The One True Artist Statement (Tour of My Book)

  • Post category:Art / Books

You don’t need me to tell you about the dumbness–and if you care at all about the arts, the embarrassing dumbness–of the artist statement.

It is said that artist statements originated somewhere in the early 1990s but I remember them earlier than that. I’ve never seen a good one and I’ve written my share of bad ones. If you are being intellectually honest with yourself the only conclusion possible is that an artist statement can only harm the experience of the artwork.

There are, of course, computer programs that automatically generate convincing examples of this sad genre. These used to be simple affairs, fill-in-the-blanks efforts, but the newest incarnations are impressive. There’s the generator at Arty Bullocks, an especially good-looking generator, which can produce copy like this:

A more useful generator would allow you to shape it a bit, to customize it with your medium, the art-genre into which your work falls, and your gender. That’s exactly what 500 Letters does. Here’s a sample effort:

This one gets more into the swing of current things, using the critical theory buzzwords “post-colonial,” and “Other,” positioning my work in opposition to capitalism, highlighting, like a good little social justice foot soldier, my rejection of “objective truth and global cultural narratives”, offers hints of scientific language with no basis in any real science whatsoever, all written in the smarmy/pontifical tone-of-voice of the gullible arts major, regurgitating a miss-mash of the syllabus back at the professor.

It’s not bad!

Engineers are, as we speak, taking this to the next level. If you can generate convincing artist statements computationally, why not generate the artwork to go along with it? Why not feed a machine the artist statement and then have it create the art based on that statement? Oh, the possibilities!

I lied earlier when I said I had never seen a good artist statement. I’ve seen an amazing one, a perfect one, so perfect that there really is no need going forward for any other. Just modify this one and make it your own–that’s what I did.

This model for all future artist statements was written by Michel de Montaigne as a short preface to his book of essays entitled, well, Essays, which he published in 1580. He more or less invented the essay as we know it today.

You don’t have to be a scholar to appreciate the writings of Montaigne–to the modern reader, they sound as if they were composed only a few years ago, perhaps in the 1950s rather than almost five hundred years ago. It’s good stuff and I highly recommend dipping in and out of volume, in the original French or, since I don’t know French, in a contemporary translation.

Montaigne’s artist statement strikes just the right balance between bold self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, and a sincere-seeming humility, telling the reader that what follows is no more than a “private amusement” he created for family and friends, and suggests the viewer may even be spending their time ill-advisedly with his work since it is just a depiction of himself, unadorned and perhaps uninteresting.

Masterful stuff.

And so, since I didn’t want a traditional art essay to begin my book, I thought I would start out with my new artist statement, the truest and most accurate, the most honest words ever said about my work.

[This post is one in a series exploring my book, Computational Photography.]