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A Serious Business
April 12, 2012 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Sure, the follies of art-speak are easy to laugh at, but often criticism of it begins and ends with a dismissive chuckle – which ignores profounder problems. Why should academic terminology be the default vehicle for discussing art? Why is there such an emphasis on newness, schism and radicality? Even when the art itself may be enjoyably throwaway, language pins it to deathlessly auratic registers of exchange. This suggests a subliminal fear that, if the subject in question is not talked up as Big and Culturally Significant, then the point of fussing over it in the first place might be called into question, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down - Dan Fox, the associate editor of frieze magazine, discusses the contemporary art scene in detail.
posted by The Whelk (43 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just like the phrase "deathlessly auratic registers of exchange", so I'm favoriting this post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:38 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


"...language pins it to deathlessly auratic registers of exchange?"

Yeah wait what. Is he calling out the art world for using inaccessible language? Someone buy this man a mirror.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:38 AM on April 12, 2012


"Deathlessly auratic" suggests vagueness rather than inaccessability. This article is far from vague. Good work, Mr Fox.
posted by Conductor71 at 9:55 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just because you don't know a word doesn't mean it's the author's fault.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:57 AM on April 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Deathlessly auratic"...

From this point I thought that the article was going into gleefully self-referential Adaptation-by-Spike-Jonze doing-exactly-what-its-lampooning mode.
posted by tempythethird at 10:05 AM on April 12, 2012




Just because you don't know a word doesn't mean it's the author's fault.


In all seriousness, it depends on who your audience is. I've enjoyed some extremely inaccessible academic writing, sometimes words are obscure because of the specificity of their meaning. There's a lot of value in specificity when you're trying to communicate, as long as you're using the word right and not because it sounds better, or you think it's a synonym for something else.

As the article recognizes though, specificity is not the only reason for using obscure words. Sometimes, writers do it to convey a sense of importance or intellectual depth that isn't there. It's also done to limit an audience, and try to cash in on the prestige of exclusivity. Worse, it happens by mistake, when authors don't realize that they're really failing to reach their target audience.

The reason I took a pot shot at this piece is because I find the language in the article unnecessarily florid. To quote the author:


This suggests a subliminal fear that, if the subject in question is not talked up as Big and Culturally Significant, then the point of fussing over it in the first place might be called into question, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down.


If you could convey the same idea using simpler language, at what point is your choice of diction being used to make your text seem more significant than it is?
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:07 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you could convey the same idea using simpler language, at what point is your choice of diction being used to make your text seem more significant than it is?

Sometimes we fall in love with certain words or wear our words the way others wear their clothes, i.e. to express our personalities, dreams and ideals. Writing is rarely about communicating in the most efficient way*.


* And I say this as someone who prioritizes things like readability and SEO in my web development work.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:17 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not enough references to plates of beans.
posted by Fraxas at 10:19 AM on April 12, 2012


Just because you don't know a word doesn't mean it's the author's fault.

Perhaps not, but I'd say the more people who don't know the word, the more at fault the author is. For certain values of "people."
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:23 AM on April 12, 2012


Most descriptions of art that stray beyond "like it/don't like it" are more about the describer than the art. If the describer is particularly interesting it can be fun to read, but don't confuse the description with the work itself.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:31 AM on April 12, 2012


As the article recognizes though, specificity is not the only reason for using obscure words. Sometimes, writers do it to convey a sense of importance or intellectual depth that isn't there. It's also done to limit an audience, and try to cash in on the prestige of exclusivity. Worse, it happens by mistake, when authors don't realize that they're really failing to reach their target audience.

I have an interesting perspective on this, actually.

I run a playwriting contest each year, so I'm a tiny blip on the New York "arts/judging community" radar. Presumably because of this, I had the curator of a local New York contemporary arts space invite me to join their "unsolicited proposal evaluation team" this year; apparently, what they did with all the unsolicited installation proposals they received was to save them all up in a big pile and then throw them all at a bunch of us volunteers to read and pass judgement on. The three proposals that got the most votes would get invited to exhibit. When questioned, they said the fact that I was from a theater and not an arts background was just fine. I thought it made sense too - after all, I don't think the fine arts should just be exclusively for other artists to look at, presumably you want regular yutzes (like me) to get something out of your installation too.

