Putting Words in Their Mouths: Using Art History to Help the Art Student with the Artist Statement
Teaching the art history survey at an arts college undoubtedly has its advantages: students come primed with an understanding of the techniques and challenges of various art forms and, quite often, they are also very passionate about their artistic opinions. One of the most heated debates that often arises, for example, is that surrounding the work the Abstract Expressionists. As many of my students are trained in the longstanding Academic tradition, it is always fascinating to learn of their thoughts on such modern expression.
Displaying a work, such as Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), on the digital projector screen and then posing the question “what can we make of this piece?” is the only intellectual kindling needed to spark an energetic exchange. Some students exalt Pollock’s novelty; others question its meaning. Regardless, the end result is an invigorating group discussion that, as I think most art history faculty would agree, is a most satisfying accomplishment in the classroom.
One of the disadvantages, or more aptly put, challenges, of teaching such students is helping them confront and conquer the seemingly insurmountable task of writing the artist statement. Our curriculum, similar to many other collegiate fine art programs, stresses the importance of effective communication skills, and thus the artist statement is a pivotal document for them to produce during their time as students. This is as it should be, as the artist statement, whether scaled to a specific series of pieces or to an entire oeuvre, is one of the most effective ways to succinctly broadcast artistic aims and aspirations, whether it be as gallery wall text or as website homepage.
This significance, though, can often overwhelm students to the point that the prospect of writing a brief one-page synthesis of one’s artistic approach seems more daunting than a 20-page research paper with fully annotated bibliography. This fear stems from a variety of factors. “I haven’t enough pieces in my portfolio to know what my art is about,” students often respond; I also frequently hear: “my art is completely original, so I don’t need to consider how it relates to the historical canon.” (Admittedly, I’ve exaggerated this latter statement a bit, but it is surprising to note the number of students who are reluctant to admit that their art, however “original,” is nevertheless part of a long, historical conversation that started centuries ago).
Fortunately, art history came to the rescue with an innovative solution to this writing challenge. Realizing how flummoxed students became when tasked with writing about their own art, I lowered the stakes by instead having them write for someone else: a past artist who lacks an artist statement (as we conceptualize it today). Working in groups, the students utilize online and print sources to review an assigned artist’s body of work and to come to a consensus on what they feel are the most essential visual aspects therein. Having completed this purely observational review, the students must then analyze scholarship to gain a sense of that artist’s personality and personal experiences. Using this additional information, the students must then contemplate how that background biography might have impacted the art itself. To prevent this task from transforming into a full-blown term project, or from devolving into a folkloric recounting of the myths surrounding an artist (exactly how many ears did van Gogh lose?), it can be helpful depending on the level of your students to offer a predefined list of sources for each artist.
The end result of this exercise is a team-written draft of an artist statement written as if from the perspective of the artist him- or herself. While this is typically a brief document, the impact on student learning with this overall project is arguably much more extensive. The act of drafting the artist statement encourages students to break down barriers to written communication, and it also helps them realize that summarizing one’s art can begin with close looking.
At the same time, this project encourages engagement with art history. By honing in on the production of one artist, students are afforded the opportunity to consider the subtleties of an artist’s work and contemplate why these figures are part of the larger art historical narrative. It also lays the groundwork for essential research and critical thinking skills as students assess what is most relevant within an artist’s experience to his or her artistic output.
The beauty of this lesson is that it can be easily adjusted for the specifics of the respective classroom environment. While those past figures without documented artist statements are perfect fodder for this exercise, there is potential that contemporary figures who are working and writing today might prove apt subjects as well. One could also incorporate this project in a thematic course tackling issues such as race or gender or even go so far as to propose a scenario in which one historical artist is writing for another. The possibilities for this exercise are truly infinite, but the one element that is certain is that students, regardless of major, who engage in this project will emerge with a deeper connection to art history.
Feature Image: Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) , Oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas, Overall dimensions: 221 x 299.7 cm, Image courtesy of the National Gallery.