Art School Survival Guide #2: The art of talking about yourself

Many arts students whine about having to write about or explain their own artwork, but unfortunately that’s really half the point. They are sadly and sorely mistaken if they think this can be avoided in the ‘real world’ following graduation from art school. If anything it only gets worse: artists’ statements for exhibition proposals and catalogues, justifications for prize entries and grant applications. It’s just something that has to be done.

That’s not to say that it’s easy…I really struggled with writing and talking about my work in my first years at Art School, but upon receiving some advice from some of my better lecturers – advice I wish I’d known all along – it all became a little easier.

It is essentially a two-part problem/process. The first (and I would argue, more difficult) step is to identify what your art actually is about. It is amazing how much stuff you can produce without knowing why you are doing so, and the reality is that it can take a considerable amount of time for the penny to drop. Sitting in the studio and staring at your work will rarely help – often you will have an epiphany in a completely unrelated setting in a wholly unrelated moment. If you go with your gut instincts when making work your brain will inevitably catch up. In art’s case: act first, think later.

To put a difficult idea into words try this: explain what it is that you are making art about in a single sentence. This is easier than it sounds and a fantastic way to avoid all the art-speak wankery that says so much without saying anything at all. A single sentence is the frame around which you can build everything else.

Even though they may know what they want to say many people feel mighty uncomfortable saying it about themselves and their own work, not wanting to appear egotistical or ‘up themselves’. The quickest way to remedy this situation is to write about your artwork in the third person. Rather than terrifying yourself by saying ‘I’ and ‘my’ try using your name and ‘she/he/they’. Better yet, talk a friend through your work and bribe them to write one for you! Consider swapping artwork with a writerly friend in exchange for their word-wielding.

Ultimately, keep it very very simple and straightforward. For most purposes the following will suffice:

  • What have you done? (such as: a painting of…, a series of photographs of…)
  • How have you done it? (materials and methods)
  • Why did you do it? (insert intelligent concept here)

and fame/fortune shall follow.

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