International Art English

Being an artist is something I’ve returned to. I studied photography via photo-journalism, but after finishing university I focused on business. For a couple of years I was selling syndicated television shows and advertisement in New York. I left the City and returned to Berlin within weeks of the wall coming down, and worked with my father developing office properties during the day, while building my own business at night. D’Vision Records was a techno label, and it was one of the great and important experiences of my life to live through two parallel booms simultaneously. During those first years of unification real estate exploded in Berlin, while the city also became the epicenter of music and everything that came with it.

I’m not going to go on with an autobiography here, suffice it to say that I moved to California after a while and built some very exciting software companies in the course of my thirteen years there, which gave me the chance to experience yet another boom first-hand. When I moved back to Europe in 2007 it was because I had taken over a hotel refurbishment, briefly putting me back into my real estate mode.

The reason I point all of this out is because every business comes with its own distinct jargon. There is a certain lingua franca to every industry. It serves as a certain shorthand for concepts that are well established and don’t need to be reiterated at every point in the conversation. But honestly, a lot of language helps define a community, and acquiring the proper vocabulary is a rite of passage amongst younger people entering their particular world. Bright eyes filled with eager hope will parrot back words that barely make sense to anyone outside of the anointed circle. As you get older you take more pride in finding commonalities and analogies between practices, and then of course there is the smarmy self-confidence of business school graduates who force a language of their own on everything because in their mind, business is just business. Who needs details and experience if you can describe the template?

But no language is weirder, more insular, and as contrived as International Art English. Just read the artist statements in galleries, and you will quickly see what I mean.

Read the User’s Guide to Art English in the Guardian, which summarizes a study conducted by David Levine and Alix Rule. It’s fabulous. They conducted an investigation into thousands of artist’s statements and published their report on Triple Canopy. They call IAE “a unique language” that has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. It’s oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.”

The Guardian cites a great example. I’ll skip the artist and gallery’s name because I know neither, and don’t want to disrespect work I’ve never seen simply because some eager Gallerina wrote up a text to impress her fellow art-school alumni, but the article describes the work, and then cites the statement in full International Art English:

[The work is a] dozen small pink skulls in glass cases face the door. A dozen small bronze mirrors, blandly framed but precisely arranged, wink from the walls. In the deep, quiet space of the London gallery, shut away from Mayfair’s millionaire traffic jams, all is minimal, tasteful and oddly calming.

Until you read the exhibition hand-out. “The artist brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth,” it says. “Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist’s practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the ‘original’ source or referent that underlines [her] oeuvre.”

Awesome. Mission accomplished … and that wasn’t even that bad or incomprehensible. Nonetheless the general audience feels stupid, while insiders can use the same language to reference work by other artists, thus eliminating the need to interface with the work on hand. It’s wanky, it’s called playing to the curator, and is a prime example of how language can be exclusionary.

Art needs language, as much as we want to insist that it should speak for itself. It is rarely given that opportunity. And invariably it will require esoteric terminology, and words that are shorthand for entire concepts. I understand that this is easier to do in hindsight, and careers or whole movements are clearer than individual pieces or series. It’s been only a week since I asked for help defining my particular style of narrative photography. There is a need to express what we do as artists. But there is no need to veer into deep bullshit. And believe me, I’ve seen worse. I read an artist’s press release recently that was describing the work to be shown in Miami while Art Basel’s Miami fair was going on. It sounded like a compilation of Scrabble winners served over a bed of Hollywood dot-com blather… No, I’m not gonna link to it.

But… if you’d like to have some fun, here’s a link to Arty Bollocks, a site that will generate a statement if you’re having a tough time writing your own. And just to “keep it real” I’ll link to one of my own wankier concepts.

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