It isn’t me after all! When I suggested the Bovine Doo Doo Award some months ago, I thought I was alone in failing to understand the various pronouncements at art galleries. It now turns out that it is International Art English, or IAE. Today’s Guardian had an interesting article about this, which prompted Frieze Magazine to republish. via Twitter, an article from 2006 about art press releases.
Andy Beckett’s Guardian article, after quoting a gallery hand-out for a current exhibition, said that “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. … 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.
“David Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin and his friend Alix Rule, a 29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia university in New York, decided to try to anatomise 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. … They collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 … then they used some language-analysing software … 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. They call it “a unique language” that has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English.
“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.”
“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. … 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 criticises it, “that is not particularly healthy. IAE has made art harder for non-professionals.””
Jennifer Higgie, published six years ago, before Levine and Rule’s work, similarly looks at art press releases: “It’s autumn, the nights are drawing in, the weather’s been too weird for words and I’m sick of press releases. They’ve been piling up lately, heralding the new season of shows, and after reading a hundred or so of them I feel like shooting myself. I’d like to apologize in advance to those rare jewels of galleries that … write something about the work that is considered, smart and illuminating, and penned by someone who, to paraphrase Truman Capote, thinks writing is a tad more important than typing. …
“What could possibly account for the majority of press releases’ ubiquitous lack of intelligence and wit? How to explain such antipathy to the nuances and glorious possibilities of language, be it written or visual? Could anything justify these pompous, hollow boasts about subverting, riffing, reordering, dialoguing, deconstructing, investigating and renegotiating; about destroying assumptions, provoking, participating, blurring boundaries or destroying borders, beliefs, poverty, globalism, the World Bank, you name it. (Who do they think they are, Attila the Hun?)
“Who on earth started this? Why does it continue? Do curating courses and art schools insist that it’s essential? And for god’s sake, where’s the pleasure? After all, no one enjoys press releases or learns anything from them, aside from perhaps the fact that some young sculptor was born in Bedford in 1978.
“Simply put, the press release tendency would seem to reflect a fear that most artists aren’t geniuses, or that art just isn’t perceived as that important any more – seemingly startling facts from which the innocent press-release reader has to be protected. This is, of course, insane. Most artists aren’t geniuses, and it doesn’t make them necessarily uninteresting. In these days of dreadful certainties, there is nothing wrong with modesty, reverie, idiosyncrasy, confusion, a lack of conclusions or being interested in something most people might not think ‘serious’ or valid – after all, this is art, not a science assignment. But going by recent press releases, most gallerists and curators are claiming ‘their’ artists have ambitions that would make Mahatma Gandhi look like an underachiever.”