Simon Lee Gallery in Mayfair, central London, is currently showing work by the veteran American artist Sherrie Levine. 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 Levine’s oeuvre.”
If you’ve been to see contemporary art in the last three decades, you will probably be familiar with the feelings of bafflement, exhaustion or irritation that such gallery prose provokes. You may well have got used to ignoring it. As Polly Staple, art writer and director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, puts it: “There are so many people who come to our shows who don’t even look at the program sheet. They don’t want to look at any writing about art.”
With its pompous paradoxes and its plagues of adverbs, its endless sentences and its strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist contemporary art is a fraud. Surely no one sensible takes this jargon seriously?
David Levine and Alix Rule do. “Art English is something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time,” says Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin. “But we all use it.” Three years ago, Levine and his friend Rule, a 29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia University in New York, decided to try to anatomize it. “We wanted to map it out,” says Levine, “to describe its contours, rather than just complain about it.”
They christened it International Art English, or IAE, and concluded that its purest form was the gallery press release, which — in today’s increasingly globalized, internet-widened art world — has a greater audience than ever. “We spent hours just printing them out and reading them to each other,” says Levine. “We’d find some super-outrageous sentence and crack up about it. Then we’d try to understand the reality conveyed by that sentence.”
Next, they collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 by e-flux, a powerful New York-based subscriber network for art-world professionals. Then they used some language-analyzing software called Sketch Engine, developed by a company in Brighton, to discover what, if anything, lay behind IAE’s great clouds of verbiage.
Their findings were published last year as an essay in the voguish American art journal Triple Canopy; it has since become one of the most widely and excitedly circulated pieces of online cultural criticism. It is easy to see why. Levine and Rule write about IAE in a droll, largely jargon-free style. They call it “a unique language” that has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. [It] is oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.”