Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Parsing martspeak

April 21, 2008 - 5:23pm -- Carol Diehl
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.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Thank you!

How is anyone going to write a meaningful review of the emperor's new clothes? At least things are coming full circle, as contemporary academic writing is becoming as paranoid and self conscious as the art it is writing about... is the ball in the artist/blogger's court?

Thanks so much for dredging up my article. I'm flattered. I like a lot Carol's comment that it's about smartening up and not dumbing down. Most art criticism is lousy without using fancy words at all. Try reading Ken Johnson today on Jeff Koons. Its only meaningless vocabulary is the empty compliment. There isn't all that much jargon in the Whitney quotes either, so much as familiar words strung together in tendentious ways.

In 1997 I felt I was arguing for informed criticism, not against philosophy. The WSJ can cite Panofksy now, without noting the irony that the whole idea of iconology is that art may require some formerly arcane knowledge. It's easier to dump on scholars who are actually trying to bring out art's potential to shake you up than to deal with the complacency of the money machine that puts so much pressure on artists to get attention before they're 30. But it's not as if the WSJ is going to complain about markets.

Can I allow myself one bit of shameless self-promotion, as it may be relevant to the Whitney's "attitude"? Here's more or less the lead of my own review: "The show may serve as a Rorschach test for contemporary art. Those who revel in art's reaching out to wider audiences—with installations that tumble over into dance, theater, film, and sound—will have a field day. Those who instead long for good, old-fashioned fine art on the other will demand Robert Hughes back. In practice, alternatives like these make too much of a generally sedate, muddled Biennial."


Thanks again for shining a light on this problem of language. Sometimes, I also think problem extends beyond just this. Often, I do understand the essay, but it defines the value of art in terms of something else (as if it has no intrinsic value). For instance, giving an artwork value because of its "social critique" or "politics." Not that these things are bad, but the over-reliance on "issues," rather than the art itself, is another indicator to me that writers do not know how to talk about aesthetic content.

writers do not know how to talk about aesthetic content.

Either that, or they honestly believe that aesthetic content has no value. Or perhaps that that value is not sufficient to justify making art in the first place.

Perhaps, indeed, the problem is primarily one of insecurity. If one honestly believes in the ideas one is putting forth, why bother to obfuscate?

To really get into the spirit of the thing, let me begin with a pithy quotation from a distinguished philosopher – no, there’ll be no translation needed - Professor John Searle (an American analytical philosopher of language and mind) “If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself” (London 1992).

OK so I got that out of one of those little books of quotes, but… you know… I would have got round to reading it in the original, one day…

Anyway - my point being that the kind of clarity Carol’s talking about, is not something one ought to condescend or resort to, simply in the interests of communicating with the general public – it’s something any theorist or critic ought to be striving for at all times. It’s simply best practice as thinking. This is, of course, to take an analytical philosopher’s view of language. But generally I find all kinds of specialists outside of art, quite enjoy the challenge of explaining their field to the uninitiated, simply for the exercise in clear and simple exposition. While clarity is not the same as simplicity, there is a traditional principle of parsimony that weds the two.

I’m a regular reader of John Haber as well, but I think this debate/complaint goes back at least to the early 70s, when I first encountered the onslaught of post-structuralism in the arts (starting with cinema) and the very sociologically driven view of art, that by necessity skips details to establish The Big Picture – where Art fits in with History, Psychology, Economics, Culture etc. The problem is these critics/theorists’ really have nothing to say about particulars, because they’ve spent so much of their argument disavowing the validity of technical or formal terms (insisting upon their social determination) – in the end they have no tools to say anything substantive, about a work, an artist, a trend or movement, for example. In effect they convert aesthetics to a branch of the social sciences.

