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Pictures and words and the artist's statement


Leonardo Da Vinci ms. 19071r_Royal_Library, detail

“With what words O writer can you with a like perfection describe the whole arrangement of that of which the design is here? . . . I counsel you not to cumber yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind.” Leonardo Da Vinci’s annotation on a page dominated by his illustration of an ox heart.

Both human sight and human language rely on deep, innate and universal structures. Those structures, their differentiation and integration in the individual, and the interdependent roles of sight and language in human life, provoke large non-rhetorical questions and provide a rich domain for disciplined and creative inquiry.

Each way of knowing, visual and verbal, must have its own advantages or these abilities would not be so fundamental or so distinct that a preference for one or another constitutes a cognitive style or form of intelligence. Among the currently defined multiple intelligences visual and verbal are most clearly distinguished as ‘linguistic intelligence’ and ‘spatial intelligence.’

An interesting intersection of the two principles of language and vision occurs when a visual artist is asked to explain a work of visual art, implying that the perceiver is in doubt about the meaning of what is seen, or believes that understanding can be supplemented. A corollary implication of such a request is that some combination of visual and verbal activity might generate meaning for the perceiver that neither alone can provide. If words alone could convey full meaning, then there would be no need for an image, and vice versa.

One might reasonably assume that the choice of becoming a visual artist would be made by persons who most highly value their visual intelligence. Preference, however, does not imply exclusivity. Any “well-rounded” person will have linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist abilities to varying degrees. An intelligent verbal response to the request for a verbal enhancement to a piece of visual art is therefore not categorically out of the question, but requires a flexible response between intelligences.

This flexibility should be found among those most rigorously prepared as visual artists. The current terminal (meaning ultimate, not necessarily fatal) academic degree for the preparation of visual art professionals is the Master of Fine Art (MFA). Preparation includes studio, history, philosophy and professional development often culminating in a “thesis” exhibition supported by a written statement and oral defense.

Professor Gregory Amenoff, Chair of the Visual Arts Division at Columbia University generously described the process in a personal communication with this Examiner that underscores the serious nature of the activity at one of the nation's most highly regarded graduate schools:

Dear Carleton,

Many artists coming into our program have already written statements in prep for applying to Columbia. However within the program there are three ways statements are developed.

First casually as per need in consultation with faculty when students are applying for grants and various residencies we offer directly or indirectly.

Second: We have a class which is an elective taught by Jackie Battenfield which is a professional practice class. About half our students take it. Within the context of learning about insurance, lawyers, landlords, grants, taking photos etc etc. students in the class develop an artist statement which is mentored by Ms. Battenfield.

Finally, in preparation and as part of their final thesis work in the last semester each soon to graduate student develops a statement which is used as a point of discussion for their final thesis committee meeting at the thesis show. That is normally mentored by a full time faculty serving as the head of the thesis committee.

Best, Gregory

Four articles have been prepared by this Examiner to permit readers to explore the artist’s statement as an example of the relationship between words and images at a high enough level to be meaningful. Each of the contemporary painters who generously agreed to share his writing and portfolio for this inquiry has a significant exhibition record and the M.F.A., is presently exhibiting and selling artwork, and therefore may be considered somewhere in “mid-career” as a professional artist.

The visual artist’s statement: an intersection of words and images
Tom Sanford, artist’s statement and portfolio May, 2010
Benjamin Edwards, artist’s statement and portfolio, May 2010
Denis Peterson, artist’s statement and exemplary works

Although there are many collections of artists’ portfolios, such as Saatchi Online and Irving Sandler’s Artists Space which invite written remarks, this small collection offers the reader an opportunity to examine the relationship between artists’ formal statements and related images of their work, and to consider the roles of pictures and words in those visual and verbal statements. The subject invites further development, but since such expanded discussion is beyond the scope of this article, at the end of the sentence this Examiner will have written his last word.


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