Craig Oates

Tonal Delivery


Art Practice

All Articles

We all impress our ideas, feelings and desires on to others. Sometimes we receive them with welcoming arms and other times not so much. The tone we use to deliver our impressions influences how others receive them. It's this observation that this piece of writing will be focusing on. And, I will elaborate on it through the context of writing my artist's practice statement. I must admit though, I've written several over the years and talking about each one here is unnecessary. So, I will keep the time frame to the time I started university and a couple of years after. That'll place me in my early twenties and limit the scope to about three statements.

So, how do you decide what tone to use when delivering your practice statement?

Deciding how to deliver your expression can be difficult. And, when the amount of options available is large enough a paradox-of-choice can form. It hinders your ability to make a decision and paralyses you, rendering everything useless. I must stress, though, it's just quicksand. It's always an obstacle and never the final destination. Besides, the real issue here isn't setting the right tone it's making yourself credible. If Queen Elizabeth opened up her traditional Christmas speech with "Wha' up?" she would lose some credibility. There is nothing stopping her but the way we perceive her forces the tonal outcome. There is no freedom of choice here. I'm sure most people would chuckle, though.

Whilst at university I got caught in this quicksand. It was when I was trying to write my practice statement. The reason I ended up stuck was due to me not realising I was dealing with a credibility problem. I didn't realise because of pre-conceived assumptions. I thought artists had more freedom than they actually have. And, I didn't know the difference between "practice" and "practise" either, which didn't help.

One of the requirements to complete my course was to submit a practice statement, with my art work. This sounded reasonable but it did leave me exposed to the chicken and the egg problem. To put into words what I was doing I needed to know what I could do first. I spent a lot of time seeing what I could do and not enough time figuring out what I should do. This meant I couldn't provide a context for people, apart from "I'm just playing".

When you don't have something concrete to say, how do you know how to say it? It's hard enough when you do have something. And, when you don't, the risk of losing credibility increases. At the time I didn't see it as a risk, though. My main concern was with making it sound "deep" and to help me overcome the challenge I used a thesaurus. Looking back, I can now see that I was trying to minimise rejection and the loss of credibility that came with it. I was trying to make what I was doing sound complicated so if I did fail it was because it was difficult. I was trying to force how people perceived me because I wanted acceptance. And, projecting a tone of complexity helped me achieve that goal. This has since turned out to be an act, an act I didn't realise I was putting on.

Whilst in the act, I used my thesaurus to conjure a sentence not dissimilar to,

"My work explores the intersection that is diametrically opposed to political agency and metaphor".

It sounds serious and professional but it means nothing. It's just a tactic I used to prop up my shortcomings.

There was a lot of talk about professionalism and professional practice whilst at university. It scented the atmosphere around me and affected how I thought about art. A large part of academic institutions is to educate students and make them employable. This type of behaviour creates a professional-musk as a by-product.

Due to my naivety, I associated "deep" with "professional". I faffed about with various ways of delivering my practice statement (E.G. ironic, abrasive...). The profession-musk was rife, though, and fogged my glasses. I didn't see myself as a "professional", I still don't, but it was hard for me to identify any other kind. If you are not a professional artist, you are not an artist. That was my thinking at the time. I thought I could mask my inadequacies by setting a professional tone. I did so believing I arrived at that conclusion on my own. It didn't occur to me that I went down this route because I didn't have a choice. The atmosphere around me took my hand and escorted me there. It appeared clear to me that I would have lost credibility if I didn't garner a professional tone. What was disconcerting about that was the outcome lurking in the background. If I wasn't careful, I wouldn't earn my degree or a receive a respectable mark at least. At that point, it didn't matter what my work was about. I just needed to make it sound intellectual and that meant professional.

I was wary of practice statements after university. There never seemed to be a solid answer for what one should look like. It was a nebulous term and as I was now out in the wild my confusion was aggravated. I understood they defined an artist's practice. What I didn't understand was what an artist's practice is. This was, in part, due to me still not understanding the difference between "practice" and "practise". It made me, once again, question what an artist practice should look like. All I could find was more professional-musk. It was also nebulous-like and diametrically opposed to political agency and metaphor...

Throwing my stuff away and starting again seemed a necessary idea at that time. My art work was beginning to feel like baggage. I made a lot of aimless stuff and gave little consideration to their life span. With that said, quite a bit did manage to tag along for a while. This made it harder to destroy them but, when the time finally arrived, disposing of them was easy. I was surprised by how easy it was at first but that began to subside as I started to feel liberated. Unfortunately, the liberation was short lived as I had to figure out what direction I wanted to go in. This meant a return to square one whilst still lacking satisfactory answers to fundamental problems.

Rewriting my Practice Statement outside of a university environment helped highlight its sway. I didn't have a degree on the line this time. This made me believe I had more freedom than before. The reason why is because I though the outcome wasn't a foregone conclusion. I believed I could present myself in a way that wasn't professional this time. I could be "true to myself".

Having the option to move away from trying to come across as a professional artist was useful to me. Although, it was only a perceived choice. The idea of operating in a professional manner felt restrictive to me. For me to be professional I believed I needed to show commitment and discipline. That meant I needed something to commit to. The problem was I didn't have something I believed in at that point -- sensing that I would change course in the not too distant future compounded the problem.

I pondered a fair bit over the need to create a practice statement after finishing university. At the time I asked myself a question. What advantage would I have by possessing a practice statement? Especially, if I don't view myself as a professional artist. I expanded the question to include everyone. I began contemplating how hobbyists would approach writing theirs. Do they need one? What would they put in it? If I'm not a professional artist, does that make me a hobbyist? An amateur?

Having considered the problem, I have come to accept something obvious. We are all different in some ways and the same in others. One of the similarities is we all strive for credibility although not all the time. When this deviation occurs we always end up dropping at least one of three traits. They are competence, politeness and respect. With that observation came a revelation. If you remove the financial aspect, they all reflect a part of the "professional". On top of that, they all add up to basic human decency.

I now realise that it doesn't matter if I'm a professional artist, or not. I enjoy making art and sharing it. I also find comfort in people liking my work. So, for my work to have a chance at being considered, not even accepted, I must endeavour to set an appropriate tone. And, one way to do that is with a practice statement. Through it, I can set a tone built upon competence, politeness and respect. That is why including something like "Wha' up, bitches?" is not a good idea. Also, saying things like,

"My work explores the intersection that is diametrically opposed to political agency and metaphor",

is something I would recommend against. The reason why is because it's mysticism. It makes the artwork less accessible for people to engage with and enjoy. Sure, there will be times when this amount of obscurity is appropriate but they are few are far between -- in my opinion.

Having pondered over the above I have to come to realise there is no freedom of choice here. Or, at best, the options available are smaller than I thought earlier. With that said, there is a more startling, yet obvious, realisation. Being an artist is no different than being anything else in a civilised society. It doesn't matter what flavour of artist you are either. For a society to excel we all need to show competence, politeness and respect. What's funny yet frustrating about this is that I feel like I had the answer all along, just not the working out.