Artspeak: Insert impenetrable obscurantist blather here

Lifestyle

Artspeak: Insert impenetrable obscurantist blather here

Why do artists, critics and galleries have to speak about art in language no one understands?

Laura K Jones


If the art world is sometimes seen as having its own obscure code of conduct, then a befuddling aspect of this code must be the vernacular, the lingo, the artspeak (with some terming it far less kindly). Artspeak shows no signs of abating. It has become an impenetrable form of pseudo communication, of obscurantist blather. Often found lurking in galleries in the form of the photocopied press release/info sheet, to many gallery visitors it remains an indecipherable lingo of abstract verbal constructions and meanings far more impenetrable than the art it is trying to describe. The thing is, artspeak’s very intention is to obfuscate. It wants to create a smokescreen in which the uncertain mind of the writer can veil itself behind a multitude of linguistic sins, hoping that the viewer will solve the problem by imagining whatever he or she wants.
The formula of artspeak is clear: it starts deceptively simply, with a warm and welcoming opening gambit saying the gallery is pleased/proud/delighted to be showing Exhibition X before launching in to three or four paragraphs of increasingly mind-bending commentary. The film that won for Charlotte Prodger the 2018 Turner Prize in England a few weeks ago, for instance, pieces together a “complex narrative exploring relationships between queer bodies, landscape, language, technology and time”. The words “iconography”, “banal” and “fetishisation” are frequently bandied around. You may also have noticed that many art exhibitions are said to be doing one thing and – simultaneously – its opposite.
Meanwhile, the word “space” is offered up way too often. Art folk tend to say “that’s a great space” when surely they just mean “that’s a great studio” or “that’s a good gallery”. And don’t get me started on the verbs “to critique”, “to contextualise” and “to interrogate”, which get thrown about copiously along with talk of “strategies”, “projection”, “commodification”, “assimilation”, “appropriation” and “the other”. Issues are endlessly “raised”. Sculptures “hover” between something and something else, while “examining” issues of immense social significance. God forbid we should ever find out what the artist has concluded from said examination, though.
An artist currently exhibiting in London describes his art as examining “hesitation as part of the process of decision making, where the object is neither the object of objecthood nor the art-object. It is rather the oblique object of my intentions.”
If your eyes are not yet beginning to bleed, try this, from a gallery in Scotland, which referred to a recent group show as “a group of sculptural works that aims at a void that signifies precisely the non-being of what it represents”.
No, this is not an attempt at satire. This is deadly serious. And it’s enough to make a grown woman cry.
- © The Daily Telegraph

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.