Episode 123 – Making It in the Art World by Brainard Carey / The Title of an Artwork

The Title of an Artwork

Words are amazing and powerful, and they can change the meaning of what we are seeing. Consider the now-infamous photograph by Andres Serrano titled Piss Christ, in which a crucifix is floating in the artist’s urine. When you look at the image itself, it is beautiful, a rosy color pervades, and we see a crucifix slightly out of focus looking romantic and, quite honestly, like a very Christian picture, a believer’s picture. It could hang on an altar and would seem appropriate. The only thing that made it controversial was what the artist said about it. The artist stated in the title card on the wall that the image was taken of the crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine. Can you imagine looking at the image and thinking or feeling that it is beautiful and then hearing that it is actually in urine? The artist’s statement has not only changed the way you see the picture, it also caused a huge controversy that made him world-famous! What I find even more amusing is that we do not actually know if it was in fact in urine. It doesn’t look like urine, and there is no proof that it is urine; it is simply what the artist said in his statement. That statement changed the entire meaning of the work.

Episode 123

A One-Line Statement

Marlene Dumas said, “I paint because I am a dirty woman.” As the artist’s statement of an extremely well-known painter, hers is one you should pay attention to. It is brief, perhaps too brief, but it is also extremely successful because probably after reading this once, you will remember it and maybe even tell someone else. She is a painter who could have easily talked about how she uses the figure as a means to critique contemporary ideas of racial, sexual, and social identity, but she doesn’t, and it is to her credit. What she has written is also engaging, humorous, and sexy. We smile or laugh when we hear this, and it feels bold and aggressive as well. Of course she could write more about her work, but for the purposes of most artists’ statements in applications, websites, and even exhibits, this works. Of course if she wants to explain more, or if she has a catalog coming out, more could be written about her work from different perspectives,  like a historical, political, or philosophical context, but that is not necessary, initially.

Most artists struggle so much with their statement, and here is a way to be brief, not prosaic and dense, but simple, accessible, and engaging. The most important thing as with any text is to be engaging. When you begin an article in the newspaper, the first line has to grab you and make you want to read the rest. The same rules follow with an artist’s statement. Some people advise that you hire a professional writer, but I think it isn’t necessary in most cases. Just write. Write something that someone without an art background might understand.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here. To download the workbook mentioned in this series, click here.


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