What happens to those schooled in such an approach, is that criticism amounts to just a quick tracing of routes and processes by which the work ‘functions’ within this view of History, Psychology, Language, etc, etc. Under this approach, not more is needed. How it demonstrates these steps can only be vaguely alluded to, since this is then to appeal to formal or technical issues, which potentially rob the grand scheme of some of its command. So what happens is that those terms used for this more general functioning, such as deconstruction, discourse, sexuality, gender and critique, all get wildly over-used and abused and start chasing themselves – are really set to tasks that are far too specific for them, and the effect is mostly of maddening generalities, growing ever more empty.

Compounding the problem, is that there is now a generation entrenched in the art world (not just as critics or theorists, but as artists, collectors and curators) who are unwilling and unable to do otherwise. I see on literary (– or worse – literary theory) blogs, many encounter the same frustration, with definitions and standards of literature. I can say as one whom has personally suffered quite unfairly from this deep resentment in the academic world - and at just where it purports to be at its most tolerant and curious! - that change or challenge is hardly acknowledged much less welcomed by this tired and dull regime.

To clarify, I was not defending the academic tone but very critical of what was amounting to what I regarded as anti-intellectual, a posture of ridicule that did not invite discussion. This was most egregious to me in Lacayo's list of banned words, which to my mind is akin to banning books. And so I tried to find the source of those words inside of a specific history of intellectual thought, and to unpack what is at stake in that history, asking what might be lost should it be abandoned.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
the face of the art market is about to change forever...
Artist Michael Colavito has been creating completely unique works for over 30 years, but recently has caught the attention of Jeff Koons, Chuck Close, Phillip Glass and most recently Mr. Robert De Niro and collector Ron Perelman. Colavito created large format (8x10) photography images without the use of computers or graphics in any way - the final image is a layered series of his paintings, sculptures and other techniques over the original photographic image. I say this as a comment because it will only be a matter of very little time before he is recognized on a world wide level. The perverbial 30 year overnight success. Colavito's uncle was Ron Rice who began the beat film movement and heavily influenced Salvatore Dali and Andy Warhol - before he died too young at the age of 29. Colavito was 5 years old at the time of Rice's death.

Thanks for your blog it is very interesting!
C. Capra

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
As an artist I have become so tired of WORDS used to explain or describe my paintings. I'm not an author, I express myself visually. I do not need you to explain what I intend to say. You may hear music (I always hear that music from Pscho when I see Guernica) or smell salt water as I do when I look at Turner's sea scapes. I want a visceral response to my paintings not an intellectual verbal diarrhea. I want you to FEEL, to SENSE and not to disect.

Thanks for resurrecting this post. It is germane to my current thinking. I stopped going to the Whitney Biennial so long ago I can't even remember.

Last summer I read through a box of articles from about 1988-2000 that I had cut out of stacks of art mags before I pitched them to make space in my studio. They are marginally more comprehensible now than they were when they came out. I suppose because now I can place them into an art historical context. But the language always seems like a complete fabrication. I have been planning to write a long rant about the curatorial class (a pox on them!) who I view as a bunch of parasitical upstarts who had the money to go to school, but couldn't cut it as artists. And of course the schools (because they are for-profit organizations) don't discourage this trend. They have created a monster. I get very upset when a show is more about the curator's vision than about the artist's. And all this gobbledeygook from the last Biennial only confirms my feelings.
I am a complete fan of your writing (newly discovered—as I'm a bit hermetic) and have recently gotten into blogging. By the way, I congratulate you on getting your studio sorted out. I am trying to source full-sheet cardboard so as to do the same. I recently had to ship a bunch of paintings and came up with a great solution. My photographer got so excited she is sharing it with her other artists. When I get a chance, I will write it up.

Thanks again

Now, then, we see the limits of an idea of imitation;
it extends only to the sensation of trickery and deception occasioned
by a thing's intentionally seeming different from what it is; and the
degree of the pleasure depends on the degree of difference and the
perfection of the resemblance, not on the nature of the thing
resembled. John Ruskin circa 1855

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