As an art student eager to know about the latest arts discourse and reviews, I thought nothing of spending hours poring over the library’s copy of contemporary art journal Studio International. With dictionary to hand, I would assiduously look up the unfamiliar words and decipher all the specialist concepts and terms. I was there to study. I had time and inclination to understand the theories of fine art practice. I needed to understand, appreciate and critique art and after all, this publication wasn’t aimed at the general public.
Nowadays, surveys such as Taking Part tell of high levels of general public interest in the contemporary visual arts. According to Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, the Plus Tate network of galleries small and large across the UK are pulling in the punters, their programmes “enthusiastically adopted by their local communities”. So have contemporary art galleries adapted their language, in recognition of their now wider (and more culturally diverse) audiences?
Does knowing that Peter Fraser has always been a “poet of the quotidian” galvanise interest to go along to a recent photographer’s talk at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery? Are Piers Calvert’s paintings made more appealing to visitors because they contain “faces that at the same time are millenary and somehow totally contemporary”? Or is the statement: “Alfred Wallis was an artist and mariner. He painted from the memory of his experiences, depicting ships at sea, wrecked, and at harbour, houses and landscapes” – about a Kettle’s Yard exhibition – easier to understand?
Manchester International Festival’s outgoing artistic director Alex Poots observed that many of the divisions in the arts are human-made. Current art language is one such barrier, overwhelming you with adjectives, superlatives and jargon. For example, there’s a “fascinating and engaging introduction” to Towner Gallery’s collection; “friendly and knowledgeable” gallery staff at the Hepworth Wakefield; and “exciting and ambitious” programming at Edinburgh’s Collective.
Today’s contemporary art … well, it’s got to be hyped up as the best. It’s variously unique, brilliant, cutting-edge or – at the very least – high-quality. Arts institutions (that often reside in “landmark buildings”) claim to be centres of excellence, world-class and inspiring. Exhibitions are ground-breaking, blockbuster and vibrant. Curators are renowned, respected and innovative. The work presented is offered as thought-provoking, experimental, playful and absurd.
Why is it necessary for exhibitions to have such pompous, overblown statements? The 56th (this year’s) Venice biennale intro gets my Twitterati’s gong for one of the best/worst examples of such artspeak: “Rather than one overarching theme that gathers and encapsulates diverse forms and practices into one unified field of vision, All the World’s Futures is informed by a layer of intersecting filters, namely Garden of Disorder, Liveness, On Epic Duration and Reading Capital. These filters in their iterative choreography across the exhibition represent a constellation of parameters that circumscribe multiple ideas, which are touched upon to both imagine and realise a diversity of practices.”
I agree with writer and artist Alistair Gentry: such excessive art jargon seems only to “grant power and prestige to a minority of privileged insiders while trying to withhold access by the rest of us.”
If public galleries really want to make themselves more accessible, do exhibition titles such as The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (an extract from Jeremiah 17:9) and Happiness is a New Idea (a phrase apparently first coined in the French revolution) assist?
Surely more user-friendly are descriptions such as those for John Virtue: The Sea (“large paintings and works on paper, studies of the North Norfolk coast”); American Dream (“a response to capitalism and our consumption-driven society”) and Real painting (“an exhibition of new and existing work by ten artists working nationally and internationally”).
If you’re working in the contemporary visual arts and want to attract wider and more diverse audiences, the verbosity and artybollocks will just have to go. Instead, try plain English, “written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice” – or take some tips from George Orwell:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
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“There are so many beautiful flowers in my garden, I took some pictures of them.” So starts Jörg Colberg in his self-imposed mission to write an artistic statement for his own work. It’s not until several minutes and rewrites later that we hear the final iteration, describing his work as “timelessly sublime and superbly majestic” relating to “humanity’s ever-evolving disconnect from its innermost self”.
While this might be parody, there are artist statements and performance programmes out there littered with posture and pretence. And how we communicate our work is an important issue, as the recently-launched website Interpretation Matters shows – artspeak can have a profound impact on audience experience, visitor rates, artist reputations and more.
So in a call to cull more tortured descriptions, we asked you to send us the most offending words, sentences or paragraphs of artspeak you’ve read. From press releases to portrait labels, you submitted in your droves to help us collect some of the most confusing and complex material going, and we’ve visualised some of the best (or is that worst?) examples above.
Enjoy, and let us know if there’s anything we’ve missed by adding them in the comments section below.