Let’s Talk About Art

In July, digital art magazine Triple Canopy published a comprehensive examination of the language we use to talk about contemporary art. Authors Alix Rule and David Levine aren’t the first to identify the pretentious, sometimes absurd language among art folks—called “artspeak” in some circles—but they are the first to argue it is a dialect, a variety of language so ingrained within a particular group that we can identify a certain structure across its speakers. Their clinical approach, taking on the tone of an academic linguistic study, outlines the lexical and syntactical makeup of International Art English, or IAE. While the article borders on satire, none of it deviates from truth; examples come from a thorough analysis of gallery press releases, culled from online art news digest e-flux. The dialect depends on the overuse of certain vocabulary (such as “space,” both physically and metaphysically) and an adherence to particular structures (for example, double adverbial phrases—“playfully and subversively inert”). As they explain, “IAE always recommends using more rather than fewer words.”

As an arts professional and someone who studied linguistics extensively, I’d also like to investigate howwe talk about art, but with a different goal in mind. We like to think that the art experience is a direct, unmediated experience with the object in front of us, connecting on a purely aesthetic level, but that’s far from the truth. Language is a huge contributor—or barrier—to experiencing art. It has the power to educate and misinform, to heal and incite anger, to bridge groups of people and utterly divide them. Ultimately, how we talk about art is a social justice issue.

From the Reach Advisors analysis of census data and survey

It’s no secret that the art world is overwhelmingly skewed towards privilege. Reach Advisors, a consulting and analytics firm that has done a lot of work with museums, conducted a study of over 40,000 museum-going households in 2010. They found that 86 percent of regular art museum-goers had at least a college degree (compared to the 39.9% of the U.S. population that has an associate’s or bachelor’s degree). A study done by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008 revealed that non-Hispanic white Americans make up 78.9 percent of adult visitors to art museums and galleries, even though they make up just 68.7 percent of the population, whereas attendance among Hispanic and African American populations was a much smaller percentage compared to that of the nation (see chart below). If public-facing arts institutions are patronized by an elite, educated, mostly white audience, then the rest of the art world—the art market, academia, magazines, etc.—must be made up of even more privileged groups.

The data tells us that there are throngs of people who feel disenfranchised from art in public-facing institutions, and that’s a problem. A 2010 report from the Center for the Future of Museums on museum demographics cites possible reasons that explain why potential visitors feel alienated or intimidated by museums: “historically-grounded cultural barriers to participation,” “the lack of specialized knowledge and a cultivated aesthetic taste,” and the perception of art as “elite,” among others. I believe that all of these are closely related to the exclusivity of the language that pervades institutions. When a museum or gallery offers texts about an artwork that is riddled with convoluted sentences or unexplained vocabulary, a visitor is likely to think that they don’t get it, or worse, they could get it, if only they belonged.

So where does artspeak come from? Rule and Levine trace IAE’s trajectory back to the founding of October in 1976. In addition to new art criticism, the storied English-language journal printed translations of French poststructuralist texts by the likes of Barthes and Deleuze. Rule and Levine posit that many of October’s writers adopted a writing style reminiscent of these translations (for example, “many of IAE’s particular lexical tics come from French, most obviously the suffixes -ion, -ity, -ality, and -ization, so frequently employed over homier alternatives like -ness”). As the quarterly became the standard upon which all art criticism was measured, other writers began to emulate the verbose and lofty style.

Part of the problem with how we talk about art is jargon. Jargon refers to lexical items used by a specific social or occupational group in order to facilitate communication on specialized topics. So while lawyers have legalese, art professionals have “social practice,” “postmodern,” and “appropriation.” But while jargon might arise out of convenience and specialization, it can have a pretty negative effect: exclusion. Those who do understand the language are part of the “in” crowd, the ones that get it; those who aren’t so familiar with the words are automatically alienated. Specialized language, therefore, becomes a way for one group to assert power over another.

And sometimes, specialized language gets confused for incomprehensibility. As Rule and Levine discuss, “Whatever the content, the aim is to sound to the art world like someone worth listening to, by adopting an approximation of its elite language.” Several art writing generations removed from the stylings of October, it doesn’t matter what a person is saying, as long as it sounds smart.

From www.dennisdutton.com

Andrea Fraser, still from Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.

Since the late 1980s, performance artist Andrea Fraser has addressed issues related to politics, commerce, and history in art institutions, often honing in on the language these organizations use. Clad in a pencil skirt, suit jacket, and librarian glasses, she masqueraded as a docent for her performance piece Museum Highlights (1989). Under the alias of “Jane Castleton,” Fraser conducted a tour not just of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection, but its cafeteria, lobby, and store, and restrooms as well. At one point, she described a water fountain as “a work of economy and monumentality,” explaining that “it boldly contrasts with the severe and highly stylized productions of this form.” By including the fountain on the tour, Fraser pokes fun at museums’ authorial ability to tell visitors what “art” is important.

