Last week, my girlfriend and I went to the Sean Kelly gallery in Midtown to view an exhibition of work by Anthony McCall. I haven’t seen McCall’s work in the flesh since his solo exhibition many years ago at the Serpentine Gallery. Trying to recall exactly when this was, I scanned the gallery’s press release (which doesn’t mention it) only to discover something far more interesting. I found myself stupefied by the opening sentence of the release. I actually re-read it out of sheer disbelief:
‘Sean Kelly announces Face to Face, featuring new and historic work by Anthony McCall’.
‘Sean Kelly announces’. Not ‘Sean Kelly is pleased to announce’, or ‘Sean Kelly is thrilled to’. Just ‘Sean Kelly announces’.
The cynic in me rejoiced. The use of ‘pleased to announce’ in press releases is an irritating non sequitur. Why wouldn’t the gallery be bloody pleased?
At just over a page, the release efficiently describes McCall’s works in an objective manner, devoid of any obscure technical terms. This plainly written release was one of the best I have ever read. Kudos to whoever penned it at Sean Kelly.
The language of arts press releases has been the subject of increasing critical attention. These neatly stacked sheets of paper play a huge role in how art is discussed, criticized, and sold. A few months ago, Alix Rule, a critic and PhD student at Columbia, and David Levine, an American artist, coined the term ‘International Art English’ to describe the prevailing grammatical orthodoxies of arts press releases. In a highly focused study, Rule and Levine analyzed almost fifteen years worth of copy distributed via e-flux (e-flux was used on the basis that it has the highest readership by members of the so called ‘art world’). Amongst their observations were:
-IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy.
-An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces.
-IAE’s literary conventions actually favor the hard-to-picture spatial metaphor…(e.g.) “Matthew Ritchie’s works…elegantly bridge a rift in the art-science continuum”
It’s a brilliant article as well as a perfect antidote against the frustrating opacity of art speak. Rule and Levine’s approach has a coy and clever logic. Press releases belittle their readers with an intellectual veneer, so it makes perfect sense to fight them on this very front by countering with a rigorous linguistic and grammatical analysis.
Whilst Rule and Levine’s approach is unique in its approach, it isn’t the first to critique ‘art speak’. My personal favorite is Brian Ashbee’s 1999 piece for Art Review, entitled ‘Art Bollocks’ (Art Bollocks being a far more risible term than IAE). The British art critic David Lee, editor of the wonderfully mutinous Jackdaw adopted it for a regular column in which the month’s worst offenders are quoted verbatim. The magazine’s website includes a list of highlights uttered throughout the noughties.
Ashbee was one of the first to realize that art speak has a subtle oppressiveness. It discourages critical thinking by exuding authority. It relentlessly aims to cement the apparent importance of an artist. In doing this, it is hoped that any subsequent criticism will be effectively neutered. If an artist appears to be important, the implication is that they must be, and if you disagree, well, that’s just your opinion.
Ashbee’s article greatly complements Rule and Levine’s. Whereas they analyze the use and abuses of language, Ashbee highlights typical techniques. These include:
-Describing an artwork as being situated between two polar attributes. Thus, it can’t be criticized for being either (e.g. the work is both ironic and sincere).
-Suggest that if an element of the work appears to be mediocre or lazy, it must be intentionally so.
-Don’t state facts or opinions, state concepts, because concepts are non-specific. Unlike its execution, you can’t fault an artwork for having a ‘bad’ concept.
Art bollocks becomes its own sort of rabid dance, impossible to engage with or hold down. The implications for art criticism are grave. Whilst press releases undoubtedly foster the worst offenses of Art Bollocks, its digressions have long been seeping into criticism and art historical discourse. To quote Rule and Levine: “…criticism has become nothing more than ‘highbrow copywriting.’ Critics, traditionally the elite innovators of IAE, no longer appear in control. Indeed, they seem likely to be beaten at their own game by anonymous antagonists who may or may not even know they’re playing”. Art Bollocks can be found in all facets of the art world; galleries, magazines, foundations, and even museums. Writing for Hyperallergic, Mostafa Heddaya criticized a recent lecture at the Guggenheim for co-opting IAE in order to skirt issues of human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates, a reminder that the use of language is not always a trivial issue.
Young students and graduates whose first jobs are for commercial galleries and non-profits often perpetuate its offenses (I shuddered to find an example of Ashbee’s ‘neither/or’ rule on my own blog). The phenomenon runs hand in hand with two broader developments in the art world; postmodernity and the rise of PR and marketing. Postmodernism has unmasked art as a mere sociological label. Anything can be art if it’s deemed so. Thus, there are no real principles or guidelines as to what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. Your judgements are simply the sum total of your own aesthetic beliefs. Theory has thus sapped the conviction out of art criticism.
Marketing has reduced artists to a collection of branded USP’s. Damien Hirst equates with skulls, butterflies and death. Ai Weiwei is your go to Asian dissident. Koons is king of kitsch. The result is a sort of protectionism of niches. Art Bollocks dictates how you should interpret artists’ work. It sets the tone and then continually enforces it. As our culture has become increasingly and frenetically visual, branding has offered us a simple way to categorize and subjugate artistic developments and personalities. This simplification is great for the art market and the press but completely debilitating for criticism and discourse.
Galleries need to sell, so it’s safe to assume that literary veracity isn’t their highest priority. But to sell, the artist must first be deemed important. A deluge of press and publications will logically follow the championed artist. The student, art historian, and critic need to treat these as primary sources, not secondary. Your role is to stand apart and assess for your own, not to be co-opted by an exploitation of aesthetic malaise. You should rue the day when art historians rely on press releases for research and gallerists brazenly utter the term ‘USP’. That day has long been here.