However - I soon learned that I would be basing my judgements exclusively on the written proposals for each project. "Read a few first to get the feel for it," my recruiter said, "you'll be able to tell what makes a good or a bad proposal." And -- yeah, they were right; I admit I don't know too much about art, but it as pretty easy to tell that when a proposal was all full of sentences like "As a complex and developed system of representation, [blank] questions how the dominant paradigms are shaping our worldview, re-working codes and conventions of time and space", it was pretty much just puffery without any there there. It gave me no idea of what the installation would actually be - photos? Sculpture? Video? When I went into the museum, what would I see? To be fair, all the proposals had a good deal of "artspeak," but I tended to score something higher if I had an idea of what the damn thing would be when I went to see it.

At the same time, I understand why we fall back on such weird language to describe art - it often is something that gets us from a gut level. It's hard finding words to describe the visceral reaction we have to something like Guernica, say. And when I've talked about the contemporary art I've liked, I often can't really articulate why I do like them other than saying "there's just something cool about it", and that doesn't help much either. But one thing's for sure -- if something didn't get me on a gut level first upon seeing it, all the puffed-up artspeak in the world couldn't change my mind; and if something just was cool, any puffed-up artspeak you then came to tell me about it actually ended up enhancing it.

This kind of language may be unavoidable, but can't be used to replace the actual art. And I think too many new artists forget that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


Worse, it happens by mistake, when authors don't realize that they're really failing to reach their target audience.

Sometimes it's a simpler mistake than that. Sometimes the author has gotten so used to using a generally-obscure word, it's no longer obscure to him. He may simply forget that it's not common usage. I realize that when a writer uses a word like "auratic," it's hard to swallow that he didn't use it self-consciously, but I know from personal experience it's possible.

I grew up in a Jewish-intellectual family, with two English professors as parents and, specifically, a dad who quoted Shakespeare at the dinner table. Sometimes I literally forget that "the average Joe" didn't grow up hearing the same words I did on a daily basis.

I'm writing for a general audience, it's my job to figure that stuff out, and if I don't, that's my mistake. But it's a mistake I might make without any intent to obfuscate my prose.
posted by grumblebee at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


At the same time, I understand why we fall back on such weird language to describe art - it often is something that gets us from a gut level. It's hard finding words to describe the visceral reaction we have to something like Guernica, say. And when I've talked about the contemporary art I've liked, I often can't really articulate why I do like them other than saying "there's just something cool about it", and that doesn't help much either.

I'm not sure I understand the mechanism that leads one to think, "This is hard to describe. Maybe it would help if I used some obscure words and impenetrable phrases." Are you sure it's not more about, "I don't want my lack of descriptive abilities to make me look stupid, so I'll try to keep people in the dark by painting over my inabilities with a gloss of pseudo-intellectualism?"

There's a world of difference between "I'm doing the best I can" and "I'm trying to cover."
posted by grumblebee at 10:39 AM on April 12, 2012


The cultural activist Stewart Home identified, in an article for Smile magazine in 1989 on the historicization of the Situationists and Fluxus, how ‘many people find themselves attracted to the iconoclasm and sense of purpose’ they offered. ‘Related to the iconoclasm groups is the aura of radicality (and by inference, authenticity) that surrounds them. Since much academic discourse is grounded in notions of the “authentic” (and its loss), individuals engaged in cultural and media studies find the prospect of assimilating the “radicality” attached to avant-garde ideas a very attractive proposition’. These are now models of art production that are understood and accommodated professionally. The legacy of institutional critique is that many shows today include works that comment on the production of the show or point out its failings and oversights. Artists can enjoy critically respectable careers working with the idioms of critique and dissent – Claire Fontaine, for instance, or Bernadette Corporation. Those who oppose the establishment ‘art world’ can also maintain a position based on romantic ideas of ‘authenticity’ and nostalgia[.]

