Worth a thousand words?
When does language hinder communication? Whenever it is used to describe art, or so it would seem. Andy Beckett deciphers the impenetrable waffle favoured by galleries the world over to see what, if anything, it all means
Gallery Exit in Tin Wan, Aberdeen is now showing "In the Offing", the first solo exhibition by Lewis Lau Yin-to. Ten oil paintings of various sizes and with a photographic feel to them hang from the walls of the gallery. The scenes are of the everyday, you may conclude, on a stroll around the hushed room. But then you read the exhibition notes.
"'In the Offing' refers to the area where the sea touches the sky, the fine line where movement becomes stillness," we are told. "While using the photographic image as a point of departure, the featured works move away from their time bounded dimension and explore the possibility of portraying a timeless exposure of memory - the point where Sight and its objective dimension meets Absence and the imaginative power it brings. All the unnecessary signs, unseemly for the remembrance of an event, are in the works deleted from the original image and rendered into new and every time richer manifestations. Seemingly staged in every detail, the works in fact explore memory by means of brushstrokes. A gesture unrestrained from any mental or physical boundary, it enables the artist's interventions to explore fortuitous and unforeseen trajectories."
If you've been to see contemporary art in the past three decades, you will probably be familiar with the feelings of bafflement, exhaustion or irritation that such gallery prose provokes. You may well have got used to ignoring it. As Polly Staple, art writer and director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, puts it: "There are so many people who come to our shows who don't even look at the programme sheet. They don't want to look at any writing about art."
With its pompous paradoxes and plagues of adverbs, endless sentences and strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist contemporary art is a fraud. Surely no one sensible takes this jargon seriously?
David Levine and Alix Rule do. "Art English is something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time," says Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin, Germany. "But we all use it."
Three years ago, Levine and Rule, a 29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia University in New York, decided to try to anatomise it. "We wanted to map it out," says Levine, "to describe its contours, rather than just complain about it."
They christened it International Art English, or IAE, and concluded that its purest form was the gallery press release, which - in today's increasingly globalised, internet-widened art world - has a greater audience than ever.
"We spent hours just printing them out and reading them to each other," says Levine. "We'd find some super-outrageous sentence and crack up about it. Then we'd try to understand the reality conveyed by that sentence."
Next, they collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 by e-flux, a powerful New York-based subscriber network for art-world professionals. They then used language-analysing software called Sketch Engine, developed by a company in Britain, to discover what, if anything, lay behind IAE's great clouds of verbiage.
Their findings were published last year as an essay in the voguish American art journal Triple Canopy; it has since become one of the most widely and excitedly circulated pieces of online cultural criticism. And it is easy to see why. Levine and Rule write about IAE in a droll, largely jargon-free style. They call it "a unique language" that has "everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. [It] is oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it".
IAE uses "more rather than fewer words". Sometimes it uses them with absurd looseness: "Ordinary words take on non-specific alien functions. 'Reality,' writes artist Tania Bruguera, 'functions as my field of action.'" And it can deploy words with faddish precision: "Usage of the word 'speculative' spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for 'rupture'; 'transversal' now seems poised to have its best year ever."
Through Sketch Engine, Rule and Levine found that "the real"- used as a portentous, would-be philosophical abstract noun - occurred "179 times more often" in IAE than in standard English. In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd combination of stiffness and swagger, they argue that IAE "sounds like inexpertly translated French". This is no coincidence, they claim, having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art writing via October, the New York critical journal founded in 1976.
IAE has spread around the world so thoroughly that there has even been, writes Rule and Levine, an "IAE of the French press release … written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics".
The mention of interns is significant. Rule, who writes about politics for left-wing journals as well as art for more mainstream ones, believes IAE is partly about power.
"IAE serves interests," she says. However laughable the language may seem to outsiders, to art-world people, speaking or writing in IAE can be a potent signal of insider status. As some of the lowest but also the hungriest in the art food chain, interns have much to gain from acquiring fluency in it. Levine says the same goes for many institutions: "You can't speak in simple sentences as a museum and be taken seriously. You can't say, 'This artist produces funny work.' In our postmodern world, simple is just bad. You've got to say, 'This artist is funny and …'"
He doesn't, however, think this complexity is a wholly bad thing. "If you read catalogue essays from the 50s and 60s, and I have some, there are these sweeping claims about what artists do - and what they do to you."
