I’ve noticed that at the moment there seems to be a focus on ‘Artspeak’ (or International Art English) in various blog posts and newspaper articles and I wondered why the sudden attention? The answer as to why the sudden focus was here. Peter Hook, director of Sotheby’s and former director at Christie’s auction houses has “written a new guide to help decode the “meaningless” terms used by the establishment to help “heighten its mystique”. 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.”
I recall many years ago watching an interview with either of, or both Jake and Dinos Chapman and smiling as they deftly used a dizzying array of Artspeak terms, but always with a knowing twinkle in the eye. I’m not sure if their particular brand of Artspeak is used genuinely as a way to communicate about their work, or simply used to play the art world game and win at it. A bit of googling of Artpseak and the Chapman brothers brought me to this informative article from Eyemagazine in 2006 explaining how what it terms as ‘art bollocks’ began and then flourished: “The term ‘art bollocks’ was first introduced into serious art writing by Brian Ashbee in 1999, in Art Review. ‘A Beginners Guide to Art Bollocks and How to be a Critic’ was a popular, witty and widely quoted essay that one might suppose would have drawn a line under the worst excesses of 1990s artspeak. In fact, in the past seven years the situation has grown much worse. Art bollocks has become institutionalised, normalised and is now practically the default way of writing about art and culture for seasoned journalists and a-level students alike.”
In my mind too Artspeak goes hand in hand with conceptual artwork, YBAs and post modern art. The words ‘post post-modern’ were bandied about a lot at my art college and since that was a long time ago we must surely now have gone beyond post-modernism and into an era of post post-modernism (at last, I hear you cry!) and if this is the case (even if we are in a post, post, post-modern period) perhaps the need for Artspeak is simply no longer there as we move towards an a brave – and verbally simplified – art world future.
The same Eyemagazine article goes on to give some fine examples of Artspeak: “If some readers find it hard to believe that academia has been churning out people who can no longer distinguish between coherent argument and vacuous patois, it’s worth casting an eye over some of the more fashionable quarters of art theorising and cultural study. A cursory scan of Mute magazine (issue 27, January 2004) revealed the following nugget, from ‘Bacterial Sex’ by Luciana Parisi, a teacher of ‘cybernetic culture’ at the University of East London: ‘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.’ Elsewhere in the same issue, I found this: ‘To be mediatised literally means to lose one’s rights. Hence, what happens to the idea of government by the people and for the people if the “false” is produced as a third relation which is not the synthetic union of two ideas in the conscious mind of the citizen or the general intellect of the organic community, but is a statistical coming together of variables?’ The article in question, ‘Bombs and Bytes: Deleuze, Fascism and the Informatic’, was written by Anustup Basu, a Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.”
I personally find it a little sad that since Artspeak wrapped itself around visual art in a python-like grip, visual art somehow became inadequate unless paired with the convoluted, lengthy and impenetrable sentences of Artspeak. Many visual artists aren’t good with words and find it difficult to write about their work and does this mean their works have less value than those artists who can speak and write Artspeak? It is irritating to see simple concepts being couched in complex terms within rambling, senseless sentences used in order to big up okay-ish art into having some kind of demi-god status as it means that Artspeak gives or takes value from art works which it shouldn’t have the power to do so. Art is supposed to be able to communicate on its own rather than stumbling around unsupported by Artspeak like a new born fawn.
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.
Of course, if it furthers the understanding and appreciation of art works, then art should be written about, should be explained, verbally dissected and clarified, but whether Artspeak is the language to actually achieve this is another matter entirely. To me an art piece is something that aims to communicate through visual means. An art work is (for the most part) created to be viewed by an audience. Using Artspeak to produce impenetrable explanations as to why certain art works are relevant, when those self-same explanations never actually do their job and clarify anything at all is a redundant activity. Good art should communicate everything it wants to say visually without needing anything else to further its understanding. If no one gets the artwork, if its meaning is obscured, if it doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention or seem to have any value without someone using Artspeak about it, then perhaps it’s simply not good art and hasn’t served its primary function which was to communicate visually with those looking at it.
I am not suggesting that art shouldn’t be written about, that artists and others shouldn’t attempt to describe the art works.Explanation or further insight into a particular work or series of works is, at times, monumentally helpful. I’ve lost count of the instances where works I would have glanced at, misunderstood or found unengaging have come alive and captured my attention when pertinent facts about the nature of the work were added on a typed sheet in the gallery; but it is the nature of Artspeak to cloak and hide things rather than illuminate. As such Artspeak benefits no one, apart from those hoping to increase the meaning of obscure and questionably good art to raise its cultural worth and ultimately raise its sale value. Clarity of expression should be cherished instead, because clearly understandable, if academic, writing about art is something that should continue and would encourage more understanding and more love of art for all, not just catering or befuddling a small elite group.
