Thursday, June 12, 2008


My mate, who is not in the art world, gets a belly laugh by its language. He referred me to a repartee about some local work online and asked me: Just what the hell are they saying?

It’s not the first time he’s asked me about artspeak and generally I just can’t answer. So much of it requires a position I don’t care to defend. Still love art and images very much, still look for meaning. Just can’t always go down the path of the enlightened.

Of course I had to go down it in art jobs. I received some packages of really interesting images, things which made me curious. But the “statements” were almost offensive, as if I could not find my own way. Then again, is this about art or about words? If it’s about words, you lost me.

This is one thing I have treasured in my recent investigation on how to write. Books on how to write remind you time and time again that you must communicate. This was reassuring after years in mindfuck art wordage.

I heard about a critique panel in which one of the participants nearly brought the artist to tears. And no, not about the art. About the thesis, the writing of it, the language. When I heard this story, it made me want to wrap my arms around that faceless artist. No wonder there’s so much nonsensical hand wringing in artspeak. From what I understand, there was no loss of art works to discuss. The student had done their work. But now the work was all about the word and that’s not really the area of expertise for an art student. Or is it?

When my mate heard an artist tell me “This work is so new I don’t have the language for it,” he said: “Right, they haven’t figured out the line of BS yet.”


Sharon said...

My favorite book on writing, which I got in college, is still The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. So wonderfully written, and the lessons it teaches could be about both writing and art.

Anonymous said...


I found this book years ago - maybe in a thrift store. It is the best book I have ever read on writing! Recently I came across On Writing Well by William Zinsser, who has many books on writing out. It is excellent too. He claims that White taught him everything.


Steven LaRose said...

When I went to undergrad, The Elements of Style was on every new student's pillow. I obviously merely skimmed it.

I'm not sure that concocting Bullshit after the pre-linguistic moment of studio time is something to belittle.

We can do the whole Dancing about Architecture shuffle, but it is true = words come later if you are honestly channeling from the liminal space. Very few humans can master (pardon the gender bias)a discipline, let alone two.

what ever happened to
"man-child dude from the æther"

Anonymous said...

I agree that words come later. But hopefully words are there to communicate, not to mystify.

I don't know what happened to Man-child, Steven, but I miss him too.


Steven LaRose said...

I've often felt that Art with a capital "A" is all about communication. But then, what the hell am I doing painting borderline abstractions?

I suppose I am painting with a twofold intention,

1) because I have experienced some ineffable moment in front of someone else's painting and I want to respond to that sensation with a nod and a lift. Communication as acknowledgment (craft) and challenge (progress).

2) pure selfish therapy or to use the words of "man-child dude" from one of your earlier posts: "endeavors requiring whimsy, creative impulses, discipline, focus, repetition, labor intensiveness, attention to details at both the macro and micro levels, etc. all end up at the same terminus: an eternal timeless meditation, a place where I feel fully alive, unaware of any passing moments."

That is a world-changing place to be. Am I living by example?

When we write words about our paintings, they are intended to facilitate the communication of the paintings, not explain them. Statements should be mysterious pointers in the mist, not texts that turn the work into illustrations.

I reserve the right to change my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Mystery, love it. I'm all for mystery. The state of mystery leaves the viewer curious, a beautiful thing. But so much of artspeak leaves us anything but.

Chris Ashley said...

Did you know that William Zinsser's son is NY painter John Zinsser)?

Unlike the sciences or math, visual art does not require a very extensive or difficult specialized vocabulary or set of concepts, nor do any of the arts. Historical knowledge is very important, and skills of observation are essential; both of those can be learned, as well as the small amount of specialized vocabulary, but it does take time.

What is often thought of as the most "difficult" art, anything post-Duchampian- conceptual art, appropriation, anything trading in irony, self-consciousness, Marxian usefulness such as an overt political stance, anything that is critical of capitalism, or any other post-modern conceits- can ultimately be written about as plainly and clearly in the same language used by any good film reviewer or political columnist. It's not a mystery if you have strong observational skills, an understanding of context, some imagination, the writing ability of any decent essayist, and the desire to actually explain and communicate. You can explain Duchamp and Sherrie Levine, Beuys and Barney at some level to a bright ten or twelve year old.

People learn to write these dense, theory-laden statements in MFA programs because they are in academia, a competitive environment that demands analytical ability, clear methodology, an understanding of a field's literature, and some writing ability, even if it is plodding and inelegant. And it is through these kinds of statements that graduate art departments, the sad, unskilled, less-intelligent wild problem child of academia lacking in rigorous methodology, attempt to make themselves worthy of being called higher education. It is rarely about the visual, about looking, about having an experience. Experience is suspect, because it can't be measured. This is also why many artist's statements of the past ten to fifteen years use research-based buzz words- explores, investigates, interrogates- and the language of the radical- challenges assumptions, interrupts expectations, subverts paradigms- these things can't be measured either.

Want to learn to write well? Write a lot, and read a lot, and write a lot. Read the New Yorker from cover to cover. Read columnists, who must develop an insightful argument in a few words. I find the best writing of sportswriters to be very entertaining, full of detail and description, very analytical, making daring psychological and political assessments, taking bold stances, and having a lot of fun. You'll find that there are lots of good formal writers- what is needed to write, though, is having something to say. If you're writing about art, you must engage with the art work and find within yourself something worth exploring and saying to others.