A 1961 catalogue essay for a Rothko exhibition in New York declared that the famously doomy painter was "celebrating the death of civilisation … The door to the tomb opens for the artist in search of his muse."
Levine says: "That style of art writing has been overturned, and rightly so. It was politically chauvinistic, authoritarian. IAE is about trying to create a more sensitive language, acknowledging the realities of how things [made by artists] work."
Contradictions, ambiguities and unstable and multiple meanings: art writing needs to find a way of dealing with these things, Levine argues, just as other English-language critical discourses learned to, under the same French influences.
Rule is a little less forgiving towards IAE. "This language has enforced a hermeticism of contemporary art," she says, slipping (as Levine also frequently does) into a spoken version of the jargon even as she criticises it, "that is not particularly healthy. IAE has made art harder for non-professionals."
Even professionals can feel oppressed by it. The artists who've responded most positively to the essay, says Rule, "are the ones who have been through master of fine arts programmes" where IAE is pervasive.
How has the broader art world reacted? "I've been a little baffled by the volume of positive response," says Rule, "and the almost complete absence of critical response."
Levine adds: "There have not been any complaints that we know of. Obviously, we may be blacklisted and not know it."
The essay's tone - knowing, insiderish, never polemical, and constantly shifting between mockery and studied neutrality - probably accounts for some of its warm reception.
"We didn't want to be nasty," says Rule.
In 2011, the pair presented an early draft of their critique as a lecture at an Italian art fair. Levine hints that some of the audience were less than delighted. "If you're an art practitioner and you experience our analysis live, you feel a bit called out."
The two are keen to admit they are both guilty of IAE use. Indeed, Levine relishes the fact: "Complicity is what makes things interesting. Just this morning, I was writing a little essay for a newspaper and I caught myself using the word 'articulation'". Rule adds: "In one draft of our IAE piece, I had quoted my own use of IAE. It becomes extremely hard not to speak in the language in which you are being spoken to."
Sometimes this language is just pure front; sometimes it's a way of hedging your bets in the labyrinth of art-world politics.
"Institutions try to guess what they're meant to sound like," says Levine, much of whose own art is interested in the rituals and role-playing of the art world.
The flood of new money into art in recent years may have helped swell the IAE bubble.
"The more overheated the market gets, the more overheated the language gets," says Levine. IAE often "insists on art's subversive potential". Popular terms include: radically, interrogates, subverts, void, tension. Much contemporary art does have a disquieting quality, but there can be something faintly absurd about artists in Hong Kong, London or New York galleries playing up their iconoclasm for super-rich collectors.
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."
Of course, ever since art ceased to be mainly decorative - Levine dates this change to the mid-19th century - works have often been shown or sold with a garnish of rhetoric. Where IAE may be different is in its ubiquity, thanks to the internet, and thanks to the heavily theoretical and text-influenced nature of much current art-making and education. Rule and Levine are cautious about IAE's precise effect on artists; they haven't researched it. But Rule does say: "It would be naive to say artists are not influenced."
Will the hegemony of IAE, to use a very IAE term, ever end? Rule and Levine think it soon might. Now that competence in IAE is almost a given for art professionals, its allure as an exclusive private language is fading. When IAE goes out of fashion, they write, "We probably should not expect that the globalised art world's language will become … inclusive. More likely, the elite of that world will opt for something like conventional highbrow English."
One day, we may even look back on IAE with nostalgia - on its extravagant syntax as a last product, perhaps, of the boom years. Or as a sign of something more basic.
"Sometimes," says Rule, "I read these IAE press releases and find them completely joyless, but sometimes I feel this exuberance coming through. For people who hold assistantships in galleries, writing press releases is kind of fun. Certainly more fun than billing!"
Guardian News & Media
Additional reporting by Mark Footer