The 100%, Sure-Fire Way to Sound Like a Self-Absorbed Artist

artist painting herself fancy

I’m going to piss off a whole lot of MFAs right now. You contemporary artist types, I’m calling you out!

Your artist bio makes you sound like a complete douche. How do I know? Because you use words like dystopian, amorphous, nebulous, and architectural to describe the work you do. Sure, some art can be represented by those terms, but when everyone starts using those terms to describe the work, maybe you should reconsider.

Sometime during the 20th century, artists decided against talking to their customers, and instead thought it best to talk above them. They conjured up ridiculous statements about meaning behind their work to sound more profound, intelligent, intellectual, or inspired.

Many years ago, I picked up a copy of New American Paintings magazine—a compendium of artists that were either on the rise, or making a big name for themselves. Obviously, the work was what drew me to the magazine, but as I read through some of the artist statements, I was wondering if either I lacked the intelligence to understand contemporary art, or I was not the target demographic for artists. The bios were so esoteric, I questioned my grasp of all artistic concepts because I lacked the brain power to understand what the hell the people were talking about.

I don’t recall what spurred today’s new rant on the subject, but when it came to mind, my instinct went immediately to picking up a copy of New American Paintings to share some of this wonderment with you. Allow me to elaborate.

“The [objects] are autonomous, independent, non-referential objects that hover between materiality and immateriality, providing the viewer with varied perceptual experiences.”

“In my work. the cosmetic cover of reality has risen to the surface of the canvas, with no resolution offered: the paintings are anti-transcendental and finite”

“My paintings represent complex pictorial situations that synthesize historical idioms”

Seriously, who talks like this? I never attended a traditional art school, but it makes me wonder if Mystical Double-Talk 101 is a required course, or an elective.

“My ‘paintings’ are focused on explorations of the workings of the ‘pictorial window’ and it’s relationship to space.”

“Using historical painting tropes such as sublimity and vanitas, my work comments on the elements of growth, decay, and extinction in a contemporary, and often regional, context.”

And my personal favorite, when an artist speaks of themselves in third person…

“[Name withheld]’s world on paper is composed of images both familiar and utterly abstract. His narratives lack a beginning, middle, or end… It is most likely because [artist] is a wandering poet and talented musician that he is able to create worlds of beauty that feel so completely of the moment.”

I especially like how the artist isn’t even really sure of his own intention when he says, “it is most likely because…”

If I owned a gallery and any of my artists tried to use a statement like these above, I’d smack them over the head with a canvas rail. I’m not sure where this gibberish comes from, but I never learned it in school. If this is how you speak about the work you do, perhaps now is the time to rethink it. These words provide no value for the viewer and/or art collector, and you do nothing by distance yourself from your potential tribe. I wonder why none of these artists have taken the time to question the status quo on this idea. It’s self-perpetuated bullshit and someone needs to stand up to the tyranny.

How about this instead:

“I make drawings of contemporary, urban landscapes. My colored-pencil drawings deal with modern themes of uncertainty and longing within our cities.” – Susan Logoreci (landscape surrealist)

Simple, concise, tells the story with a little flair, but without completely eluding the viewer to her point of view. Reading her statement while looking at the work, the connection makes sense, and I don’t feel like I left my educated mind in the trunk of my car after reading it.

Trying to sound deep for the sake of selling your work to a more savvy art crowd is a dying trend, or at least it should be put to death. The average art fan doesn’t want to read this junk. They want to know your inspiration, your thoughts behind the work, but they want it from a real, human perspective. These artificial incantations you create in order to make the work appear bigger or more important is a ruse, a sham, and you only end up sounding like a self-important douche.

The new order of business for artists and other creatives is to give out your true, authentic voice. Share yourself—not some manufactured version of you created by art college elitism. When you share the real person within you, people can relate. Sure, you can have an air of mystery to your work. Nobody said you had to give up the keys to that proverbial castle, but really, we should be letting the work speak for itself and stop trying to put random words from the thesaurus in its mouth.

