How the Currently Ubiquitous Writing Form Reflects Contemporary Values
By Kerr Houston
Oh, the artist’s statement, the weirdly fraught artist’s statement. Has such a minor, modest form of literature ever produced such an immense and impassioned accompanying commentary?
After all, the typical statement is only a paragraph or two long. Moreover, composed in conjunction with a show or as part of a grant application, statements are usually supplementary texts; they attend, instead of standing on their own. And then, too, they are generally designed to have a limited relevance: as an artist’s work evolves, so, presumably, does her statement. Artist’s statements, you might thus say, are something like Kenny, on South Park: short, marginal, and with a life expectancy of a little more than twenty minutes.
Nevertheless, just like Kenny, they have also sparked a surprisingly extensive literature. Search the web for a mere moment, and you’ll see what I mean: from how-to guides to sober histories, reflections on artist’s statements are virtually innumerable. Some of them, to be sure, are rather humble, imparting only the most cursory advice (keep it brief; eschew unnecessary jargon). Others are bitter or improbably boosterish: gallerists tired of sifting through a hundred generically similar statements, or a ceramist applauding another for writing a truly memorable statement. A few of them are truly notable: Jennifer Liese’s essay on the form in paper monument, for instance, is intelligently researched and elegantly written, and Cara Ober’s attempt to identify, through a close analysis of examples with her students, the traits of a successful statement remains illuminating, six years on. Regardless, though: for a form of writing that is arguably only a few decades old, the artist’s statement has sparked an improbably extensive reaction.
Largely obscured in that tsunami of commentary, though, is an important development: that is, the emergence of a subgenre of satires and parodies that take the artist’s statement as their central target. It’s now possible, in fact, to speak of a rather rich collection of such efforts. Perhaps the best known entry in the field is the Arty Bollocks Generator, which has been allowing web users to produce breezily pretentious statements with the click of a button since 2010. “Ever since I was a student,” reads a portion of one iteration, “I have been fascinated by the essential unreality of the human condition.” Should that not please you, though – or prove artsy enough for you, as the website puts it, you can always click again – and be immediately rewarded with an equally doughy and clichéd rephrasing. This is a generator with an endless capacity for arch nonsense.
Or you can try your luck, instead, with the Artist Statement Generator 2000, an online project that also took shape in 2010. Developed by Nick Fortunato, it requires you to complete 21 blanks – famous artist, favorite museum, a place in your home, and so on – and then kicks out a tight seven-sentence statement that is partly stock form and partly reflective of your own interests (or at least your sense of humor). Its essential logic, then, that of a Mad Lib, and the feel of the resulting statement is comfortably familiar, as well: basically silly, but shot through with occasionally fortuitous phrasings. In general, though, Fortunato’s generator works precisely because it is built around a series of tired clichés. “I currently spend,” read my first effort, “my time between my laundry room and Berlin.” And so I take my place alongside the thousands of other artists who also occupy studio space in Treptow or Neukölln.
But present patterns can also be lampooned through juxtapositions with the past. Over the past year, John Seed has been working on a book of artist’s statements composed in response to Old Master paintings. He recently published several of them at Hyperallergic; in each case, he ostentatiously employs the byzantine language of contemporary theory in glossing centuries-old works. The result is at once simple and compelling, built around a sort of historical dissonance. Writing on Watteau’s The Scale of Love, for instance, Seed explains that the painting “is the outcome of a critical project opposing the privilege-sustaining androcentric character of exclusionary physical topography.” We try to imagine the painter penning such an explanation, and we smile – for even the airy brushwork of a Rococo master is no match for such a frothy analysis.
Clearly, then, there’s an interest in parodying the artist’s statement. But to what end, exactly? What does such a turn tell us about the statement, or about ourselves? Well, to begin with it seems obvious that the artist’s statement has become predictably conventional, as a form. After all, parody requires an established, familiar form that can be parodied – or, as the communications theorist Paul Messaris once observed, parody is only possible when an audience is knowledgeable about the original work being parodied. The very fact that a site such as Arty Bollocks can draw a smile, then, is an indication of the ossified and formulaic aspect of so many artist’s statements. We laugh because we know the referent; if anything, we know it – like the aggrieved female viewer in Honoré Daumier’s satire of the Salon (“This year, more Venuses – always Venuses!”) – only too well.
So the very fact that there are parodies of artist’s statements implies a degree of convention. In this sense, we might think of the diabolically clever analysis of contemporary art world jargon by Alix Rule and David Levine: such a piece is predicated on the seeming ubiquitousness of the subject being skewered. But of course Rule and Levine didn’t simply skewer; they insinuated that it’s possible to analyze art world jargon in anthropological terms: art speak, that is, can be seen as a dialect that identifies one as a member of the tribe. And perhaps that’s a fair way of thinking of the artist’s statement, too: maybe we hew to the familiar forms precisely to show that we’re conversant with them. Authoring a cliché, after all, is a small sin when one’s goal is to be seen as part of a community.
