"Re-Visioning the Visual: Making Artistic Inquiry Visible"

W.F. Garrett-Petts and Rachel Nash
Thompson Rivers University


The Prospect of Realigning Writing with the Visual Arts, or What's a Nice English Professor Like You Doing in a Studio Like This?
W.F. Garrett-Petts

01 Those of us whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries find ourselves—from time to time—with no firm place to stand. Such displacement is usually temporary, frequently uncomfortable, but almost always an invitation toward some new insight or perspective. I was trained as a literary critic and composition specialist, and I later developed an interest in interarts practices. My academic preparation argued for keeping the works studied at arm's length, safely aestheticized as objects of critical attention. However, the more I worked with visual artists, the more I found myself drawn into initially unfamiliar practices and venues: over the last ten years, I've been invited to curate exhibitions, write catalogue essays, participate in gallery panels, contribute image/text artwork to two group shows, deliver three "artist talks," and compose two artist statements.

02 Inevitably, such boundary-crossing has implications for researching and writing: though I'm writing this section of the essay in the first person, it is informed by multiple collaborations—informal conversations, formal interviews, and correspondence with artists and authors; participation in a multi-disciplinary community-university research alliance exploring questions of culture, the arts, and quality of life; the development of a team-taught course on photography and literature; the co-authorship (with visual artist Donald Lawrence) of a book on prose pictures and visual fictions; a three-day workshop on arts-led research and a seven-week exhibition on artists' statements and their works (both co-organized, co-curated with my research partner Rachel Nash); and, most recently, by a six-week international residency on "Making Artistic Inquiry Visible" (MAIV) hosted by the Banff Centre for the Arts. These interests and set of ongoing conversations found a congenial home last year at the Imaging Place Conference, where thirty or so writers, artists, and theorists gathered to both exchange and mutually explore notions of place, space, and interdisciplinary ways of knowing.

03 The centerpiece of that conference was Greg Ulmer's keynote address, with its rehearsal of a position Ulmer has been arguing and refining for at least two decades: a call for "a new discourse that can be learned and practiced as a calculus of composition, as an invention" (Teletheory 83). At root, Ulmer is outlining and developing an alternative methodology—what he called first "applied grammatology" (taking his lead from Derrida) and later "teletheory" and "chorography"—for humanities-based research: "Teletheory is concerned with discovering and inventing the kind of thinking and representation available for academic discourse in an electronic age" (83). As I understand it, Ulmer posits the "emergence of a new discourse . . . [as] a specific process operating in the material forms of culture" (65), and he sees this emerging critical process as the basis for a new (or, at least, newly-legitimated) mode of cognition. Ulmer's targets here are the traditional assumptions, methodologies, and knowledge claims we've come to take for granted as part of normal research, those characterized by a distanced self-awareness, by the logic of classical reasoning, and by the framing and resolution of a critical problem (70 – 71).

04 The project, following the example of Barthes, Derrida, Beuys, and other vanguard authors and artists, "would be to somehow argue in the absence of the usual connectives of reasoning and without the statement of a specific goal (a problem to be solved)" (70). "Conduction" becomes Ulmer's proffered alternative to inductive and deductive reasoning: conduction (another neologism) employs the logic of jokes and riddles, and the techniques of film-makers and video artists, encouraging researchers to "conduct" themselves by grounding their theories in that middle ground between disparate fields of knowledge and practice. The "research pun," for example, is cited as an important tool for "bringing together two unrelated semantic fields on the basis of one or more shared words. The terms of one field are treated as figures for the other, as an invention for problem-solving" (86).

05 But while Ulmer's conductive method may emphasize the power of play over reason, it also reminds us of the classical injunction that art should both "instruct and delight." Ironically, by valuing play it takes art seriously. Conduction asks the critic to become a kind of performance artist, performing in tune with the work of art instead of merely interpreting it. Michael Jarrett put it this way during a 2005 workshop presentation: instead of offering readings that "teach art a lesson," the emphasis shifts to a critical response demonstrating the possibility of learning from and even through art.

06 From his first publications onward Ulmer has been exploring possibilities for a picto-ideo-phonographic writing (a form he'd later locate and describe as an emerging pedagogical genre, the "mystory"); and from the outset he has looked as much to the work of visual artists as to technology for his inspiration:

Contemporary movements such as conceptual art, performance art, and video art may be considered from our perspective as laboratories for a new pedagogy, since in these and other movements research and experiment have replaced form as the guiding force. . . . In short, there is a general shift underway, equally affecting the arts and the sciences, in which the old classifications organizing the intellectual map into disciplines, media, genres, and modes no longer correspond to the terrain. The organizing principle of the current situation is the collapse of the distinction (opposition or hierarchy) between critical-theoretical reflection and creative practice. (Applied Grammatology 225)

The fragmentation of the disciplines, the blurring of boundaries—and what Saul Ostrow calls the "increasing instrumentalism" (personal interview) of those working in academe—makes the prospect of integrating creative practice attractive, at the very least as a means of reanimating many academic areas and approaches. Artistic inquiry is seen by those in the social sciences (especially education and social work) and the sciences (especially the health sciences) as a way of provoking new questions, enlivening discussion, incorporating narrative, and so on. [1]

07 My point of departure begins with the prospect of a form of writing that performs artistic inquiry and, in the process, collapses distinctions between creative and critical practice. I am especially interested in how Ulmer employs what artists say and write about their own work—their interviews, lectures, and artist statements—as a means of researching through art.

