DECODING ARTSPEAK

A  few years back I visited a filmmaker friend whose home is decorated with artwork from Port-au-Prince. The semi-abstract masks hammered from oil drums impressed me. In spite of the Haiti’s perpetual troubles — or perhaps because of them — street artists were producing work that radiated a comic, defiant spirit.

My friend’s partner had bought these eye-catching works — from artists off the international gallery grid — for a few hundred dollars total. In contrast, a Francis Bacon triptych depicting artist Lucian Freud netted $159 million CAD in November 2013, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Then this February, another portrait by Francis Bacon sold for $78 million CAD at a Christie’s auction in London, well over it’s pre-sale estimate price of $52 million CAD.

At the same auction, a big reflective sculpture  of a cracked egg by American artist Jeff Koons fetched $26 million CAD.

Ironically, as institutional, big-money art has become more juvenile over time, the lingo around it has become, if anything, more pompous and complicated. (Anyone who’s stood in a gallery puzzling over the text accompanying a piece of art will know what I mean.) Artspeak may be exhausting bafflegab to the casual museum-goer, but for posers and scenesters it’s the write stuff.

As an experiment for this column, I picked a copy of the voguish journal Art Forum from the local newsstand. I opened it to a random page and found this:

“This limbo, I argue, constitutes non art. But for this limbo to acquire theoretical consistency, a fourth factor is needed: the explicit denial of all artistic qualities — and I mean denial in a quasi-Freudian sense, that is, an involuntary admission of a truth in the guise of its negation. The word no must be uttered, and its true, unacknowledged meaning must be ‘yes.’”

The context doesn’t really matter (a study of the late nineteenth century art scene). What’s important is that this passage communicates exactly nothing. Either I’m a dimwit or language of this kind is a sophisticated fraud.

The speculative art game of high-end auction houses has long been one of the favoured recreations of the hyper-wealthy. And it’s the job of the fine arts managerial class — curators, critics, academics and public relations gnomes — to clothe the works of art emperors like Jeff Koons in clever jargon. The occasional child or adult who shouts out ‘he’s naked!’ can safely be ignored. They don’t have Artspeak decoder rings.

Of course, this kind of lingo goes back a long way. In author Tom Wolfe’s slim 1975 book The Painted Word, the author describes an a-ha moment that came to him while reading The New York Times arts section in his bathtub. The ‘text’ — that is, the word from on high by art critics, publicists and curators — was required to properly interpret any given piece of art. “In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting,” he wrote.

Then as now, art theorizing demands run-on sentences thick with pseudo-profound paradoxes and radical posturing, punctuated with enough obscure terms to stump a Scrabble champion.

In the epilogue to his short book, Wolfe imagined twenty five years in the future, when paintings by the big names of his time — Pollock, de Kooning and Jasper Johns — would be reduced to small reproductions on gallery walls, dwarfed by “huge copy blocks, eight and a half by eleven feet each, presenting the protean passages of the period,” from the East Coast’s three reigning art critics: Greenberg, Rosenberg and Steinberg.

“Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word.”

Wolfe overshot the mark for comic effect, but not by much.  I think back to those Haitian masks in my friend’s apartment, and I wonder why I find them so immediate and vibrant, yet often find the institutional art scene here and other North American cities dull as dishwater. Could it be partly because people living in the margins of the developed world don’t labour under the painted word, unlike many graduates of expensive art schools?

*****

Climate change. Resource wars. GMO foods. Fracking, hacking, government secrecy and surveillance. You name it – in the list of news-making things to kvetch about, the institutional art scene hardly warrants mention, it seems.

Yet art is one of the main ways we make sense of the world – or cloak it with meaning or beauty it sometimes seems to lack. In theory. In practice and in person, I’m rarely moved by giant cibachromes or text-based installation art. Most of Vancouver’s outdoor installation art resembles elephantine paperweights to me.

Often it’s not so much the art itself that disappoints as the pompous, esoteric lingo attached to it. Four years ago, David Levine, a 42-year old American artist joined forces with Alix Rule, a 29-year old critic and sociology student. The pair combed through gallery press releases from around the world for examples of what they deemed “International Art English.”

“We spent hours just printing them out and reading them to each other,” Levine told the Guardian in 2013. “We’d find some super-outrageous sentence and crack up about it.”

The duo took thousands of exhibition announcements and ran them through language-analyzing software, trying find a signal in the noise. Levine’s conclusion: this “unique language” has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. [It] is oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.” (Common IAE terms include transgressive, hermeneutic, metonymy and narrativisation).

In last week’s column I mentioned some eye-catching Haitian masks made from oil drums, hanging on the walls of a filmmaker friend’s home.  How did the street artists of Port-au-Prince ever figure out what they were doing – or even do it, for that matter – without years of instruction in IAE?

Perhaps there’s a clue in anthropologist David Graeber’s 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In an aside, the author parallels the societies of Central Africa and Bali. Historically, both “saw a magnificent outburst of artistic creativity…. that took the form, above all, of an efflorescence of theatrical performance, replete with intricate music, splendid costumes, and stylized dance….at the exact moment that ordinary life became a game of constant peril in which any misstep might lead to being sent away [into debt slavery].

In other words, when things were at their worst for both peoples, it appeared their collective creativity was near a peak (African masks were a major influence on Picasso, Graeber reminds readers).

Of course, the linkage between creativity, suffering, and social transformation is easily lampooned, as on a button I once saw: “I suffer for my art and now it’s your turn.” That line probably resonates with more than a few gallery-goers who’ve wandered out of exhibits of name artists thinking, ‘what was that all about?’

“Visit art schools or galleries, and you get the impression that a substantial portion of the art world is content to serve as support staff to a global ruling class,” observes Holland Cotter in a recent New York Times editorial. Globally, institutional art now falls into two categories: the portfolio playthings of billionaire buyers and the hamfisted propaganda of demagogues and dictators. In North Korea for example, public art exists to service of the cult of personality Kim Jong-un inherited from his dad. (I’m thankful I do my creative work here rather than some nightmare regime run by some autocratic applause junkie, though I start to get fidgety whenever I hear Canada’s Prime Minstrel turn state dinners into Karaoke bar nights with his teeth-gritting performances of “Hey Jude” and “Sweet Caroline.”)

But I digress. Unless they hit the auction house jackpot, younger cultural creatives schooled in IAE find better work opportunities outside the gallery world, in animation, film, television, and gaming – fields where pompous, obscure communication is generally a hindrance rather than a requirement.

But what of my friend’s eye-catching Haitian masks, which came from a place far from the hermetically-sealed world of billionaire buyers, mystery-mongering artists, and obscurantist copywriters? The street artists of Port-au-Prince were not labouring under the dead weight of theory, or fabricating giant baubles for corporate-sponsored exhibits. They were doing something playful and creative – and saleable – in a land of immense social challenges. As the Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote in the 13th century, “Gold becomes more and more beautiful from the blows the jeweler inflicts on it.”

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 14 and Mar. 21

 

 

 

 

 

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