This is a really good encapsulation of an issue I've been struggling with for a while. As the article mentions, there's of course no 'correct' way to be an artist, but more and more I'm gravitating towards a sort of purposeful outsider-artist ideal: The gallery system has a lot of flaws but its status as defining paradigm means that even critiques of the system are incorporated into it, which is exhausting and probably in most cases ultimately pointless. As much as I appreciate the work of e.g. The Guerrilla Girls, it can end up feeling too inside-baseball to really impact me much. I find myself more and more interested in the sort of social and environmental and fleeting art that Suzi Gablik begins to describe in Conversations Before the End of Time.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:40 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I once had this deeply closeted artist for a roommate who painted these giant erotic portraits of muscular men. He would ask me to read his artist's statement -- always a word salad of multisyllabic nothingness. He said being obscure added "mystery to the piece." I always wanted to say DUDE DROP ALL THIS PRETENTIOUS BULLSHIT AND JUST SAY YOU LIKE GUYS, but alas, I failed to change the system from within.
posted by Pathos Bill at 10:42 AM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure I understand the mechanism that leads one to think, "This is hard to describe. Maybe it would help if I used some obscure words and impenetrable phrases." Are you sure it's not more about, "I don't want my lack of descriptive abilities to make me look stupid, so I'll try to keep people in the dark by painting over my inabilities with a gloss of pseudo-intellectualism?"

A little bit of both, I think. To clarify -- if I were describing one of the works I liked, I'd end up saying something like "it just was bad-ass and then that moment in the video where Courtney Love came in and it looked like she could have ripped my face off and that made me feel 'squeeeeee-yay'", and I'm not sure that is any more helpful than "the contradiction between Love's public persona and her character's appearance, underscored by her particular facial expression, creates a frisson of tension in the viewer".

There are some people who are indeed trying to look like they know what they're talking about. But it's hard to completelyavoid this kind of language altogether. If you actually do know what you're talking about, it'll show no matter what, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:49 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Signifiers gonna signify.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:08 AM on April 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Shorter Fox:

"I liked Wolfe's The Painted Word so much, I decided to re-write it with updated references!"
posted by aurelian at 11:09 AM on April 12, 2012


deathlessly auratic registers of exchange

What exactly does this mean? Is he referring to language itself as a "register"--that is a concrete record or official document? Or is he talking about a certain "register"--tone or mode--of language? And what does the word "exchange" mean here?

I don't know. This particular phrase just seems to be stumbling over itself. It's not so much the obscurity of the words, it's that they don't make any clear sense. "Deathlessly auratic"? What about an aura makes it (or the object it surrounds) deathless? If anything, the idea of an aura speaks to ephemerality, no? Or does he mean that deathless things or concepts tend to have an aura about them?

I just don't know.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:16 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


But one thing's for sure -- if something didn't get me on a gut level first upon seeing it, all the puffed-up artspeak in the world couldn't change my mind

Yes. I've found that the more I feel the need to have someone explain to me in words why art (visual, literary, or musical) is meaningful, the weaker my actual experience is. Emphasis on "need": the problem is if you need the verbal explanation to justify the art. It's still fine to have that explanation as a supplement to the art.

For instance, I have little appreciation of poetry, so I always feel the need to have someone explain whether a poem is good or bad, and why. I would defer to the authority of such explanations, since I would expect them to be superior to my own experience. To me, that means I might as well not read poetry at all.

In contrast, I appreciate music as much as anything in the world, so I'm totally content to listen to music on my own and not read anything about it. I value my listening experience infinitely more than I value reading what other people have said about how I should be listening. I take it as a given that no one has authority to direct my listening. They can only make suggestions, which I'm free to follow or reject. At best, the commentary can help me focus on some aspect of my personal experience; it can't prove that I was wrong or right in how I heard the music.

