COMMENTARY: The Self-Parody of the Contemporary Artist Statement


image by bill watterson

Artist’s Statements of the Old Masters

This article is good for a laugh for anyone who has spent time in university art classes or establishmentarian networked galleries.

Key quote, before the mockery begins: “To be ‘contemporary’ your work needs to be explained and justified in the language of postmodern theory. As works of art have evolved to require less skill in their making, artists have been become increasingly reliant on intellectual pedigrees substantiated by theory.”

There is much truth in that statement… if any thoughtful person could consider the ridiculous jargon of artspeak to represent an intellectual pedigree. Postmodernism doesn’t participate in the discernment and accuracy that are the hallmarks of real intellect; it mimics the behavior of insightful analysis without partaking in its substance. It takes a special type of ignorance to accept this blather as an acceptable substitute for actual accomplishment.

This kingdom of sophistry, the rarified atmosphere created by the elites to protect their status, is crumbling across the board. Art needs to lead the way to its final destruction. A great way to defeat the con game is to make art that doesn’t need a list of talking points to justify its existence. And apart from the art, there is a great need to speak plainly and bluntly on the current state of the arts.

Most of our cultural institutions are so corrupted by ideology, influence peddling and status games they are failing in their missions to show what our American culture is really like. I can almost hear the knee jerk thoughts a statement like that causes in the art world: “But our culture is awful! Dumb backwards knuckle dragging yahoos out there!” That is the voice of the establishment, right there: a tiny clique sneering at everyone who is not like them.

Want to be part of the beautiful people? All you have to do is show hatred and disrespect for anyone who doesn’t conform to the priorities of the elitist mindset, and then you get to vicariously be one of the jetset too-only without the money, power, etc. You get the privilege of basking in their reflected glory. A bunch of willing serfs worshipping their presumptuous Ruling Class.

To speak plainly, enough of that. I am dedicating my life to kicking the misappropriated props out from under the sycophantic system they are trying to impose as the means for advancement. It’s not who you know that matters, and it’s especially not what you say that makes a difference. All the artist statements in the world can’t make inferior work good. It’s what you do that matters. It’s time for art to participate in reality again.


37 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: The Self-Parody of the Contemporary Artist Statement

  1. These are the same thoughts I’ve had myself but I never put them into words. Great commentary….and soooo true! I’ve neglected getting my bachelors in art because the universities I have access to are all full of professors creating “crap art” for which I’m sure they have very deep explanations…..

  2. You don’t need college to be an artist. Why pay all that money to undergo their lame indoctrination? The way to be an artist is make art. The world needs more independent creative souls at work, forget the meaningless credentials.

  3. Thanks. It often seems the art establishment is geared to the production of extraneous hot air instead of cultivating works that display skill, vision and beauty.

  4. Spot on, I am sick and tired of all those oversized horses standing around in art galleries or stupid equally gigantic bright-red painted chairs. What the f***?

  5. Richard,
    Great commentary. I’m not a visual artist myself, but I love art, love going to galleries and seeing what’s displayed. As for work that work that “needs to be explained and justified in the language of postmodern theory” I’m not usually a fan. Either the work speaks to me, or I shift my attention elsewhere. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful art, but I can never recall anything work that needed to be explained to me falling into the wonderful category.

  6. Thanks! Too much of the art that gets displayed is aimed squarely at an audience comprised of other artists. The assumption is everyone buys into the same self-indulgent theorizing and art-about-art gimmicks that have rotted out our cultural institutions. We’re breaking the stranglehold that the elitists have seized over our means of communication-keep up your blogging!

  7. I am a professor in painting and also art historian. I have been teaching “kids” (18 + of age) and adults painting for the last 35 years in Canada, Italy and France. The purpose of an artist statement is to make sure that the artist knows what he or she does, just to be aware of his or her own actions, to take full responsibility. May you want it or not, a true artist is also a philosopher, a thinker, someone who is shaping the world, and when you shape the world, you need to be aware. To many times I heard “uh? In our complex world in which we live today, we cannot say “uh”. Unless you want to paint swans. Just Google “painting of swans”.

  8. If only the typical contemporary artist statement actually communicated awareness, thoughtfulness, responsibility, and a philosophic viewpoint!

