Previous: A White, Blank Page (1)

Next: Drawing the Figure with Russell Tredell

The Annals of Art Bollocks: International Art English

Post #1589 • January 28, 2013, 10:51 AM • 7 Comments

Andy Beckett:

"Art English is something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time," says [David ]Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin. "But we all use it." Three years ago, Levine and his friend [Alix] Rule, a 29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia university in New York, decided to try to anatomise it. "We wanted to map it out," says Levine, "to describe its contours, rather than just complain about it."

They christened it International Art English, or IAE, and concluded that its purest form was the gallery press release, which – in today's increasingly globalised, internet-widened art world – has a greater audience than ever. "We spent hours just printing them out and reading them to each other," says Levine. "We'd find some super-outrageous sentence and crack up about it. Then we'd try to understand the reality conveyed by that sentence."

Next, they collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 by e-flux, a powerful New York-based subscriber network for art-world professionals. Then they used some language-analysing software called Sketch Engine, developed by a company in Brighton, to discover what, if anything, lay behind IAE's great clouds of verbiage.

Their findings were published last year as an essay in the voguish American art journal Triple Canopy; it has since become one of the most widely and excitedly circulated pieces of online cultural criticism. It is easy to see why. Levine and Rule write about IAE in a droll, largely jargon-free style. They call it "a unique language" that has "everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. [It] is oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it."

IAE always uses "more rather than fewer words". Sometimes it uses them with absurd looseness: "Ordinary words take on non-specific alien functions."

Art bollocks is a signaling process. It doesn't have to mean anything, and usually doesn't. It's the squawking by which certain birds in the art world command the attention of the rest of the flock. Those who don't respond with like signals are exposed by failing at the shibboleth. In the essay, Levine and Rule skirt close to saying as much:

IAE would be at best a technical vocabulary, a sort of specialized English no different than the language a car mechanic uses when he discusses harmonic balancers or popper valves. But by referring to an obscure car part, a mechanic probably isn't interpellating you as a member of a common world—as a fellow citizen, or as the case may be, a fellow traveler. He isn't identifying you as someone who does or does not get it.

Alas, interpellate doesn't mean what they think it means. Old habits die hard.

Previously in The Annals of Art Bollocks: Julia Berkman at Frederic Snitzer Gallery.

Comment

1.

David Thompson

January 28, 2013, 11:54 AM

As you say, it's about signaling and status, an unearned badge of cleverness; not content as such. Certainly not realism. In fact, it's very much not about describing what a thing is. That wouldn't do at all.

I sometimes wonder if the people who have to sit down and generate this horseshit ever tire of it. I mean, does rearranging the same two dozen sentence fragments, in effect at random, ever start to grate and make them feel absurd?

When we're told that,

A newly commissioned piece by Haegue Yang… embraces her interest in emotional and sensorial translation. It required her to trespass upon nationalism, patriarchal society as well as recognised human conditions, elaborated with an artistic strategy of abstraction and affect.

...and what we're looking at is, well, an ironing board and some light bulbs, doesn't a sane person all but have to laugh?

2.

David Thompson

January 28, 2013, 2:07 PM

A few years ago, when my local city council organised its annual, reliably awful arts festival, it commissioned a manifesto declaring the participants' colossal ambitions. Naturally, it had lots of painful, meandering guff about "embracing latency" and "transgressing capacities," and the usual mumblings of "resistance" against something or other. All comically vague and enormously self-flattering. Again, the point wasn't to explain anything or to impart information; it was simply to convince you, the rube, that these people were terribly intellectual and important, even if by the end of it you couldn't remember why.

I'll spare you the full eye-watering tedium and quote just the three sentences that held my attention:

Who is we? This group is ever expanding. It is us, the creative types who have created jobs for ourselves by exploring and exploiting our talents to perform small artistic and intellectual miracles.

Yes, these titans were performing miracles. Intellectual miracles. And the evidence wheeled out to astonish the gathered public? Two tables covered with sand. Not just sand of course. Fag ends too.

Now it's very hard to care about the "art" on display, beyond the fact that as a taxpayer I'm being billed for it. But I do wonder how these people process the dissonance.

3.

Walter Darby Bannard

January 29, 2013, 10:09 AM

"But we all use it," says David Levine.

But we don't all use it. Franklin doesn't. David Thompson doesn't. I don't, and others don't. In fact, I have been railing on about artspeak for the last 50 years. All it did was get me a respectful exclusion from the system, so I just went on to something else.

Writing clearly about new art for a current audience is self-defeating. If you do you are necessarily obliged to expose the innate absurdity of typical postmodernist work, like the ironing board/light bulb thing Thompson mentions, and you thereby declare yourself out of the self-generating, self-protective pack of Kool-Aid drinkers and desperate academics who perpetuate this hooey.

The problem is that Art (capital "A") is a big deal culturally and has become a big deal economically, having grown into a huge worldwide market in the last fifty years while the real understanding of art remains as limited as always. That toxic mix of money and ignorance makes monsters: art monsters, language monsters, market monsters. people monsters. Just go to any big art show, or the Contemporary Art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's. It is fascinating how this noble enterprise of ours has blossomed into such a poisonous flower, into something so alien to its very heart.

I'm pleased that Levine and Rule are getting some attention and pleased that they can laugh. Ridicule is the best weapon. And that they keep at it. I keep away from it. It just makes me regurgitate.

4.

Piri Halasz

January 30, 2013, 12:23 AM

Yes, Darby used the term that I've known the language by for the past 10 or 15 years: Artspeak. But back in the 1960s, when I was working on Time, it was known by the far more inclusive term of "jargon." And there were all kinds of jargon, for the various fields of human endeavor, including sports, medicine and so on. We as writers on Time were enjoined to avoid jargon of all kinds in our own prose, and just write standard English that could be understood by anybody, even if they didn't know anything about the field of endeavor under discussion. I had such a horror of jargon myself that I didn't even read the art magazines, for fear of being contaminated. I think I missed out on a lot of interesting discussion as a result.

