I’ve just spent a long time re-writing my artist’s ‘statement’. Everyone rubbishes artist’s statements, except dealers and curators, who love the paperwork, but are a bit sheepish about them as well. Mostly artists don’t see the need and are not particularly good at writing or even verbalizing and so just try and make the appropriate noises. They’re only trying to sound like an OK person, with the right ideals and affiliations, to the powers that be. Not surprisingly, they usually come across as insincere, obscure, pretentious or incoherent and in any combination. They would be funny, if there weren’t careers on the line, in the great institutional labyrinth that is contemporary fine art. No wonder artist’s statements get a bad name – not least from artists. No wonder they’re usually treated as just so much paperwork, meretricious waffle.
I use them as an opportunity to explain my ideas to myself. Even if I never had to submit one to a dealer or curator, I would still write one, for myself. I find the exercise of setting down in black and white what I think I’m doing, helpful. It sort of halts the flow for a moment and lets me get my bearings. And obviously, I’m never satisfied for long, the thing always needs amending. But I accept that not all artists are good at verbalizing, have such restless ideas that a ‘statement’ is useful. A lot of artists think it’s the critic’s job to put these things into words. Then again, there’s that famous critical slogan from the 60s – ‘the heresy of paraphrase’ – which comes from literary criticism, but argues that essentially a work of art is untranslatable; there is no statement commensurate with the experience of the work of art. What a work says can only be said in the way the works says it. On the one hand, we delegate interpretation to critics; on the other we deny the role entirely. I won’t bore you with the long history of this dispute in literature. In fine art it’s now more important to be in the right curated shows than to have a spiffy review. It will lead to more prestigious acquisitions and yet more of the right kind of curated shows. Curators skip the whole messy business of interpretation and just vote with their feet – they select and collect, show and go.
Consequently, criticism kind of withers on the vine. We get half-hearted, mealy-mouthed critics, who don’t want to rock the boat and just try and sound like an OK person with the right ideals and affiliations, to the powers that be. No names, no packdrill at this point, but they know which papers they write for. And curators aren’t about to do anything more with their oily, ingratiating prose and bland allusions to academic posturing, either. Curators are just careerist arts administrators; they’re interested in bureaucracy before art. So where does interpretation come from now? Curators would be happy to say “anywhere but here!” but this would perhaps be placing too much onus upon the public, and it doesn’t do to remind the public of their final say in these matters. So the ball is promptly lobbed back into the artist’s court, for a ‘statement’. It’s so much more convenient this way – the artist has only to trot out some noble intention and everyone is happy to allow that it is in some way realized in the work. No one wants to get into the nuts and bolts of how – goodness no, that would be far too technical and smack of some esoteric formalism. Much better to just leave the matter as a discrete set of documents in a scrupulous presentation. The public need only attend and approve.
It could be a model for contemporary democracy, really.