The Curse of Knowledge

This all boils down to a bunch of people who have followed the paths of their contemporaries until it became a thing. One ethereal minded artist gave this momentum, and then his whole circle followed suit. Before long, it became a movement, and then the norm, so much so that art collectors and critics started talking the same way, and now it’s a language unto itself, but really, it’s all just bullshit.

Sometimes, when I’m in a conversation with a group of people and one of more of them are savvy to design or art direction, the conversation can take a turn for the vernacular. The few of us that “know” end up talking shop while the others at the table look on confused and bewildered but because we’re so impassioned in our chatter, the outsiders try to stay engaged for fear of missing out.

When I catch myself doing this, I feel like a ass, and I will apologize for my douchey actions. No one wants to be excluded from the cool kids table, and we don’t necessarily mean to exclude people, but it happens all the time.

If a group of artists want to talk to each other in their metaphysical doublespeak, so be it, but when common folk like me are in the room, how about putting away your pretense for a moment and remember what it’s like to be, you know, a person. This goes for anyone who has a tendency to break out the nomenclature of their particular craft.

Whether you’re a designer, photographer, crafter, sculptor or random creative soul—embrace the language when with your peers. However, when presenting yourself to the general public, how about putting it on a shelf for a bit?

The beauty of acting human is that more regular humans will appreciate you, and you just might find that your core customer has been waiting for you to come back down to earth to talk to them.

Turning the lens around

So now I ask you, are you using language in your work that distracts and confuses your fans? Are you using industry vernacular that keeps people from understanding your work or your process? If so, is there a way you can remain sounding like a professional but still bring the level of conversation more into the realm of the layman? Let me know your thoughts below.

[Photo Credit]
Recent Posts
Showing 23 comments
  • Amantha Tsaros

    Dave, oh, Dave. Oh, Dave. Dave. Dave. Dave. Dave. You had me at “douchy”.

    Seriously, this is a topic that drives me right off the rails. In fact, this type of thing is a reason that I am not sure I want to work with a gallery – I feel like it is a club I DON’T want to be a part of. Frankly those artist statements are embarrassing. When I am asked to submit a statement along with my work to a show I think, “Well, okaaaaay, but I am pretty sure it isn’t going to be pretentious enough.”

    Great post, Dave. Many thanks. I have a dozen people I know who need to read this right now.

    • Dave Conrey

      Hopefully, just as not all artists are douchy, we can hope that not all gallery owners are either. Glad it resonated with you.

  • Natasha Wescoat

    DUDE I love you for posting this. I don’t know how often I write or talk about this to anyone but it’s one of my huge pet peeves. I have attended art school myself and I will tell you NOONE talks like this, but I have had a few advanced classes where I had to write a synopsis of what I wanted to learn. The wording was so confusing I almost dropped the class. ALSO? The things they say to those entering masters programs is like another language. I have listened to art professors and been “holy fuck, what the hell did you just say about the hand I drew? I don’t know what that even means!” I think they start really trying to elevate the work through language when they get to a certain academic level in the genre, but I am gathering from all these years of dealing with galleries that it’s limited to the gallery market. There are way too many of these doctorate curators and self-absorbed artists still bouncing around the world. I fear that it rubs off on me sometimes and I start using the words. lol – This is what scares me about doing more art fests or art related events. They require you to give statements like the ones you mentioned above. Mine usually read like this: “I really like bright colors and the idea of clowns scare me, so I painted this.” there, done! I fail at the art world haha

    • Dave Conrey

      That is the best artist statement ever, Natasha!

  • Nina Huang

    Most art statements drive me totally crazy, too! It’s something I joke about with Barry all the time. I think that great art connects us all, in the most fundamental, emotional, and visceral way. I am a writer, but I love image-making because I think visuals can transcend many language and cultural barriers. When art statements fail to connect (and sometimes disconnect), I think the artist has failed in reaching the viewer.

