Toward Shared Language

Maud Newton took to the New York Times on Sunday to diagnose the whole blogosphere and internet’s use of language with a rambling, equivocal-yet-epiphanic style problem that she kind of pins on David Foster Wallace. She rightly pointed out that the blog format, Dave Eggers, postmodernism and of course DFW, that poor guy you can blame for everything now that he’s left the building, created a language that leaned so much into its own subjectivity that it turned into something loopy and defensive. That wanted so much to be simultaneously readable and literary that it settled for wishy-washy.

Portrait of Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Newton’s right when she calls for the clarity of Mark Twain in this moment. In doing so, she reminded me of a conversation I had yesterday with a brilliant thinker who has been using art to make the world a better place for some time. We turned to the topic of bringing non-artists and artists together, think-tank style, and we agreed that this is easier said than done because there is no shared language between artists and non-artists about art that doesn’t collapse into vague appreciation.

It’s easy to pin this lack of shared language about art on the other guy—on the inability of non-artists to see and understand that there is such a thing as visual literacy. It’s tempting to go off on a tangent about art education. But I’d rather stick with the thrust of Maud’s argument, which is really about her own relationship to her larger milieu and her responsibility to see and describe the effects of the dominant style. She’s demanding that writers commit to making unqualified, un-self-referential, un-undermined arguments.

This call to clarity feels like a more useful way to begin thinking about this common language. Like postmodern literature, contemporary art is obsessed with the popular while it speaks a language and operates in a philosophical framework that has twisted into something convoluted, hermetic and undermining, and this has created a schizophrenia that’s similar to what Newton describes.

What if the discourse surrounding art simply became more direct? What if art reviews were as much about defining what the reviewer wants art to be as they are about defending the idea that art is everything? What if people started buying Artforum for the articles?

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