08 When considering Beuys, for example, Ulmer finds himself intrigued by the extent other critics and art historians rely primarily upon descriptions of the artist's work, "venturing by way of explanation little more than paraphrases of Beuys's own statements." Ulmer sees Beuys's work calling for such an approach, as providing categories and contexts, adding that Beuys's "interviews and lectures do not constitute interpretations but exist at the same level as, even as part of (verbal extensions of), the art" (Applied Grammatology 228; emphasis added). It seems reasonable to speculate that artist statements like those cited by Ulmer offer readymade variations of a genre where critical reflection and creation meet—a kind of writing that exists at "the same level as, even as part of . . . the art."

09 Although Ulmer is not alone in his interest in how new media and new technologies are influencing writing, his attention to the visual arts has not been shared generally by those who teach writing in universities. A great deal has been written over the last ten years about those "many teachers of writing who were trained in print-based rhetorics [but] now want to articulate principles of visual rhetoric for our students" (Hocks 630). Gunther Kress and Robert Hodge's Reading Images, for example, emphasizes "the grammar of visual design," including such topics as page design, arrangement, and layout; Craig Stroupe's "Visualizing English" focuses on teaching hybrid literacy; Steve Westbrook's "Visual Rhetoric in a Culture of Fear" argues for the integration of multimedia or visual production in college composition classes, noting that while attention to the visual may increase students' exposure and critical response to images, they are seldom encouraged to practice new modes of visual composition.

10 These interventions on the side of the visual tend to reference the hegemony of print culture, the potential discomfort of writing teachers in assigning and evaluating visual compositions, and, more generally, the pedagogical challenges—and corresponding necessity—of embracing "visual and information design" (Stroupe 608). Those advocating greater attention to the visual point out how seldom students are asked to practice multimedia or visual production in composition classes; they note how visual rhetoric may be variously defined and accommodated, even domesticated, as one more "frame of analysis for looking and interpreting" (Westbrook 461)—as one more essay prompt, rather than as an opportunity for multimodal composition.

11 The conclusion to Diana George's optimistic article "From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing" anticipates the NCTE's 2005 Summary Statement on teaching multi-modal literacies and offers one possible future for composition instruction: she sees us moving toward

a new configuration of verbal/visual relationships, one that does allow for more than image analysis, image-as-prompt, or image as dumbed-down language. For students who have grown up in a technology-saturated and an image-rich culture, questions of communication and composition absolutely will include the visual, not as attendant to the verbal but as complex communication intricately related to the world around them. (32)

While writing instruction in universities has clearly taken a "visual turn," the visual part of that turn seems to take its instruction primarily from the fields of design and multimedia production rather than fine arts. Remarkably little attention is paid to Ulmer's notion of the visual and performing arts as laboratories for a new writing pedagogy. Yet surely visual artists have much to say about the relationship between image and text—new perspectives that, for the most part, those working in the social sciences and the humanities have not yet heard.

12 Significantly, what artists say and write about their own work remains an area of considerable controversy, especially among practicing artists: the modernist proposition of art speaking for itself lingers as a deeply-held, shared assumption for many, even those working within a postmodern aesthetic. Unpacking this sense of unease regarding written statements seems an important point of entry into the visual arts community, into a discourse constructed of generally unspoken common values and practices. If we want to understand the role artist statements (broadly defined) might play as both verbal extensions of the art and potential models for artistic inquiry, we need to also appreciate and document the artistic community's reservations about writing such statements.

13 At present, although the academic climate seems especially warm toward notions of creative research practice in general, we have no clear consensus about the definition, value, and impact of these modes and methods of artistic inquiry. Much has been said and written by non-artists about research on visual arts, for example, but there is relatively little understood about research for visual arts (the suite of practices that both inform and constitute artistic production) or about the practice that holds Ulmer's attention, research through visual art (where artistic practice becomes a vehicle for producing, presenting, embodying and/or performing new knowledge).