Perhaps though I am merely imagining the power that Artspeak has and in fact it has a minimal role in adding or taking away worth from art pieces. Maybe the cream always rises to the top whether that art is written about in Artspeak or not. So Artspeak may not be the villain I have portrayed it as, thieving away the possibility for non-conceptual artworks to be taken seriously, but that it is simply an addition to other ways of speaking about visual art, neither adding nor taking away from their inherent qualities.
I will in the end have to buy Peter Hook’s book - it’s here on Amazon - and see what he has to say on the matter before forming any kind of definite opinion. There is another recent publication on Artspeak mentioned on artnews.com, that being a revised (3rd) edition of Robert Atikin’s ‘Artspeak A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present’ (and might I add the use of an American comma before the ‘and’ in the title which is grammatically wholly unnecessary IMHO, but obviously also totally off-topic in this blog post, unless you relate it to the challenging sentences of Artspeak where extra commas are sprinkled liberally among sentences in order to halt the smooth flow of reading and understanding.)
In any case, the launch of the 3rd edition of Artspeak appears to simply give a definition of terms, rather than any critique of the use of Artspeak, indeed Aitkins says, as if surprised, that “Somehow the language used for describing and discussing art has a reputation for unusual opacity, even sadism,”. In the same article Artnews have a handy guide based on extracts of the book here and this brief overview includes terms and movements I’ve been wholly unaware of until this point in time such as: Space Art. Space art refers not to sculptural or three-dimensional forms or illustrations of spacecraft, but to the theme of “outer space,” including not just its exploration but its cultural meanings.
The blurb on Peter Hook’s book indicates it is a different beast than Aitkin’s dictionary style one and rather than a comprehensive explanation of terms it instead promises a “revealing exploration of how art acquires its financial value.” There is also a short piece in the Telegraph Online about the book:
“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… 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.”
If however, Hook is now demystifying the meaning of common Artspeak terms for the masses, then surely that language will lose its magical power to bestow meaning and worth and as a result the value of some artworks will plummet. For someone who has made a career out of selling art it seems a strange thing to do. If Artspeak is as an integral part of the business of selling art, if it is a sort of alchemy, then it would seem a better ploy to keep schtum and allow buyers to continue to believe that some mediocre pieces of art were actually of great significance through the use of Artspeak about them.
Maybe he is demystifying it because it’s simply no longer relevant and so a book explaining it all won’t affect sales and art valuations and therefore this book could only be written now at this point in time – on the cusp of Artspeak’s death? – but this of course, is all conjecture on my part. As I’m writing this I’m wondering if after 35 years of listening to Artspeak Hook simply had enough and snapped when one more person babbled incoherently at him and maybe his book is a one-man mission to get the art world to basically cut the crap and speak plainly. I am probably wrong, no doubt there was a less personal reason for writing it and the book could be a reflection of a wider, growing distaste for Artspeak. After all, this language appeared from nowhere is of its time and perhaps it will disappear again, imploding under the weight of its own verbosity. Or it could be that the financial predicament of many countries right now might play a part and cause serious collectors to be wary of making bad investments due to being charmed by a string of words they don’t really understand. Now maybe they are instead demanding to know the investment and cultural value of works told to them plainly and simply.
However, as Artspeak tends to aid in the selling of pieces of art by conferring extra mystique and value on it, I suspect this language is around to stay for a while at least. If it does fall out of favour, then it will be a long, slow death as students, lecturers, artists, critics and dealers all over the world have to get out of the habit of using it. If you want to further delve into the murky wordy world of Artspeak this post mentioned this project on Artpseak in which they “assembled all thirteen years of e-flux press announcements, a collection of texts large enough to represent patterns of linguistic usage. Many observations in this essay are based on an analysis of that corpus.”
If you’re not very good at writing Artspeak and feel that your artwork needs a bit of oomph, you can read the full article on artnews.com How to Speak Artspeak Properly or this Sunday Times article (subscription required to read), there is always The Postmodern Generator mentioned in the abovementioned eyemagazine article which generates a new postmodern text every time the page is reloaded, such as: “The characteristic theme of Dahmus’s model of preconstructive discourse is not narrative per se, but prenarrative. In a sense, the subject is contextualised into a neocapitalist modernism that includes sexuality as a totality. Debord’s analysis of preconstructive discourse implies that narrativity has significance.”
Finally, if you really still can’t get the hang of highfalutin Artspeak to write it in order to aid in sales of your art work you can always follow Hook’s advice in the Telegraph: “ Speaking of what helped make a painting popular, he highlighted the inclusion of beautiful women, pleasant weather, animals, sports, everyday objects and, unusually, railways.”