The week in coma-inducing artspeak.

Blah Blah blah by Skewville
Blah blah blah by Skewville. (Photo by C-M.)

There’s been an interesting debate picking up on online about one of my favorite subjects (in addition to Star Wars and burritos): coma-inducing artspeak. It started on March 28th, with a post by Carol Diehl at ArtVent, who quoted, at random, from the publicity materials from the Whitney Biennial. It’s an absolutely delicious paean to impenetrable art prose, including eye-crossing delights such as:

…It is the problematizing of expectations and formalisms through destruction and transformations that is the heart of the continuing project…


…Bove’s “settings” draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty…

A number of bloggers have since picked up on the post. Tyler Green at Modern Notes asked if there isn’t someone at art museums who occasionally wonders, “Is this the best we can do in communicating with our audience?” Richard Lacayo at Looking Around put together a thoughtful essay that examined why all of this turgid prose exists in the first place:

…the industrial strength rhetoric of so much museum writing is also, I suspect, a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid simply to say aloud and in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at. What if they get it wrong? Better to fall back on clichés that stand in for thought without furthering it.

He also, in what was clearly a humorous riposte, suggested banning words such as “problematize” and “transgressive” from the art writer’s arsenal.

Now, art critic Catherine Spaeth has weighed in on the phenomenon, admitting that she, too, sometimes falls into the jargon trap:

I try to convey in ordinary language thoughts that are difficult to express, and know that I’m guilty of falling into a shorthand academicism or two. I can usually feel this as it happens – poorly used academicisms can snag thought and suspend it from a hook, leaving it to hang there without any opportunity to be in its own mobility. If I feel such a snag I reach for words that arise from the ignorance and generosity of description. What appear are no longer academicisms but opportunisms – repetitions and resonances that emerge from description and course through an essay with their own force. I am wary of these as well, but as opportunisms they are already sticking much more closely to the object at hand.

(Glad that’s been cleared up…) She also writes that she was infuriated by Lacayo’s “call for censorship.” And that “blogger culture lends itself to an anti-intellectualism that has a way of raising its heads in a gang, and that such a self-congratulating posse is not a good thing for arts writing.” Art writing, she posits, is part of an intellectual school of thought that isn’t always supposed to be a quick and easy read.

I can’t speak for any other bloggers here, only myself. But I think that Spaeth misunderstands “blogger culture.” No one I know wants to read dumb writing, nor are they trying to destroy intellectual complexity as we know it. I’m certainly not afraid to head to the dictionary when the occasion warrants it. And the great big Internets makes it easier than ever to inquire about obscure art historical references.

What all of these “bloggers,” including myself, are calling for, is smart writing that is precise and unmuddled. Making it enjoyable to read wouldn’t hurt – especially when it’s geared at the public. As for humor (a.k.a. Lacayo’s call for “censorship”): it’s desperately needed in the fine art genre. We’re not covering Baghdad. It’s paint on canvas. Let’s lighten up.

P.S. No Digest today. I’m on the road.

Posted by C-Monster.



  1. Luna Park

    amen to that!

    and apropos, i visited the rubin museum of art for the first time yesterday and was positively delighted about their explanatory texts – concise, informative and decipherable! i actually learned something.

  2. SanSuzie

    Great post, C-monster, but doesn’t the public need lingual interpretive guideposts for full synthetization of conceptual, image-based philosophical rendering? I mean c’mon, girlfriend.

  3. Marshall

    In my opinion the retreat to “academic” writing styles is because many art writers are unwilling or unable to commit to their actual relationship to the work. They’d rather simply be agents of transmission for what they believe the proper “academic” reading of the work should be.

    Art writing doesn’t have to be easy to read, but it doesn’t have to be difficult, either.

  4. dalton

    “What all of these “bloggers,” including myself, are calling for, is smart writing that is precise and unmuddled.”

    Don’t you mean precisimified and unmuddlesized?

  5. Scooter

    At the same time, part of the problem is us. A well-known art critic — a dude perfectly capable of getting across strong ideas in grabby prose — once told me he included art jargon in his work because otherwise, the readership wouldn’t take it seriously. That is, if the writing wasn’t *daunting* as well as intelligent, the folks who read art criticism wouldn’t feel they’re being talked to on a high-enough level. Sez he, anyway.

  6. C-Monster

    that’s a bummer… it’s that kind of attitude that furthers this nonsense. smart arguments and smart points aren’t made any smarter when they’re buried in 25-cent words…

  7. ruthk

    “smart arguments and smart points aren’t made any smarter when they’re buried in 25-cent words…”

    Hmmm, are you being anti-intellectual, or anti-anti-intellectual? I think … that you mean “25-cent word” to be a word that’s too big? But I thought the expression was “10 dollar word.”

    But big or small, the words are not to blame!! “Problematize” and “stasis” and “referencing” are all very fine words. Bad writing is to blame.

  8. Pingback: Accessible Art Criticism is a Canard