14 Recent discussion of artistic research has been tied to the development of doctoral programs in studio art, especially in Europe and the United Kingdom (and more recently in Canada and the United States). "Practice-led research," "research creation," "arts-based research," "arts-based educational research," "art practice as research" "A/R/Tography," "art therapies research": these are some of the terms which help foreground, employ, involve, supplement, enact or, sometimes, question either (1) research as a key element of the creative practice or (2), more commonly, creative practice as a vehicle for research. [2] Yet, as noted, there is also the perception that artists themselves have not had enough to say—at least, directly—about the research potential of artistic practice. Artists are often depicted (and represent themselves) as working intuitively, reliant on unexamined inspiration and working without any traditionally-defined "research" objective. From Plato's Ion to the present day, the image of the inspired but unreflective artist persists. [3] Comments like those from Marcel Duchamp express a familiar refrain: "All [an artist's] decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out" (qtd. in Perloff, 88). Graeme Sullivan offers a further variation on this theme: "For many artists, there is no need to talk about their work because no words can ever substitute for what the image can do." But then he adds, "[T]o delegate authority to others is no longer an option as the nature of artistic practice has changed the responsibilities of artists as cultural theorists and practitioners" (86-87). The concern would seem to be that a tradition of relative silence among artists may allow artistic inquiry to be defined by others, particularly by those working in the social sciences, at the very moment when a new field of practice is being articulated both inside and outside the universities.

15 And social scientists have shown themselves more than ready to theorize a merging of the critical with the creative: as Carol Mullen writes in her introduction to a special issue of Qualitative Inquiry,

An explosion in arts-based inquiry has recently occurred in the social sciences, forcing open its tightly stitched seams. This experimentation beyond scientific modes of discourse has created hybrid forms—notably performance art pedagogy . . . Creative forms of research representation—narrative, life history, poetry, drama, visual art, and more—have come to the fore, eliciting response, luring participation, and demanding attention. (166)

In an earlier issue of the same journal, in an essay entitled "The Arts and Narrative Research—Art as Inquiry: An Epilogue," Shelley Sclater asserts, "we are witnessing not only the possibility for recognition of new knowledges that have hitherto been bypassed or excluded, but also the tentative mapping out of a new terrain for research in which the boundaries and possibilities of 'narrative' itself are challenged." Sclater writes of artistic inquiry as "an embodied social practice" (622).

16 These descriptions of artistic inquiries raise the kind of questions that are beginning to give shape to the role and significance of artistic research in the academy—what Piantanida, et al, call "sculpting the contours" (182) of a developing field: If research, traditionally defined, promises the creation of new knowledge, what kind of knowledge does artistic inquiry produce? What effect might an emphasis on artistic inquiry have on the production of art? How does the increasing academic and institutional recognition of artistic research affect the artistic community? How does the practice of artistic research affect academic culture? How does the practice of making art in the public realm affect the community's capacity for research? What can non-artists and communities, including academics and academic communities, learn from artist-researchers—in terms of developing alternative research methodologies, attitudes, and patterns of inquiry? And, a question seldom asked in the social sciences literature: what are the implications of integrating not just creative forms and activities, but more fully the discourse (the disciplinary assumptions, practices, traditions, and values) of artists, art historians, critics, and curators?

17 I want to linger a moment over this last question, for it has become a commonplace in the literature on "arts-based inquiry" to focus on creativity and artistic ways of knowing in the abstract, as a group of approaches and possibilities that may be unproblematically imported into—usually as supplements to—normal research practices. Helen Simons and Brendan McCormack, for example, write in a recent article on "Integrating Arts-Based Inquiry in Evaluation Methodology":

Released from the categories, codes, and formal processes of analysis that are common to more traditional forms of evaluation, we can be open to new ways of seeing and understanding. In using the creative arts we are challenged to engage differently with the data and to see differently. (295)

The authors repeatedly reference the "creative arts," "artistic knowing," "the creative process" as liberating strategies, but little is said about the categories, codes, and formal processes that inform the particular work of the individual practising artists who represent, enact, and embody artistic knowing. My point is a simple one: my experience has been that the presence of artists working alongside social scientists and humanists invites the engagement of artistic research as a complex of attitudes, motives, and actions; the presence of artists affects the nature of the research questions posed, the methods employed, the results validated—and the means of disseminating those results. I'm also aware that not all artists, particularly those working outside the academy, welcome a characterization of their work in terms of artistic inquiry: while all the participants at the MAIV Residency, for example, saw themselves as engaged in research for the making of art, fewer than half embraced the proposition that their art-making was itself a form of research.

18 A fully informed realignment of writing with the visual arts will surely benefit from consideration of how visual artists view research and writing, especially their own writing. Toward that end, my research collaborator Rachel Nash and I decided to ask questions about what artists say and write about their own work—and, more specifically, about the pedagogical status of artist statements.


Re-Visioning the Visual: Artist Statements and Multi-Modal Composition
W.F. Garrett-Petts and Rachel Nash

19 Two responses to a survey on the writing of artist statements in art schools and university visual arts programs:

"This survey obviously is put forth by someone or some group that supports artists statements. It seems that they want others to support them. In my mind one question is suffice: do you support the idea of artist statements or not? A very pathetic project."

"It sounds like you're trying to strengthen the instruction of writing artists' statements. Good for you! I believe it's critically important. Good luck. Please keep us informed of your ideas and progress."