5.

David Thompson

January 31, 2013, 3:07 AM

But back in the 1960s, when I was working on Time, it was known by the far more inclusive term of "jargon."

The problem with referring to art bollocks simply as jargon is that the term is ambiguous. It is, as you say, inclusive. "Jargon" can refer to unfamiliar technical terms that are specific to an industry or discipline and used legitimately for reasons of precision, etc. Art bollocks, on the other hand, is often, perhaps typically, an exercise in obfuscation and bluff. There are technical terms within art bollocks, but in my experience the use of such language is rarely to communicate any actual content or specifics, or to reveal anything truthful or realistic. Quite the opposite.

To an outsider, the jargon of a chemical engineer or specialist in quantum chromodynamics may be just as impenetrable as a page of art bollocks, but the jargon is generally being deployed for quite different reasons. And so, in the art world, Millie Brown can claim that her work "explores the relationship between music and performance art via self-induced vomiting." Because puking coloured milk onto the floor is apparently an intellectual endeavour. The word explores is standard art bollocks and all but obligatory, and given the context entirely devoid of meaning. Unless we're to believe that the fruits of this alleged mental activity will redefine human knowledge and shake the world when finally, dramatically revealed to the public. And likewise, a cloud of verbal pretension can hide an ugly ironing board, with which it has no discernible connection, in an attempt to prevent us from seeing... well, an ugly ironing board. Being ambiguous and inclusive, the word "jargon" doesn't convey the enormous bad faith that’s all too often in play.

In Charlotte Young’s short video on the subject, she quotes her former art tutor Nico de Oliviera, who coughed up this gem:

Stefan Brüggemann’s work, of course, comments on the absence of conceptual art, because conceptual art no longer exists. It existed once, but it no longer exists. So what do we put in its place? What does Stefan put in its place? One might say that he re-presents something which is absent, and in this absence what he represents is remarkably similar to that which once was.

The of course is, of course, typical of the genre. But is de Oliviera being technical here and struggling for precision and some great insight, or is he indulging in flummery and pseudo-intellectual chest-puffing? Activities, incidentally, on which Brüggemann’s own status and career are very much based.

6.

David Thompson

January 31, 2013, 4:18 AM

If the hope is to deter bad faith—to embarrass those who wilfully obfuscate in order to lay claim to unearned status and to justify tat—then it seems best to provide no shred of camouflage. And so, when Luciana Parisi, a lecturer in Cybernetic Culture at the University of East London, writes an article titled Bacterial Sex, whose sentences are of the following type...

This practice of intensifying bodily potentials to act and become is an affirmation of desire without lack which signals the nonclimactic, aimless circulation of bodies in a symbiotic assemblage.

...it's quite right and proper to ask Ms Parisi if she's having some kind of seizure.

Likewise, when the self-declared artist and "radical cyber-feminist" Carolyn Guertin tells us that

The shuffling and unfolding of the information of her body in sensory space is enacted across a gap or trajectory of subjecthood that is multiple and present. Subjectivity is the lens and connector through which the spatio-temporal dislocation gets focused and bridged. The gap is outside vision—felt not seen—and always existing on the threshold in between nodes. Like the monster's subjectivities, all knots in the matrix are linked.

And that

We inhabit our bodies differently when we are out of phase, oscillating in the turbulence of dynamic space, that space where the textual body is written as contextual knot. The ways of moving in virtual space are directed and mapped by the knots that span spatio-temporal rifts. Without movement, we cannot cross the space-time divide.

And furthermore...

The textual voyage is alive and kinetic, fractal and in flux, birthed as she travels through its fullness.

...then it seems quite sensible to raise one's hand and ask, "Excuse me, madam. Are you mouthing bollocks?" To not regard flummery and hucksterism as distinct possibilities is to surrender the game and let the hustle continue.

7.

Rob Willms

February 3, 2013, 3:29 PM

Evangelical Christian apologists have long relied on a three-pronged "legal" assessment of Jesus' wildest statements: either he was lying his ass off, or he was spouting crazy shit, or he was saying something true. After logically dismissing the first two, there was no other way to receive his claims to godhood; that Jesus had been blending popular theologies, or politically maundering, or creatively expressing himself were explanations just too rhetorically nuanced to defend. Neither did theologians (back when I was paying attention) feel the need to rebut the possiblity that insane falsehoods serve truth.

Now, I have no great desire to play devil's (nor Christ's) advocate to bollocks-mouthers. And, I am wary of having mine champed by inserting myself into their dialogue. Blame it on some misplaced faith, but people being no less human for their idiocies, I do sincerely wonder what such bullshitters believe they're getting at. Unable to articulate their meanings, what might they actually be trying to convey? Is there nothing but the basest of motivations for their nonsense—only the ultra-fashionable academic clamouring of courtiers to the Sun God?

I realize this may be akin to asking your dog if it loves you. But most everyone, people I like and those not so much, knows something that I don't... yet. I can't shake the worry that even in the dim realm of International Art English I'm the one most in the dark, lacking some key bit of illumination. Actually, it feels not so much that I'm being lied to by nutcases as tsk-tsked for not keeping up with the new game—one they can't admit they don't themselves know, but are doing wonderfully at.

Art Bollocks, then, is a double-hustle. I'm just a lousy mark.

Subscribe

Twitter @franklin_e

Instagram franklin.e

Offers

Other Projects

Legal

Design and content ©2003-2017 Franklin Einspruch except where otherwise noted