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

How has the broader art world reacted? “I’ve been a little baffled by the volume of positive response,” says Rule, “and the almost complete absence of critical response.” Levine adds: “There have not been any complaints that we know of. Obviously, we may be blacklisted and not know it.”

The essay’s tone — knowing, insiderish, never polemical, and constantly shifting between mockery and studied neutrality — probably accounts for some of its warm reception. “We didn’t want to be nasty,” says Rule. In 2011, she and Levine presented an early draft of their critique as a lecture at an Italian art fair. Levine hints that some of the audience were less than delighted. “If you’re an art practitioner and you experience our analysis live, you feel a bit called out.”

The two are keen to admit they are both guilty of IAE use. Indeed, Levine relishes the fact: “Complicity is what makes things interesting. Just this morning, I was writing a little essay for a newspaper and I caught myself using the word ‘articulation’”. Rule adds: “In one draft of our IAE piece, I had quoted my own use of IAE. It becomes extremely hard not to speak in the language in which you are being spoken to.”

Sometimes this language is just pure front; sometimes it’s a way of hedging your bets in the labyrinth of art-world politics. “Institutions try to guess what they’re meant to sound like,” says Levine, much of whose own art is interested in the rituals and role-playing of the art world.

The flood of new money into art in recent years may have helped swell the IAE bubble. “The more overheated the market gets, the more overheated the language gets,” says Levine. IAE often “insists on art’s subversive potential.” Popular terms include: radically, interrogates, subverts, void, tension. Much contemporary art does have a disquieting quality, but there can be something faintly absurd about artists in Mayfair galleries playing up their iconoclasm for super-rich collectors. The showy vagueness of IAE can also be commercially pragmatic: “The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work,” says Levine, “the more you can keep the value high.”

Of course, ever since art ceased to be mainly decorative — Levine dates this change to the mid-19th century — works have often been shown or sold with a garnish of rhetoric. Where IAE may be different is in its ubiquity, thanks to the Internet, and thanks to the heavily theoretical and text-influenced nature of much current art making and education. Rule and Levine are cautious about IAE’s precise effect on artists; they haven’t researched it. But Rule does say: “It would be naive to say artists are not influenced.”

Will the hegemony of IAE, to use a very IAE term, ever end? Rule and Levine think it soon might. Now that competence in IAE is almost a given for art professionals, its allure as an exclusive private language is fading. When IAE goes out of fashion, they write, “We probably shouldn’t expect that the globalized art world’s language will become ... inclusive. More likely, the elite of that world will opt for something like conventional highbrow English.”

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