Interestingly, except for C-Monster, Tyler Green (who wrote “If I were a contemporary museum director and if I’d just read two weeks of posts about how curatorial writing about contemporary art is an embarrassment to the profession [which it is], I’d give potential hires a writing test”) and Richard Lacayo of TIME Magazine (who called such writing, “a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid to say in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at” for fear of getting it wrong), Gibson and most bloggers responded to my post on curatorial writing as an attack on art writing in general, with which they either agreed or disagreed. Infuriated by Lacayo's ironic call for a "ban"on certain overused terms, Catherine Spaeth, in a post entitled “Being at Ease With Difficulty” defended the academic tone by saying, “the blogger culture lends itself to an anti-intellectualism that has its way of raising its heads in a gang.”
The anti-intellectual label is easily hurled, as is the accusation that anyone who suggests that ideas might be rendered in a readable and understandable manner is somehow calling for a “dumbing down.”
So when Hrag Vartanian states, “If the ideas are complex it is because they often grapple with concepts that resist simplification,” I insist on distinguishing between "simplification" and "clarification." It is not necessary to simplify in order to clarify. Further, I'm suspicious of any idea that can’t be clarified.
What I’m calling for is not a “dumbing down” but a “smartening up.” I’m asking for readers of the fatuous phrases that litter artists’ statements, press releases, and museum text not to swallow them whole, but ask themselves: “What is this really saying?” “Does it make sense?” And more, “What does it have to do with the art at hand?”
In an email, Janice Gewirtz, a reader of the Wall Street Journal, thanks me for my criticism of what she coined the “Emperor’s New Biennial” and says, further, “These overblown installations say nothing cogent about the subjects they ostensibly tackle. Rather, they reference ‘pop culture,’ or ‘sexuality,’ or even the notorious ‘fluid communication structures’ (whatever that is) as buzzwords.”
Exactly. That's what I was referring to in my posts here and here about Doris Salcedo’s crack in the floor of London’s Tate Modern, which is billed as “addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.” Sometimes a crack is just a crack.
Idly Googling “artspeak” the other day (procrastination is a wonderful thing), I came across an essay by John Haber, written in 1997, where he nails the origin of this language:
…am I imagining it, or do they blend together—the gallery press release and a parody of management jargon?…. It may have its roots in academia, where scholars hope to share their hesitant insights with students and peers. It may look back to art journals, where critics fumble for words to describe works of art rich in emotions and ideas. However, that is not where artspeak begins, and complaints about it hide its origins all too well.
Worse comes to worse, academics will trip up on their own humanity. Worse comes to worse, they will stumble on insights as unfamiliar and unpronounceable as art itself. Artspeak really starts sometime later, when critical clichés pass through the gallery system and into the marketing departments of major museums, eager for a larger public and bigger institutional gifts.
Promoting art is business, big business, and money talks. I call its language martspeak.
So perhaps now that it’s been defined for us--the language of two industries, academia and the art market, who have joined together for their mutual economic benefit--when we see it, we'll more easily recognize martspeak for what it is.
Words never contain a work of art. Words can, though, encourage its reconstruction. They can create small openings in the walls that already exist, so that others may begin to look—and to see….
Art asks one to enter into a broken conversation, a half-overheard dialog between the work and the world. Newcomers to art distrust that demand. Most, often, too they would never know how to begin. A critic’s job is to break the ice.”
Something that all of us who write about art—be it our own or that of others—would be wise to remember.