    To present the approach to an artist statement as being just between “uh” or the convoluted blather of academic art speak is a false dilemma. The crabbed jargon schools are training artists to rely on to provide the substance their actual artwork lacks is no reflection of complexity, it’s attempted camouflage. So much of what these poor students have taught to say about their art is nowhere to be seen in the art itself. Like the old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.” This particular tactic has reached its expiration point.

    The culture monopoly is broken.There are alternative ways to create and discuss art that can actually survive outside the rarified hothouse atmosphere of the ivory tower. I know what I’m doing. My actions are to bring the enjoyment and contemplation of art back to all those who have been excluded by decades of narrowly elitist scholastic approaches to art. We are shaping the world by bringing beauty, idealism and spiritual depth back to a mass audience. Primarily the art needs to speak for itself, no excuses or explanations needed. But when I do speak I’m going to articulate my ideas without using a smokescreen of obscure technical minutiae or extraneous ideology.

  9. Richard, when I read you, I feel as if I am in the middle of the Russian proletarian revolution around 1918. It’s OK! I agree that around 20 years ago, artistic statement were very hermetic, and to decipher through them was like doing an exegesis of Holy Scriptures. But it changed. This is what I do at the School of Art where I teach: to write a statement that “actually communicate awareness, thought, responsibility and a philosophical viewpoint” (your words). And simple words are always welcomed, even simpler than the one you use in your own comments – I do enjoy your wording, do not get me wrong!

    Yes, just like it was at the time of the printing press, the culture monopoly is broken, thanks to Internet where everyone now is an artist: just Google “barns in the field art”. Ivory Towers will always exist and also their keepers. Richard, I would like to know how, in art, we separate the wheat from the chaff— “séparer le bon grain de l’ivraie” as we say in French (I am French-Canadian). What would you propose?

    Since I have the opportunity to travel extensively in Europe while I give my painting workshops in Italy and France, I was able to visit the top world museums and contemporary art fairs and galleries. And to tell the truth, lots of thought was involved before the chosen stuff was put on the walls. What I saw was in fact very good to excellent.

    To tell you the truth, I prefer to look at Cecilia Brown’s paintings than the results of my Google search proposal. And she is contemporary, and she is totally aware of her actions.

  10. These are revolutionary times indeed, though that whole prole concept is so outdated. Real art stirs an uplifting visceral reaction in everyone who sees it, it is self evident. The most important part of art is what can’t be reduced to language. I reject the premise there will always be an ivory tower and keepers driving the development of art. That’s a relatively recent development in human history, and corresponds with a broad decline in artistic achievement and relevance. Hey gatekeepers, you’re fired, because you’ve done a very poor job, and the model we’ve used for an artistic career for the last few decades has produced terrible results. The way forward can’t be reduced to a patronizing false dilemma of the insular ivory tower versus barn in field art. The serious work being done outside officially sanctioned channels. Academia is a dead end for art, a fossilized set of dogmas, ill equipped for needs of this age.

  11. A visceral reaction for someone will be an ordinary reaction for someone else. It is not necessary “self-evident” as you write. It is not the Ivory Tower Keepers that keep driving the development of art. It is the artist’s intelligence, creativity, determination and resilience. Richard, please propose us something! Show us what you like! Of course some artists will always produce safe, middle of the road, comfortable paintings and for the happiness of the many, which is totally all right. Some other artists will be aiming to attack your comfort zone, in their disruptive works of arts. We call that the sociology of art. Please read Pierre Bourdieu on the question; or even better Nathalie Heinich (wondering if she was translated).

  12. This touches on one of the big lies dear to the establishment art cult, that art is some kind of disruptive tool to be used to tear apart the foundations of Western Civilization. Wallowing in a discredited pseudoscience like sociology is about the least inspiring direction art can go in. There’s no need to read any more tired old Marxist deconstructivist blather, it’s all the same, wannbe totalitarians using sophistry and phony claims of egalitarianism in service of their lust for power. The cultural institutions are riddled with it, and it’s what we’re coming to destroy.

  13. Thank you, keep following this blog and you see it unfold. We are the swing of the pendulum and many surprises await. The next post I’m working on is about the latest show I curated and the independent artists of Phoenix AZ.

  14. Love the article you referenced!…and your comments. I think much of art criticism, art academia, and artspeak has become so self-referential that it has no meaning at all. At least I don’t understand it. I like your ending sentence: “It’s time for art to participate in reality again.” Now, there’s a thought…

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