    • Dave Conrey

      I think a big part of the problem is that there are people in the art world (gallery owners, curators, collectors) that try to “understand” what the artists are saying with these statements and imply that they are being deep and meaningful when they speak in this way. Based on what Natasha said above, Curse The MFA!

  • Jennifer

    If you really want to make one of these artists feel bad, buy a painting from them and then say, “this is going to look GREAT in my bathroom!”

    When I was in art school, this type of talk was common. We read a lot of essays and books about and by artist that read very much like these artist statements. Students were put down if they dare to create art that was simply pretty or might look good over the sofa. Everything you made had to have at least 10 layers of meaning. Otherwise, what would people have to talk about at your opening night reception?

    You would not believe the crap I painted in college! Now I just paint pretty things that people might actually want in their homes. Crazy!

    • Jennifer

      Oh… after Art School I went on to receive a degree in Computer Science and learned the difference between “intellectual” and “Intelligent”

    • Dave Conrey

      Nothing wrong at all with painting pretty things, Jennifer. I’m glad you found your way through the clutter.

  • Sima Schloss


    • Dave Conrey

      My pleasure, Sima. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Betsy

    Thank you for that. In my view, contemporary art that needs a page of convoluted verbiage to explain it is generally not worth looking at.

    • Dave Conrey

      As some have said before, let the art speak for itself.

  • Judith

    what a relief… thank you for “self-absorbed douche” lol.

  • Angeline-Marie

    OH so whole-heartedly agree with you!!!!

    My favorite of these was an art exhibit critique of one of my favorite artists. It was a 500 word newspaper article exactly how you described. The author is considered one of the best art critiques around South Florida, writing in Spanish. I couldn’t make out what he meant. WTH! No point in reading it at all.

    I spent time with a dictionary. It didn’t even make sense in English. LOL

    Thank you for being down to earth! I didn’t attend art school, either! I making my own BFA and BS degrees!

    • Dave Conrey

      Thanks Angelina. I’m glad this resonates with others. I’d feel foolish if I was the only one on the island.

  • elizabeth england

    I keep re-reading my favorite parts to giggle some more. Being an artist isn’t easy. You lay bare your heart and soul every time you offer a new piece of work and then you try very hard not to care whether anyone gets your vision or at the very least notices you just put something out there.

    Just like the “average Joe or Jane” who, frustrated at work, leaves their 9-5 and then berates the check-out clerk at the grocery store, or the restaurant waitress , or goes home to kick the dog, we’re all just looking for ways to make ourselves feel better — to protect our tender bits. Not that that actually works of course…

    Can you imagine the tremendous growth spurt of creativity, imagination and depth that could take place as each artist surrenders fear and, as you suggest, “share(s) the real person within” — embracing authenticity. This is a terrific discussion — and it makes me wonder about a few things I might be ready to let go of.

    • Dave Conrey

      I’m sure you do have some things you are ready to let go of, as do we all, Elizabeth. It’s a never-ending cycle of growth. Thanks for chiming in.

      Offhand, what exactly were your favorite parts?

  • elizabeth england

    Favorite parts? Hmmm…top three:

    “Your artist bio makes you sound like a complete douche.”
    “In my work. the cosmetic cover of reality has risen to the surface of the canvas, with no resolution offered: the paintings are anti-transcendental and finite”
    “I’d smack them over the head with a canvas rail.”

  • Dove Paige Anthony

    For the first time I have to write an artist bio about myself and I am so self conscious about it because I don’t want to sound like a douche but at the same time don’t want to sound like I’m apologizing for my art

    • Dave Conrey

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being confident about your work, Dove. I encourage you to talk about your work fondly, and with passion, but also speak from your own voice. You want to embolden people to be eager to buy the art, so give them something that shines a light on the piece, but don’t be fluffy or superfluous. Just talk about it like you would tell your best friend.