Episode 126 – Making It in the Art World by Brainard Carey / Fact-Finding


However, parts of this story were probably made up. Apparently, research shows there were no tartars in that area at that time. And furthermore, eyewitnesses say the pilot died shortly afterward, and Beuys was conscious and was taken to a hospital to recover for three weeks. Beuys was making his own myth about himself, and you can just as easily adopt this strategy even if you do not want to be a major figure in the art world as he was. Does that mean that you should make up a story about yourself? Possibly, but embellishment isn’t out of the question, and this is straightforward myth-making and self-aggrandizement at  that.

The point I am making with this example is that your statement can also begin to create a myth about yourself—that is, a fictional story that is mixed with the truth. If this appeals to you, then use it and experiment, and if it doesn’t, use one of the other methods. The point of an artist’s statement is simply to get the attention of the person you are showing work to or the institution that you are applying to for a grant, or for your average juried show. No matter which it is, it is important to make your- self stand out and look different from others who are competing with you.

More on the Critic

As I said earlier, the New York art critic Jerry Saltz has a Facebook page, and at one point, he offered to edit people’s writing if they posted their artist’s statements. On his page, he said an artist’s statement should be

[written] in plain language. Keep it short, simple, to the point. Use your own syntax; write the way you speak. No platitudes! With giant abstractions (“nature,” “beauty,” “ambiguity”) say what you’re doing with these big things. Or AVOID . . . them. Don’t be afraid to be funny/weird, your stupid self! A glimpse of real self is powerful.

He is affirming much of what we are saying here, that you need to be straightforward to a large extent, and that you need to be clear. But what he is not saying is that you can also break the rules, as Beuys did, and make a story up that is compelling, edgy, and effective.

Editorial Help

I am not saying you should not seek the help of an editor. All writers use editors, and even a friend who is a good writer can be of assistance.

After you finish your statement, show it to someone who will give you their honest opinion. Show it to someone who knows nothing about the arts; show it to a child, and examine the responses you get. The statement should be understood easily by almost everyone. If it is difficult to understand, then something is wrong and should be adjusted. Ideally, it should also be very exciting or engaging so that it is memorable and makes one want to see the work.

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.


Episode 125 – Making It in the Art World by Brainard Carey / The Traumatic Story as Artist’s Statement

The Traumatic Story as Artist’s Statement

Another type of artist’s statement is the biographical one that often includes a traumatic experience in the artist’s life. The reasons this one can be very effective are several. Unlike Marlene Dumas’s and the Roach sisters’, this one tells the story of a very personal and traumatic experience that helps the audience to understand the artist’s work..

If you are not familiar with the work of Joseph Beuys, he was a German sculptor who was born in 1921 and died in 1986. Some of his more well-known works consisted of a chair with animal fat on it as well as felt. He used felt in many forms—as a suit, and piled up in layers—and for most, it was very abstract and not easy to understand.

The story he wrote is another type of artist’s statement, which I have reproduced below. It is about a traumatic event in his life during World War II.

Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts, and favored neither side. I had already struck up a good relationship with them, and often wandered off to sit with  them.  “Du  nix  njemcky,”  they  would  say,   “du Tartar,” and try to persuade me to join their clan. Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness. The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in—I always preferred free movement to safety belts . . . My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact—there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the wind- screen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying “Voda” (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat, and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.

—Joseph Beuys

The Story: Where Fact Mixes with Fiction

That is a gripping story from the first sentence; it draws you in and hints at the life-and-death situation we are about to read, to the dramatic ending with a last line that speaks to his materials. However, after reading this story, you can then look at his work, his use of felt as well as animal fat, and it takes on a new meaning. In fact, it tells a story; it is not abstract, but rather illustrative of why he uses those materials! Now the abstract work seems filled with life and death and the struggle to survive. You have a clear insight into his work, and looking at it reminds you of his story. He also wrote a résumé that was highly unusual. Instead of listing exhibitions, he started with his birth, calling it “Kleve exhibition of a wound drawn together with an adhesive bandage.” He went on to create a résumé that was in itself a work of art, or at least a work of fiction artfully done! Let’s go back to his statement and look more closely at what he has done here. At the very least, he has told a compelling story. When I lecture and talk about his statement, I often read this story aloud to the audience, and I almost always get audible gasps when I read the part about his plane crashing and the copilot dying on impact. Again, like a good novel, this text brings in the reader and leaves them affected by the words in a powerful way.

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.