For the last few years, we have been studying changing notions of research in North America and elsewhere. We have been participant observers working alongside visual artists in multidisciplinary teams, studying their practices, intrigued by the way their work challenges traditional notions of discipline-based inquiry and communication. The presence of artists as co-researchers, we've found, introduces a creative destabilization of disciplinary assumptions, prompting the research teams to frame new questions, negotiate and redefine key concepts, give enhanced attention to visual data, and communicate results differently, often seeking opportunities for the exhibition or display of both data and findings. [4]

20 An area of particular interest for us, an interest we share with Ulmer, has been the "artist statement" as a contested site of practice, a discursive form where writing meets (or, variously intrudes upon, supplements, contextualizes, contradicts, enhances, extends, or gestures toward) visual arts production and exhibition. In the context of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, the artist statement (which more conventionally introduces, contextualizes, and describes an artist's work for public exhibition) has the potential to become both a vehicle for creative inquiry and an alternative to more traditional means of academic dissemination.

21 Writing in the visual arts, and the writing of artist statements in particular, is taught in nearly 90% of North America's art schools and university art programs. The integration of writing into art classes and the visual arts curriculum generally presents us with an intriguing variation on the traditional composition classroom: at the same time as seeing has become a key concept in composition, part of the changing reality for artists is that writing has taken on an increasingly substantial role in the visual arts. Genres such as the artist's talk, the exhibition proposal, the critique, the review, the exhibition statement, the graduating project statement, and, especially, the artist's statement have emerged as complex rhetorical tasks that artists must grapple with, whatever their personal inclinations toward the verbal. Visual arts students, for example, are now regularly taught how to generate complementary verbal narratives in order to become successful students and successful artists. This exigency has created a new field of writing, and with it attendant possibilities for instruction both perfunctory and rich, informed and innovative.

22 We think it important to focus on how writing instruction has been introduced to visual arts classrooms or studios and what productive exchange of ideas might be possible between visual arts and composition studies. At present, no comprehensive picture of writing instruction practices in the visual arts is currently available. As a remedy, we have begun a North American survey of over 4000 visual arts instructors in order to find out more about how writing instruction is occurring in the visual arts—and this section of the essay provides a preliminary report on these findings.

23 The survey, which focuses on the writing of artist statements, asks questions that proceed from the very practical—for example, who teaches writing to visual arts students? How much of their instruction is about writing? What kind of assignments do they use?—to the more theoretical: for example, how do the instructors envision the relationship between the verbal and the visual? The survey invites narrative as well as close-ended responses from respondents, and, to date, as we work through the 643 completed surveys, we've begun to explore how and why visual artists teach writing differently from compositionists—recognizing that the lack of visual arts training among rhetoric and composition faculty is frequently paralleled by the lack of rhetoric and composition training among those fine arts faculty teaching writing. We've also begun to appreciate how a pedagogical reconfiguring of verbal/visual relationships involves more than the creative integration of visual production. In working with visual artists and their students, we note that any informed attempt to integrate the visual carries with it a collection of cultural and disciplinary attitudes, some of which may resist or otherwise challenge assumptions about composition that most writing teachers and writing theorists take for granted.

24 In brief, we want to take up the question of what happens when visual artists talk and write about their own work. Elvis Costello once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a really stupid thing to want to do." Music—and art generally—is widely thought to speak to us directly, is ideally supposed to affect us without the mediation of other people's words and thoughts.

25 But what does it mean when we say "art speaks for itself?" What are the implications for multi-modal composition instruction? Does it matter, for example, what the artist thinks or says about his or her own creation? Do the artist's words carry more weight than, say, those of a curator or an art historian? And should an artist write in a different mode than that employed by, say, a critic or a curator or an academic? Finally, what if the "speaking" itself is art—and a form of criticism, as Ulmer's examination of Beuys suggests? How does that figure into the composition situation?

26 Of course, we all respond differently to works of art. Sometimes artworks seem relatively easy to understand: we "get" their meaning or feel their impact right away. Other artworks seem designed to confound us, to challenge us as viewers. According to some artists and critics, the search for meaning can get in the way of our authentic or "gut" response; as Archibald MacLeish once said of poetry, art "should not mean but be." For most of us, however, understanding an artwork's meaning is part of the pleasure of going to galleries, concerts, and theatres.

27 When we enter a gallery space we have choices to make. Some head directly to the artworks, letting them speak for themselves. Others will habitually read the titles first—and still others look to the artists' and curators' written statements, even before viewing the works, allowing them to guide our interaction with the visual. The words, whether they are read before or after looking closely at the individual artworks, provide us with a context for viewing.

28 Like prefaces, forewords, prologues, and introductions in literary works, the artist statement performs a vital if complex rhetorical role: when included in an exhibition proposal and sent to a curator, the artist statement usually provides a description of the work, some indication of the work's art historical and theoretical context, some background information about the artist and the artist's intentions, technical specifications—and, at the same time, it aims to persuade the reader of the artwork's value. When hung on a gallery wall, the statement (or "didactic") becomes an invitation, an explanation, and, often indirectly, an element of the installation itself.