Although it's conventional wisdom that most people are excessively drawn to images and should spend more time reading, it seems very common to go through a museum focusing on wordy placards. I have to consciously force myself not to read them until after I've looked at the art. We're often drawn to words more than to images or sounds. As the author recognizes, there's something paradoxical about giving a privilege to articulate radicalism. To me, it's more radical to have my own experience with the art -- whatever that experience ends up being -- than to prime myself to experience it as challenging a dominant paradigm because that's what's written down (probably in an attempt to obtain funding).
posted by John Cohen at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was not familiar with the word auratic, and after not finding it in the OED or Merriam-Webster, I was all ready to snark about it until I checked the brand-new fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (which I highly recommend), and there it was; as a public service, I will now reproduce the definition of this recent entrant to the English lexicon:
1. Characterized by or relating to an aura. 2. Of or relating to the distinctive quality or essence of a person, work of art, or object. [Probably < German auratisch < Aura, aura < Latin aura, gentle breeze, breath; see AURA.]
And while I understand and to some extent sympathize with complaints about excessive jargon in writing about specialized subjects (it's usually possible to say things at least a bit more accessibly if one tries), much of the time such complaints are simple anti-intellectualism, of the same order as mocking people for eating at fancy restaurants when a hot dog and a Bud should be good enough for anybody, or claiming that one's five-year-old daughter could paint as well as [insert name of modern artist here]. It's always a bit depressing to see that kind of rote response here at MetaFilter.
posted by languagehat at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd end up saying something like "it just was bad-ass and then that moment in the video where Courtney Love came in and it looked like she could have ripped my face off and that made me feel 'squeeeeee-yay'", and I'm not sure that is any more helpful than "the contradiction between Love's public persona and her character's appearance, underscored by her particular facial expression, creates a frisson of tension in the viewer".

Just to belabor this one more time, I'd say the former statement has way greater value. Even if both statements are noise, simpler noise is more valuable than complicated noise. Here's why:

If I say, "Hat makes calm the," that's noise, but it's short enough and simple enough to question. At the very least, you can ask, "the what?"

"Favorably, extractions of dualist via the rudiment of structured or unstructured when harbored" may be just as noisy as "Hat makes calm the," but it's much harder to parse. It's hard to know where to even begin questioning it.

I think the difference between "My goal is to make way cooool art!" and "My goal is to elucidate the dichotomy between normative modes of cultural and symbolic tendencies in rationalistic systems" becomes clear when there's a conversation going on (as opposed to people just making statements). Both say nothing, but you can actually respond the the first one, e.g. "What do you mean by cool?"

It takes some writing skill, but it's totally possible explain yourself clearly and simply until you run into one of two walls. The first wall is "I don't actually understand this part of what I'm saying," at which point you can simply be honest: "My sculpture will explore the differences between biological and mechanical objects. I am not yet sure how I'll portray those differences." The second wall is when you know exactly what you want to say, but you can't think of a simple word for it. At which point you can use a complex word and then define it as best you can: "My word will explore schadenfreude, which is a German word meaning (roughly) 'enjoying other people's misfortunes.'"

If it's impossible to do this, I don't think that's mostly because it's literally impossible. Rather, it's because most people aren't given an education that teaches themselves how to express themselves clearly -- though it's odd to me that an artist wouldn't be skilled at that. I went through an absurd number of years in various schools and colleges, and very few of my teachers stressed clarity.
posted by grumblebee at 11:23 AM on April 12, 2012


> Rather, it's because most people aren't given an education that teaches themselves how to express themselves clearly -- though it's odd to me that an artist wouldn't be skilled at that.

Why on earth would you expect a (visual) artist to be skilled at (verbal) expression? In my experience, few artists or musicians are much good at expressing things verbally on a more complex level than "That's really hip," and why should they be? They pour everything they have into their art or their music. It's up to the writers to provide complex verbal analysis.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


"For instance, I have little appreciation of poetry, so I always feel the need to have someone explain whether a poem is good or bad, and why. I would defer to the authority of such explanations, since I would expect them to be superior to my own experience. To me, that means I might as well not read poetry at all."

There's a difference between art that needs to be explained for ANYONE to enjoy it and art that requires some general prerequisites in order to appreciate the form.

