Preface: Words Are Powerful
LANGUAGE AND IMAGE CONNECT IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS.
I first experienced this connection as an art history student. In darkened lecture halls, gazing at detailed slides of art I’d never seen before and listening to a flow of descriptive words, I entered a state of true amazement. To the credit of my professors, at the end of each class I not only knew so much more, but I could see so much more. Somehow, words combined with images had changed my brain. These art history lectures actually increased my ability to see.
I was very fortunate to have Rudolph Arnheim as a professor. His classic text books, Art and Visual Perception and Visual Thinking, are dense with theory, but I can tell you, in person, the man himself always seemed joyous—as if nothing could be better than speaking to this group of students about this subject at this moment in time.
Before you delve into Art-Write, I’d like to simplify and share some of what I learned from Dr. Arnheim. His insights illuminate the path to writing about your art.
The Arnheim Insights
The act of “seeing” or “looking” is not a simple process
Seeing takes time to accomplish
Just as an artist toils with his or her own powers of perception and sense of vision to create a work of art, the viewer toils with his or her own powers of perception and sense of vision to “see” a work of art
Language shapes perception
When you consider these useful ideas, you can begin to understand how your audience approaches your artwork. Truly “seeing” art is an accomplishment. It doesn’t happen quickly. Your viewers need time and they may need some education. Language can help educate them.
You, the artist, talking and writing about your work, are in a position to provide language that shapes perception. Words are powerful, and you can use them to help your audience see.
Introduction: Why Visual Artists Need to Write
THIS BOOK HAS A SINGLE INTENTION: TO TEACH YOU HOW to write about your art.
When you imagined a life in the visual arts, maybe you didn’t consider writing as an important part of the picture. Our current communication and media environment consistently asks artists to write about their work. Today, the worlds of the plugged-in entrepreneur and the working artist have converged, with self-promotion essentially linked to writing. Your own clear writing on the subject of your art is the key to marketing yourself, which can also be the key to making a living as an artist. It’s that important. Art-Write will prepare you to communicate who you are as an artist.
It’s tempting to dismiss the need for writing and claim, “There is no reason to explain my art. Everything I have to say is in the work itself.” That’s a tired and dated refrain. If you want people to find your work, to understand and follow your career, to talk about you, write about you and—yes indeed—buy your art, you need to embrace self-promotion.
And the self-promotion engine is fired on the power of words.
There is a rarified sub-set of wealthy artists who don’t need to write about themselves. They can rely on professional art writers who are able to transform their perceptions into concrete language.
But you, along with the vast majority of artists, will need to take on the task of learning how to do this for yourself.
The writing you do about your work is often used directly—word for word—for these purposes:
Press releases for art shows and events
Invitations to art shows and events
Gallery publications, both online and print
Descriptions displayed on the walls of art booths, galleries, and museums, or placed in the gallery’s “artist book”
Training for gallery staff and museum guides
Media quotes, both online and print
Your personal website
Artist group websites
Content for your blog
Quotes for other people’s blogs
Social media communication
Submissions to juried shows
Submissions for art/craft fair booths
Applications to art schools
Forms and proposals for:
Public art commissions
You’ll also find you need to write for a wide variety of reasons, including:
Writing for the different stages of your career: Good writing can aid you no matter where you are in your career. When applying to school, writing can help distinguish your application from hundreds of others. While building a career, you’ll need to communicate with galleries or apply for grants. Sustaining an income often means finding new connections and new streams of revenue, putting yourself out there again and again. As your work develops, you’ll need to describe those developments to collectors. When you’ve achieved recognition and acclaim, art writers and art appreciators clamor to know what you think. And writing is indispensible for the success of your re-invention, a familiar stage to most creative types.
Writing to connect: In order to launch, improve, or maintain art sales, you will need to reach gallery owners, show jurors, news writers, art writers, bloggers, collectors, dealers, and funders. If you can clearly express yourself, in words, you can get their attention. No one can predict how the Internet, the economy, and other factors will impact the art world in the future, but one thing is fairly certain: if you are not willing or able to communicate in written language, you will greatly reduce the chances of getting your artwork noticed. People form impressions of you based on how you write. This is true whether you’re writing an e-mail, a cover letter, or posting to social media.
Writing to impress the press: What you write about yourself affects what is written about you. Media-relations professionals rely directly on the writing you do! The Internet has altered traditional publishing in ways that continue to unfold. Few news outlets have dedicated art critics and art writers—they never had many to begin with, and the pool is dwindling. The news writers who are left will use any information you can provide. Make their job easier; help them understand your work by describing it well. Give them clear, considered sentences and they might return the favor by putting your name in print.
Writing as a prepared business person: You’ve probably been asked at some point to produce an artist statement or something similar. Did you grab at scraps of advice, frustrate yourself searching for good examples, and then patch together words for a deadline? Avoiding your written communication until it becomes a despised last-minute chore makes no business sense, and you are in the business of art. You don’t need to write lengthy essays or manifestos. Just a small amount of well-crafted text will serve you well. You can learn to sort out your thoughts so you’ll be able to write and speak about your art with clarity. You can learn how to keep a file of art writing that helps calm your writing anxiety and boosts your confidence when you need to present yourself professionally.
