The Guardian's recent article on the dialect known as International Art English (IAE) launches a discussion on what it means to write about contemporary art. Using as his base an essay by David Levine and Alix Rule, first published in Triple Canopy, writer Andy Beckett reveals that IAE is used as a way of signifying that the subject matter is, or has ambitions to be, part of the international artworld. In this way IAE is no different from any other professional jargon that distinguishes the in-group through a shared language and shorthand references.
We have all seen egregious examples of artspeak - convoluted sentence structure, runaway vocabulary, and phrases whose meaning evaporates as soon as you break down the clauses. Every press release has aggrandizement at its heart, but there are reasons why art press releases tend to be particularly obscure. They are, often, game attempts at translating what is profound in one medium to something understandable through another.
The meaning of an artwork evades a simple description of the look of it. A repetition of the work's dimensions and media, does nothing to describe the experience of the piece. And in fact a too literal description risks bathos. Can you imagine writing about a dance piece by saying, "The dancer got up on one leg, turned slowly, then jumped up into the air twiddling her feet"?
In writing about art, the journalist or PR has a duty to explore the underlying structures of the piece whether they be conceptual, historic, or purely personal. Furthermore they must do this in a form that a person without a PHD in art practice can understand. Levine and Rule lay the blame for impenetrable artspeak firmly at the door of the French post-structuralists and by extension the journal October, which was the American conduit for the movement. My view is that critical theory was a necessary step in examining the unquestioned assumptions underlying art writing up until the 1980s. The detailed parsing of language brought intellectual rigor to the field, but it also spawned academics by the boatload, whose investigations have become increasingly arcane. Their legacy remains with us in the bastardized form of artspeak.
As someone who has written about art for a long time, I have employed various stratagems to derail artspeak, sometimes asking curators to describe their shows in terms of colors or flavors as a way of liberating their language, disrupting the focus on the catalogue, and bringing fresh thinking about the visceral nature of what they are presenting.
I am confident that, as we shift our focus to user experience in all walks of life, International Art English will also mutate to become more relevant. If not, it will join Latin as a purely written language read only by academics, and that would be a sad, missed opportunity.