In 2001, she conducted an unauthorized performance at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, in which she checks out an audio guide and listens to a tour on the Frank Gehry-designed building. Caught on video in what is now known as Little Frank and His Carp, she furrows her brow upon hearing that “modern art is demanding, complicated, bewildering.” A while later, the male narrator of the audio guide describes Gehry’s building as “powerfully sensual,” compelling Fraser to hike up her dress and hump its walls. Here, her body interprets the narrator’s words literally, pointing out the absurdity in the sweeping statements we make about art.

Andrea Fraser, Little Frank and His Carp, 2001, Video still.

Fraser’s work is widely recognized as institutional critique—art that systematically questions arts institutions, including museums, academia, and the art market. Jayson Musson takes this a step further, parodying even institutional critique in his recent videos. Under his alter ego Hennessy Youngman, he hosts a web series called Art Thoughtz that satirizes art world buzzwords such as relational aesthetics, Damien Hirst, and grad school. In his video on institutional critique, he elects not to explain the term but instead jumps right into critiquing what he considers the top five “institutions”: Riker’s Island, ADX Supermax Prison, Abu Ghraib, slavery, and last but not least, Auschwitz. His derisive twist on institutional critique points out that the art world spends a lot of time looking inwardly talking baloney about itself, and not a lot of time discussing the world around it.

The language Youngman uses in the video could be considered what linguists call African American English Vernacular, sprinkled with slang and colloquialisms. I find it telling that he’s often prefacing his own opinions with the interjection “real talk, though;” while Youngman’s language might not represent all or most Americans, it is a reminder that, no duh, real people don’t talk the way the art world pretends to talk. Pointing to the exclusionary language of the art world, Musson has become the new face of institutional critique.

Speaking of internet sensations, plenty of memes have lampooned artspeak. The Instant Art Critique Generator randomly produces meaningless art sentences such as “It’s difficult to enter into this work because of how the disjunctive perturbation of the sexual signifier notates the accessibility of the work.” The 2011 video Shit Girls Say unleashed a flurry of knock-offs, including Shit Art World People Say. Produced by the intern class at public art organization Creative Time, the video satirizes classic art phrases such as “it’s so postmodern” and “social practice”—or henceforth known as “SoPra!” (Some commenters at Hyperallergic, however, have argued that the video could be a lot more biting.)

And sometimes the biggest offenders of pretentious writing, the art critics themselves, take issue with the language of the art world. In a 2007 article titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Art,” New York Times writer Roberta Smith points out rampant abuses, including the verbs “reference” (as opposed to refer to), “privilege” (vs. favor), and the term “practice.” I’ve seen more and more bloggers wag their fingers at museum wall text, whether for esoteric word choices or for making sweeping generalizations that are just plain offensive (William Poundstone and Tyler Green come to mind). I’m particularly tickled when Poundstone posts snapshots of gallery labels, highlighting the offending phrases.

Despite the pervasive use of IAE, or artspeak, or whatever you want to call it, I’m optimistic that the art world can slowly and surely overturn exclusive language for one that is welcoming. It’s my job, after all. I work in museum interpretation, which refers to all of the texts—written, audio, video, digital, and otherwise—that aim to aid a museum visitor’s learning. Coming from a background in museum education, I see myself as an advocate, ensuring that the language we use in our materials is inclusive and effective. It’s not about dumbing down the content, as so many artspeakers fear. The public is capable of understanding sophisticated ideas, so that’s not the problem; we just need to use clear language and explain specialized terminology in the process.

Educational, public-facing institutions also need to surrender their authorial voices, at least a little bit. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, for example, lists authors right on the gallery labels, indicating that the above text is a particular viewpoint. Letting the public know that an institution’s voice is opinion, not fact, and that the visitor’s opinion is valid too, is necessary to create an inclusive environment.

But it’s not just the public-facing institutions that need to shape up. Rule and Levine preface their article on International Art English with a quote from British anthropologist Edmund Leach’s book on political systems in Burmese highlands: “[T]he elite, recognizing this imitation, is constantly creating new linguistic elaborations to mark itself off from the common herd.” This selection points to both the trickle-down and cyclical effects of language and power. Increasingly obfuscating language is a way for the art elite to keep their status, but to what end? An art world that is so exclusive that it is no longer relevant to the rest of society? The more the language of the elite becomes esoteric, the more others in the art world will emulate it. In the fight for inclusivity, we need to change our language across the board, starting from the top.

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