Statement on Statements
There are two sets of forces that could compel one to make an artist's statement: internal and external. One might feel compelled to say something about one's work for personal reasons, or one may be compelled by an institution: school, gallery, funding agency, etc. "Good" students/citizens sometimes feel it necessary to internalize the exterior institutional forces (as in Sunday school or psychological counseling) but this is not necessary, or ideal. Art students are free to be "bad" students — in fact, it is the least they can do. It is expected that, as critically-engaged citizens, they can perform a basic institutional critique and not be so easily interpellated as mute, compliant subjects. Still, you've got to pay the piper, and this can be much more productive than merely kissing ass or performing some disengaged, luke-warm, half-assed compliance.
Students generally have certain concerns about artist's statements. First, it is often maintained that they are working in a mode that cannot be put into words, or that making a statement about work that is non-language-based necessarily misrepresents and reduces the work. This is undoubtedly true. As someone (I say it was John Cage, Todd thinks Frank Zappa, either seems plausible) once said, Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But this is beside the point. Artist's statements cannot be expected to explain a work in toto, let alone function as some sort of stand-in or replacement.
A second common objection is that statements limit the ways in which the viewer is able or likely to engage with the work. This limitation takes two forms. First, it is said that a statement can inhibit what is called a "blind read" by establishing an agenda of concerns. "Blind read" seems to me an almost prelapsarian notion: it supposes the viewer as a tabula rasa able to perform an agenda-less response or interpretation somehow outside of or prior to critical discourse. Such a state or position does not exist. There is a less extreme formulation of the "blind read"that seems to me useful: "fresh eyes." "Fresh eyes" haven't seen the work before and are not part of the school's community. They are able to give remarkably new and useful — "fresh" — feedback. But, of course, their ability to do so is not compromised in the least by exposure to an artist's statement.
The second objection is linked to the idea that works of art should ideally "speak for themselves," by which is meant, it seems to me, that they are autonomous objects which contain or generate meaning without recourse to exterior discourses. The artist's statement then, is seen as an exterior discourse at cross-purposes with the self-speaking work. This is, of course, nonsense.
Some graduate students make a game of tracing how certain words flow through critiques like viruses. I like this game. The viral words tend to be ill-defined: large and lofty concepts used with imprecision. Often different people deploy the viral words in radically different ways. (Some of these words: narrative, signifier, signified, phenomenal, lyrical.) The breeding grounds for these viral words are things people say during the critiques — the sooner a word is initially deployed, the greater chance it has of proliferating — and, to a lesser extent, artist's statements. Instead of artist's statements being seen as a breeding ground for pernicious viral words, they should be seen as an opportunity for the artist to define how they deploy and conceptualize key words: to set not only the agenda, but the terms of the critique.
I haven't talked at all about the possible forms of statements and their corresponding rhetorical strategies — a topic of some importance. Instead I've tried to counter what seem to me the most common reasons for student's resistance to making an artist's statement.