ArtSpeak, BURNAWAY’s new column on how to clearly communicate about art and ideas. The column is penned by our regular contributor Matthew Terrell, an all-around well-spoken art guy.
Language binds humanity together. Which language we speak forms our community, identity, and ultimately shapes our worldview. I believe language—communication in all forms—is meant to bring us together. What use are my words if you do not understand them?
What irks me more than any type of communication is language meant to exclude others. This is everything from high-fallutin’ academic jargon to tech-speak and medical lingo to the mechanic that over-explains your oil change. Possibly the highest level of offense belongs to exclusionary language directed at a mainstream audience. It taunts the reader. The subtext says to me, “If you are one of us, you will understand this.” Most of the time, I don’t feel like I’m part of the “in” group.
Perhaps the worst offender here is artspeak, aka International Art English. It creeps into gallery blurbs, press releases, marketing emails, grant applications, and all sorts of other places where it doesn’t belong. For the sake of ease, I’ll allow artspeak to exist solely among art-industry insiders such as artists, critics, academics, and historians; however, artspeak has no place in public communication. Florid language, cerebral theory, incongruous sentence construction, and other forms of opulent language abuse have absolutely no place in any form of communication aimed at arts consumers.
Just as we write criticism about art, I think writing about art should be fair game for criticism as well. This encompasses not just essays about art but artist statements, gallery guides, and any other place we speak to the public. If you are a creative professional who writes copy for the public (and most of us do), your writing should be just as strong as your work. Critique is necessary. Only by discussing what’s succeeding and what’s failing—just like the artistic process itself—can we improve.
I recently found an absolute gem of egregious art writing aimed at the general art public, in the form of an announcement from the Goat Farm about the winner of the 2016 Field Experiment:
“‘9to5’ is a hyper-connected co-working space that broadcasts localized knowledge and receives worldwide commands to accelerate the creative process. Operating as open source software, all elements of the space are modifiable by users, regardless of location. The goal is to make “9to5” a permanent installation by threading itself into an Atlanta community space. The “9to5″ team will be awarded $20,000, a two-week Hambidge residency, and administration and production support.”
This summary packs a clown car full of artsy-fartsy argle-bargle into just four sentences. This incomprehensible mishmash of artspeak, tech jargon, and all-around vagueness assaults me with its pretension. This type of language does not seek to explain its subject clearly; it’s the bouncer in front of the exclusive club who keeps the riffraff out. The worst part is that Field Experiment is meant to be a publicly accessible art forum. The Goat Farm encouraged the public to participate; unfortunately, this type of arduous artspeak hamstrings any chance of connecting with anybody but a narrow band of art-world insiders.
Let’s go sentence-by-sentence:
“9to5″ is a hyper-connected co-working space that broadcasts localized knowledge and receives worldwide commands to accelerate the creative process.
The opening sentence tumbles from the mouth like verbal diarrhea. Phrases like “hyper-connected,” “localized knowledge,” and “worldwide commands” (which I can only assume means online suggestions) inflate their referent into word-clouds decorating the sentence. Perhaps worse than the jargon itself is the clumsy construction of the sentence. The direct object begins with a faux-parallel structure of “hyper-connected co-working”; however this construction falls flat with all the conjunctions, articles, and infinitives that clutter the sentence.
Operating as open source software, all elements of the space are modifiable by users, regardless of location.
Sentence two pesters me with its vagueness. We are still talking about 9to5 as a space, but what that space is is not quite defined. It operates as open-source software, but what is it? A website? An app? An interface for my dildo? Furthermore, who are the users? They must be everywhere, because you can use it “regardless of location.” I’ll assume that phrase means “anywhere there is Internet.”
The goal is to make “9to5” a permanent installation by threading itself into an Atlanta community space.
In this sentence, I think “permanent installation” simply means “institution,” “threading itself into” exaggerates the word “supporting,” and “Atlanta community space” could just say “Atlanta.”
Remember folks, don’t use two words when one will do! Certainly don’t use three or more when one will do as well! That’s just linguistic masturbation.
Can these four sentences be saved? Absolutely! Simplify. That’s all it takes. Use the most direct, clear, and understandable words, phrases, and constructions:
“9to5” is a web-based art “space” that connects creative professionals to audiences around the world. Through interactive technology like live video and chat, users are able to interact with the leaders of regularly occurring virtual art events. From live DJ remixes to interactive storytelling, “9to5” provides a place for creative engagement and entertainment. This Atlanta-based art experience is available anywhere there is an Internet connection.
See how easy that was?
Artists: A bit of simple explanation goes a long way in engaging the public. Tell us what it is: a dance show, an art installation, a DJ performance, an online event, etc. Don’t overinflate your words until your sentences are bulging at the seams. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it clear.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. He was a participant in Cycle 2 of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program.