Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED.org.
I think it’s great you’re passing on sensible advice regarding the writing of clear, articulate, open gallery texts, but what I need to know how to write are the kinds of texts that make it look like I know a lot more about the work I make than I actually do. Obviously, no top level Frieze, Armory, Basel, FIAC type gallery would touch my work if I could write clearly about it, so is there some secret template for obfuscation, complex-ification and obscurantism into which I might insert my variables, and hey, Voila! my MFA show garners the attention of several hip galleries at once? This is not a joke! I genuinely need your help.
I love this question because I want to make fun of it and I can’t. Just when I am prepared to argue that we all need to write clearly and concisely in order to reach our audience(s), I get something like this in my inbox, delivered on July 31 from MIT Press: “ARTMargins is a new triannual publication that invites researchers and practitioners who operate under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism to critically reflect on what we call the ‘thickened global margin,’ encompassing historical, geographical, as well as philosophical or theoretical post-peripheries.” The part of me that taught English to high school kids wants to sigh, really?, but to be honest, as examples go this one is not even the worst I’ve seen.
So while I’d love to be dismissive of this issue, there are indeed some facts that need to be acknowledged. The first is that, no matter how many educators (self included) make claims for prose that is accessible and intelligible, the truth is that we do operate in a field with its own specialized vocabulary. The second is that arts writing undertakes the process of expressing the aesthetic experience as text, and like any translation something ineffable gets lost along the way. To try to make up for this loss while still working within the circumstances that produced it means that writers essentially scratch around hoping to find a designation that will come closest to what they are attempting to explain. With something as complex and nuanced as art the best we can hope for is that the arrow, once shot, will graze its target; because in translation a true bull’s eye is nearly impossible.
Your question is complicated, though, because it’s not just about language but perceptions, expectations, and your relationship to your own work. Let’s tackle this one first. When you say “what I need to know how to write are the kinds of texts that make it look like I know a lot more about the work I make than I actually do” it trips my worry switch. Why don’t you feel that you know about your own work? Didn’t you make it? Aren’t you the captain of this ship? That others may see things in your work that you don’t is a natural consequence of identity and differentiation. My vision of the world is not yours, and that’s a good thing. It’s not your job to think of every eventuality, to meet all-comers. To do so will only guarantee you a lifetime of defensive posturing, and it’s unwise to build a career that requires you to keep your fists up. Additionally, don’t forget that an illogical or overly dense statement can undermine powerful work.
But you requested a template. Though I am skeptical about the power of a mere statement to dazzle a blue-chip gallery, I also want to give you what you asked for. As it happens, because there is an Internet and it is filled with the work of delightful and intelligent people, there is (of course) already a website for this. It’s called Arty Bollocks and you simply click “generate some bollocks” and it will give you a complete statement. Here’s what I got:
My work explores the relationship between the body and counter-terrorism. With influences as diverse as Nietzsche and John Cage, new insights are manufactured from both opaque and transparent narratives. Ever since I was a pre-adolescent I have been fascinated by the unrelenting divergence of relationships. What starts out as undefined soon becomes finessed into a manifesto of lust, leaving only a sense of chaos and the chance of a new synthesis. As shifting forms become undefined through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an impression of the darkness of our existence.
If your results aren’t opaque enough, you can click “Not arty enough for you?” and you’ll get a statement that turns the caliginosity up to 11:
My work explores the relationship between pre-Raphaelite tenets and unwanted gifts. With influences as diverse as Camus and Andy Warhol, new synergies are manufactured from both mundane and transcendent structures. Ever since I was a postgraduate I have been fascinated by the theoretical limits of the human condition. What starts out as vision soon becomes finessed into a tragedy of power, leaving only a sense of dread and the unlikelihood of a new synthesis. As temporal replicas become transformed through diligent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a new agenda of the limits of our condition.
Are you surprised to find that parts of this statement could fit your work? That’s because it is so vague and meaningless that it could be applied with equal efficacy to nearly any artwork. (And if you still venture down this path, beware: sometimes there are errors in the text. Spell check the statement before you send it off to Neugerriemschneider.)
If you want to try a sillier generator (à la Mad Libs), I recommend 10gallon.com’s Patented Artist Statement Generator 2000. I took some liberties with the directions (for the prompt “CELEBRITY WHO WAS ON THE LOVE BOAT” I entered “Hans Ulrich Obrist”), and with a little tweaking this is what I got:
Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of history as a metaphorical interpretation of both Sigmar Polke and data mining. What began as a personal journey of orthodoxy has translated into images of narrative and installations that resonate with cultured people to question their own connection to the archive. My mixed-media kleptomania embodies an idiosyncratic view of tension, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between Slavoj Žižek, knitting magazines, and modern American values. My work is in the private collection of Hans Ulrich Obrist who said ‘Yikes!, that’s some real smooth art.’ I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. I have exhibited in group shows at Jake’s Bar and the Serpentine Gallery, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between the space under my bed and Berlin.
How droll! But let’s turn our attention, finally, to how a statement can alter the perception of the work. Though many artists seem to believe that a highfalutin statement will cover flaws in their artwork, this is wrong. The curators at the level you hope to reach are, in my (albeit limited) experience, quite intelligent and will not be fooled. Instead, try making a list of all the things that you think your work does, what conditions it addresses, what questions it answers, how it operates, whom it’s talking back to. Starting from this document, you might find an agreeable middle ground between an oversimplification and total philosophical abstraction. Rather than trying to write for curators you’ve never met, write to expand the work’s aims. If the work is funny, write a comedic statement. If it’s opaque and prickly, then by all means write a waspishly incomprehensible text. If your work is simple, try limiting yourself to three concise sentences. Fit the text to the work in a meaningful way. In the end, I think the question you submitted was humorous and smart, and so I have no doubt that if you trust yourself you’ll come up with a statement that adds to an understanding of your work. Good luck!