Volume 9 • Number 1 • March, 2016
Curb Your Artspeak!
Curb Your Artspeak!
by Huntington Witherill
Don't know about you, but I'm growing weary of all the highfalutin language being used to gratuitously inflate so much of today's writing in relation to contemporary art. What is it with all the Artspeak, anyway?
Artist statements, exhibition catalogs, gallery press releases, reviews, and other written descriptions of contemporary art (to include contemporary photography) have, in too many instances, devolved into little more than incessantly annoying vocabulary tests. Rather than being examples of clear and unambiguous descriptive writing designed to inspire readers' curiosity and understanding about art, the onslaught of unintelligible prose amounts to a meaningless archive of twenty-five dollar buzzwords guaranteed to frustrate, irritate, and alienate all but the most erudite among us. There must be a good reason for all the pretentious posturing yet, I can't figure out what that reason is.
Doubtless owing to its pompous affectation, Artspeak (as a writing style) seems rarely able to properly assess the art it purports to explain. More to the point, promotional descriptions written in this manner frequently come off as desperate attempts to elevate the artwork to a level of importance that is, otherwise, patently undeserved. Yet we continue to be inundated with these intellectually tortured tomes that, presumably, seek to generate public interest in whatever art is being aggrandized. Is it just me? I can't believe that any sensible individual takes much of this convoluted claptrap seriously.
At some point during the early 1990s, the arcane language being explored herein was officially termed: "International Art English" (IAE). Artspeak (as it's known in the common parlance) has been baffling and annoying people (just like me) for some time now. And of course, I'm not the first to complain about it.
If you're unfamiliar with Artspeak, what follows is a brief but classic example of the kind of language I'm referring to. "Combining radical notions of performativity and the body as liminal space, my practice interrogates the theoretical limitations of altermodernism."
Now, setting aside the fact that inserting the prior quoted sentence into this document has caused my spell-checker to light up like a Christmas tree, what do you suppose that sentence actually means? I'd like to suggest that, absent a good dictionary – and a Wi-Fi connection as the word "altermodernism," coined by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, will not be found in any standard dictionary – there are very few people who would be able to easily or intuitively construe the meaning of that sentence. Securing any practical understanding (let alone appreciation) for whatever is being described, therein, has been hopelessly complicated by the excessive use of uncommon words and phrases. Could it be that this kind of obfuscation is intentional?
Would it be considered an act of "radical performativity" to suggest that the contemporary art world has created its own cryptic language in order to artfully elevate itself (and thereby distance itself) from the rest of us plebes? If so, it wouldn't be the first time that such a strategy had been employed. Consider the wine industry. Some of the more enigmatic descriptions of fine wine (that I've run across) incorporate phrases like: "puckishly innocent," "densely obscure," "chunky," "leathery," "grippy," and "tongue spanking." Obviously, some sommeliers are way above my pay grade!
In an article titled: A User's Guide to Artspeak, Andy Beckett offers an excellent explanation of the practice and speculates: "With its pompous paradoxes and its plagues of adverbs, its endless sentences and its strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist contemporary art is a fraud."
Beckett goes on to say: "If you've been to see contemporary art in the last three decades, you will probably be familiar with the feelings of bafflement, exhaustion or irritation that such gallery prose provokes. You may well have gotten used to ignoring it." As Polly Staple, art writer and director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, puts it: "There are so many people who come to our shows who don't even look at the programme sheet. They don't want to look at any writing about art."
Why, then, does the practice continue so ubiquitously unchecked? Are the virtues of contemporary art really that dependent upon (or even furthered by) the accompaniment of such a cacophony of grandiose verbiage? I think not.
Of course, writers (and artists, alike) hope to reveal the unique and distinguished character of the artworks they write about. And far be it from me to suggest that I don't, myself, invoke a high-dollar word now and then. Ubiquitous is one of my favorites. Yet there must be a better, more engaging, more coherent, and ultimately more effective way to describe and explain art. Come to think of it, didn't Hippocrates drive this point home when he observed that "The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words"?
If you're still not convinced to curb your Artspeak and find yourself struggling to appear more profound (or perhaps more seemingly hip and trendy) when composing an artist statement, allow me to recommend a recently discovered website that can serve as an effective (if not purely entertaining) means for auto-generating an artist statement capable of titillating even the stodgiest academic on your list.
The website is called: artybollocks.com and with the single click of a mouse, you too can generate an artist statement laced with enough bona fide Artspeak to elevate your work to the pinnacle of incomprehensible grandiloquence. Amaze your friends and colleagues while impressing your favorite gallery owner, curator, or critic. Here's my first attempt with the artybollocks artist statement generator:
"My work explores the relationship between the universality of myth and recycling culture. With influences as diverse as Munch and Francis Bacon, new insights are inaugurated through both traditional and modern fictive structures.
Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the essential unreality of the zeitgeist. What starts out as contemplation soon becomes finessed into a cacophony of defeat, leaving only a sense of nihilism and the chance for newly disinterred provocations. As momentary derivatives become reconfigured through emergent and critical practice, the viewer is left with a hymn to the possibilities of our unambiguous condition."
Assuming you're still awake (and that I can somehow stop chuckling) it does sound ever so slightly impressive… in a kind of deeply incoherent way. No matter. The bottom line is this: Would I be encouraged to want to actually view or further explore (let alone understand or be inspired by) the work being described in the above fictional artist statement? Not likely. Despite the fact that I have no earthly idea what they are, I'm pretty sure I've never been a fan of "reconfigured momentary derivatives." Maybe I need to get out more often.
Much like Morse code, Artspeak appears to be one of those forms of communication that, at its best, will be understood and appreciated by precious few. At its worst (and at the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, here) Artspeak also appears to be a blatant form of pseudo-intellectual elitism. And of course, that's probably not an attribute worthy of unbridled fanfare. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to imagine that either one of the foregoing extremes could ever constructively serve the affirmative purposes of art.
Might we all be better off to put the practice of Artspeak in its place… like, up on a high shelf where it could remain, appropriately, beyond everyone's reach? Mark Twain had the right idea when he famously quipped: "I never write 'metropolis' for seven cents when I can write 'city' and get paid the same."