Are you talking to me? Language Games in Art Photography

By Miranda Gavin from Hotshoe Blog



One of the recurring challenges facing many photographers and visual artists in the fine art and art photography arenas today is the language used in artists’ statements. An artist (or artist’s) statement is a short text by the artist that helps explain and give a context to the work.

Texts/statements, for me, should assist in understanding work not make it impenetrable, unless that is an intention. I love words and language too but I despair at non-sense and hackneyed meaningless phrases. I therefore use a simple rule of thumb, drawn from my experience in journalism, and I think about the audience. It all sounds simple enough but the reality is far from straightforward.

These comments from one of a series of short video pieces that I filmed for the photography section of the Open College of the Arts Blog last year resulted in a flurry of responses. I’ve pasted the video below and, although I am not altogether comfortable with seeing myself on camera and find it difficult to watch, I think that there are some points worth sharing here too. 

Submissions from Open College of the Arts on Vimeo.

I’ve copied a couple of comments below that highlight some of the concerns, but for the full chain of comments, visit the OCA website.

Right of Reply

“I find it interesting she uses the term “artist’s statement”.
I’ve not being studying photography long but it does seem that as photography has come to be accepted as an artistic medium that it’s also being consumed by the language readily used in the art world – a lot of which she perfectly describes as “nonsense”. Maybe now the acceptance is there it’s time for photographers to make a stand and develop a cleaner artistic language for this medium."

Reply Amano:
“Hear! Hear!”
“Yet you mention “a cleaner artistic language” and I wonder whether this might be actually a photographic language!? Art has created a kind of straightjacket for photography it seems … yet surely many photographers are now seeing beyond those limitations?”

Reply CliveW:
“I think when she was talking about nonsense she was referring to people using references as decorative buzzwords, rather than with meaning and purpose in their artist statements. The implication is that, if you are going to use them, then use them out of knowledge and applicability.”

More thoughts on language

I am also a member of closed networks for photographers/editors where the question of writing artists’ statements is often debated. The comment below from photographer Gordon Stettinius, otherwise known as Eye Caramba, sums up the way many photographers that I have spoken to feel about artist statements: “I spent about five years as a photo editor and was sort of amazed at how self-important artist statements can be. I recognize, and love, that photography can be important, life changing, awareness raising, haunting, process celebrating, but to say something is visceral doesn't make it so. One person's poetry is another person's psycho-aesthetic retching.

“Self-importance is one of the most common over-reaches in the "language" of fine art photography. I have to admit that my own take is something of a cop out. I love language and I love photography - and I do work seriously - but I sort of refuse to self-celebrate with ten-dollar words. I am not sure I have always done the right thing at every turn as I am still rocking some very chic obscurity but I think I am being honest by not claiming the poetic everything stuff, even if I do hope an image jangles your zipper here and there.”

David Saxe at Black Star Rising cuts to the chase in a post, Why I don’t like Artist Statements. Read the comments too.

How to write an Artist Statement links

For some online advice, check out Artquest’s How to write an Artist’s Statement. The site is for visual artists and is run by the University of the Arts London

Also take a look at Alan Bamberger’s artist statement page Your Artist Statement: Explaining the Unexplainable on the Art Business site. Bamberger is an art consultant, advisor and author. 

Quick fix

However, if you are really stuck there’s always the 10gallon artist statement generator, or the Arty Bollocks one. 10 gallon asks for key words and then (tongue firmly planted in cheek), it pumps out quasi-artist statements. 

This then is my new statement courtesy of 10 gallon. Now I am going to go off and make some work to fit the statement.

Miranda Gavin's 10gallon Artist Statement

Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of Bambi as a metaphorical interpretation of both Frida Kahlo and swimming. What began as a personal journey of damnism has translated into images of spaghetti and elbow that resonate with white people to question their own greenness. My mixed media plates embody an idiosyncratic view of Jesus, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between Kurt Cobain, glasses and cheese.

My work is in the private collection of Robert Wagner who said 'Wow! That's some real pretty Art.' I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of The Wellcome Collection. I have exhibited in group shows at Starbucks and Tate Modern, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between my bedroom and Berlin.

Artsy Bollox Artist Statement generator when I asked for a more demanding Artist Statement. 

My work explores the relationship between Jungian archetypes and urban spaces. With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and Roy Lichtenstein, new synergies are created from both orderly and random narratives.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the unrelenting divergence of meaning. What starts out as yearning soon becomes finessed into a cacophony of futility, leaving only a sense of dread and the inevitability of a new reality. As momentary derivatives become clarified through emergent and critical practice, the viewer is left with an impression of the edges of our future.