A plea for better writing about art

The curators’ text at this year’s Whitney Biennial is taking a hit–from the insiders. People are fed up with not being able to understand what is being written about the art.

Here here!

If you want to connect to potential audiences, don’t try to make your statement or other text sound like it belongs on the walls at the Whitney. You’ll be met with eyes that are glazed over or, worse, people will think you’re full of crap. (Sorry. No other word seemed appropriate there.)

Read the Wall Street Journal story.

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14 comments to A plea for better writing about art

  • Thanks for passing along this article Alyson – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown aside magazines because of this language. Here in DC we have our own Blake Gopnik to write this type of “carp” (I always mistype it so why not just leave it) on art for the Washington Post. It was news to me that we have Duchamp and his, um, lovely and provocative urinals to thank for this language. I thought the article very clear on how we got here, which is a most excellent lesson for me this a.m. as I’ve always wondered about that particular arrival! Much appreciated!

  • HERE, HERE, indeed, Alyson!!! Reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers: “eschew obfuscation”! I think critics and some curators write in that language to cover up the fact that they haven’t the slightest idea what makes the artist tick nor why they do what they do. Talk about having delusions of self-importance! It’s about time someone had the courage to write about this.

  • Thank you Alyson for bringing the article to our attention. I just wrote the author because I agree that that kind of writing turns most people off. It essentially is ego taking over when certain art writers have to show off. It is sad too because people reading that “cocky stuff” get turned off with the art itself and the artist suffers for it.

  • The whole purpose of language is to communicate. Unfortunately, bad writing is not solely an affliction of art critics. Thanks for the reminder that our own writing – artist statements, press releases, and the like – need to communicate to our audience clearly. When I try to write engaging and interesting things about why I create my art and about the work itself it often starts out cliche or trite, or both. Good writing comes in the rewriting (How’s that for pulling one more cliche from the pile?). By the way, rewriting my art statement is taking so long it is beginning to feel like a second career. Writing simply ain’t easy!

  • While I think the critics of the Whitney exibition text are not without valid points, the WSJ article harkens back to writers from the Modernist era and prior, all writing from the distinctive lens of the Western white male. The post Duchamp art world saw this lens fragment. Current critical writing reflects multiple points of view and not just one way of looking at the world thus it can make dialoge unconventional and challenging, but also much richer. There is a trend in some art institutions toward “dumbing down.” I think it’s best to strive for balance and text should be understandable while also being occasionally challenging.

  • Artists are taught the language of “art speak”. At least, I was. When I was in grad school, making a body of work was just part of the task at hand. Being able to stand up during oral exams and explain the why, what, where, when, and hows of your body of work was an important component of getting out of there with a M.F.A. I HATED that. However, you had to do what you had to do. Often, my grad school friend and I would have studio sessions just to figure out what we were going to say about our creations. This dialogue was honed and precisely rehearsed to authenticate and justify the work, as well as the artist. Of course, the language had to be all “Ta Ta” and intelligent sounding. To this day, I cringe when I start reading all the high falootin yadda yadda yadda in art mags and artists statements. To me it is silly and the perpetuation of a kind of art game called “Let’s pretend”. Sheree Rensel

  • The whole purpose of language is to communicate. Unfortunately, bad writing is not solely an affliction of art critics. Thanks for the reminder that our own writing – artist statements, press releases, and the like – need to communicate to our audience clearly. When I try to write engaging and interesting things about why I create my art and about the work itself it often starts out cliche or trite, or both. Good writing comes in the rewriting (How’s that for pulling one more cliche from the pile?). By the way, rewriting my art statement is taking so long it is beginning to feel like a second career. Writing simply ain’t easy!

  • Response to Michael Lynn Adams: Ahhhh, yes. “The whole purpose of language is to communicate.” That is the sticky wicket. Who is your audience? First I must tell you I understand and agree with your comment. However, writing your artist’s statement might be very different depending on the context, form, and to whom it will be presented. You know? I am all for stating your purpose in down home, every day language. However, if you want to get the attention of the “upperlings” (my phrase), art speak is their language. In other words, “when in Rome”. You get the gist? I know, I know. It is frustrating. It may not be right. However, it is what it is. Sheree Rensel

  • Cat

    Hip, hip hooray! I, for one – used to detest the high falutin’ words that to me don’t mean a thing. This kinda carp (!), makes my eyes glaze over. I am so glad you have opened this discussion; we are so overdue for meaningful descriptions of artists and their works. I am on my second draft of my artist statement, and the first goal is to make myself understood by people who are totally unfamiliar with my art and how I tick, taking in the advice of my distant (miles, wise) mentor: Ariane Goodwin of smARTIST teleseminer, that I participated in Jan. (sorry for the for the run on sentence!) Thank you very much, Alyson!

  • This was one of my biggest gripes about art school…students were being taught that the art of BS (bulls***) was more important than basic skills such as drawing and color theory. In short, you could talk your way out of any bad art. Unfortunately, I think this need to pontificate ad nauseum (see..I learned some things with my BFA!)about one’s artwork rather than produce impressive art is perpetuated by the museum and academic crowd. Fortunately, I want to make a living at my art and tend to avoid that show setting anyway, even with the BS I learned while earning my BFA!

  • Having never gone to art school, but always having intuited that much of “art speak” comes from graduate classes, I am happy to have the chance to follow this discussion and see that I’m right. It’s almost as if institutions have to teach “high speak” (jargon) to justify what they’re charging. So let’s call it jargon and understand that jargon has *always* been elitist, with the express purpose of excluding those “not in the know.”

  • I read another article on this subject a couple of months ago (I wish I could find it now) but I can’t agree more. If an audience can’t understand what an artist is trying to say, the artist may as well be saying nothing at all (which is likely the case anyway, just my opinion).

  • Yes! Once, I made the mistake of trying to pin down exactly what deconstruction meant. I found out that it meant the destruction of rational thought and communication (winks).

  • YES! THANK YOU! I’ve always loathed “Concept Speak” and found it hard to do because it sounds so phoney!!!! I’d rather people look at my Art and “see”, than read–or struggle to read— about it. Bad writing abounds, as does bad art, but 90 dollar words ain’t gonna make a 10 dollar piece of crap worth 90.