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Prose poem posted here by kind permission of the author. From ruined stars, poems by RM Vaughan, ECW Press: Toronto, 2004.
7 Steps To a Better Artist Statementback to notes on art writing
1. Know your audience. Who actually reads artist statements? Art students (first year), middle aged housewives taking Art Appreciation classes, and your parents. In other words, no-one who counts. So, relax. The Canada Council will not send a gendarme d'exhibition to the gallery to see your show, let alone to read the handful of paragraphs tacked to the wall by door. And curators only read British and American art magazines, to steal ideas. You might as well have fun with your statement. Nobody else will.
2. Sincerity is the new irony. Mock manifestos, surrealist rants, comic strips, and concrete poems are outdated, and tell the reader you don't take your work seriously, which is fine when you're 22 and still live at home. Think of your artist statement as a diary, as an Oprah book, as the sacred confessional. Dapple the lurid sentences with your hot tears. Tell us about your sex life, your eating disorders, you nascent homosexuality, why you grind your teeth. At the very least, it will be much funnier.
3. If your artist statement includes phrases like "occluding the performative absence," or worse yet, "subjectivising the topology of place-ness," or, my all time favourite, "unstable narrative sites," you are eligible for the death penalty in 22 US states and a small tin medal in France. What the hell are you talking about? You don't really know, do you? Well, guess what: neither does anybody else. Confusing people is one thing — even, at times, and admirable choice — but admitting to your audience that you actually have no idea why you made the art in the first place is just stupid and self destructive. If you want to write bad prose, go teach at York University. Or take up novel writing (it worked for me).
4. Recycle, recycle, recycle. If you liked your last artist statement, there's no reason not to use it again. Nobody read the damned thing the first time around (see Step 1), so you won't get caught. And God knows your art hasn't changed. Lenin said it best: Originality is a bourgeois obsession.
5. Quote a passage from an important work of fiction. I've done this, and it works like a charm. Nothing adds weight and meaning to a wall full of pointless scribbles or dull paintings of parking lots than, say, Proust's gooey memories of his aunt's foot odor (for homosexual artists), a couple of love-starved paragraphs from Alice Munro (feminist artists), or the latest bit of race-baiting from Louis Farrakhan (artists of colour). Why lose sleep worrying if your art has depth when you can simply borrow all the resonance you need from the bottomless, echoing well of classic literature? If you're determined to paint your childhood pain away, a little V. C. Andrews reads better than a whole lot of you.
6. It must not take longer to read your artist statement than it takes to look at your art. Proportion is everything. Here's a simple art-to-text ratio you can follow. One work in a big group show = no statement. A handful of works in a small group show = 3 paragraphs. Half of a two-person show = one page, but use a large font. Solo show = one page and a half or one small brochure with pictures. Retrospective in a museum ... you'll be dead by then.
7. Silence is golden. Silence in the art world is good publicity. If all else fails, remain a mystery. You've already given the public your art — now they want your thoughts too? Greedy little shits. All you do is give, give, give, give. Refusing to write an artist statement says; "My art speaks for itself. I will not kowtow to the dumbing down of contemporary art. My art is my agenda." Art is like politics, business or love — you can score a lot of integrity points by keeping your mouth shut.
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