Writing & Talking About Your Art

Earlier this month, I gave a talk on ‘writing & talking about your artwork.’ It was part of a professional development series offered by Provincetown Commons and The Community Development Partnership

For the better part of twenty years this is the work I primarily did with graduate students. Graduate education in the arts is certainly focused on research and making processes, but the critical dimension is about reflecting upon what you’re doing, articulating the shape of your inquiry, and making invitations into the work. 

As an undergraduate, as a graduate student and as a professor, I often encountered artists really committed to the idea that “The Work Should Speak For Itself!” While I understand that people don’t want to ‘explain the work away,’ and that some feel that talking about the work is a crutch for bad work, I also understand that sometimes artwork speaks a different language than your audience. And that very often abstract or conceptual artworks can make an audience feel stupid. The work can’t speak if the audience walks away.

While there are a lot of reasons artists may want to write and talk clearly about there work, these five are at the top of my list: 

  • To Reflect on Your Process and Articulate the Shape of Your Practice.
  • To Get Representation
  • To Be Competitive For Grants & Residencies
  • To Become Better Known & Build Audience
  • To Invite Audience Into Dialogue With Their Work

Artist Statements get a bad rap. It’s deserved in the sense that many of them are freighted with jargon and layers of theory — often intended to make the artist appear smarter than their audience. The cultural critic bell hooks taught me that complex ideas can be articulated with clear, accessible prose — which was her commitment to making critical theory accessible to people with limited educations. So no matter how theoretically complex your work is, with a little effort you should be able to articulate your intentions and preoccupations to a very broad audience. 

I generally am called upon to write there things that get called ‘artist statements.’ I’ve offered examples below of two of these — the artist biography and the concise statement about my practice. The third kind is generally focused on a specific body or artwork — very often prepared for a show. 

WRITING ARTIST STATEMENTS 

An artist statement should concisely introduce your practice to the world. It can’t include everything, but can describe your work, establish a context for your practice and refer to many of your intellectual preoccupations. 

  • Keep it short: Consider the time and generosity of your reader (what will they sit through, how are you wisely using their time, what do you want them to take away?). 
  • Tell The Truth: What is your work doing? Don’t anticipate what you think your audience wants to hear. Be concrete in describing your intentions. Be honest about your intentions. Avoid being self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing. Inner critics inhibit us; overly grand pronouncements are silly.
  • Be thoughtful about your language: Art-speak is an elite language; most people who read an artist’s statement are not fluent in the jargon. And avoid references that are alienating. If you refer to artistic and intellectual traditions, describe the ideas that drive those movements. Avoid being perceived as elitist. 
  • View the artist statement as an invitation to your work and into what you love about art and your practice; it’s an opportunity for you to be an educator. It’s an opportunity for you to help someone fall in love with art (again). 
  • Convey your passion. Excite the reader’s imagination to the possibility within the ideas that preoccupy you.  

* Don’t feel trapped. Any artist statement is a momentary snapshot. As your work evolves, you can write a new statement. This can be a starting place for an organic, evolving, and growing piece of writing. 

* Like all writing, don’t be satisfied with first drafts; return to it. Ask for feedback; adjust it as necessary. RETURN to it. 

Two concise examples from my practice:

BIO: Peter Hocking is a painter & writer working in Provincetown MA. His work is concerned with personal narrative, place, poetics, and political consciousness. Over the past decade he has developed a body of work in dialogue with landscape of Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown — focusing on the elemental and natural forces shaping the coastline. He teaches painting workshops focused on landscape, the queer male figure, and the painter’s embodied relationship to practice. From 2003-2021 he taught in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. He taught at Rhode Island School of Design from 1997-2023 and was director of RISD’s Office of Public Engagement (2007-11). He was Associate Dean of the College & Director of the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University (1988-2005). He’s a founding board member of Provincetown Commons, an economic development center for the creative economy.  He’s represented by Four Eleven Gallery in Provincetown, MA. (147 Words)