29 Even as they have become more and more de rigeur in the art world, artist statements nonetheless still present an intriguing, if problematic, example of what Milan Dimic calls "literatures of lesser diffusion," ostensibly minor works of prose poetry or criticism that, lacking either the status or formal dissemination of more canonical writing, have gone unnoticed or become hidden from public view. They are part of an array of "artist writing and talk"—artists' interviews, journals, albums, sketchbooks, and all manner of private correspondence and theorizing—that, when made public, form meta-narratives speaking to and about the work.

30 We've already noted that not all artists and curators are comfortable with the public foregrounding of private aesthetics, written typically, as Derrida reminds us, "in view of their own self-effacement"; as one of our survey respondents put it, "Personally, I hate writing them [artist statements] and I hate reading them. Most are pretentious and boring. Sometimes I agree with Winslow Homer, who is purported to have said, 'I regret that I have painted a picture that requires an explanation.'" Yet the visual arts community nonetheless employs artists' statements as key liminal documents, as writing that both directs the viewer's gaze and indirectly announces or affirms the artist's rite of passage. Artist statements call attention not only to the artworks they introduce but to themselves—and, we would argue, to "the artist" as creative and critical agent. Artist statements are palimpsests, presenting, in words, a narrative or argument apparent beneath (or overlaying, or in some kind of proximity to) each principal visual representation.

31 For working artists and student artists alike, the opportunity to speak and write about their art is thus part opportunity and part obligation. As Brenda Pelkey says, there's "a need for some words"; artists share a responsibility "not to be dumb [or dumbfounded] in front of their own creations" (Personal Interview). Pelkey is speaking as both an artist and a university teacher, challenging herself and her students to consider the writing of artist statements as heuristic devices for reflection and self-discovery. As our survey discovered, however, writing about or alongside the visual is seen as highly problematic aesthetically, personally, and pedagogically.

32 On the one hand, when presented as public documents, what artists say or write about their own works is inherently interesting. Their words, their statements, may provide us with unique insights into their practices. As Gabriele Detterer puts it, "The statement [is] an articulation of the artist's aesthetic position, free of intervention by an art critic bent on interpretation" (9). On the other hand, for the artist herself, there's always the risk of saying too much, of over-explaining and thus leaving the viewer little room for individual discovery. Words can get in the way. Writing artist statements is a complex, sometimes daunting job—one regarded by many artists as something far removed from their principal focus on visual practice.

33 This is especially true for art students: as one instructor reported, "The majority of our art majors are under the impression that they do not need to know how to write—it's not a 'part of their major.'" Christina Halliday, a writing instructor at the Ontario College of Art & Design, aptly captures this student artist attitude in the title of her work "'I came to art school so I wouldn't have to write.'" The students are not alone: to the question "Does your institution offer formal instruction on the writing of artists' statements?" one instructor replied bluntly, "I personally don't believe in them. If you have to write a statement to explain visual communication you have failed as a visual artist." "Part of the basic problem of artist statements," said another instructor, "is that many people enter the visual arts escaping the written word. It is difficult for many."

34 In general, though, some attention to the writing of statements is required in most upper-division courses (typically "professional practices for artists" and "business and art" courses), capstone courses, senior seminars, as part of a graduating exhibition requirement—and, more idiosyncratically, worked in as part of individual studio art courses. At some institutions, formal instruction is supplemented by, or replaced by, extra-curricular workshops, student clubs, lectures by visiting artists and critics, one-on-one tutorials, or by referring students to the Writing Center.

35 To better assess who is leading the writing instruction (that is, helping set the tone for attitudes toward writing in the next generation of artists), we asked, "Have you had formal training in the writing of artists' statements?" Characteristically, the instructors responded by rehearsing their professional experience as artists. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed said they had no formal training in the writing of statements, and, in their open-ended responses only two instructors referenced specific study of or workshop training in the writing of statements:

"It was a component of my MFA thesis."

"It was part of a course I took as a graduate student in 1982."

"I know how to think and write."

"I have been an artist for over 44 years and written many of my own statements as well as curating exhibitions, writing curatorial statements and grants, etc."

"I'm not sure what you mean by this question. In graduate school there was some minimal discussion of writing artists statements. I have read and analyzed many artists statements, many art historical documents written by artists. I have written and published a book and a number of articles; so perhaps I am self educated in writing artist's statements."

"Well, what counts as formal? I had the (very horrible) experience of writing my MFA thesis paper and artist statement for my MFA exhibition—including the idea that you are not supposed to use the word 'I' in ANY academic writing."

"Sort of. I am a professional critic and arts writer (nearly 20 years) with an MA in English literature."

"I doubt that one needs formal training in the writing of artists' statements. Training in writing about the arts in art history classes would suffice in my opinion."

"I've learned it all the hard way as an artist for the past 25 years."

