Painting is a language which cannot be replaced by another language. I don't know what to say about what I paint, really. -Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola)
Language shows a man; speak that I may see thee. -Ben Jonson (Renaissance Playwright)
I can feel my body tense up every time I'm asked to submit a statement about my work. What a struggle it is to translate my ideas from one medium, one language, painting, to another, words, explaining what's taken me weeks to paint in a few paragraphs. Yet in our contemporary art world it's a demand I have to put up with nearly every time I submit my work for review. Painters have to be writers; heard in order to be seen.
I acquiesce because I want to be understood. Making visual art, in my case painting, is an act of communication, just like writing. But even though we're swimming in visual images morning to night from birth, to many people it's still a foreign language. Those not accustomed to reading visual art, appreciate the written translation. A verbal explanation helps to break through the language barrier. It also helps to breach the boundaries of the ordinary, that sea of visual images that flood our every day life, making us numb to new visual experiences, and accustomed to visual mediocrity. But that's another blog.
Back to writing. Some well-known painters, like Balthus, have refused to write statements. He also refused to give biographical details of his life, answering a request from the Tate Gallery with, "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures." But not all painters have taken so firm a stand against writing. Some write simply beautiful statements, sometimes better than the actual work. Then there are those whose statements barely relate to the actual work. They don't necessarily correspond very well, one to the other, paint and words. You really have to be wary, checking to see whether or not the verbal describes and serves the visual. So much art writing is puff and fluff.
And then there's the writing about art that's virtually morphed into becoming the entire substance of the work. The art market has become so idea-driven that words seem too often to be a better language fit than the visual. They often subvert and take over. Intention substitutes for execution. No fuss, no bother, no need to strain yourself to appreciate a beautifully executed piece of work. No need to translate the visual to the verbal. Sit down, get comfortable, relax. You can read about the artist's ideas, and feel satisfied without the eye strain.