I have studied poetry, and I know at least something about it. But I wouldn't put much value on a poem that had to be explained to me by the poet. But all poetry had to be explained to me before I studied meter and some other technical aspects. The thing is, once I learned that stuff, it helped me understand all poetry. Now that I understand the "rules" of Sonnets and now that I know a lot of Elizabethan vocabulary, I can instantly get Shakespeare's sonnets -- at least on a level that gives me pleasure. But even though I understand modern English, I can't make heads or tails of a lot of what Ezra Pound writes.

There's definitely value in art one can immediately appreciate, without any specialized training. But, generally, that's an illusion. You DID have training that helped you understand the music you like. You just don't remember it, because it happened by you simply growing up in a particular culture.

There's a little grocery store near me, run by some people from the Middle East. They play all this arabic music that sounds like noise to me. It's always a shock for me to realize that they actually enjoy this music, just as I enjoy The Beatles. And I bet from their perspective, they don't have to work to enjoy it. It feels, to them, like just naturally accessible art -- like stuff anyone would enjoy even having never heard it before, without any specialized training.
posted by grumblebee at 11:33 AM on April 12, 2012


Why on earth would you expect a (visual) artist to be skilled at (verbal) expression?

That's a good point. I guess it comes down to two things: a strong belief that the common feature of all art, visual or otherwise, is an attempt to communicate and an equally strong belief that, unless there's some special exception, simpler forms of communication are more likely to be meaningful and evocative than complex forms.

Those are obviously my prejudices. There's no reason others should share them, but it surprises me that they don't.

Never having touched oil paints, if I picked some up tomorrow, I'd have those principles in mind.
posted by grumblebee at 11:37 AM on April 12, 2012


I really liked the linked article, if anyone would be interested in talking about it
posted by shakespeherian at 11:38 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Those are obviously my prejudices. There's no reason others should share them, but it surprises me that they don't.

I don't know what this means. It's not a matter of "prejudices," it's a matter of plain fact. Tossing a whole bunch of different things humans do under the blanket label "forms of communication" doesn't make them the same, or even similar.

Never having touched oil paints, if I picked some up tomorrow, I'd have those principles in mind.

Never having touched oil paints, if you picked some up tomorrow, you wouldn't produce anything worth looking at, and if you picked up a trombone, you wouldn't produce anything worth listening to. Are you really dismissing all craft, talent, and experience as unimportant compared to some vague will to communicate?
posted by languagehat at 11:44 AM on April 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


People seem to be missing that "auratic" is a term of, well, art, derived from the theorization of "aura" in Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility."
posted by RogerB at 11:55 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, I think we're talking at cross purposes. All I'm saying is that I value clarity and simplicity. That's what I meant by my predices. I meant my values -- my aesthetics.

They are not the only possibly aesthetics one might have. For instance, someone else might value personal expression over clarity. Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but if they came into conflict, I would ditch personal expression (or blunt it) in favor of clarity and someone else might do the exact opposite. A third person might, for whatever reason, actually value obscurity (for its own sake). There's no particular reason why he shouldn't. I'm just personally biased against it.

If I picked up a trombone tomorrow, I would produce a horrible din. But I would at least attempt to simplicity and clarity.

My confusion is why someone -- given those values -- would even choose a complicated word over a simple one that means the same thing. But my wrong assumption might be that the person has those values to begin with. Or that he has them to the extent that I do.
posted by grumblebee at 11:59 AM on April 12, 2012


The whole having cake and eating it to aspect of the high-end art world is really interesting, the article keeps coming back to it (any critique of the establishment is absorbed into the establishment) but I want to mention this -

With the revolution in desktop publishing that began in the 1990s control over those codings was in many more people’s grasp: the presentation of invitations, posters, magazines and catalogues began to assume a slicker edge. We fell in love again with radical design partly because, as Michael Bracewell wrote in his razor-sharp cultural history of the 20th century’s final decade, The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth (2002), ‘the point about the gentrification of the avant-garde, however snooty one might want to be about the debasement of radicalization by commerce and fashionability, was that it was irresistible. Aesthetically gorgeous, it flattered one’s better conception of oneself as a culturally aware, urban and urbane kind of person.’

