Originally published in The Tab Montreal.
Yes, I know. Art can be scary. It can be intimidating and pretentious. For some, it stands for all that is wrong with the world; artists are money-hungry glory hunters and art isdeteriorating into a self-parody of egotism. For others, however, it is one of life’s true joys; a means of self-expression or nourishing the soul. But although I could rage and rave about the state of contemporary art itself (genitals, genitals, genitals!), the main source of my exasperation is the way in which art is talked about, presented, and broadcast.
Art writing has earned a reputation of being self-aggrandising guff that is relevant only to those who participate in this narcissistic cycle of intellectualism. It can go one of two ways: it can be so abstract that you start to wonder if they’re talking about a painting or a dream they had after getting high; or so wordy and dense that you need a PhD onFinnegan’s Wake to decipher it.
Nancy Durrant, the arts commissioning editor for The Times puts it well: “It is not difficult to write about art in a way that is accessible … It’s just that actually quite a lot of people write about it very badly … Quite often people will hide behind ridiculous words that no one would use in real life, just in order to mask the fact that they’re sometimes a bit frightened of not seeming intellectual enough.”
The trouble is, when talking about art, you are using words to describe the visual. Whenever someone tries to describe feelings, experiences or sensations, suddenly they’re either channelling Oscar Wilde (“it made my soul cry lugubrious tears”) or imitating John Lennon (“looking at it, I become peace”). Will it always end in tears? Is it all just bullshit?
Art writing has become notorious for being so ridiculous and extravagant that artist David Levine and critic and PhD student Alix Rule have put a name on it: International Art English. Its origins can be traced back to the development of French post-structuralism (thanks again, Derrida) and is characterised by elusive description, overuse of the phrase “the real” and using fourteen words when five will suffice.
We’re all guilty of it. I’m willing to admit that I have filled essays with art jargon when I’ve been at a loss for words. Thing is, those essays come back to me covered with checkmarks and an undeservedly high grade.
I don’t want to join them. I don’t want to be someone who ‘gets’ weird, expensive, conceptual art, and writes about a boat made of clay penises like it holds the key to understanding sexuality. Only I find myself more sympathetic to the ridiculous pieces I once disparaged. I might even like Tracy Emin a bit now. I’ve been to Tate Modern more than I have to Tate Britain. What has become of me? Is my education and the ubiquity of bad art writing to blame?
I believe that there must be another way. A non-exclusive, non-elitist, comprehensible way of talking about and appreciating art that opens it up to the lepers of the art gallery. Ultimately I understand that, as with everything, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s ok! You don’t like art? Great, you can get on with your life without having the crisis you see before you.
But I feel that there are folk who are missing out because art and design has not been made fully accessible to them, in terms of writing and the experience of visiting a gallery. I believe there are people who are interested but just don’t know where to start, or because they are alienated by the reviews they read, feel like they ‘don’t know enough’ to enjoy it.
Well I am here to tell you, nay, IMPLORE you to just dive right in (what would you do without me, eh?). Freely mock the exhibition guide that tells you of the transcendental interaction with authenticity you will experience when looking at this Damien Hirst. Smirk at ridiculous work descriptions. Only, try to engage, and use your intelligent mind to ponder on what you see before you. Your interpretation is valid! Don’t be scared by the intellectuals, for they wear the emperor’s clothes.