recognising your own inspirations for making it. There must be some pivotal moment(s) in your development as an artist that shifted your awareness. Evoke that awakening.

One of my clients is Michael Levin who has been honored as International Photographer of the Year 3 times in his exceptional career yet always struggled to explain what influenced his photographic vision. Digging around together in his past, he realised that a summer long ago spent learning flamenco guitar in Spain was the first occasion he learned that emotion and silence could color a scene. We made that awareness a key part of his message – and he’s had media specifically note that piece of information.

The pop artist Ed Ruscha once wrote that “The painting of a target by Jasper Johns was an atomic bomb in my training.” There’s real energy behind that inspiration which a reader can feel. Perhaps for you it’s a memory or experience or even another artist that proved pivotal. Whatever the wellspring of your art, let others draw sustenance from it.

2. Situate the reader in your regular life.

Art-making rarely occurs as a singular stroke of brilliance perfectly formed – it takes day to day slogging and thinking and feeling your way forward. That’s a journey people find fascinating if told in a meaningful way. Particularly if you’re writing for a general audience, situate the reader in the heart of that action. Explain your process. Open up your studio or workshop so people get a sense of your private space and how it shapes your actions. Talk about some routine you follow which elevates your awareness of the artwork you make.

I once worked with an artist who occasionally went on long walks, almost pilgrimages, including walking entirely across several states. That effort, very slow and measured and calm, wasn’t specifically for his artwork but it allowed him to be more in tune with nature and his surroundings, to see the world in unexpected ways. He was able to use that awareness to make his art richer in detail and rhythmic nuance, quieter but more compelling. Pulling that perspective into his Artist Statement provided additional insight into his artistic inspirations.

People are curious about what goes on for an artist “behind-the-scenes”. Let them peek into your world and get a sense of both the ordinary and extraordinary parts of it.

3. Consider the emotional aspects of your creativity

The idea that art should be served cold and dry probably comes from some French intellectual cookbook on creativity – L’Art Sans Flaveur. But art is much tastier to more people if you marinade it with emotions – as long as you don’t get carried away and turn the piece into an overcooked pot of syrupy goo.

Still whether it’s happy or hostile emotions you feed into your work, passion or frustration or even despair, your honesty will be appreciated. An Artist Statement that feels raw in some way will have more chance of making a meaningful connection with others. Everyone gets drawn in by the power of emotion. Intellectual considerations are important but they take time to settle in and be fully understood – but emotion cuts to the core almost instantly. And the emotional experience of artwork is more memorable and satisfying in the long run.

Mark Rothko understood that primal connection to emotion. In fact he once said, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions.”

4. Find the poetry behind your purpose

Artist Statements are not meant to be IKEA ‘how-to’ info sheets allowing someone to assemble your art like a bookshelf. They are intended to be a fragmentary insight into your creativity and thinking at a particular moment. Poetry and poetic language can speak to the subtlety in your work evoking its wonders better than a bunch of plain-jane sentences strung together. The lilt and phrasing of poetry shifts our view of life, opening it to associations that may not at first make sense but spark the viewer to see more in the artwork.

The American sculptor Louise Nevelson once wrote of her work, “Shadow and I have a long long love affair” – that single line helps open up her intricate, darkly expressive sculptures in an unexpected way.

Now it may be too huge a task for an artist already apprehensive about writing anything to write with poetic phrasing – so instead snip your way to a meaningful moment. A bit of borrowed poetry that you favour for whatever reason can be a great way to start off – or complete – an Artist Statement. It doesn’t need to be a Shakespearean sonnet – contemporary poetry is sharp with illusion and even hip-hop lyrics can add energy, and street cred, to your work.

5. Take the time to explain what you mean

For all the arguments that say that an Artist Statement should be short so they don’t wear out a reader’s patience, it’s not length that matters but readability. If the piece is dull or difficult to get through, even a short statement will not help your effort to make a meaningful connection. But a message that flows and is fascinating and usefully informative will pull the reader along and provide them more ways to appreciate your artistry.

When it comes to using “big:” words – all those isms that art is riddled with – my advice is to give some sense as to what the word means to the artist rather than just drop it and go. Modernism, expressionism, fauvism etc. all have dictionary definitions but take a line or two extra and unpack for the reader how they connect with your work. Your artistic – and authentic – interpretation of that idea will matter more to the reader than the word itself.

An Artist Statement should open up more suggestive possibilities about your creativity not close out people simply trying to understand your artistic efforts. Reward their curiosity. Pay them the compliment of insightful language, useful information, emotional transparency and an inspiring story about your creative journey. And don’t be shy to reach out and get help or a second opinion on what you write – whatever you say matters more than you think. It’s a keyhole into your creativity – give them a good authentic word show and they will stay longer for the main act.



One Comment

  • Marilyn Cooper on Jun 24, 2014

    You have an excellent way with words and make me want to read further entries. An artist would be lucky to have you represent them.