Ok, so I pick up the November/December issue of Frieze from my bedroom floor and turn to a random article. Quickly scanning through the first couple of paragraphs I pick out these words: “reticent”, “symposia”, “codify”, “veracity”, “truncated”, “anachronistic”, “redolent”, “crenulated”, “rapacious” and “inchoate”. Most of them I at least vaguely recognise but I know the meanings of only four without having to resort to the dictionary. How many do you understand, honestly? My word processor’s spell checker doesn’t even think that “crenulated” is a real word.
Maybe it’s only a personal grievance but the unnecessary pomposity of the language in the majority of art literature is something which continually irks me. Rather than enabling superior descriptive power, subtlety or poetic evocation with which to add weight or nuance to the subjects being discussed, the choice of many of the words seems to be nothing but a mechanism by which the writer can assert their (apparent) intellectual superiority, be it done consciously or otherwise. In this attempt to look big and clever, however, the endless stream of empty verbiage inevitably only hinders or worse stifles the point of what are often good arguments. I’m the first person to champion the merits of a wide vocabulary but I believe it should be used with taste and appropriately to the situation, not gratuitously slathered over everything in the way supermarkets use a glut of mayonnaise to try and disguise their mediocre sandwiches. I despair at the over-zealous use of turgid, meandering and empty elaboration by art writers where clearer and simpler lexical choices would be not only a more effective vehicle for their subject matter, but would also make for a more enjoyable reading experience for the rest of us. This is a difficult matter in that I’m sure there is a broad range of opinion, but somewhere we have to agree on a place to draw the line between powerful, intelligent, precise language and pretentious, over-dressed old guff.
Partly to blame in my opinion are received notions and expectations artists and writers have which are encouraged by the wider culture of the “art world”. The majority of us write in this way simply because it is a stylised convention and we don’t think to do otherwise. In addition to wilful obscurantism, articles are typically littered with those more common clichés we have come to recognise and are all guilty of using. Fashionable adjectives like “visceral”, “filmic” and “ethereal” which at one time were probably tools for genuine descriptive originality, but having now appeared in every press release, magazine article, exhibition pamphlet and undergraduate essay from here to Hoxton Square seem a tad generic. We know what they mean, it’s just that they’re boring. Why is no one writing anything original? It seems that many of us believe that the extent of being original is simply winning the competition to see who can dream up the most opaque language (the worst example being that never ceasing habit of casually dropping in french phrases [“mélange”?!] which positively reeks of inflated intellectual smugness) to describe their latest wonderful project/show/grand concept. The “art world” continues to cultivate this style I suppose to foster a sense of intellectual exclusivity, which fits nicely alongside the frequently astonishing displays of price exclusivity we are all familiar with, ultimately to make sure that the uncultured, ignorant proles are kept out of our nice little club. In short: “WE UNDERSTAND THIS BECAUSE WE ARE INTELLECTUALS AND YOU DON’T BECAUSE YOU ARE STUPID, HA HA HA!”.
In an excellent essay from 1969 titled “The logic of nonstandard English”, the Sociolinguist William Labov explains how we have been conditioned to think of formal vernacular as “superior [to informal vernacular] in every respect… more abstract, and necessarily somewhat more flexible, detailed and subtle”, and that by default we unconsciously assume that if something is written in this style then it has value, and people speaking or writing in this style are more “intelligent”. He argues that having a wide vocabulary certainly means someone is educated, but is no proof of their capabilities when it comes to logic, reasoning or capacity for abstract thought etc, qualities that I would loosely categorise under the umbrella of “intelligence”. Through recorded interviews with residents of varying social backgrounds in South-Central Harlem, Labov demonstrates that the particular stylistic devices or code people use to speak or write may bear no relation to the quality of their ideas, thinking skills or indeed whether they have anything worthwhile to say at all. He goes on to explain: “All too often, standard English is represented by a style that is simultaneously over-particular and vague. The accumulating flow of words buries rather than strikes the target”. In other words, over the top language codes by no means always indicate that the ideas they carry are good ones and vice-versa, and that good ideas can easily be swallowed by an over-complicated code.
No one is saying that art writers shouldn’t aspire to the best quality of language that they can. What this means though isn’t simply showing off your wide vocabulary. Rather the true marker of good writing in my opinion is the ability to sum up complex arguments or abstract concepts in a clear, succinct and most importantly, enjoyable manner. Diversity of language should be used to add precision, weight or emphasis and poetic or humourous evocation as necessary, not just as window dressing. All writing should be accessible, and deliberately opaque art literature is nothing but self- congratulating twaddle. Making art is the most basic human reflex and has the capacity to be enjoyed by everyone, but due to the elitism caused by the deliberate creation of exclusivity barriers, “art” is not recognisably seperate from the “art world” in the eyes of most people. They disregard it as something “not for them”. How are people supposed to enjoy art if they are intimidated by the bewildering, vacuous rubbish that surrounds it?! It is this rubbish that feeds the public perception that all contemporary art is a load of wank. We are all guilty of perpetuating this to some degree or another. I like reading Frieze and they have many good articles, but I’d rather not have to be reaching for the dictionary every ten lines as I needlessly muddle through a mystifying, wordy wilderness. Oh, and by the way; my dictionary defines “crenulated” as: “[of plant leaves] finely or irregularly notched or serrated”. So wouldn’t “leafy and fragile” have sufficed in the first place?!
5th January 2012
Nick Reading is an artist and musician currently based in Oxford. He exhibits regularly in London and the South as part of CATSHOP Collective, a loose conglomerate of former Winchester School of Art students.