Art and Language


Some art, yesterday.


Going through some boxes, deciding what to chuck out, I came across some old art magazines.  Now, in a previous life, I was doing a PhD in the history of art, something I abandoned to take up novel writing.  The reasons for this are quite complex – financial considerations, career prospects, lack of ability – but one of the major factors was that half the time, I hadn’t a fucking clue what anybody was talking about.

This is because there is no useful style of writing for discussing art today.  Much art writing is influenced by critical theory – your Baudrillards, Kristevas and the like.  All good stuff, although dense and sometimes obtuse, but they can write like that and get away with it because they’re brilliant.  If anybody who is less than brilliant tries their hand at it, then chances are they’ll come over sounding like a pretentious twerp.

(I’m not sure why there’s such a strong link between critical theory and art.  They generally make students read it in art schools, although most of it is rooted in subjects like philosophy and sociology, and there’s no real evidence that it makes anybody’s art any better.  If you just got everybody to read Robinson Crusoe or something instead, would their art really be any worse?)

The real problem with art writing at the moment is that it’s just not good writing.  Rather than explaining complex ideas in a simple way (which is what Good Writing does), art writing explains what are relatively basic ideas (art is easier to understand than, say, quantum mechanics) in a fantastically complicated manner.  Take this random extract from an exhibition review I found in a magazine from the box this morning:

Foster has suggested that the ‘artist as ethnographer’ is heir to the neo-Avant Garde’s pioneering of political and institutional critique.  Although Piper could claim a different lineage, many of the works in ‘East’ complied with this model and, through reframing social interaction, presented a critical distance.  As Foster outlines, one possible dilemma for such practices is that the aim ultimately become a place in the museum and therefore in history, a goal which can dull the dialogical relationship a work might have with its audience: the aim being to critique rather than to affect a scene or audience.

Ok, I’m taking it out of context, which is unfair, but even so, did you remotely understand any of it?  Did you even want to?  Or did the words repel you with their willful desire not to communicate?  Also, the repetition of ‘audience’ at the end is ugly.  Did no one edit this?

I have to declare that I am not entirely innocent. I once wrote an exhibition review for artwank mag Frieze which I’m sure I’d find painfully embarrassing today if only I could bring myself to read it.  It’s documented here for posterity, unfortunately (After this, all my suggestions for reviews were rejected, and it became clear that I had been cast out of the kingdom of Frieze forever.  I’d somehow failed them, it seemed, with my publishable exhibition review).

I am not alone in realising the problem of all art writing being terrible.  A number of years ago, just before giving yet another wad of cash to Damien Hirst for winning the Turner Prize, the incredibly clever musician Brian Eno pointed this very thing out to a roomful of glitter-arty folk.  Unfortunately he ran out of time before he could tell them what to do about it, but expanded upon his view in this article.

As Eno says, the inability of art insiders to communicate to those on the outside adds to the belief much of the general public possess that art is pretty irrelevant to them.  But does it have to be this way?  People can talk about pop music and film in ways that are intelligent and yet perfectly clear (Sight and Sound shows up all art magazines for the pseudobabble they really are, and is accessible and therefore popular enough for many corner newsagents to stock it), so why not art?  I propose a punk-style Year Zero for art writing, where all the old worn out phrases (strategy, engage, investigate, subvert, liminal, specifity etc.) are thrown out, so that new ways of writing about it can be discovered, and hopefully leading to something that isn’t alienating to 99.99% of the population.

I’m not saying it would be easy.  Every time I try to write a simple sentence about art, the urge to use phrases such as ‘abject matrix of strategic singularity’ is quite overwhelming, even when describing the gallery car park.  Also, all the decent art’s in bloody London, and I can’t afford the train fare.  But next time I’m up there, I’ll set myself the challenge of coming back and writing about what I saw, here on this blog, and see if I can come up with something that’s fresh, intelligent, and of quality, doing justice both to the art itself as well as the English language.  And if I manage it, Brian Eno has to buy me lunch or let me polish his already shiny head.  Stay tuned!


10 Responses to “Art and Language”

  1. I do wonder if perhaps the lack of useful writing about art is due in part to the dearth of useful art being produced at the moment(at least in the visual arts: music, literature, etc., are entitrely different matters and while it’s clear you’re referring to in your post, it’s an important distinction to make for those who might have missed it).

