Has Art Lingo Gone Too Far?

April 12, 2017

Language isn't neutral. Its very framework inherently includes and excludes, and writings on art are often highly excluding. This is unnecessary, hence the title of this article.

Sometimes my friends and I, while visiting for example an exhibition opening, play something we like to call “bullshit bingo”. The premise is extremely simple: we stroll through an exhibition and look out for words like “diversified”, “narrative”, “social space”, “epistemological” or various "-isms". The results are reliably hilarious. You see, texts on art today use a full array of multi-syllable-words, neologisms and postmodern theorems to dress it up in intellectual grandiosity to, probably, inflate value. The things on display are not permitted to speak for themselves. Rather, these objects are centred around, confronted or contextualised by an expert. They don't just occupy a certain place, but are spatially intermediated and address the specific characteristics of the site. Clearly, there is a lot more ways to write about art. Sometimes texts try to emulate the elusiveness of an artistic position, they refuse to describe, but instead mimic. Texts can be abstract, enigmatic, enlightening, or sheer nonsense. But look at a random exhibition text in one of your major contemporary art museum and... yeah, that kind of text.

Alfred Barr, explaining abstract art and its origins
Alfred Barr, explaining abstract art and its origins

Why Make These Texts So Opaque?

Art lingo is, well, artificial. And there is nothing wrong with that per se. Every genre, every subculture, every field of study has its own jargon. It's far easier to communicate with a specific vocabulary to get to the point. Art too has its own terminology with specific uses. And yet, texts distributed in exhibition halls or exhibition reviews in the media often don't have a target audience of scholars and curators. They are directed at the general public and anyone interested. Here, the art lingo looses its real purpose: to convey meaning. Instead, it excludes those who are not familiar with said lingo, whose purpose of visiting an exhibition is to learn, think and enjoy, to see art and get something out of it, but have little to no prior knowledge of the discourse around it. So why make these texts so opaque?

The jargon around art naturally is a convention. It starts out at university and keeps reproducing itself through websites, catalogues and articles. Being able to use this jargon shows expertise, being in the loop, the scene, and being able to spark a conversation. In art, there is no easy way to prove a point. There are no hard facts, no self-evident data. Therefore, language serves as the main tool to argue about an otherwise disinterested pleasure. It shapes what we see, what we think and why we enjoy a piece of art. Language is never not there. Language also marks a distinction - a distinction with regards to content, but also a social one.

Art Terms at Tate Dictionary, screenshot
Art Terms at Tate Dictionary, screenshot

Language is the Key

Jargon is not all that is required in attaining an understanding of contemporary art today. As mentioned earlier, there is an expectation that an informed viewer possesses a basic theoretical knowledge. It is easy to spot some key points of Foucault's discourse analysis, too, in the art world. Art lingo - in this theoretical framework - is a means to form power relationships between its institutions and the audience. The discourse is already highly controlled by privileged people and going rogue from the conventions does lead to disciplinary measures; penalties range from ridicule to, even worse, just plain silence. Reproducing this discourse and employing the art lingo also reproduces the power structures behind those words. To some, this may be beneficial and useful. Power structures will not disappear when overturned, and disrupting them is no end in itself. But if the goal is to include more people, to give easier access to a broader base and imbue the discourse with democratic values, then we need other means to talk and write about art - like a madman does, or a poet, a worker, even a child.

Authors often seem more concerned with the approval of a selective few than the greater masses. To be clear, writing for the art elite and experts isn't problematic in itself - there is always a place and time for that - it's just unnecessarily coercive. It's limiting the discourse to those who already control what is considered good art and what is considered dull and trivial. There are multiple means to writing about art. Language is the key to bridging those worlds. If we drop the intellectual act for just a moment, perhaps we might access that multiplicity of means and provide us with new, innovative ways to talk and write about art.

Featured image: Tracey Emin More Passion © Tracey Emin. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016; used for illustrative purposes only.