It can be difficult to write without an audience. Always write "to" someone- imagine your reader and who you're trying to communicate to. This is why I like email- I'm writing "to" someone, and out of that writing I often find ideas worth evolving and polishing. This notion of writing "to" someone is why so much bad art writing and tortured artist's statements exist- they are written for the wrong people.

Chris Ashley said...

Did I express that too strongly?

BTW, John Zinsser is a pretty good art writer, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for visiting Chris! And thanks for turning me on to Zinsser's son and his work. To answer your question: no, not too strongly.

Steven LaRose said...

That is precisely why Chris wrote anessay for the catalog accompanying my show last Fall.

Anonymous said...

A great piece of writing by Chris. And he's right about writing to someone.

Maybe that's why some artists are very nervous about being interviewed. They're afraid they will say the wrong things or say them in the wrong way. It's their work - how could they be wrong? But it's the (art world) audience which can be downright scary.


Cinque said...

I've been following a lot of the recent debate regarding artspeak. I agree that the goal of communication is COMMUNICATION, but I also think that much of the current dust up really comes down to the wrong vocabulary deployed in the wrong circumstances--that is, the mistake of seeing art writing as all one thing.

By analogy, would we expect Popular Science to use the same vocabulary and writing style as the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation? Of course not. If I read the latter, I would not expect to understand it, nor would I hold it against the authors for failing to write in a language that I could access.

I think there is a place for all that artspeak for those who want and need to think about cultural production in absolutely the most subtle, nuanced, and contextualized way. The trouble, I think, comes when curators and critics export that language into circumstances it was not designed for--say, the daily paper or a museum wall plaque.

Sheree Rensel said...

Oh my goodness! I was just thinking about this artspeak thing. For the past half hour, I have been going down my blog list and reading up. For some reason today it bothered me. As I read from blog to blog, I realized that so many are so thick with “Artspeak”, it is difficult to understand the point. Even the comments are so full of fine tuned jibberish; the text becomes an unsolvable puzzle.
Now I realize there are blogs for different purposes. I also realize there is a hierarchy in the “art blog” world. In fact, those art blogs at the summit of the art blog heap tend to be ones with the most layers of artspeak yadda yadda yak yak.
Don’t get me wrong. I went to grad school. Back then, we would set specific days just to develop and hone our B.S. (I mean “dialogue”) LOL Even though I speak Artspeak fluently, I will admit to keeping it very simple on my own blog. I talk about simple, pedestrian, real life artist’s stuff. That is why my blog would be on the “trailer trash” level of the art blog hierarchy. However at least my writing is sincere, relatable, and people can understand what the hell I am talking about!! LOL

Eva said...

hey Cinque and Sheree and all -

Your writing can change over the years, depending on whom you are writing for. For a long time, whatever style I had all came out of diary writing. I have to say I felt the most free then. When I first got online, I was part of an online journal community in which none of us really knew each other at all. No one else was really an artist either, so I was completely free. But things changed over the years - going back to school, being more known or watched - not sure how to phrase it... some of it was for the good to be sure, but I lost something too....

Carla said...

Hi Eva, nice photo on Steven's site.

I'm guilty of using artspeak, but it's because I can't write (yet).

I find it so very difficult to communicate verbally that I'll slip into art speak out of sheer frustration. I can only re-phrase and pare down my thoughts so much. Sometimes I'll use what I know is standardized and imprecise verbiage, just so the reader has some idea of what I'm so desperately trying to communicate in original terms.

namastenancy said...

I have been following an amazing example of "art speak" in the current issues of the Art Magazine. The SFAI had to withdraw a video performance, which showed animals being battered to death by the artist. The president of the SFAI wrote a long editorial for the Art Magazine and never mentioned what the problem was or why people objected to it. The comments made more sense than he did. The artist, Adel Abdessemed, has made a career of showing cruel and sadistic images and covering them over with thick crusts of “art theory” and “art philosophy.” Various art magazines describe his images of violence and destruction as elegant and witty. I guess they are if you find videos of slaughterhouses and human torture elegant and witty.

What the writer is obscuring with his "art-speak" is that the videos featured animals being battered to death, in some cases by the artist, in the name of art. I saw the exhibit and was sickened and I've worked in hospitals all my life. What I saw when the exhibit was pulled was a demand, if you will, for ethical, humanistic and humane values rather than an "anything goes in the name of building my career." If the video had shown the torture of humans done as an art form there would have been no mistaking its brutality. I realize that most of us eat meat and that animals are usually not killed in a humane way but this exhibit wasn't about that. It was about promoting a career by using gruesome and controversial imagery.

Now, talk about “mindfuck” art wordage. My comment was attacked by a certain “Jeff” who called me a fascist for objecting to this type of “art,” and declared that mine was a knee jerk reaction – assuming that I had not done any research on the artist, his career or the exhibit in question. So, not only do we have a very misleading statement from the president of the SGAI about the nature of the exhibit but also a lot of name calling by those who won’t discuss the ethical issues involved with (in this case) battering various animals to death in the name of art.

Eva said...

Hi Nancy,

I haven't seen what this artist is doing but have read about it here and there. What is interesting here is how artspeak (whether it is a statement or review etc) can decide for the viewer what it's supposed to be. Like we are not to make up our own minds, or are incapable of it.

No amount of verbiage can erase the viewer.

Carla makes a point about how we come to our practice and then learn, maybe way after the fact, how to write about it. Artists need to learn how to write these days, that seems the gist of it; makes sense. But if the way we learn is just through art academia, then the whole thing really suffers. That's why I still think it's a great thing to keep a journal.