CONCISE ARTIST STATEMENT: I’m a painter & writer working in Provincetown, MA. I fell in love the with the Cape Cod landscape when I was a kid and it’s been at the center of my spiritual life ever since. People are sometimes surprised to learn walking is a fundamental part of my painting practice. Long hikes allow me to experience the landscape’s elemental forces, which I then bring to my studio. I frequently return to the places I’m painting, allowing a sense of time to be layered in the work. I make landscape paintings because I believe that we’re culturally disconnected from our environment and, like Transcendentalists who’ve come before me, I believe it’s from a relationship with the more-than-human world that we come to actualize our full humanity. My paintings allow people to live with an echo of our world’s sublime power and to be reminded daily of its ultimate fragility. I teach painting workshops focused on landscape, the queer male figure, and the painter’s embodied relationship to practice. I worked as a professor and administrator at Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and Goddard College from 1988-2023. I’m a founding board member of Provincetown Commons, an economic development center for the creative economy.  I’m represented by Four Eleven Gallery in Provincetown, MA.  (211 words)

WAYS INTO WRITING & TALKING ABOUT YOUR WORK (OR ANY ARTWORK)

In addition to artist statements, we’re often called upon to talk about our work extemporaneously — or to talk abut the work of other artists. In my experience, there are many ways into this kind of reflection, often related to the particularity of the artwork, but these are generally useful entry points to begin a dialogue:

INTENTION: What is the starting place of the artwork? Why was it made? What aspirations does it reveal? Why do you make art? What’s you goal? Can we name this goal or are we inhibited from speaking our truth? The identity of “the artist” is seductive – redolent with cultural meaning and power. However, our work must be focused on intentions beyond our egos. How do we name our intentions in words and actions? 

CONTEXT: In what context (intellectual, social, spiritual, historical, philosophical, artistic, embodied, et cetera) does the artwork reside? Does it demonstrate an awareness of the context it’s engaging? Who is your intended audience? To whom will those viewing your work compare you? Are these comparisons welcomed or are they troubling? Are you making choices that will place your work where you feel it should be? 

CRAFT AND EXPERIMENTATION: Artists make things, and the manifestation of those things is sometimes a question of craft. Is what we make effective in expressing our ideas? Is the quality of our labor meeting our intentions for the artwork? Are we simply reproducing the ideas and craft of others? 

AUDIENCE: Who is the intended audience? Is the work accessible to its audience? Does the work engage the audience in their own experience, in conversation, or the construction of new meaning? Does the work alienate potential audience? 

MEANING: Does the work construct meaning? Is the meaning intellectual, emotional, embodied, spiritual, et cetera? Remember, meaning isn’t inherent in experience; meaning is what we make from experience. Does the artwork help a viewer construct meaning for an experience of it? 

EFFECTIVENESS: Does the work meet its intentions? Does it provoke questions? Are we inviting conversation and engagement? Has it made an intervention? Does it bring solace? Might it engage joy? Does it matter? 

WRITE OFTEN

Writing thoughtfully about your work doesn’t just happen. It’s useful to look at your artworks and practice through a variety of lenses. When teaching this subject over the course of a semester, I’d often use prompts as a way to ‘turn over the soil’ of artists’ thinking. What lies below the surface of the work? What might be revealed if an unexpected question opens it in a new way?

Some of these prompts are mine and some are Adapted from Anne West’s phenomenal book, Mapping the Intelligence of Artistic Work.

  • You’re planning a dinner party for twenty-five artists — living or dead — with whom you want to spend an evening. Who are they and why? 
  • Does Your Work Break Silence? 
  • Describe Your Work Space. What Does It Feel Like To Be There?
  • What Media Informs or Sustains Your Work? If Someone Who Feels Connected To Your Artwork Asked For Suggestions, What Ten Things Would You Recommend?
  • What is your work not about?
  • What’s the biggest gap in your work?
  • What Mythologies Inform Your Work? What Mythologies Would Others Find In Your Work (That Perhaps You Don’t Intend)?
  • What Is Your Relationship To Our Current World? What Concerns You? How Do You Take Artistic Action? What Shapes Your Experience of Hope?
  • What are ten things that were most important to you when you were seven-years old? How do those things emerge in your work now?
  • What’s the role of play in your work?

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