April 30, 2013

Words of the Month - International Art English

        If you've ever actually read the artist statements and descriptions of contemporary art found in museums or art magazines, you probably have some thoughts about the language of such statements.  Is it deep?  Is it nonsense?  Is it pretentious?  Is it evocative?  Is it slick and impressive or simply ludicrous?  I once found myself laughing out loud while reading labels in the Hirshhorn Museum (and unfortunately, laughter tends to echo very loudly in art museums).  But whatever you may think of it, it's an essential requirement for being taken seriously in the art world.  In 2001 I watched the "Painter to Artist" episode of the British reality show "Faking It."  I felt both appalled and very much vindicated upon seeing that in order to turn a house painter into a fine art painter, far more time was spent teaching him how to talk "like an artist" than how to make actual art.  (Also a lot of time was spent giving him an artist's wardrobe and hairstyle, because everyone knows that you couldn't possibly make real art without the right haircut.)
        Last year an artist and a critic collaborated to publish an article in which they analyzed this art-world language, and they dubbed it International Art English.  David Levine and Alix Rule explain, "IAE [International Art English] has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes … experiencability."  And "Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have its best year ever."  They also describe "some of IAE’s essential grammatical characteristics: the frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” The pairing of like terms is also essential to IAE, whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases. Note also the reliance on dependent clauses, one of the most distinctive features of art-related writing. IAE prescribes not only that you open with a dependent clause, but that you follow it up with as many more as possible."
        So, why do artists, critics, curators, gallery owners and everyone in the art world use this crazy language - or desperately attempt to emulate it?  Levine and Rule call it prestige, pure and simple.  It's about authority.  "One could use this special language to signal the assimilation of a powerful kind of critical sensibility, one that was rigorous, politically conscious, probably university trained. In a much expanded art world this language had a job to do: consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and, indeed, contemporary."  This language was developed and continues to be used because fluency in IAE marks the user as an insider, someone with the authority to judge what is art and what is not.
        It's probably needless for me to say how annoying, ridiculous, and sad I find IAE and its use as a way to distance art from people.  It looks to me more like a sign of insecurity than knowledge.  If you had real confidence in the power of your art, you wouldn't need to swaddle it in a protective layer of elitism to keep anyone from looking too closely.  IAE seems like nothing so much as another set of fancy new clothes for the emperor.
        All that said, however, there is one redeeming explanation for many of the characteristics of IAE: the vagueness, the proliferation of adverbs, the abstractions, the paradoxes.  In all the comments and discussion about IAE since the article came out, there have been plenty of arguments about whose fault it is, about whether its
attackers are griping only because they're not in the in crowd, about whether it has any legitimate meaning at all, about whether the artwork it describes has any meaning at all… But oddly enough I haven't noticed anyone bring up what seems to me a very basic point.  That is, the meaning of art is fundamentally an abstract thing and it's really hard to use words to describe something abstract.  The bottom line is,  no matter how hard you try to be honest, down-to-earth, or simple, it's just about impossible to write an artist statement without sounding at least a little bit silly.  Even if I say exactly what I sincerely believe, when I put it in words it starts to sound pretentious.  So while I decry the use of a special language to signal status and power by making art the province of an elite few, I still say, don't reject it all.  Sometimes artists are trying to do more than pose or impress.  Sometimes they really are trying to communicate.

(Quotations from "International Art English," by Alix Rule and David Levine, from triplecanopy 7.30.12.  You can read the entire article here.
There's also an article about it by Andy Beckett in the Guardian.)

[Picture: The Emperor's New Clothes, lino cut on fabric with wood by Julia Sniatynskyj (Image from Sniatynskyj's web site);
Des Kaisers neue Kleider, woodcut by Michael Ell, 1923 (Image from Erik Dal);
Illustration by W. Heath Robinson from Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales, 1913 (Image from SurLaLune).]

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