It’s an Old Navy ad starring the comedian Amy Poehler, of the TV showParks and Recreation and various movies. Poehler stands in front of a blue box in a commercial art gallery and tells a client, “This is entitled Blue Box. It’s about the Civil War, obviously.”
The Blue Box is not “obviously” about anything, though Poehler, obviously, is lampooning an über-fashionable Manhattan gallery owner. She continues, “This piece was made on a ship, then shipped to a car, and then driven to a plane.”
Poehler’s take on artspeak is wonderfully funny, though it’s inaccurate, for the viewer can actually understand her absurd statements. True artspeak — or “International Art English,” as it was identified a couple of years ago in an infamous essay by Alix Rule and David Levine — is impenetrable to any sane person, who will recognize it as words arranged nonsensically and purported to be profound. People don’t know what artspeak means, because artspeak means nothing.
I’ve been collecting local samples of artspeak, though I won’t identify individuals as my target is the broader problem. Here’s an example I culled from a real artist’s statement published by a real art gallery in Ottawa-Gatineau. This particular artist, the statement said, “uses the craft of painting to navigate through the transient obstacles and challenges towards a unification of concept and practice.”
To which even most educated, thoughtful, art-loving people respond, “Er, umm, whaaaaa...?”
In their seminal essay, Rule and Levine attempted to analyze International Art English as it’s spoken by artists, curators, writers, critics, professors and too many others. Or as Ben Davis pointedly wrote, on the website BlouinArtInfo, the essay was an “attempt to prove scientifically that the art world was a hive of pompous windbags — that is, that the official language of art was a linguistically meaningless jumble of buzzwords written in a tortured style.”
Here’s another example of such tortured jumble, taken from a gallery’s news release that was published in Ottawa: The artworks “are formally linked through their use of research aesthetics and the moving image. Weaving through many disparate topics of study and lines of inquiry, the videos offer compelling examples of how the artistic research process is turned into form.”
I once read that excerpt to a group of art collectors in Ottawa, and I asked if any of them could tell me what the exhibition was about. All the collectors laughed, because all were baffled by the description — and if art collectors can’t understand artspeak, what hope does the general public have?
Not everyone in the arts community uses artspeak, and many recognize it as a scourge. Yet enough people have succumbed to it that, a while back, an artist friend on Facebook asked, “do art schools offer courses in writing completely unintelligible artists’ statements?”
The answer is yes. Sort of.
Art schools don’t offer courses in artspeak, but they cloister students in an academic world of arcane language that is meaningless to almost everyone outside of their scholastic bubble. When the students graduate, too many can only talk about their work with empty, pompous phrases that crush all of art’s beauty, mystery and universality. Too many artists and curators write to impress their own academic circles, and not to interest the general public — which is evidently self-destructive behaviour for an artist with a public exhibition.
Artspeak makes everyone but a few self-inflating people in the art world feel dumb, and that has a terrible effect on art. “Well,” the average, educated person may say, “I can’t even understand a description of what the art is about, so how can I hope to understand the art? Why bother?”
Worse yet, people see that no other type of art suffers from artspeak — you don’t hear screenwriters or musicians or authors talking about their work with such preposterous blather. Every time a visual artist uses artspeak, it reaffirms the untrue and unfortunate idea that people need a special education to even look at a painting or a sculpture. How very sad that misunderstanding is, and how unnecessary.
This should be of immediate and grave concern to anyone who runs an art gallery, especially a public art gallery that, ultimately, needs to get people through the doors to survive. No gallery will pull in the public with hollow gibberish such as this, from another genuine news release sent out by an Ottawa-area gallery: “Abstraction is explored while consolidating the emotive quality of color and gesture, along with formal and material concerns.”
Or, in plainer words, blah, blah, blah.