Cause it follows nicely some of the Cat And Girl comics about the lost aesthetic of ametureness, it's so easy to look slick and professional now, so when you're trying to evoke the feeling of older media by reproducing its flawed perfect, well you've kind of entered the same hall of mirrors skiamorphae naval-gazing hell you where trying to avoid in the first place.
posted by The Whelk at 12:02 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


which seems to always end up like this - in the UK the cult figure of Billy Childish loudly decries the state of contemporary art while making neo-Expressionist paintings and dressing like a prewar British soldier home on leave. I don’t doubt his sincerity, only his belief that the past always holds the best solutions for present ills. as we keep jerking back and forth on the Thesis Anti-Thesis rollercoaster
posted by The Whelk at 12:05 PM on April 12, 2012


Interesting essay, thank you for posting this.

Those who oppose the establishment ‘art world’ can also maintain a position based on romantic ideas of ‘authenticity’ and nostalgia: in the UK the cult figure of Billy Childish loudly decries the state of contemporary art while making neo-Expressionist paintings and dressing like a prewar British soldier home on leave. I don’t doubt his sincerity, only his belief that the past always holds the best solutions for present ills.

Is the author seriously saying here that your only two options are to either play for the establishment art world, or to "maintain a position based on romantic ideas of 'authenticity' and nostalgia?" In other words, you either shoot for the establishment, or you tumble behind in an attempt to be either conservative or reactionary? There's more to the world than just the establishment or movements which explicitly take on the establishment. There are all sorts of physical shows and online experiments which are neither here nor there, and which are not simply calls to "the past".

Perhaps what's most subversive and radical are those movements which are barely coherent movements, which spend more time ignoring the establishment than they do engaging with it.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:09 PM on April 12, 2012


Yeah the conscious presentation of lacking conscious presentation thing is really interesting because it isn't necessarily hollow and self-serving. And in some ways, particularly given the industrial introversion of the art world, I'd describe the rollercoaster more as Thesis Anti-Thesis Anti-Anti-Thesis Anti-Anti-Anti-Thesis.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:10 PM on April 12, 2012



Perhaps what's most subversive and radical are those movements which are barely coherent movements, which spend more time ignoring the establishment than they do engaging with it.


Well the Art World itself is a hermetically sealed box, it goes out of it's way to not interact with the rest of the world. Since the audience of the magazine are people who are interested in The Art World As it Exists, then anything not in that box isn't regarded. This shows signs of changing however, as the Art That Is Not In The Art World is the ocean rising around it.

that and for a long while the Art World was really good at absorbing criticism, re: having and eating cake.
posted by The Whelk at 12:14 PM on April 12, 2012


Really well written, and on point as to the difficult waters facing the "professional" artist today, and professionals in the contemporary art world.

Regarding criticism of the article as being pretentious or inaccessible, I do not see this as being the case. One way to look at this facet of the discussion is to revisit the recent (and past) Morley Safer's smackdown of the contemporary art scene while at Art Basil Miami, and Roberta Smith's response.

From Ms Smith's response:

Yes, he smirked and laughed up his sleeve a lot. But so what? He can’t really tell good from bad and doesn’t care to put in the time that might make him able to....

It didn’t help that the emperor’s new clothes cliché was trotted out again, along with “artspeak” to refer to the way that discussions of art can sound to the uninitiated, or the incurious....

Her suggestion to Mr Safer was to look away from the shiny object and take a look at an art world that is:

more real, less moneyed one where young dealers scrape by to show artists they believe in, most of whom are also scraping by. (emphasis mine)

Unfortunately that takes a lot of time and work.

Much of the type of emperor's new clothes type criticisms tend to come from people who think that Contemporary Art should be comprehensible without having to spend any significant amount of time studying it. Well, think again. Contemporary art is a language built upon quite a bit of history, that does not translate just because someone is educated in other fields, cultured, or believes that they have good breeding or taste.
posted by snaparapans at 12:20 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


This shows signs of changing however, as the Art That Is Not In The Art World is the ocean rising around it.

