Getting Grumpy over art speak

Getting Grumpy over art speak

This is a little something to poder over the weekend as Eric Gibson’s piece The Lost Art of Writing about Art focuses on the writing in the reviews, particularly the Whitney Museum’s Biennial exhibition.  How critics, curators and  people in the business of the visual arts write about art is one of those things I get grumpy about. I have to admit that many exhibition catalogues, reviews and increasingly books I want simply throw across the room in anger as they are often written in this totally impenetrable text. You have to focus so much on trying to understand the writing that you forget about the work that is being discussed.

It alienates readers and makes them feel inadequate. This in turns makes them doubt their own ability to understand what is being said and respond to the work. Rather than informing the public these writers simply end up alienating possible art patrons. Looking at and enjoying art has absolutely nothing to do with weather you can pass the vocabulary test. Although I think it is possible to talk about concepts that drive a work of art rather than just the technical aspects of a work, I generally agree with the Wall Street Journal story. Read it and see what you think.    

Thanks for the link goes to Alyson over on Art Biz blog as she pointed her readers to the story


  1. Sharon I entirely agree about art speak especially in relation to textile art.If a piece speaks for itself, through the quality of its design, texture, stitches, or subject matter, its less likely to be accepted into an exhibition than a piece with an accompanying text explaining its concept and pholiosophy.

  2. I actually think that it is an opportunity to write an artists’ statement and even an artists’ catalogue ( hope I got those apostrophe’s in the right place 🙂 ). Having travelled many exhibitions people want to understand what an artist is trying to communicate and who better than the artist? Work is not created in a vacuum it’s influenced by all sorts of factors and if you begin to tell the viewer some of what you were thinking you have some chance of them “getting” it ( not that I create art mind- just love textiles!)

  3. One of the most unsung talents is the ability to write a clear and convincing declarative sentence. When one knows of what one writes, it can be expressed simply and purely. The writer need not hide ignorance or lack of understanding behind ruffles and flourishes. But every generation has its producers of purple prose.

    It is much like any good design. If you try to cram every trick you know into one work it winds up looking like the mixed up swill destined to be the pigs’ breakfast.

    Now climbing off soapbox.

  4. i think it was patti smith (detroit/nyc punk poet artist) that said something to the effect that only fans should write reviews.
    i always think about that when i hear someone tell me about a ghastly review.
    this may be a little off topic and yet it relates to reviews.
    i see reviews as a place to educate and inspire, even provoke especially with the goal of creating muse.

  5. I think it is really important for all exhibits (art or not) to reach a wide range of viewers. Any over fancy language and technical terms that make it impossible for the normal person to understand really ruin any exhibit for me too.

  6. Hear! Hear! or as Alyson wrote, Here! Here! I agree 100%
    The only reasons to write about art are: to inform and to help people understand. If these goals are not achieved, it is perfectly acceptable to ignore the writer.

  7. Ha Ha, Sharon, I would love to see you hurl some of those catalogs!!
    Ever since I read “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe I have been on to these people and can dismiss them without a backward glance. And he wrote it quite awhile ago…


    I love reading Sister Wendy’s insights into great art…she truly opens my perceptions up.

    It is this reaction to the overprententiousness of art speak that actually has me stymied with regards to this month’s TIF challenge. The last thing I want to do is “describe myself as an artist”.

  8. Sharon, thanks for that link. I agree with Eric wholeheartedly. Do you think it’s because the writers of these reviews want to appear scholarly and that’s why they use the obscure terms? If I need to reach for the dictionary to understand a piece of writing, I usually don’t bother to read beyond the first hurdle. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy learning new words, but there is a fine line between informative writing and “showing off” I think. Thanks again for a very thought provoking post.

  9. Oh no, I understood the quoted nonsensical drivel in the Wall Street article. My late 1980’s/early 90’s art school education actually stuck…

    I still think it’s a load of nonsense though 🙂

    One of my favourite students in an art theory tutorial once called the teacher’s views a load of rubbish and walked out saying he couldn’t listen to any more crap. I felt the same way about almost all art criticism of the time (and now, come to think of it). As a 17 year old at university it left me feeling like a fool. When I graduated 4 years later I realised I was actually very intelligent and most of the writing about art at the time was just a load of pseudo-intellectual drivel. They use large words and convoluted sentence structures to make themselves feel smarter.

    To paraphrase what Jeffrey Smart once said about the philosophical critiques of his work , “I just paint what I find to be beautiful. Other people can make of it what they will”. I like that attitude in an artist.

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