The language code of art terminology – mumbojumbo and gobbledygook?


These days we have to spend a lot of time defining ourselves. Facebook profiles, Linked In profiles, and for us artists – Artist Bios, Artist Statements, exhibition statements and catalogue texts. It gets to a point where I often feel a little schizophrenic with the number of versions of myself there are floating around out there. Not that they negate each other or are fictional, but in 150 words you have to give a rather edited and focused definition.

Sometimes through this process of condensing our paragraphs and words, we end up using many ‘tip of the iceberg’ terms – words which attempt to convey a whole concept or area of research. In this way, while trying to be more concise it is easy to actually become quite vague, incomprehensible and grandiose.

I have been thinking a lot about the often pretentious and coded nature of ‘art texts’ that you may read in gallery catalogues or blurbs. Not always – but often – this language is so full of buzzword terminology that it is hard to comprehend what, if anything, the author is trying to say. Coming from the art world myself as both an artist, a writer and avid reader of art texts, I brush up against these terminologies frequently and probably have a much firmer grasp on them than many. Yet I still find some gallery texts so initially un-crackable that I feel quite reluctant to try and de-code them: if they want to convey something genuinely interesting and intelligent, it should be possible to make it accessible to all, before feeling the need to delve into these art world encryptions. If I get frustrated by this, I can only imagine how some writings come across to those who are new to the world of creatives.

I try hard not to spiral into codified language and terminology in my own writing (oops maybe ‘codified’ is becoming one of those terms), but with many words being sucked in by creative minds and intellectual thinkers, and sent outwards again with new, deeper, layered meanings, it is difficult to write in the arts without coming across a little term-heavy. Another danger I perceive is that if I find the text too coded, it immediately appears to me that the writer is trying to overcompensate. This may or may not be true but it’s not a perception I want about my own artwork, which I feel should speak for itself.

Of course there is nothing wrong with assuming that the people reading already have this knowledge or would like to acquire it, but I think that there is a line which is crossed when every other word is a code-word which either opens up to the reader its world of meanings and subtexts, or closes off the text to the reader – writings become meaningless because the words used do not make sense unless you know the specific art world definitions for them.

I can see quite clearly how this all happens. When artists, historians, curators and the like explore a theory to great extent, it gains new meanings, subtexts and implications. From that point on, to anyone who knows, all of that thought is summed up in just one loaded term – like ‘transculturalism’, ‘critical nostalgia’, ‘prototypical society’, ‘gaze’, ‘collective subconscious’ – to pluck a few from art catalogues in my Studio today. What is slightly less acceptable is littering an article with words for simple things which make them sound like complex theories – ‘frontal plane’, ‘distanciation’, ‘urban realities’, ‘dimensional’ – I’ll be honest, sometimes I invent new terms and insert them into conversations  just to see who pretends they understand and who asks me to define further… results are interesting!

I was just updating my artist facebook profile last week, when I realised I have also fallen victim a little to these terminologies. It is a symptom of trying to convey a lot through just a few words. I don’t think I am too guilty, but below is what I wrote in a recent artist statement, and my humanised translation of it. Which works better?

“…My artwork is inspired by deconstructing & reconstructing, mapping & memory, as well as the structure & understanding of language….”

This roughly translates as – I like to make big things out of small parts, I like to break down big things into their little components, I like maps, I have a bad memory and am therefore fascinated by it, I also like to research and make work about the history of a person or culture, I am intrigued by everything to do with language – talking, chatting, reading, writing, text, fonts, signs, symbols, grammar, communicating, miscommunicating, understanding and misunderstanding….


what do you think....?

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