To break the metaphor, the Art World is bailing as quick as it can to get that stuff safely inside, to commodify street art and conceptualism and etc etc., but every now and then the other thing that happens is a violent backlash against any of this stuff getting absorbed: See the reaction to the 1993 Whitney Biennial.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:33 PM on April 12, 2012


Perhaps not, but I'd say the more people who don't know the word, the more at fault the author is.

Particularly if you're reading a work online, if you don't know what a word means, it's your own damn fault. But then, if you're reading and don't own a dictionary, it's still your fault. Hell, you should be able to figure out a world like "auratic" just by looking at its root word and suffix.

We should never ask "is this word too obscure," unless it cannot be understood by context or easily looked up. We should, instead, ask if the use of the word is precise and right. Sometimes of the best words for the moment isn't the most widely known.

But focusing on a single word usage rather skips the point of the article, doesn't it?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:37 PM on April 12, 2012


'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't —till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean —neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master —that's all.'

- Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking-glass"



Honestly the thought of having to learn the jargon is a large part of why I've never bothered much with the gallery art world. I'd rather draw stuff that doesn't require an opaque manifesto to make it worth discussing.

This article sure had a lot of words in it, but I couldn't extract much meaning from them: "once there were two dudes who dressed snappy and made art about poop, and my how the gallery scene has changed. And we sure get sesquipedalian when talking about it" is about all I got.
posted by egypturnash at 12:41 PM on April 12, 2012


Hell, you should be able to figure out a world like "auratic" just by looking at its root word and suffix.

No, you really shouldn't, and if you think it's obvious then you're definitely missing something important. It's weird and regrettable that this thread has brought the anti-"obscurantist" philistines out of the woodwork — when the point of the essay is pretty much to argue a more interesting, and less dismissive, anti-art-jargon position of its own. But let's not get carried away pretending that everything about this essay is self-explanatory, or that the meaning of Benjamin's concept of the "aura" of the work of art is somehow obvious, when we have more than a half-century of serious philosophical debate about its meaning to suggest the contrary.
posted by RogerB at 12:48 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


P.S. while I'm adding missing footnotes, I can't tell if Fox has read it and is alluding to it or not, but the folks who liked that passage about the gallery world's absorption of "the idioms of critique and dissent" would probably be interested in looking at Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde, a book-length treatment of that subject
posted by RogerB at 1:11 PM on April 12, 2012


Contemporary art gets up peoples noses like nothing else, but a close runner up would be flowery language. This is an article designed to spread a message amongst people already grappling with these issues, already familiar with the terminology... like how you don't tell your mother she needs to buy a new SATA drive with at least 7200rpm.

If you were affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you might also enjoy Ben Lewis's piece comparing contemporary art to the Rococo bubble. His is a much more disparaging take, which is why Fox's writing should be praised - he's managed to balance the growing feeling of unease with the professionalism and art-speak that are now everywhere in the art world with a kind of hopefulness.

It's also worth pointing out that this is from 2009.
posted by The River Ivel at 4:19 PM on April 12, 2012


To break the metaphor, the Art World is bailing as quick as it can to get that stuff safely inside, to commodify street art and conceptualism and etc etc., but every now and then the other thing that happens is a violent backlash against any of this stuff getting absorbed: See the reaction to the 1993 Whitney Biennial.

I may be misunderstanding your point, shakespeherian but the example of the 1993 biennial would be cogent if the backlash and harsh criticism it received (60 minutes Morley Safer for example) proved to be anything but shortsighted. Many of the artists of the 1993 biennial are now considered some of the top contemporary artists who are working now.. Mike Kelly RIP..
posted by snaparapans at 7:35 PM on April 12, 2012


""I liked Wolfe's The Painted Word so much, I decided to re-write it with updated references!""

Except that Wolfe seemed to well hate everyone involved with modern art, whereas this essay actually seems to not be merely a novelette-length sneer.
posted by klangklangston at 11:43 PM on April 13, 2012


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