The only bad review is no review. Sometimes the opportunity to write about a show will come across my desk in the form of a press release, flyer, or other promotional material, I take one look, and immediately say “no.” Even a negative review still indicates that I respect an artist or subject enough to give it my attention.
There are a lot of different artists, shows, galleries, museums, etc., competing for the attention of arts consumers, myself included. And, honestly, I’m quite like the average person—the number one thing competing with the arts for my attention is Netflix and Chill. If an art event doesn’t look immediately interesting to me, I’m unlikely to want to find out more, let alone attend.
This past December I was asked to review a show called “Extreme Weather” at Murmur Media, put on by Altered Means. I took one look at the flyer for the show and said “no way.” I could have made good money, without much effort, but the 64-word description of “Extreme Weather” was such a turn-off I decided this show was not worth telling anybody about.
Here’s the description from the flyer:
EXTREME WEATHER explores the complex entity that is our atmosphere. With discussions of climate change constantly looming and debates of net neutrality pervasive, the atmosphere continues to be a contested site. Combining art works that engage various aspects of our environment, EXTREME WEATHER seeks to illuminate the ways in which we understand our place as beings, both materially and immaterially, in our ethereal world.
Starting off, the opening sentence isn’t bad at all. As a thesis statement, “EXTREME WEATHER explores the complex entity that is our atmosphere” works just fine. We start with the name of the show, which is already quite evocative. Good. Next, the word “explores” is a totally fine action verb. It may not be the most creative way to start off your show explanation because “explores” has become so generic in the arts community that it has become essentially meaningless. But, it works nonetheless. As a direct object, “atmosphere” is another good word, as is the descriptive phrase “complex entity.” From the first sentence I understand that this art show is about the environment in some fashion.
This is where the description starts to fall apart. While the opening sentence does a fine job of setting the stage for more specific explanatory statements, what follows is nothing but meaningless artspeak. The second sentence begins with the sloppy phrase: “With discussions of climate change constantly looming.” This overly dramatic clause encompasses all the climate conferences, scientific papers, and documentary films that bombard us; however, the phrasing is flat-footed and sounds plain witless. Here I was thinking the text was going to explain what type of art I was going to see, but the text wants to create a spooky aura around its subject.
The text, strangely, goes on to say “and debates of net neutrality pervasive,” which seems to have no relation to the surrounding text. I did I double-take the first time I read it because I thought it was a mistake. The subject of net neutrality comes out of nowhere and with no explanation. The reader has been set up to think the subject is the environment and climate change; however, the text yanks the wheel and takes us down a completely different road. What does net neutrality have to do with climate change? There’s no telling, because the text does absolutely nothing to unpack this idea before or after it is brought up. As a reviewer, this is a clear signal to me that the artist or curator has not thought through their work, and that it is unresolved.
The disastrous end of this sentence is useless: “the atmosphere continues to be a contested site.” This phrase tells us nothing new. The atmosphere remains contested? Thank you Captain Obvious for telling me what I already know. This was a point where I was expecting to learn more about what’s in the show. But sentence two starts off with an unintelligible introductory clause, and a completely useless independent clause. This sentence does nothing but take up space, and I’m sure was a point when many people quit reading.
The introductory clause to sentence three is equally vague: “Combining art works that engage various aspects of our environment.” First off, I don’t think “engage” is the right word here unless these artworks are literally interacting with the environment. I wish the text had explained what type of art as going to be on display. Photos? Paintings? Performance art? Who knows! Finally, the phrase “various aspects of our environment” is so nonspecific that the words may as well not be in the sentence.
The remaining words in this sentence make zero effort to explain what the show is. The meat of sentence three “EXTREME WEATHER seeks to illuminate the ways in which we understand our place as beings,” reads like sophomoric artspeak. The oh-so-earnest text hits one of my biggest writing pet peeves with “seeks to illuminate.” I despise these action verb-infinitive combinations that junk up art writing these days. Seeks to illuminate. Hopes to employ. Attempts to achieve. Obfuscates to explicate. Seriously, all these sorts of “_____ to _____” verb phrases are word garbage. First of all, this is a case where three words are used when one would do just fine. Secondly, it makes it seem like your artwork isn’t actually doing anything, only seeking, hoping, attempting, or any other inactive verb with an -ing at the end. This construction is wordy and insubstantial.
The closing words of the flyer text are “both materially and immaterially, in our ethereal world.”—more words bereft of any and all meaning. There’s feeling in the words — like they are trying to express something — but without any context for the reader, it’s all but impossible to infer meaning. This text is full of itself and yet, upon deeper inspection, lacks substance.
You should consider that every piece of public communication may be the only chance you have to reach someone. For an art event, it should explain what it is, when it’s happening, where it’s happening, and how to find out more. A little bit of clarity about what it is is perhaps the most important, and often mishandled, part of a public communication attempt. This is the first thing audiences want to find out when they have a piece of public communication before them—whether it’s a gallery card, a flyer, an email, or a Facebook ad.
Unfortunately, some artists really, truly suck at the what is it portion of the text. Usually these artists’ explanations involve faux-academic language, misapplied theory, uneven grammar, and an apparent lack of concern for giving the reader a grounding to understand the work. As a reviewer, a bad description says to me either the artist doesn’t understand their work or they are unable to communicate their ideas effectively. These problems are enough for me to pass up your show. I’m not here to lift up the weakest in the art community. I’m here to support the strongest creatives among us. If your description reads like an amateur train wreck, I’m not interested in going to your show, much less reviewing it.
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.