Editorial: Exploring the Artist Statement

Having been inundated with innumerable artist statements in my tenure at the Museum of Texas Tech, in an MFA program, and as an editor for various literary entities over the years, I have come to some opinion about these little nuggets of information: artists’ statements often use abstract mush to describe their work to such an extent that it is no more essential than the astrology section of the newspaper. You can take “Virgo” or “Leo,” read one aloud, and guide yourself through your Tuesday afternoon, having been informed by the Universe, really being led by some vague platitudes written by a person just as lost as the rest of us, perhaps more so if they put stock in that sort of drivel. For instance, here is an artist statement I generated on a site called Arty Bollocks:

My work explores the relationship between Pre-Raphaelite tenets and football chants.

With influences as diverse as Machiavelli and L Ron Hubbard, new insights are distilled from both simple and complex discourse.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the endless oscillation of the mind. What starts out as yearning soon becomes debased into a hegemony of defeat, leaving only a sense of chaos and the chance of a new order.

As momentary phenomena become distorted through studious and personal practice, the viewer is left with a testament to the possibilities of our world.

With the click of a virtual button I can also generate the first paragraph to read "My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and urban spaces.” or "My work explores the relationship between acquired synesthesia and unwanted gifts,” with accompanying bollocks that references two artists, or a made up personal history. During the MFA thesis portion of my degree I, like many others, was instructed to come up with a number of patron artists with which to identify, and it seemed as relevant then, too.

More specifically we can say that the word “explore" can be applied to anything an artist can possibly do. I explore my belly button lint; I explore the identity of my grandfather, memory, fast food, groundhogs, geography, ethics, tomato paste, germ warfare, sex on coffee tables, etc. etc. etc. I explore the phrase “etc.”

Water Lillies, Claude Monet

Why does this disconnect between the physicality of art practice, and these abstract constructions take place? Why is it not ok to say “I paint pictures of faces, and then apply some meaning to them to justify them.” Or, “I like the way mashed potatoes feel in my fingers so I make them into little mesas, exploring my alien message receiving ego.” Okay, that was a swipe from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but you get the point. Art is more specific than these kinds of insufficient descriptions when it is happening. Artists make choices; they influence the world in some way, bring things together or tear them apart in very deliberate ways. You can now insert something like “I explore agency because….” but it still represents only a superficial schmaltz, devoid of specificity, meaningless to all but those who like arty, academic-sounding words arranged in neat paragraphs. The honest answer for many artists is “I don’t know what I am doing while I'm doing it, and only after can I find some meaning in the thing I just did.” Or “I can’t stop painting these goddamn lily ponds because they just make me so happy.” Or a more direct statement like, “Get the hell out, I’m in the middle of something."

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