30 October 2012

Reading art press releases

Should artspeak make sense? Or should that question be ... who understands artspeak?

what art press releases need ... photo via here
An article in the online magazine Triple Canopy looks at "International Art English". Alix Rule and David Levine say: “This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English.” It has always cultivated a "pointed distance from English." The article's analysis is based on a corpus of 13 years of online press releases, under the headings of vocabulary, syntax, genealogy, authority, and finally, implosion.

The authors set the scene with a quote from ER Leach's 1954 book,  Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure:

"Of this English upper-middle class speech we may note (a) that it is not localised in any one place, (b) that though the people who use this speech are not all acquainted with one another, they can easily recognise each other’s status by this index alone, (c) that this elite speech form tends to be imitated by those who are not of the elite, so that other dialect forms are gradually eliminated, (d) that the elite, recognising this imitation, is constantly creating new linguistic elaborations to mark itself off from the common herd."

Click through the article to the poetic denoument. And enjoy the artspeak while you can. (Or should that read ... if you can ...?)

[update, 29 Jan 2012]
The Guardian newspaper has picked up on the beleaguered topic of artspeak -
http://m.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/jan/27/users-guide-international-art-english. It says: "With its pompous paradoxes and its plagues of adverbs, its endless sentences and its strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist contemporary art is a fraud." Then it lucidly recapitulates the Rule and Levine article.

"Sometimes this language is just pure front; sometimes it's a way of hedging your bets in the labyrinth of art-world politics. ... The showy vagueness of IAE can also be commercially pragmatic: "The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work," says Levine, "the more you can keep the value high." "


Anonymous said...

As to point d), the same can be said of each new generation and their slang additions to the language.

"Reading the [artspeak news] release may lead to a kind of metaphysical seasickness." Exactly so.

Very interesting article!

Kathleen Loomis said...

thanks so much for tipping me off to this wonderful article. It did make me a little queasy -- at some points it was hard to tell whether the analysis was dead serious or parody. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the authors' point that artspeak is intentionally exclusionary. One other symptom that the high-end Art World is sick.