"I have researched it and I am a faculty member in English with much writing experience."

Most telling perhaps were the responses to the following set of questions, which allowed for closed and open-ended responses: "The writing of artists' statements should be taught by any interested member of the visual arts faculty?" and "The writing of artists' statements should be taught by faculty trained in the teaching of writing?" Seventy-seven percent of those responding agreed or neither agreed nor disagreed with the proposition that the writing of artist statements should be taught by any interested member of the visual arts faculty. Responses to the first question included,

"Yes! If they are articulate and can spell!"

"Ideally everything should be taught by practitioners who are passionate and informed in their discipline."

"I don't think it should be restricted to, for example, art historians, or others more engaged in writing, but of course they shouldn't be kept out either."

"We have interested faculty who are not capable—where does that get you?"

Seventy-four percent of those responding agreed or neither agreed nor disagreed with the proposition that artist statements be taught by faculty trained in the teaching of writing—but here the comments suggested a clear sense that artist statements were best taught by practising artists:

"Not necessarily by those trained in teaching writing, but by those who have a strong interest and investment in writing + art."

"Only if that faculty member is also an artist."

"Artists' statements should be taught by artists with writing teachers as resources."

"If they are practicing artists, or very familiar with statements, then probably that would be best. But . . . not always."

"No, we do not need a certified writing teacher to do this task. Most faculty have sufficient skill to help students with their writing."

"Any university faculty member who can not write clearly should be fired."

"I'm not clear about your meaning. I don't want writing/lit people or art theorists teaching the writing of artists' statements. People who are not qualified artists do not have the background to teach the writing of artist's statements; they may be qualified to teach art students to write and think clearly. But then almost all colleges and universities require either writing competency or writing courses."

"Ideally, writing statements could be taught by a writing professor along side a visual arts professor."

"An unlikely event, to be sure."

"No, but such faculty would have solid, useful input."

"English profs/creative writing profs could be brought in to check mechanics and technical issues, yes. But only under the supervision of artists who are articulate about art. There's no reason to believe that a writer who is good in a craft knows anything about visual art."

Also interested in assessing what was being taught, we asked, "When teaching the writing of artist statements, what is your main focus?" The responses fell into a number of predictable categories: concern for the mechanics of writing, with frequent calls for "brevity"; a concern with audience, that is, with helping the audience understand and appreciate the work; a concern for self-expression, especially "bringing forth a sense of self" and "expressing motivation, background, and ideas in the work." A very common focus was on the artist statement as a vehicle for self-reflection, for "critical inquiry and self-understanding."

36 Another group seemed to regard the artist statement as more than a hassle or a necessary evil. Rather, they voiced an unexpected but significant concern, a set of broadly articulated interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary objectives: "exploring the creative potentials of verbal language," "translating instinct into language," "distilling the unseen points/features of the work," considering the "artist statement as a parallel work of art," recognizing that "writing communicates uniquely," and becoming more aware of the "difference between language and visual images."

37 In an effort to tease out more ingrained attitudes, we wanted to know to what extent artist statements were seen as either integral or peripheral to an artist's education. Thus we asked, "Why are artists' statements viewed or not viewed as an integral part of any artist's education?"

"Statements help students articulate a visual language."

"Communication: visual artists communicate visually but also must verbalize what their work is and why it is."

"They are a very distant 50th or 60th in importance when considered alongside everything else that must be taught."

"I teach at an institute that has many ways of intimately evaluating mastery in the arts. In my program the written statement is considered essential, but I would not say that is true across the whole school."

"We have some faculty who are more 'old school' and don't believe in artist's statements—that the artwork should speak for itself."

"Some artists will never be verbal communicators. Or particularly good thinkers. We would rather have them work on the art and spare us the written rubbish. Also, most undergraduates do not have the depth or breadth of experience to have much to write about. Statement writing is more appropriately addressed as a part of an MFA program."

"The fine arts professors consider the actual artistic work to be of supreme importance."

"Because the focus is on making art, not writing about making art. It is important, but we don't have the resources or class structure to fit this in as a focus. Our faculty are serious artists and we probably all have artist's statements that we share with our students. Our gallery posts artists' statements with shows. Students DO get exposure, and we fill this is system fill the gap [sic]. I guess in that sense, it is an integral part of our institution."

"The department is not unified on their importance. Some faculty view artist statements as integral, others do not. At our institution this is a generation gap."

"There are those that believe that art speaks for itself, as well as wanting to focus on applied skills, so it's just not a priority."

As we noted at the outset, we are still in the process of analyzing the data collected; and we are currently considering a follow-up survey to explore the initial responses more fully and to collect sample assignments, handouts, etc., from those respondents willing to provide them. We also want to consider the broader (oral) variations of the artist statement (that is, the interviews and artist talks referenced by Ulmer). At this point, we nonetheless want to risk some tentative—that is, in process—conclusions.

