What Artists Talk About When They Talk About Their Art

And why it’s hard to say anything truly meaningful

Christopher P Jones
6 min readApr 24, 2019

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

When I was at art college — many years ago now — I learnt two things very quickly.

The first was that, if you’re going to make it as a practicing artist, you must not only be passionate, but also sociable, canny, eclectic, pompous (but not too much), fierce, shrewd, barefaced and, hopefully as daring as possible.

In short, I began to realise that a contemporary artist is measured by his or her mettle, as much as anything else.

Well, that had me a little stumped…

The other thing I learnt was that, to prove yourself in all-of-the-above, you had to learn to speak for yourself. Your artwork alone was not quite enough; you had to argue for it, stand up for it and extol it. Art school was about learning to take responsibility for your work, and fending off attacks if required.

Now, this had me really stumped…

Talking about my art was never an easy thing to do. It still isn’t. The very point of creating art was to go to places where words couldn’t venture.

And yet, I understood that the need to talk and write about my work was (probably) a professional necessity: in pitches to potential buyers, press releases, discussions over social media, artist talks and workshops.

Talking about one's art must do more than merely describe it; it must compliment the work, echo the themes, subtitle it, and most of all, reveal the artist behind it. In preparing such a thing, the artist is faced with a myriad of awkward questions: How is my art meant to operate? What is its purpose? What is my relation to it? How can language capture these facets?

I’ve never liked the question “What does your work mean?”

When I talk about my artwork, I tend to find myself fumbling with empty statements, like the following:

“My paintings express my inner feelings.”

“I‘m trying to say something about the human condition.”

“The world is so complex and perplexing. That’s what the painting is trying to say!!”