Suggestions For Explaining Your Art to Viewers
Q: I want to make sure people understand what my art is about. The subtler aspects of my work aren't immediately obvious and I want viewers to get my overall intent. How can I do this?
A: A great way to make sure that viewers understand your art is to provide some form of written introduction or explanation at every place where you show and with every piece that you sell. It doesn't have to be long, maybe a page or so at the most. If it gets too lengthy, you risk complicating matters rather than clarifying them. A personal explanation from you is best, but you're not always around to explain it, plus the fact that a written one is forever. This information might include your standard artist statement, your statement in combination with a brief explanation of the particular work or body of works in question, or unique information customized to each piece. Documentation like this not only helps viewers and collectors to understand your artwork in the moment, but also benefits everyone who will come into contact with it for all time.
Good documentation tends to positively impact the value of your art in several ways. From the cognitive standpoint, people can better understand its antecedents, intent and inspirations-- how it came into being. From the aesthetic standpoint, you can focus on various characteristics of your work, their relative significances, your process and so on. From the financial standpoint, collectors generally pay more for art that they can understand and appreciate on a variety of levels than they pay for art that confuses them, or that they know little or nothing about or have to guess at what it means (assuming they pay for it at all... and they usually don't). Remember-- you won't always be around to explain yourself or your art to everyone who sees it, so the better you document it in that regard now, the better for all concerned.
Before beginning this process, consider taking a census of sorts. Either ask people to talk about what they see in your art, or explain your art to them and then ask whether your explanations make sense in terms of what they're looking at. And don't confine your census only to your inner circle or to people with art educations; make sure you include ordinary everyday people who just plain like art, especially ones who don't already know you or your art.
If you find that people don't understand your explanations, figure out what you'll have to add, subtract, or change in order to make things clearer. Be prepared for surprise reactions and don't be too sensitive or insulted if people respond to your art in unexpected ways. Remember that this is an exercise designed to help you convey the meaning of your work to others. If you repeatedly get similar feedback, comments or suggestions, think about incorporating them into your documentation (providing this information up front gives viewers more time to appreciate your art).
When you're ready to start the documentation process, beware of the tendency to forget the viewer and get too caught up in details relating to your own personal experiences or history; always consider the viewer in your narrative. In a way, your art is like a daily diary or journal. Your creative process reflects progressions of events, insights, and growth within your life. And seeing yourself and your life evolve through your art can be tremendously fulfilling and exciting-- to you. Outsiders, on the other hand, may find too much information in this regard to be tedious, boring, or irrelevant to their overall experience or enjoyment of your work. In other words, not everyone is as interested in you as you are. You can be certain, though, that they are interested in what your art has to offer them-- what it communicates or comments on, or how it deepens or enhances or investigates or explores in ways that can benefit anyone.
Whatever you decide to include in your explanatory, keep it simple; keep it brief. Give basic information, enough to get viewers oriented, and avoid the temptation to go overboard with details. Imagine yourself looking at another artist's art, for example, and having that artist go on and on about what it means or why it looks the way it does. At some point, this overload can actually interfere with your enjoyment and appreciation of the work... and may even detract at some point. With practice, you'll learn to provide just the right amount of information to maximize viewers' experiences.
Keep in mind that you want to avoid micromanaging how people experience your art. In most cases, your artist statement with a basic bio and a few specifics will suffice, and leave the rest up to the viewers. Offer enough in the way of explanation to stimulate interest-- and then let the interpretations fall where they may. This might involve a certain amount of self-discipline or non-attachment on your part, but if you look to the future, your art outlives you anyway. People will say what they say and think what they think, and that's their prerogative. Whatever you do, don't tell viewers what to think or feel about your; always leave room for them to decide for themselves.
By the way, one of the great fringe benefits of the documentation process is that it allows you to step back and think objectively about what you've created, to reflect on the direction you're headed in and to assess the implications of current as well as future work. Many artists, particularly those who've been at it for a while, tend to become automatic to a degree in how they make art. In extreme instances, they become largely divorced with the passion and energy that got them into art in the first place. So documenting your work is a great way to stay in touch with your commitment and inspirations for wanting to be an artist, and with what art-making ultimately means to you. And everyone profits from that.
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