38 We are struck by how ubiquitous and entrenched is the notion that "art speaks for itself"; how, despite protestations to the contrary, this belief continues to characterize and configure image/text relations among those teaching writing in the visual arts community. Such a belief should be acknowledged and considered by those of us wishing to engage writing students in visual work, especially if the visual work produced aspires toward consideration as art. We need to consider what's at stake in including visual strategies, conventions, and elements—for we can do so casually, emphasizing the visual as mere illustration; or we can do so carefully, creating space in writing where the visual might indeed speak for itself. Our recent work suggests the importance of respecting the integrity of modes of communication, both the visual and the verbal, their irreducibility as well as their complementarity, as we acknowledge too that the verbal is not replaceable by the visual. The modes can speak with and to, but not for each other.

39 We are also struck by the passion that this topic elicits from our respondents. The opening quotations in section II, and their polarized perspectives, are not atypical. We want to learn more about the resistance to writing—the sometimes outright hostility to writing—voiced by those who see the visual and verbal as occupying two solitudes.

40 That said, we are also struck by the willingness of many in the artistic community to at once recognize modal differences but also see the visual and the verbal as potentially mutually supportive. Most significantly, as language theorists and composition teachers, we remain intrigued by the interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary possibilities for integrating artist statements into the writing classroom as both subjects of analysis and models for reflective practice, with the aim of "exploring the creative potentials of verbal language," "translating instinct into language," "distilling the unseen points/features of the work," considering the "artist statement as a parallel work of art," recognizing that "writing communicates uniquely," and becoming more aware of the "difference between language and visual images." The artist statement may well offer us a readymade site to explore and practice visual rhetoric both in the composition classroom and in creative research generally.

41 The more writers (and writing instructors) consider and employ the visual not just as visual prompts or as supposedly neutral elements of design, but as culturally-freighted ways of knowing and representing, the closer we'll move toward a true, transdisciplinary configuration of verbal/visual relationships—a rhetoric that, in Ulmer's terms, locates invention as a process of encounter with difference.


Writing as a Performance Art
W.F. Garrett-Petts and Rachel Nash

42 We'd like to conclude by offering two recent examples of how such a rhetoric might play itself out—in both an exhibition context and a pedagogical setting.

Scene I: The Proximities Exhibition

43 In the course of our collaborative research, and as a prelude to the artist statement survey, we began an investigation of how artists understand the generic features which characterize the artist statement. How much difference does the genre permit? How is the genre changing? Are artists making meanings with which they agree or care? What are the purposes of the statements? Are artist statements parasitic on art? Are they enabling justifications for some kinds of art? What meanings do statements and art provoke from each other? Is the friction of different modes the source of the statements' value? In asking these questions, we began to see the artist statement as a site of collisions and proximities, illuminating our understanding of the relationship between the visual and the verbal.

44 These questions became our starting point for an exhibition designed from the outset as a collaborative exploration. Proximities: Artists' Statements and Their Works involved nine artists interested in the notion of "exhibiting statements," and in the related notion of the artist statement as art. Together with Stephan Kurr, Donald Lawrence, Paula Levine, Kristi Malakoff, Ashok Mathur, Jan Peacock, Brenda Pelkey, Brigitte Radecki, and Sandra Semchuk, we started looking at artist statements in terms of their aesthetic, physical, and social proximities to art and artistic inquiry. We invited the contributing artists to consider the role of words as more than verbal complements or supplements or proxies for the original work. The artists were asked to respond to the topic of "artist statements"—with the option of taking one or more of their own artist statements and working with the text(s) in a manner that documented, represented, or annotated the original work, creating a "new work" in the process. Proximities sought to move artist statements from the periphery to the center of the exhibition space. For example, perhaps the most audacious interpretation of this challenge came from Malakoff, Mathur and Semchuk, whose "artist statement"—a message of theory and practice composed in vinyl letters and interpolated with sculptures, video and photographs—ran the length of the gallery and was the work of art.

45 We've written in more detail about the exhibition elsewhere (Proximities), but what we'd like to reflect on here is how the process of exhibiting and curating allowed for a different mode of inquiry—one that relied less on interpretation or analysis, and more on creative participation. By asking the artists to "exhibit" statements, we invited a form of artistic inquiry that exposed the purposes, forms, processes, and potential of artist statements by embodying, animating, or otherwise enacting those statements as new (or newly conceived) works of art. The writing we in turn produced (the didactics, a curatorial soundscape included as part of the exhibition, the catalogue, the presentations, and later the survey, etc.) emerged out of that collaborative exploration, as a performance, putting invention at the center of attention.

Proximities Exhibition, street view

Proximities Exhibition, Street View. Photograph by Dana Novak, 2005.

Suggesture, detail

Suggesture, Detail, by Kristi Malakoff, Sandra Semchuk, and Ashok Mathur.
Photograph by Dana Novak, 2005.

