August 31, 2011

On writing artistic statements

Kari's post about application fatigue couldn't have come at a better time. Yeah, I'm a week late (10 points taken off, I know), but now that things seem to be settling down a bit in my personal life, I have time to catch up and reflect on what's been happening on the theatrosphere. To be quite honest, this seems to work a lot better for my natural way of processing things.

I had to complete an artist statement for a program I'm applying to, and it's one of the most frustrating things I've ever done. Granted, I only suffered for a few days (or, to be more precise, procrastinated for 5 days and suffered a sleepless night), but it's still a pain in the ass to more or less justify your existence as an artist in 500 words or so.

Yes, yes, it's a great exercise and all - but damn! As I said in the comments of Kari's blog:
If I knew exactly what I wanted to say with my work and why, I would just, y’know, say it instead of wrestling with a script. Not to mention, I don’t like forcing myself or my work into a box that may or may not fit where I am at any particular time. Don’t get me wrong; I think a certain amount of reflection can really help give you greater clarity about what you’re really trying to do with your current piece. But trying to squeeze your past, present, and future work into a one-page summary seems, to me, rather reductive by default.

In a weird sort of way, artistic statements force you to talk about your artistic growth in a way that almost stunts your growth. Talking about a play – or even a playwright – as though it’s a fixed, immutable concept rather than a dynamic interplay of overlapping processes seems contradictory to the very things that we enjoy about theatre.
Yet at the same time (here's that diunital logic thing I talked about earlier), writing an artistic statement in and of itself, free from the pressure of proving your worth, has been a great help on gaining more insight into what makes me and my work unique. It's forced me to think about how I relate to my work and the things this relationship to my work compels me to do.

It's also a great way to communicate with future collaborators who are (to my knowledge) not telepathic so may not know what aspects of my work are most essential to my purpose and process as an artist. It reminds me of this TED Talk by Simon Sinek (Start with Why):

While the original context of Sinek's TED Talk was business and leadership, the general idea translates beautiful to endeavors driven by ideas and people.

As I think about it, I suppose my ambivalence about artist statements is not the statement itself but the reason why we often wind up writing them. As a tool that simply communicates who we are as artists, they're a priceless resource. There are few artists I know who would not respond well to an invitation to share things about their work that are not always immediately apparent. And by invitation to share I don't mean putting us on the spot or demanding us to justify certain artistic choices. No, no, hell no. But the opportunity to share a bit of where some of the stuff we create comes from can be a refreshing change of pace from critiques and reviews.

Yet most of the time, this is not what we're asked to do with artist statements. Rather, it's not all we're asked to do. The thing we're really being asked to do (and we writers know this) is convince the people who will be selecting us for their programs or our works for their productions that we are Good Enough. Y'know, that old selling yourself thing. Hey, I know and appreciate artists who get their hustle on. But I wonder if, by making so much of this process about marketing and publicity, we're losing touch with something more vital.

What do you think?


  1. I definitely see this a lot in the publishing industry. There's more of an emphasis on what's "marketable" and "trendy" as opposed to allowing authors find their voice and share their story in their own way.

    What happens of course is that everyone writes a permutation of the same thing and then when the trend is burnt out or it repels potential authors and readers who want to do something different, we then wonder why the publishing industry is suffering.

  2. The purist in me wants to say that be yourself and the world will take you or leave you with you being better off without those that don't share your vision. But the realist beats the purist down and says that some aspect of yourself will better appeal to each person you write that statement for and "marketing" to that person doesn't mean you're sacrificing anything necessarily, but it might mean cash monies.

  3. @David:

    I feel very much the same way. At the same time, it would be nice to be able to talk about what our work means to us and how we approach it without having to worry about making sure we fit the right boxes or check off the right items on some sort of Good Artist list. I guess I want to see more variety in the ways we use artist statements. Does that make sense?

    I wonder what it would look like if we did that.

  4. @Neo:

    Exactly. As I mentioned to David, I think it would be interesting to move away from the pressure of trying to appeal to an unknown audience and focus simply on expressing the why, how, and what of the work we do.