Review of ‘International Art English’ by Alix Rule & David Levine

‘International Art English’, finally a name coined for something that seems to exist but is hard to define (Rule and Levine use the striking analogy of pornography: ‘we know it when we see it’), a curious version of English that is ’emphatically not English’ used by that collection of art individuals and organisations known as the ‘art world’ to describe and promote the latest fine art.

This essay, simply titled ‘International Art English’, attempts to describe the special language used within the art world by analysing the text of thousands of press releases from prominent online art feed e-flux. The essay points out the curious vocabulary and sentence construction prevalent in IAE and goes on to suggest the likely origins of its peculiar syntax. After a comment on authority, the authors speculate on the ‘implosion’ of the language, since its functions of authority and exclusion are becoming lost amidst a growing, indeed global readership who are becoming conversant in it.

Although much of the press reception of this essay has mentioned the labels that describe the art works in museums (a version of this kind of ‘English’), this essay focuses exclusively on the ‘purist articulation’ of International Art English – the art world press release. I think this fact is pertinent, because museum labels (as distinct from contemporary exhibition hand-outs) can commit sins that IAE is in part trying to avoid, namely telling the audience what they are supposed to believe about a piece of work. As a speaker of IAE (I have an undergrad in Fine Art and spent more time writing than making) I appreciate the difficulties inherent in art labeling. I was recently in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid and found myself consciously offended by the descriptions accompanying Bosh and Goya, prescriptively describing the themes and intentions of the work to what the writers seemed to be assuming was a stupid and disinterested audience. Most infuriating was the tone of the text, which left no room for my personal desire to read the works in psychedelic terms (I had just returned from a 14 day trance festival, how else was I going to read El jardín de las delicias?)

This leads us to the question: how should a work of art be described without unduly influencing the audience’s reactions? Provoking some kind of sensation in one’s audience is one of the key preoccupations of the artist. It is also a key truth among art makers that no two people will react to a work in the same way, or if they do, the range of reactions across many observers will in no way be predictable. How then, to interest a potential audience without closing down their possible reactions? As novelists say, how is one to “show, not tell”? IAE may be one way of answering this question. The authors of the paper describe the tendency for certain words to be over used, for some words to change their meanings, meaning more than one thing at once, or even losing their meaning entirely; for the ‘antieconomy’ of more words, not fewer, causing a propensity towards lists, grouping unrelated words and pairing of like terms.  For those initiated into the world of IAE, there is a sense of pleasing vagueness that describes yet clearly does not describe the work before them. Of course, for the uninitiated, IAE illicits an opposite yet also successful reaction of ignoring the gallery text altogether.

Perhaps we are being too hard on IAE: how is one to use words to describe works of art that are exclusively visual or sound-based? How often are excellent novels translated successfully into film? It is no wonder that words like reality and space are over-used and recodified with new and ambiguous meanings. The activity of describing visual art in written language has always been a ruse,a sleight-of-hand and the quirks of IAE have been ignored all this time because it is only polite.

Now, by naming the language which has been growing and metasticising (‘Germanly’) in its own innocent art bubble for the past forty years, while its idiosyncracies were politely ignored, Rule and Levine risk bringing about the implosion they fear in their essay.

One part of the essay, however, was highly reassuring to me as a former art student, namely, the acknowledgement of the desire to admire IAE for its linguistic frippery rather than its content. While my fellow students racked their brains over how to understand and replicate this codified language I secretly gloried in the aesthetics of the sentence construction, enjoying the particularly poetic tone of some of the less dry pieces and rising to the challenge in my own work. As a not so very good artist I spent many hours in the wordier worlds of art, from my dissertation to writing about my work to agonising for hours over a clever title, or creating whole works of art out of them. I even spent much time steeped in the work of Deleuze and Guttari, the very philosophers who, in translation in American art journal October are the supposed culprits for the entire IAE phenomenon (as one friend of mine on Facebook exclaimed “damn! I knew it would be the French!”). To have acknowledged in public the peculiar literary delight one might take in IAE is to scratch an itch I did not know I had. Rule and Levine allude to interns writing press releases as one of the few creative tasks in their jobs. My own tutor once described his desire to somehow apprehend art, to make it less intimidating, so he decided to write about it. It seems obvious to me that a large part of the ridiculousness of IAE is surely to do with its position as a creative outlet for artsy people who, for whatever reason, do not actually practise art.

Of course, all of this is poppycock to anyone outside the art world, since who outside reads these press releases anyway? Rule and Levine slip into IAE in their own essay and this review has done the same, written as it is by an acolyte of the mystical church of Fine Art. Any form of art writing has always been to make one sound as if one knows what one is talking about and in more recent years to make buyers of art sufficiently baffled as to part with ever increasing wadges of cash, an aim to which it has clearly been highly successful. Rule and Levine do mention the idea that if IAE is abandoned, it is likely to be replaced by a form of elitist English for the ‘reliable distinctions it imposes’. They encourage us to enjoy IAE in what is possibly its golden years before it all becomes even more insular, and decidedly less funny, than it was before.

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One thought on “Review of ‘International Art English’ by Alix Rule & David Levine

  1. nufdriew

    I secretly gloried in the aesthetics of the sentence construction, enjoying the particularly poetic tone of some of the less dry pieces and rising to the challenge in my own work.

    This is great. I love that you were able to hold lightly the seriousness of the intention and play with the form. It reminded me of the View from Hell Yes Null Hypothesis public art proposal:
    https://theviewfromhellyes.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/null-hypothesis-a-virginia-lake-public-art-proposal/

    Reply

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