Discussions about art-speak
Philip Hook, who has worked as a dealer and auction house specialist for 35 years, said some members of the art world had attempted to “mystify the audience”, with words such as “zeitgeist”, “groundbreaking” and “iconic” losing meaning in the face of overuse.
Writing in his new book, Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World, he said: “They are words the meaning of which has become twisted by the desire to energize banality, to elevate mediocrity, or simply to make a sale.”
In a list of common offenders, he claimed the term “accessible” is often used as a “euphemism for obvious or superficial”, while “challenging” can translate as “obscure, incomprehensible or unpleasant”. Describing a painting as “honest” could be heard as calling it “inept”, he added, while “important” signifies a work that is “art-historically significant but difficult to sell”.
He added the term “interesting” could be considered an “all-purpose word to disguise the observer’s inability to fathom the point of a painting”, while “ahead of the market” denotes something is overpriced.
Hook told the Telegraph the terms were often used to “camouflage the nakedly commercial aspect” of selling art. “You don’t say selling and buying; you say sourced and placed,” he said. “Dealers prefer to be curators. Galleries become spaces.”
(Philip Hook is director and senior paintings specialist at Sotheby’s and was previously a director at Christie’s)
“…the more deliberate users of IAE may, in fact, be exploiting its ambiguities to conceal something, or to conceal some lack, for good reasons or bad. Or they may simply be flashing their credentials: I know the passwords, I speak your language, now will you please open the door?
Making a reply?
“It’s hard to find IAE that is critical of an art work. In a word, IAE is pseudo-intellectual. One of the most frustrating things about IAE is its tentative vagueness. Art works feebly “question” and “explore”, and just after they promise more exciting “ruptures” and “breakages” it turns out that these dramatic happenings refer to “viewer perception” and not to anything outside the gallery walls.
Fuzzy mist is a tempting tactic when trying to appreciate an artwork without closing down other interpretations. But to quote Waiheke artist Denis O’Connor, artists “ask themselves questions like everybody else” but they have to “make something as the reply”.
Is there good IAE usage? I would contend that, yes, there is. It’s writing which has a genuine point to make, using technical terms with precision and elegance rather than just being show-offy or evasive.”
Trading our souls?
“But the stark, simple, unassuming old-fashioned utilitarian character of most traditional foundations works against them in the academic postmodernist marketplace because they cannot compete with the intimidating jargon, blustering self-importance and beguiling mystique of the theories and so called “issues” that are thrown, like so much trash, onto the path that art must take.
When we, as artists, make our art dependent on ideas or things or theories or fashions or moral lessons or “truth”, or any nonvisual external, we do not enrich it, we cut it off from the deep internal sources that nourish it. When we, as teachers, eliminate basic foundations to accommodate transient academic fads we willfully destroy tools that can lead students to art. And when we, as artists and teachers, betray the insistent small voice of inner necessity to gain the paltry rewards of the market or academia we trade our free souls for a joyless straitjacket.
Why do we do it? It is a Faustian bargain, and it is a bad one.”
Genius works ignored?
Art should triumph or fail on its own merits or weaknesses. If an artist creates work that is less conceptual and more about method and obvious clarity of meaning (if any), is their work at this point in time ignored or devalued simply because it is not covered in a cloak of densely woven words? The answer is probably yes, if Artspeak isn’t used then that art work won’t be taken seriously. However, who is to say that this conferred irrelevancy is indeed true?
Perhaps many artistic gems and genius works have been ignored, never seen the light of day because they couldn’t be written about in complex terminology.