Episode 124 – Making It in the Art World by Brainard Carey / Artist’s Statements for Grants and Awards

Artist’s Statements for Grants and Awards

Here is another way of approaching the statement. These two artists won a New York Foundation of the Arts grant, and I have never forgotten their statement. I came upon this when I was reading about the grant recipients, and they used the artist’s statement to say a bit about what they had done. But first, let me explain how a jury for a grant usually works. As they look through hundreds, perhaps more, of applications, this is how it is presented. Usually in a fairly dark room, just before they show your images, they read your statement. So that means your statement should stand on its own, so that after it is read, the jury is thinking, “I can’t wait to see this!” That is the feeling you want to create, not confusion or anything that lacks clarity.

Let’s look at the statement by Suzzy and Maggie Roach, two singers who were trying to get a grant for a sound-experiment project.

Our new compositions were inspired by two tape recorded conversations. We studied the rhythms and tones of the two women and translated their vocal patterns and personal expression into a musical piece. We abandoned any preconceived notion of structure in order to follow the natural curve of their stories. After twenty years of writing songs, we have become increasingly interested in the way people speak, and intrigued by the idea that human voices are always singing.

Isn’t that beautiful? If I were in the jury, I would be excited to hear what they were doing, and I would want to give them a grant if it were even slightly interesting; do you know why? Because even though I have no idea what their work sounds like, their approach is very poetic, and the last line is particularly beautiful. Their idea that human voices are always singing is absolutely beautiful. I want to believe that very much. It is affirming of life and art, and no matter what they do, I would want them to be able to continue their experiments. Wouldn’t you? Also, note the length of their statement; it is quite short and to the point. This type of artist’s statement is less a summing-up of all their art and more specific to one project, articulating their approach. This is a method to keep in mind because instead of writing something long and partially biographical, it gets right to the heart of the matter without over-explaining things or becoming dull.

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.


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.


Episode 122 – Making It in the Art World by Brainard Carey / Owning a Gallery

Owning a Gallery

I owned a gallery for nine years, and in that time, I received hundreds of artist’s statements. What I noticed were two things. Sometimes, many times in fact, if I liked the artist’s work and then read the statement, I often changed my mind and didn’t like what the artist was saying and, in turn, didn’t like the work even though I had liked it initially. That is how powerful a good or bad artist’s statement can be. Think again about the dating comparison. Let’s say someone is interested in you and wants to date you, and he sends his picture. At first you think he is handsome and has a kind face. He describes himself as playful and intelligent, so you decide to write back. Then he sends you another letter with his personal statement or a little more about himself.

Now he tells you more about how wonderful he is and all the sports he is involved in, how many awards he has won, where he has lived, why his marriage didn’t work out, and his two kids, etc. Perhaps you will change your mind now, thinking this guy seems full of himself, and what do you care what awards he has won or about his ex-wife and his kids? Or perhaps you will feel differently, but the point is that when we present ourselves or our artwork, what we say about it carries incredible importance, because no matter what people think initially, they will reevaluate what they feel after you have explained or talked about your intentions.

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.


Episode 121 – Making It in the Art World by Brainard Carey / The Artist’s Statement and the Critic

Chapter 5

The Artist’s Statement and the Critic

What I will tell you about an artist’s statement will be different from what you will read in other books on the topic. There is a New York art critic, Jerry Saltz, who has a Facebook page, and one day he told all the artists that he would edit their statements on Facebook or give commentary. He got tons of replies and, for the most part, was very critical and even began cursing at artists and calling them mediocre! As a critic, he can often be mean and hurt people, but at the same time, the ones who are not getting hurt find that attractive. I mention this because I think it sheds some light on critics and how you will view your artist’s statement and responses to it.

When I was in the Whitney Biennial exhibition, I was thrilled to find that Arthur Danto wrote about my work in The Nation and, in general, said wonderful things about the show. Danto is one of the most powerful art critics in the world. He has written many books on art, theory, and art history and is a profound thinker that many in the art world reference. I asked the curator at the Whitney why there were so many terribly angry reviews of the show, but Danto loved it. She said that Arthur Danto was very powerful and could write what he liked because he has nothing to prove. Isn’t that an interesting thought? Perhaps the reason that some critics as well as artists can be so negative and even downright mean is to boost their own status because, in general, that impresses people. Kind of like the bully in the school yard—that is, if he isn’t beating you up, you consider him a friend. The reason to talk about that before I discuss how to make a good artist’s statement is that you should be interested in what others say about their work, be curious, be open, be aware that all the artists that have ever written statements are writing something very personal, and it should be handled gently.

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.