What the ??? is Art Speak?
Have you ever found yourself confronted by an art gallery’s description of an art exhibition which seems completely indecipherable? Or an artist’s statement about their work which left you more nonplussed than enlightened? You’re not alone.
See if you can decipher either of these recent and authentic descriptions of contemporary art exhibitions:
- …she manipulates architectural structures in order to deconstruct socially defined spaces and their uses and test novel and playful possibilities
- Works that probe the dialectic between innovations that seem to have been forgotten, the ruinous present state of projects once created amid great euphoria, and the present as an era of transitions and new beginnings.
Welcome to the rarefied world of artspeak, a near-universal style of describing contemporary art which you’ll encounter in elitist galleries from Melbourne to Mumbai, Brussles to Bucharest, Oslo to Ottawa.
International Art English
Back in 2012 an essay entitled “International Art English” was penned by David Levine and Alix Rule. They made a valiant attempt to scientifically prove that the internationalised artworld relies on a unique language which:
…has everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. One of their conclusions is that International Art English (which is what they call artspeak) is used by proponents to both identify each other and signal their insider status in the rarefied world of the elite.
I really recommend reading the essay which can be found here. After all, it’s well written.
Levine and Rule conducted their study by analysing all 13 years of press announcements published on e-flux, an online platform used by nearly all leading art museums and players in the contemporary art world to publicise their programs. The announcements were analysed in a language-analysis software platform – Sketch Engine.
The online service provided comparative lists of how words were used in art announcements compared to the British National Corpus (BNC), “standard English,” as a control group comparison.
Their findings make fascinating reading. For example they demonstrated that International Art English has a lexicom all of its own which emphasises words like aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal and autonomy. To quote:
“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.”
The authors were at pains to emphasise the seriousness of their endeavour to analyse artspeak, stating:
Some will read our argument as an overelaborate joke. But there’s nothing funny about this language to its users. And the scale of its use testifies to the stakes involved. We are quite serious.
A flurry of responses
The essay touched a collective raw nerve. Some derided Levine and Rule as ‘pseudo-academics’ or even accused them of “old fashioned anti-intellectualism”. Perhaps a case of shooting the messenger?
A year later e-flux, the subject of the study, responded by publishing two critical arguments against Rule and Levine’s essay. Hito Stayerl’s and Martha Rosla’s entertaining arguments basically pointed out that looking at press announcements was a misguided way to analyse the language employed by the art world in general. Besides, those press announcements were often written by people for whom English was a second or third language, so why pick on them?
In a subsequent interview with The Guardian, Levine and Rule observed:
“IAE has made art harder for non-professionals. In fact, even art professionals can feel oppressed by it. The artists who’ve responded most positively to the essay, says Rule, are the ones who have been through master of fine arts programmes” where IAE is pervasive.”
So why do the art-world’s elite players seem to revel in this hyperbolic language? I’m not trying to claim that art-speak is evidence of collective fraud perpetrated by the contemporary art world at large. (In fact I’m hoping the practice doesn’t stop, I’m looking forward to more material.) However I do think the collective have got themselves into something of a pickle.
If truth always prevails, then it seems inevitable that a time will come when artspeak is seen as vacuous and pretentious. The practicing cognoscenti will only have themselves to blame when the tide eventually turns and history casts a less than flattering light on their obfuscations.
While I wait for a future point of rebellion in the art world’s inexorable search for utopian enlightenment to one day discard International Art English for a more descriptive style of communication, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in the meantime.