Not Nothing: A Review of Artist’s Statements

[British artist] Damien Hirst  What do you mean, an artist’s statement?[Art writer] Sarah Borusso  Just a statement of purpose or… it’s up to you really, we run them just to give a context to your work… It’s kind of up to you.

DH  OK, I can do one now.

SB  OK. It’s a kind of separate thing from the interview.

DH  No, I can think of a really good one.

SB  Oh, you can?

DH  The only interesting people are the people who say, “Fuck off. This is what I think.”

SB  [Laughter].

“Artist’s Statement” originally published as part of an interview with Damien Hirst, Sarah Borusso, Hotwired magazine (1997). © Damien Hirst/Sarah Borusso.


Few tasks strike fear in the heart of a visual artist so much as writing an artist’s statement, that most dreaded summation.

In essence, it’s just a written description of one’s work. Though not required reading, it has become a necessary cost of doing business, a way for artists to help viewers (or curators, peers, critics) understand and discuss their work. It sounds simple but is actually a painstaking process that makes artists uncomfortably vulnerable. Writing such a statement requires a difficult introspection that lays bare the often insecure train-of-thought that was going through your mind when you positioned the paintbrush just so on the canvas, your subject just so in front of your lens, your sculpting knife just so on a lump of clay. It sets the tone. And, often, art does not speak for itself.

As illustrated by Hirst above, an artist’s statement can take pretty much any form. Though there are no hard and fast rules governing the practice, most will agree on a few guidelines.

Writer and curator Shannon Anderson instructs acolytes on the finer points of creating artist’s statements at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography. She distills the process down to these basic elements: why you make your art, what it signifies, how you make it, what it’s made out of and, perhaps briefly, what it means to you. She says an artist’s statement “summarizes your overall practice, translates what you do visually into words, and explains, contextualizes and justifies your approach to your work.”

Canadian artist Ron Martin feels so strongly about the subject that he offered an “Artist’s Statement As a Model for Artists” in his 2011 solo exhibition at Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto. Like Shannon, who insists that the language of an artist’s statement should not frustrate the reader, Martin warns that an artist who doesn’t “mind his Ps and Qs” could set off a chain of events that will ultimately lead to unhappiness for himself and anyone who has had the misfortune of reading his flawed artist’s statements.

He’s right. A badly written statement can blanche faces and curdle baby’s milk.

In their book Art/Work (Free Press, 2009), New York City gallerist Heather Darcy Bhandari and art lawyer Jonathan Melber caution against using the following phrases:

“My work is intuitive.”

“My work is about the macro and micro.”

“My work is about the organic and synthetic.”

“My work is a personal journey.”

“My work is about my experiences.”

“I pour my soul into each piece.”

“I’ve been drawing since I was three years old.”

Unless your soul produces Picasso’s Guernica, you should never mention your soul.

Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović knows that language is everything. Stilinović, who has made a career of language limitations, learned from Wittgenstein that “the limit of my language is the limit of my work.”

The Zagreb-based artist offers an excellent example of an artist’s statement. As a follow-up to the 1978 piece titled “Artist at Work” (see photos), in which he photo-documented himself in various states of sleep, Stilinović wrote “The Praise of Laziness” (1993), in which he offers a very reasonable explanation of his “lazy” method:

As an artist, I learned from both East (socialism) and West (capitalism). Of course, now when the borders and political systems have changed, such an experience will be no longer possible. But what I have learned from that dialogue, stays with me. My observation and knowledge of Western art has lately led me to a conclusion that art cannot exist… any more in the West. This is not to say that there isn’t any. Why cannot art exist any more in the West? The answer is simple. Artists in the West are not lazy. Artists from the East are lazy; whether they will stay lazy now when they are no longer Eastern artists, remains to be seen.

Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time – total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, non-activity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, futile concentration. Those virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practised and perfected. Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something… Their involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, museum system, competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away form laziness, from art. Just as money is paper, so a gallery is a room.

Artists from the East were lazy and poor because the entire system of insignificant factors did not exist. Therefore they had time enough to concentrate on art and laziness. Even when they did produce art, they knew it was in vain, it was nothing.

(excerpt from The Praise of Laziness, Mladen Stilinović, 1993)

Stilinović’s work is strongly influenced by the politics of his country and the war that followed the fall of socialism. His statement suggests this historical context, his philosophical influences, and the motivations behind his work, even as he concludes the text by proclaiming that laziness is “the mother of perfection” and that “there is no art without laziness.” I’m convinced. Here is an artist’s statement that is not in vain, not nothing.

Artist At Work, 1978, Mladen Stilinović
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