The essay has the expected hallmarks of any art essay:
- “a hail to the artists of the past” or, the placement of the artist within the canon of art history. This is the art world equivalent to amazon.com’s website feature, “Customers who bought this book also bought…” (Hey, we “academics” do it too! Just take note of the “dead guys” I’ve mentioned in my blog).
- a treatment of the artist’s methods and materials, though more and more, technique seems to fade in the spotlight…Now, a conceptual framework structures how the art work is known and experienced more than the materials with which it is constructed.
- and the final, most distinguishing characteristic is the linguistic register, or “art speak” that is peppered with the rhetoric of postmodern theory which inevitably entangles the artist and work in a fishnet web of language that seems nearly vapid in actual valuable substance.
Reading essays like this forces me again to address the struggle I fight in my own writing; I wrestle with the training I have as a product of my own educational background. The language of theory that populates the classrooms of art history majors, curatorial training courses, and any discipline focused on cultural studies, is unnecessarily obtuse. For the business-side of the art world that was rattled by the product-less, conceptual art of the seventies, adopting this isolating way of speaking about itself and its products (artists/art works) gives it a protective cocoon. I hypothesize that it is even responsible for privileging issues of class to continue in the art world. Simply put, if you don’t have the educational training ($$$ hello student loans!) to master the complex obscurity that structures the sentences used to discuss an artist’s work, then you are positioned as an outsider to the system. >>scroll down on this page to read a linguistic approach to the insider/outsider impact of language<<
Education, Bourdieu (and other sociologists, linguists, etc.) argued, is the primary way we are socialized after the family. Academic disciplines (re)produce themselves through the ways in which they talk about the object of their study, the language (or, linguistic register) of their field. With critical theory having lived a VIP lifestyle in academia for decades now, it makes sense that we would observe a correlation between the language used by academics and their students post-graduation, out in their “real world” places of employment as curators, writers, etc. A whole new generation of theory-trained students have earned their degrees and are now taking over the artworld, mutating the language of the field as a consequence of their own devices. Like a person's genes exposed to tanning beds, the mutation is slow but inevitable, with periods of definite punctuated equilibria.
SIDEBAR: As I mentioned, I really am going to pursue these ideas further for my graduate thesis. Having recently picked up a copy of Terry Eagleton’s book After Theory, I have a new way of positioning and exploring my own somewhat skeptical, slightly bitter, questioning of the theory I myself have come to know (and love, in many ways) through formal and informal education. Having read just the first two chapters, I am already on Eagleton’s side (so far)…but there’s time for more of that discussion later.
Again, back to Bourdieu… an individual’s ability to master and successfully use the language of his/her field demonstrates an individual’s linguistic habitus; it conveys his/her cultural capital, or, relational position of authority in the social network. Language = Power.
If the written (and spoken, too) word is how information about artists is communicated from network node to network node (*see yesterday’s post), then what is really being communicated by a language that is seemingly deliberate in its positioning of the general audience as outsiders? Words only communicate when the receiver of the message understands their meaning. **There is more to be said on the impact of this type of data traveling through the network, but I’m going to save that for a later date.
So, as writers, we are faced again with the Beginning Journalism / Academic Writing 101 lecture concerned with:
AUDIENCE. Who are you trying to satisfy? If its collectors, do we need to make a buyer dictionary so they can weed through this postmodern rhetoric? If it’s the artists, are we effectively representing them if the vocabulary isolates and conceals the meaning of their work? It seems we are writing for others that are trained in a similar educational background. In so doing, we continue to keep “the masses” at bay, out of art galleries and away from spending their money on good art by young artists that need the support. As academics, how can we make our work relevant to the outside world, so that when we take on teaching posts, we do not use the same Pedagogic Authority that we have experienced ourselves?
PROPOSED SOLUTION: Shift the language out of the abstract and back to the tangible. Use the experience of the senses to talk about artwork; if you can smell the olive-like thickness of the paint or hear the water being lapped up by a shore-lined painting, say so. Use sentences and words that create a visual, or some other sensory experience, in the reader’s mind. Of course, this is perhaps too much of a poet’s band-aid to the issue. So, like most academics and cultural critics that react rather than respond, I will slip away into the sleep of the night, picking this topic up again at a later date.