Vital Thoughts: Art Language and ‘Real’ English

The post-structuralist inspired but invariably empty non-language often found in artists statements, gallery press releases and cultural criticism is an easy target for anyone writing about art or photography. Usually though the discussion never progresses much beyond whining about it. One of the more interesting engagements I’ve seen is Alix Rule and David Levine’s investigation of what they term ‘International Art English’ a language which they say ‘has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English’.

Rather than complaining about it, Rule and Levine have set out to explore what makes IAE what it is, exploring its syntax and favoured words and suggesting reasons for how it might have come to be and how it is continuously evolving. They argue that IAE serves a number of purposes, amongst them demonstrating the ‘rigorous, politically conscious, probably university trained’ credentials of its users, and functioning to ‘consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and, indeed, contemporary’.

kitaj-the-killer-critic

R.B. Kitaj, The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower (1997)

I find this type of language as irritating as anyone else, the only way I’ve come to live with it more or less by doing as Rule and Levine suggest at the end of their piece, not by reading IAE for its content, but for its lyricism and imagination. I try to revel in it, enjoy its ecentricity, even laugh at it. Still what will always frustrate me about this type of language is that it all too easily becomes a stick that is used to beat all writing about art, sometimes indeed all writing which isn’t easily accessible. Rather than trouble themselves to engage with a piece of writing all too often people just label it incomprehensible, pretentious, etc.

Complex or vague writing is often not good writing, but good writing is not always simple or straightforward. There is a tendency to assume any use of a word longer than three syllables or which some people may have to look up is automatically a bad thing. One article in the independent for example asked ‘why they seem to think it’s better to use the word “notion” than “idea”, or the word “narrative” than “story”‘. But clearly in certain contexts a ‘narrative’ is an entirely different thing from a ‘story’, the latter implies fiction, entertainment, the former suggests a true account, a structure. It goes without saying these are two very different things, not least in art or photography where the line between what is real and what is fabricated is often the battle line between opposing views about the value of work.

Just as it’s stupid to use intentionally overlong words to make something sound more impressive than it is, it’s foolish to assume that a more obscure synonym of a word means exactly the same thing, or that a long word is always being used to make the author feel good about themselves. Language is a fine tool, sharply honed over centuries of use and the mistake that both users and critics of IAE often seem to make is to treat it like more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel.

Interesting writing to me (a writer for the fun of it, with a few years of university and the rest picked up by trial and error) is writing which like good photography, art, design, etc. hardly even makes you aware of its presence. It’s writing that is so focused on transmitting a vital thought, and doing it in a way as true to that thought as possible, that the writing itself, the vessel containing that idea, is barely even noticed by the reader.

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