    I also wonder if much of the problem is not simply ‘ the inability of art insiders to communicate to those on the outside adds to the belief much of the general public possess that art is pretty irrelevant to them’ that Eno writes about, but largely connected to the way in which so much art is now simply self-referential and has thus removed itself from any real social context – and in doing so, has negated its social function. Good art – like good art writing – is not only accessible on different levels, but engages directly with society and culture.

    That’s an interesting and amusing random extract: it’s not only badly written and unnecessarily dense, but also demonstrates a rather poor understanding of the avant-garde. Given that the avant-garde (or avant-gardes, as there has never been a single coherent unified avant-garde movement) was / is (depending on one’s intepretation of avant-gardism and its relation to postmodernism) definied by a cycle of destruction / rebirth, ‘the neo-avant-garde’ is simply an absurdity.

    Or, in punk terms, that’s fucking shit. And art’s for ponces.

  2. Art will be self-referential as long as there’s accompanying theory (or something that looks a bit like theory) to justify it. It would be interesting to see what would happen if all art journals ceased publication for a period of, say, three years. Perhaps art would go down a new and unexpected route, discovering new possibilities in the silence.

  3. Boiled down, most (good) film writing is about the content, but most (bad) art writing is about the context. They’re not writing about the work itself, they’re writing about its place in the art world, which is why most art magazines feel like reading a trade paper, crossed with an academic journal. Art writing also feels pathologically afraid of writing about the emotional effect of the work, as if this will in some way undermine critical judgement. Personally, when writing about art, I’ve tried to convey the experience of the work: how does it feel, and how does it achieve this?
    I don’t agree with some of the comments that most art is itself more concerned with the art world than the real world; this is more a perception based on critics than on the work itself. But I’m up for the challenge: why not post the details of the exhibition you’re going to review and let’s all have a crack at writing something sensible about it … ? Happy new year — JW

  4. Hi Jonathan, I shall certainly keep everyone posted once I have more concrete plans. Happy new year to you too!

  5. I’m pretty sure it’s not true that “all the decent art’s in bloody London”. I’ll give you two for starters – the Ikon in Birmingham and (when it opens later in the yeear) the new Towner in Eastbourne, but then what do I know.

  6. But they’re no good to me! Both those places are even further from my house than London is!

    Yes, I know not all the good art’s in London. I was exaggerating to present my situation in a humorous and interesting manner. This blog works like that, you see.

  7. Christopher Nosnibor Says:

    ‘It would be interesting to see what would happen if all art journals ceased publication for a period of, say, three years.’

    Well, there have been at least 2 three-year long art strikes that I know of, so why not a art journal strike?

  8. Just to add my twopenneth worth (late as usual)…the point of art is that it is a form of communication, therefore it speaks for itself. The only real way to experience it is to see it , touch it, hear it ‘in the flesh’…if you don’t and you rely on criticism and/or reviews you might as well be playing Chinese Whispers. Therefore, it makes sense that the reason to write about a particular piece of art is to articulate your feelings about a personal experience, or put it in context with other art/cultures/philosophies, etc.

    If you could ban all art criticism for three years, art would of course continue to develop because it’s a conversation, and just because someone else stops talking about the conversation, it doesn’t mean the conversation will stop. I’m not sure how many artists actually read the criticism in the art mags anyway; we just look at the pictures, cos they speak for themselves!

    And, just to be a provocative pain in the arse, are you not being a bit elitist yourself by choosing the title you did for this post?!!!!!!!!! (I like it very much of course, but maybe that’s just because I’m ‘in the know’!)

    Maybe some of the best/most accessible art writing is done by people that also make art?

    Interesting article, thank you.

  9. Am I being elitist? No, because the title makes sense regardless of whether or not you get the reference. I’m not against people actually knowing what they’re talking about, just expressing that knowledge in a way that’s tediously obscure (as opposed to being playfully obscure, which is rather fun).

    Thanks for your post, Stephanie!

  10. As well as the tediously obscure, there’s also the tediously hilarious: “The lyricism of the hanging lily and tulip, the lyricism of the hanging penis…In their lilt they have something formally in common, an aesthetic affinity, as Robert Mapplethorpe’s classically equilibrated photographs suggest.” Donald Kuspit in Artscribe, Nov/Dec 1988, which was about when I gave up reading such bullshit!

    I totally agree with you, and playfully obscure is definitely fun.

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