But Seed’s project reminds us that the stock phrasings and theory-driven terminology that recur in artist’s statements are not, in fact, a given. Yes, we’re accustomed to reading artists claim in statements that their aim is “to assert and maintain a system of autochthonous hybridity.” But when Seed puts such words in the mouth of, say, the 17th-century still-life painter Rachel Ruysch, we’re jarred into remembering that such a patois is a recent development: an outcome of the academization of the art world in the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, it’s hardened into a sort of conventional professional creole. But Seed’s parody offers evidence that the standard tropes of the artist’s statement have a limited history – and that the tribal tongue can evolve rather quickly.
In that sense, it’s tempting to reach for a famous art historical term here: I’m thinking, that is, of Sir Ernst Gombrich’s notion of a mental set. In his celebrated Art and Illusion, Gombrich argued that naturalistic art has in fact always involved a degree of abstraction: that artists, that is, employ codes that are interpreted by knowing readers, or viewers. Marble is not flesh, but we understand that it can represent flesh; similarly, glazed blacks on a Greek vase denote forms and figures simply because they are not unglazed terra cotta. And so, for Gombrich, an understanding of art depends upon a familiarity with the conventions in play – or, in his words, with the mental set of the culture in which they were developed.
Gombrich’s idea is a compelling one, and over the years it has been refined and applied to various periods by a number of scholars. Perhaps most famously, Michael Baxandall, a student of Gombrich’s, went on to argue that Quattrocento paintings can usefully be understood through a consideration of the mental set (Baxandall preferred the term period eye) of the culture in which they were made. For example, in mercantile Florence, young men were often raised to carry on the family business, and were thus trained to estimate the volume of containers – a skill, contended Baxandall, that would also have served them well in gauging painted perspectival space.
So: might the conventions and recurrent phrasings of the contemporary artist’s statement comprise a part of our own mental set? Might we, like Gombrich’s ancient Greeks, be so familiar with a set of customs that we can trace connotations and derive meanings that might not be obvious to others? And might that be precisely why imagining Rachel Ruysch writing a similar statement is so, well, silly?
Perhaps. But at the same time, insisting on the uniqueness of our own time can also be a mistake. A recently published book by Douglas Biow on Renaissance Italian individualism is helpful, in this sense. In it, Biow observes that a number of Italian Renaissance artists wrote texts in which they discussed the theory and practice of their craft. Moreover, he makes an interesting further claim: that while those texts propose, on the one hand, to teach techniques necessary for success in a given field, they also simultaneously mystify those very professions. How to reconcile such a tension? Biow concludes that such texts are what he terms “ego documents,” in that they underline the elite status of their authors and foreground their individuality. Such writings, then, insist upon the uniqueness of their author, even as they fall neatly into line, as part of a genre.
All of which is arguably a fair characterization of your average artist’s statement, as well. Statements, too, are often at once conventional and insistent upon the individuality of the author. And so perhaps they’re not merely manifestations of a current mind set. Perhaps, instead, they’re the latest iteration of a longstanding trend: of a tension between the desire to belong and the desire to stand out. Sure, they’re clotted with jargon and often reliant upon received forms. But they also ultimately insist, in their very raison d’être, upon the basic distinctiveness of their author. They’re like the Salon paintings lampooned by Daumier, which were also the work of individuals – even as they ran together in a blur of predictable motifs and conventional gambits.
But, still, as the musical satirist Peter Schickele (who was behind the fictional composer P.D.Q. Bach) once claimed, “you can only parody what you love.” And even Daumier, it seems fair to say, loved aspects of the Salon; as Michèle Hannoosh once observed, “he brings out the ridiculous and the sinister, even in what he loves.” So perhaps the emergence of parodies of artist’s statements implies, as well, that we have somehow grown fond of the artist’s statement, even as we’re also alert to its limitations. After all, there’s something that is touchingly modest about a document that purports to announce the uniqueness of its author, even as it also relies upon a series of largely formulaic strategies and rote conventions.
Ultimately, then, maybe that’s the larger lesson implicit in the recent flowering of parodies of artist’s statements. Perhaps parodies reassure, even as they critique. They point out foibles, but at the same time they acknowledge our efforts. They mock our attempts to seem current and unique, but also admit that those efforts are not entirely without precedent. And so a form that is often given – as dozens of commentators have remarked – to cliché is redeemed, through the recuperating potential of laughter and the acknowledgement that we are, despite all of our efforts, irredeemably human.
Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.