Scene II: The Residency

46 At the MAIV Residency, one of the participants led an "Artwriting" workshop. Sarah Eldridge is a writing teacher at Carnegie-Mellon University, where she works with MFA students, helping them use writing as a means of re-seeing and understanding their own work. Eldridge eschews the term "artist statement," preferring instead the notion of an "art statement," a rephrasing that encourages artists to see statements as emerging from the art and not just as afterthoughts or obligatory postscripts to the creative act. She asks her visual arts students, for example, to "interview their artwork," to first let their art speak before writing about their own art. Eldridge's objective is to help artists see and know and write about their own work differently—through talking and writing, through their own art.[5]

47 Eldridge practices the art of conversation; conversation is her practice. She is a special kind of amanuensis, one who both transcribes and translates artistic practice, encouraging the artists to locate themselves—or at least their art—in an image resonant with personal meaning. "The closer you get to an image," she advises, "the closer you get to an art statement." (Ulmer calls such a figure the "image of wide scope.") Thus Eldridge negotiates a difficult terrain, nudging the artists toward self-recognition and understanding while, as a guide, she resists the critic's temptation to interpret and over-explain. The end result for the artists is often a state of awareness akin to what Keats calls "almost a remembrance," where subjects find words and images for their work—words and images that, though newly discovered, seem freshly remembered.

48 During her MAIV workshop, Eldridge rehearsed a scene from Hemingway's "Indian Camp," a short story about seeing and knowing:

Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an ax three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad.

Nick's father ordered some water to be put on the stove, and while it was heating he spoke to Nick.

"This lady is going to have a baby, Nick," he said.

"I know," said Nick.

"You don't know," said his father. "Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams."

"I see," Nick said. (Hemingway 16)

Eldridge's workshop was about moving us toward an "I see" moment, toward the kind of knowing that only seeing or first-hand experience can provide. Bad art statements, she suggests rely on more traditional forms of knowledge, and thus too often present themselves as know-it-all reports. The "I see" posture suggests a more modest, more engaged, more exploratory form of illumination; it arises in the moment, tentatively, resisting premature resolution. "I see" reveals a subject in process, in conversation with the world.


We want to note with gratitude the contributions of our student research assistants, who helped construct the artist statement survey, analyze the data, and help document the interviews and related exhibitions: Dana Novak, Leah Sabulsky, Jaime Lord, and Sabrina Weeks. We also want to thank the Making Artistic Inquiry Visible Residency participants, especially Sarah Eldridge, for sharing their insights. Funding for this research was made possible through a grant from the Community-University Research Alliance Program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


[1] Edward T. Hall describes in 1995 what is today becoming a familiar attitude toward the visual arts and artists: "Unlike many social scientists I know, whenever I find myself trapped in a conceptual dilemma, I have inevitably turned to art for clues to human perception that I might have overlooked. Yet, the role of the artist has never been entirely clear. The artist, like the poet, may have some difficulty explaining him- or herself by means of linear logic of the hard scientific paradigm" (116).

[2] See for example Irwin and de Cosson's A/R/Tography; Balkema and Slager's Artistic Research; Nash and Garrett-Petts' Artists' Statements; and McNiff's Art-Based Research.

[3] In "Artists' Statements and 'The Rules of Art,'" Frank Davey cites Plato's Apology to Socrates, where Socrates tells "his judges that he went to the poets and asked them to explain the meaning of 'their poems, those which I thought they had taken the most pains to perfect,' and found that 'all the bystanders . . . had something better to say than the composers had about their own compositions. I discovered, then, . . . about the poets that no wisdom enabled them to compose as they did, but natural genius and inspiration; like the diviners and those who chant oracles, who say many fine things but do not understand anything of what they say' (Rouse trans. 428)." Davey calls Plato's Apology the "earliest romantic explanation of artistic creativity as the irrational, spontaneous actions of people who are inarticulate in rational language—people who, at an extreme, can be perceived as idiot savants whose only way of communicating is through the creation of things like poems, paintings, music, dance, or sculpture." Davey is also quick to point out that we have "numerous examples of artists who could also produce high quality analytical work" (34-35)—a list which includes Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Frank Davey.

[4] These preliminary conclusions are based upon an investigation of possible models for artistic inquiry that began with our participation in the Small Cities Community-University Research Alliance, a ten-year arts-led research program. As part of the research alliance, we are now in the midst of working out forms and models of collaboration involving artists, academic researchers, and community organizations. To date, nine artists have been engaged to work with community-based research teams, organizations, or projects. Each is following one of three inquiry models: (1) Affinity—where the artist is encouraged to match existing work with issues under exploration by a particular research group; (2) Response—where the artist is encouraged to create new work responding directly to the particular research group's project; (3) Integrated—where the artist works with a particular research group, becoming in effect a co-researcher by committing skills, insights and art production to the research findings (Garrett-Petts and Dubinsky 6-7).

[5] Eldridge's workshop took place as part of the MAIV Residency on June 11, 2008, at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta. Garrett-Petts participated in the workshop and interviewed (and was interviewed by) Eldridge the following week.

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