The Way We Talk about Art Shouldn’t Be Impossible to Understand
Last week, an email from a fairly well-known New York gallery showed up in my inbox. The email contained a press release for an exhibition featuring four highly acclaimed artists, none of whom I had heard of (this is nothing out of the ordinary for me). I scanned the artists’ bios, hoping to learn something about them. I didn’t, really, but I was reminded of a few things about the state of art writing. A representative excerpt: “[The artist’s] interest in balancing the dynamic between positive and negative space within his compositions mirrors his interest in exploring the delicate harmony between humans and nature, and his lines serve as meditations on time and motion” and who knows what else.
Every branch of knowledge has some version of this jargon: clumsy yet cocky, vague yet exclusive, like a bad host who refuses to explain her inside jokes to the guests who don’t already get them. I doubt that most of the people who bothered to read the press release understood it; I strongly doubt that even one of them enjoyed it. But art jargon—International Art English or IAE, as the writers Alix Rule and David Levine termed it—seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. Rule and Levine created a minor stir when they published a cheeky essay for Triple Canopy on the idiocies of IAE, but that was back in 2012—if critics and copywriters have shown any sign of changing their ways in the last six years, I’m unaware.
It’s not that good art writing is impossible, or even particularly hard, to find nowadays. (Off the top of my head: Janet Malcolm, Rebecca Solnit, Dave Hickey, Jed Perl, Tobi Haslett, T.J. Clark, Geoff Dyer, Hilton Als.) Still, most of the chitchat you overhear at a gallery opening sounds suspiciously like the International Art English in which the opening was advertised. Gallery-goers are under no obligation to speak as eloquently as Malcolm writes about Diane Arbus, of course, but it’s worth asking why so many of them would choose to speak in the grotty lingo of topoi and subverted temporalities and activated spaces.
Weirdly absent from Rule and Levine’s take on art jargon is any acknowledgement that this is an old problem, not a new one. Switch around a few of the words in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” in fact, and you’re left with pretty much the same argument Rule and Levine made more than half a century later. Each sin of political discourse Orwell singles out—“verbal false limbs,” “pretentious diction,” “meaningless words”—has its cousin in 21st-century International Art English. To their credit, Rule and Levine obviously did their homework, and their analysis, bolstered by lots of data-crunching, is often hilariously specific to the present era. They’re particularly adept at singling out the little continental quirks of IAE, contracted like measles from bad English translations of French post-structuralist philosophy. The concept of being visual becomes “the visual” or, better yet, “visuality”; “experience” becomes “experiencability.” (A good rule of thumb: In art jargon, a definite article followed by an adjective has more or less the same meaning as that adjective followed by the word “stuff.”)
Other features seem more sinister. Artworks, if IAE is to be trusted, are always doing things: interrogating, problematizing, questioning, displacing (or balancing, mirroring, exploring, and meditating, per the press release quoted above), without ever quite achieving the revolutionary political ends their creators claim to desire so fervidly. Words like “radical,” “autonomy,” and “subversive” appear over and over again in art writing, usually where they don’t belong. As Orwell wrote: “Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
But perhaps art jargon doesn’t even deserve such close scrutiny. “It’s often a mistake,” Rule and Levine argue, “to read art writing for its literal content.…What matters is the authority it establishes.” Buying art has always been a sign of social status; so, it follows, is talking about art. Like a secret handshake or an old school tie, IAE unites a tiny, well-heeled minority and excludes the insufficiently dialectical masses. Not that the literal content of art writing is totally unimportant—you could argue that it provides, in its frequent meaninglessness, a very meaningful statement about present-day cultural elites. Form fits content like a glove: With its smothering ambiguities and turgid lists of verbs collapsing on themselves, IAE is the perfect dialect for discussing art with flashy political ambition, but minimal political impact.
If IAE is ever going to get more comprehensible, mockery won’t be enough. The only thing greater than the ridiculousness of the art world, after all, is the art world’s amusement with its own ridiculousness. How else could a movie like The Square—which takes two-and-a-half hours to reach the shocking conclusion that art snobs are shallow and hypocritical—win the top prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, an event patronized almost exclusively by the kinds of people The Square skewers? Rule and Levine’s article provoked some outrage (most notably a lengthy, dyspeptic reply from Martha Rosler), but its biggest effect was to make people laugh—and most of those people, it’s easy to imagine, were fluent IAE speakers.
It’s not even clear if Rule and Levine want to get rid of impenetrable art jargon—in order to get where they’ve gotten in life, it must be pointed out, they both had to write their share of experiencabilitys. “If IAE implodes,” they conclude, “we probably shouldn’t expect that the globalized art world’s language will become neutral and inclusive. More likely, the elite of that world will opt for something like conventional highbrow English and the reliable distinctions it imposes. Maybe in the meantime we should enjoy this decadent period of IAE.” Sit back, relax, and watch Rome burn—who, pray tell, is the “we” in that passage? Tenured academics who like to nibble the hand that feeds…long after they’ve been fed?
Therein lies the key difference between “International Art English” and “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell earnestly wanted to do away with pretentious, obscure language—for him, clear writing was nothing less than a struggle for individual freedom. Rule and Levine are content to have their fun, take a couple shots at their peers, and be on their way. Maybe that’s because the function of criticism seems less urgent now than it did in the middle of the last century—yes, plenty of art writing these days is insular to the point of incomprehensibility, but then again, so is plenty of art.
The truth is probably more and less dire. It’s often said that there’s more bad art writing now than there’s ever been, and that’s probably true—but only because there’s more art writing now than there’s ever been. Like all jargon, impenetrable art jargon limps on by convincing impressionable people that obscurity is a sign of intelligence and sophistication—a proposition that sounds ridiculous once you give it more than a moment’s thought. When faced with this sort of babble, the best course of action might be to turn away—and read, instead, any one of the critics who’ve written brilliantly and lucidly about art, as if they’d never heard of visuality and do not care to learn.