Two nights ago, I enjoyed teaching my writing workshop to accomplished artists at The Gallery at the Watershed. Today I connected the experience to quotes I came across from the brilliant writer Susan Sontag. Even though these quotes are taken from Sontag’s journal entries and reflect on literary endeavors, I find them relevant to writing an artist statement.
For example, Sontag says:
“I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.”
This is essential advice for the visual artist! When it’s time to write about your work, you must pull yourself out of the ebb and flow of the visual sea and anchor yourself to concrete language. Think with words. That’s why I included a long list of words in one chapter of Art-Write. I encourage my students to find and save bits and pieces of language and keep them in a file, like collage pieces for later use.
Sontag has an astounding way to express this idea. She makes the simple note,
“Language as a found object.”
Wow. Imagine using a word the way Duchamp used the bicycle wheel. Both the word and the object can reveal new meaning, depending on the context and the intent of the artist.
“Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.”
Substitute the word “concept” for “fantasy”. Some of the concepts in your artwork will not fit through the little door of writing. That’s okay, they never will. The true and full expression is in the artwork, your writing simply opens the door for the viewer.
My workshop includes dedicated time when students write, I ask them to commit words to paper. This may be the most valuable push I can give them. As Susan Sontag commands of herself,
“I summon the courage to be a bad writer … If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing. Then something else will happen. It always does.”
It always does.
And here is her eloquent way of saying, “Get out of your own way”:
“Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.”
Finally, take this to heart:
“Don’t be afraid to be concise!”
There is no need to sound literary and erudite when you write your artist statement or promo materials. A short sentence is a beautiful thing.
All of the above quotes were taken from a newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. Thanks to Maria Popova at BrainPickings, my favorite blog of all time, for steering me toward this book.