Writing to call attention to your art on exhibit: When you’re asked to write about your art, it’s important to act on the opportunity. For example, let’s say you’re accepted in a group show on the merit of images alone. The show organizers want to gather information about artists and they request commentary from you. But it was only a request, so you do not provide any writing. To generate publicity, the show organizers will send out a press release and describe the show online. This leaves the writing you didn’t do in the hands of the show’s default writer/editor, who is most likely doing several other jobs. If another artist has provided a print-ready statement about their work, guess which one of you will get more attention and whose art will be featured in the publicity material? When you provide an artist statement, written in a way that effectively connects with a reader, it will serve to enhance your visual statement wherever you exhibit your work.
Art advocates of all kinds will appreciate the assistance of you providing them with articulate text to accompany your work. It is an art world, after all. We are connected and we can help each other.
How this book can help
You ask yourself, “How do I begin to put this into words? How do I describe this process I go through? What am I supposed to say, anyway? What do you people want from me?” You read about how to include an artist statement in a grant, and it’s like following assembly instructions whose first step is, “Insert the screw into slot A.” You don’t have a screw. So you’re screwed.
I understand your frustration, and I’ve written Art-Write to provide you with solid, practical tools that will break down the job, step-by-step, starting at the beginning. Writing about art is not easy, and writing about your own work is even harder. But you didn’t choose the path of an artist because it would be easy. If “Artist” were a job description, you probably wouldn’t apply—considering the salary, benefits, bonuses, working conditions, and retirement plan. You are an artist because that’s what you are. You already have the job. Following the guidelines in Art-Write just might help you keep it.
Let’s end the cycle of copying weak examples and start writing artist statements that work!
Writing is part of an artist’s job description in the 21st century, and Art-Write will provide some on-the-job training. An artist statement is typically brief, only one paragraph to one page in length. And yet, good examples are hard to come by.
Art-Write will provide the “how-to” for this very particular writing task, even if you consider yourself a non-writer. Throughout the book, I’ll give you definitions, prompts, and advice. We will begin by crafting your artist statement, which is the foundation of writing about your artwork. I’ll help you clarify your thoughts about your process, and then teach you how to turn those ideas into useful prose.
You don’t have to translate into words the entire content of what you’ve already expressed visually! Your task is to give your audience a compelling reason to look closer. Help them look.
I’ll provide exercises that will lead you to find words that feel correct and authentic. I’ll offer advice to help you break through the barriers you may have about expressing yourself in writing. And finally, I’ll show you how to recycle the thoughtful sentences you’ve developed and apply them to a range of career opportunities.
Only you think what you think and make what you make, so you are the most informed person to write about the work you’ve produced. However, some of you may wind up hiring a professional writer to help you. These writers won’t be magicians; you’ll still have to provide them with the necessary core. Completing the exercises and prompts in this book will give you something to hand over to a hired writer, because the content and the truth come from inside your head.
Writing about your work is an interesting part of the artistic process. It’s worth the effort. You’ll create a valuable record of your development. Writing brings personal insight, it helps you gain perspective and understand yourself better. It also provides a framework for you to speak about your ideas in ways that can be understood. Describing what you do is essential to confident and clear communication, which will make your work accessible to a wider audience. We all want more people to discover more art.
I don’t want to market myself!
Are you approaching the necessity of self-promotion with resentment, wishing for an agent or a gallery to take care of all of this annoying marketing/selling/writing stuff?
Some artists think self-promotion is intrinsically icky. They can grasp the benefits of self-promotion, but they just don’t want to get involved. You may have to set aside resistance, avoidance, and anxiety in order to make this task manageable.
I suggest you embrace the following concepts, which are shared by both art and self-promotion:
I collect seashells. While I wrote this book, my husband gave me the shell of a rare paper nautilus. Extremely fragile and weighing next to nothing, it is the egg case from a type of octopus. The female creates the paper nautilus inside her body and pushes it out. After she deposits her eggs inside, she crawls in the paper nautilus and takes shelter there also. The more common chambered nautilus is a creature that propels itself forward, shell first, without the help of forward-facing eyes. So it sometimes smashes its shell on rocks or coral. With the protective shell broken, it dies.
Artists have shells, and some of those shells are more fragile than others. Artists protect the thing that is most precious: our creative inner lives and our ability to make art. We have to protect it because no one else will. Society, school, family, and even close friends can act in a way that devalues the very thing we value most. We become accustomed to defending, guarding, and sometimes hiding our art life. Writing about our work and selling ourselves feels like the nautilus propelling itself forward, shell first, with no idea if the future holds open water or a damaging collision.
The artist who is also a marketing genius is a rare combination. Artists with quiet profiles—those who lack the media savvy of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst —are in the majority. Most artists wish for someone else to come along and sell their work. This may happen. In the meantime—and I do mean “mean”—the rent is due, the day job eats up all your time, and the needed studio space is unattainable. The shell might break, not because you propelled forward, but because you’re going nowhere and you sink.
If you can begin by completing a few paragraphs—describing what you do and why you do it—you are on your way. The paper nautilus has an air chamber so it can float near the surface. That’s really all an artist’s self-promotion needs to be: floating near the surface. Keep the shell if you want. Write something for the buy and sell culture and go back to your real work.