Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

2008

April 21, 2008
Bruce Nauman, Double Poke in the Eye II, 1985, neon construction, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Mo.

My post "Impenetrable prose from the Whitney Biennial" clearly hit a nerve, whizzing around the Net in the last couple of weeks before bouncing out into the print media, the subject of “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.

Anyway, the issue at hand is not about difficult ideas being made simple, but simple ideas being made difficult.

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.

Haber continues:

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.
April 17, 2008

“The rainbow I see is not the rainbow you see”—rants about museum wall text and artists' statements come from a strong belief, derived initially from my study of Robert Irwin and his work, in the experience of art being unmediated and individual--that art which truly fulfills its purpose as art, requires no explanation. Olafur Eliasson, who I have also written about extensively, follows in Irwin’s footsteps and takes it one step further, viewing everything--from the publicity around an exhibition and the expectations it raises, to whatever personal interactions occur in the museum as well as the physical situation itself (including temperature, sound, and the presence of other people)--as contributing to the experience of the art. As he said yesterday at the press preview for his mid-career survey, which opens Sunday at MoMA and PS1: “I don’t want to interpret the work for you. My interpretation is not your interpretation.”

His pieces are not accompanied by wall text.
April 10, 2008

The Sartorialist, who I check in with daily, has a hard row to hoe. He takes a picture like this one, yesterday, and in the comments someone complains that the dress is "wrinkled” (hey, he’s a street photographer; people actually stand up and sit down in these clothes) and “gaps at the bust” (cutely, I think). My own brush with fashion fame came several years ago. On one of the most horrid hot humid days ever in New York, I was on Fifth Avenue with my Chinese paper parasol when a man with a camera ran up and snapped it in my face. I said, nastily, “You can’t do that” and he said, just as nastily, “I wasn’t taking a picture of you, I was taking a picture of Tiffany’s window behind you.” I got about three more blocks before realizing that he was Bill Cunningham from the Times and when I got home, wrote him a short apology, saying that I mistook him for a rude tourist from Iowa. I forgot about it completely until several Sundays later when I was meeting a friend who had with her a copy of the Times—and there I was, in a layout about parasols, snarling under mine. That week I received a print of the picture in the mail and a note from Cunningham who wrote, “It’s the tourists from Iowa who are the polite ones. I was undone by the sight of you with your parasol” –more gracious than I deserved. The picture is somewhere in the gazillion boxes that are still unpacked after my move of a year and a half ago—when I unearth it (if they still have blogs then) I'll post it.
April 9, 2008
In her hilarious (because it’s so true) post of yesterday, “Extremism! The horror!” Pretty Lady admits to “sympathetic ties to all manner of extremists.” But c’mon, we all have our limits. I’m waiting for the day when she meets someone who thinks Damien Hirst is the greatest artist of our time.
April 6, 2008
Man on cell phone: "I like China for you, but I also like the idea of....."

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