That Necessary Little Evil

By JD Jarvis

The Artist's Statement

One of the perennial tasks plaguing an exhibiting artist is the requirement to explain one's self in words. Often referred to in the most innocent of terms as an "artist's statement," our reaction to this little job can run the gamut from minor nuisance to all out revolt. Understandably, you have already made the work why must you now explain it using words, which we have been told, speak less eloquently than pictures to begin with. Why paint yourself into such a corner? Why provide the weak-minded public with the chains they will only use to bind the free-bird of your creativity? Why write a thesis about non-verbal communication?

But ask a gallery owner and they will tell you that they sell more work to clients who have met and spent some time with the artist. That is why an opening night soirée used to be so pervasive and why artist's statements continue to hold some importance in marketing one's work. As a means toward creating a personal connection between artist and potential art buyer, an artist's statement is often all you have. Sometimes the right words actually help people "see" the work.

The best example I have for this is Robert Rauschenberg's experience regarding what was to become known as his "Combines." When first displayed these works were, for the most part, disregarded. Having no previous sort of work to draw upon they were weakly relegated to the oeuvre of collage, but essentially the work went unnoticed and effectively unseen. Until he came up with the word "combine" to describe them at which point the collective light went on and people began to recognize the work within the context of the word "combine." Lesson One: without words attached to it, an object or idea is virtually invisible. Enter the "artist's statement."

Ah ha! But, what words do you use and how much is too much to say about your work. Here is one example of what Rauschenberg said about his Combines; "I wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn't a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing."

All in all this is an effective artist's statement. Let's examine why in the form of a few rules that I have made up: (please share your own)

1) Make the statement personal. Remember, this statement is going to be a proxy for actually meeting and talking with a person, so make it warm and inviting. In the above statement Rauschenberg avoids talking about "the work" instead focusing on the experience of surprise. People may not be able to understand the artwork, but they surely understand the shared experience of being surprised. This leads quite naturally to?

2) Avoid being too technical. The "artist's statement" is not a thesis in which you are describing and defending your difficult and impassioned work. Save this for your interview in "Artforum." The artist's statement should focus on letting the reader get to know you and perhaps realize some way in which your work connects you with them. This is especially true for digital artists. Unless you are exhibiting your work to an "insider" audience that understands and values the software and filters you use to create work you should avoid this sort of discussion. Listing software, describing the process or settings used, or revealing the number of Layers in the piece will not create the desired "gee-whiz" effect.

3) Do not tell the reader what to feel about your work. If they feel something other than what you intended (and they usually do) you run the risk of making either them or yourself look foolish. You have no real way of knowing what others are feeling so why limit the appreciation of your work only to what you know and have experienced.

4) Along these same lines avoid mentioning the famous artists who have influenced you or the current work on display. Either this will make you look as if you do not have an original idea or that you have overestimated the power and glory of your own work. An exception to this (and there always are exceptions) would be something like the recent Homage exhibit mounted by the San Diego Digital Artists Guild. If the work is indeed a homage then it is helpful to state what or who that work is in homage to. But, in general leave this sort of detective work up to the reader who essentially just wants to make up their own mind about your art.

5) Keep it short. If you can't explain your work in a few short paragraphs chances are you have not yet thought enough about what you are doing.

6) Keep it simple. Early on, one major reason I almost walked away from Art entirely was the convoluted, esoteric language I saw being used in the majority of the "Art Magazines" I was reading at the time. References to obscure theories and theorists, often sprinkling in terminology from a different language or excessively referring to work that very few people have seen; nearly sent me looking for something else to do with my life. At the last minute, I realized that a critic is not an artist but a journalist with a different set of priorities to meet and people to impress. I let the subscriptions to those lofty rags drop and became much healthier in the long run.

Complex ideas can be stated in accessible terms. For example, when Rauschenberg says; "So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing." He is stating a basic principle behind all Conceptual Art. A principle with which Duchamp shook the art world and for which tomes have been written. But, Rauschenberg was able to sum it up nicely in one sentence. It can be done.

7) Only use words you can spell. To be sure, "spell check" has greatly increased my vocabulary in this regard and one should always strive to use just the right word. But, using this rule is a good way to keep yourself from going too far afield when trying to compose a statement about your own work.

In the spirit of "full disclosure" you should know the problems I had because I wanted to use the word " soirée" in the second paragraph of this essay. I have heard the word and know that it basically means "party," but I wanted to use a word that presents more of a sense of class and refinement. Of course, French is a great language for gilding any topic with an air of class. What other language has a word like "sortie" that makes a bombing run sound like a brief shopping trip. But as I arrived at its place in the sentence I realized that I did not have the slightest idea how to spell "soirée." The ancient grade school paradoxical conundrum of how to look up a word in the dictionary when you have no idea how to spell it came rushing back to me. Even the "on-line' dictionary could not help. Next, the Wikithesarus? then the next one? finally tucked away in virtually thousands of Roget's possible connections I saw a word that might have been it. I confirmed it, with a dictionary that, now that the work was done, was more than willing to help and typed it in. Why go to all that trouble? I could have used "party" or "jamboree" or "hoedown" or any other word that had been digitally suggested to me. But, as it turns out "soirée" which means "an evening gathering for conversation or music" happens to be the perfect word. And? now I know how to spell it.

A good way to write effectively about your own work is to study what others have said about theirs and to adopt their concepts to your needs. Rauschenberg's statement is a good example. Certainly surprise is among one of the reason I enjoy working digitally. Or, take this example that I heard an artist named Jessica Stockholder say about her work in Season 4 of the PBS program "Art 21."

In speaking about her sculptural and installation work she said, "Plastic? it's cheap and easy to buy. My work participates in that really quick and easy and inexpensive material that is part of our culture and in that way my work engages the means of production we live with."

Well, for me this statement set off all sorts of bells. If the computer is not "a means of production" that we all live with today, I do not know what is. Working digitally is quick. Most people feel computers make things easy. If, indeed, it is important that my work participates and engages with a means of production that has become commonplace within our culture; then, I might see using her ideas to explain and support my own.

I have long since given up on the idea that my work is special because it is composed using a computer. Continuing to belabor that point was becoming counterproductive. If you are explaining your art then look at art and read what others are saying about art. If your work is art, then anything anyone says about art can be used and adopted to explain your work.

Certainly, to a rapidly increasing number, what we do as digital artists is no longer uncommon. Given that the majority of commercial art we see on billboards, TV screens and web pages has been composed digitally what we do is quite common. What is unique about your work is what you bring to it. Keep this in mind the next time you are challenged to write a statement about your artwork. Make it personal. Keep it simple. If possible, have fun with this necessary bit of evil.

JD Jarvis
Las Cruces, New Mexico, December 2010
Dunking Bird Productions

top of page