Wed, Feb 13, 2013 - Page 12 News List

World of waffle

Why do so many galleries and museums use pompous, overblown prose to describe their exhibits? Well, it now has a name: International Art English. And everyone who is anyone speaks it

By Andy Beckett  /  The Guardian, London

IAE always uses “more rather than fewer words.” Sometimes it uses them with absurd looseness: “Ordinary words take on non-specific alien functions. ‘Reality,’ writes artist Tania Bruguera, ‘functions as my field of action.’” And sometimes it deploys words with faddish precision: “Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have its best year ever.”

Through Sketch Engine, Rule and Levine found that “the real” — used as a portentous, would-be philosophical abstract noun — occurred “179 times more often” in IAE than in standard English. In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd combination of stiffness and swagger, they argued that IAE “sounds like inexpertly translated French.” This was no coincidence, they claimed, having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art writing via October, the New York critical journal founded in 1976. Since then, IAE had spread across the world so thoroughly that there was even, wrote Rule and Levine, an “IAE of the French press release ... written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.”

The mention of interns is significant. Rule, who writes about politics for leftwing journals as well as art for more mainstream ones, believes IAE is partly about power. “IAE serves interests,” she says. However laughable the language may seem to outsiders, to art-world people, speaking or writing in IAE can be a potent signal of insider status. As some of the lowest but also the hungriest in the art food chain, interns have much to gain from acquiring fluency in it. Levine says the same goes for many institutions: “You can’t speak in simple sentences as a museum and be taken seriously. You can’t say, ‘This artist produces funny work.’ In our postmodern world, simple is just bad. You’ve got to say, ‘This artist is funny and ...’”

He doesn’t, however, think this complexity is a wholly bad thing. “If you read catalogue essays from the 50s and 60s, and I have some, there are these sweeping claims about what artists do — and what they do to you.” A 1961 catalogue essay for a Rothko exhibition in New York declared that the famously doomy painter was “celebrating the death of civilization ... The door to the tomb opens for the artist in search of his muse.” Levine says: “That style of art writing has been overturned, and rightly so. It was politically chauvinistic, authoritarian. IAE is about trying to create a more sensitive language, acknowledging the realities of how things [made by artists] work.”

Contradictions, ambiguities, unstable and multiple meanings: art writing needs to find a way of dealing with these things, Levine argues, just as other English-language critical discourses learned to, under the same French influences.

Rule is a little less forgiving towards IAE. “This language has enforced a hermeticism of contemporary art,” she says, slipping (as Levine also frequently does) into a spoken version of the jargon even as she criticizes it, “that is not particularly healthy. IAE has made art harder for non-professionals.” In fact, even art professionals can feel oppressed by it. The artists who’ve responded most positively to the essay, says Rule, “are the ones who have been through master of fine arts programs” where IAE is pervasive.

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