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
), 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.