Why it's time for galleries to dump the jargon

The art world uses words everyone else has dropped

Christina Patterson
Tuesday 05 February 2013 01:00

Do you like nature, and art? If so, you might like something called On Vanishing Land, produced by British "sound artists and theorists" Mark Fisher and Justin Barton. What they've produced, which will be in an art gallery called The Showroom from 6 February, is "a new form of sonic fiction from the dreamings, gleamings and prefigurations that pervade the Suffolk coast." Themes "of incursion", by "unnameable forces, geological sentience or temporary anomaly", will, apparently, "recur throughout".

Or perhaps you're more of an urban person, and would prefer a "video work" at the Lisson Gallery by the artist Gerard Byrne? This work, which you can see until 9 March, "examines the slippage between time and the act of image creation" and looks at the "dialectic relationship that exists between individuals and the built environment that surrounds them". It will also "examine the conditions" that "underpin methods of cultural production".

Or perhaps you'd prefer some events at the Tate? On 1 and 2 February, you could have gone to " an experimental congress" at Tate Modern "of artists, activists and thinkers" who want to "unpick the underpinning, pressing questions of contemporary sexual and gender politics" by "exploring strategies that divert and destabilise normative gender and its representations".

Or, alternatively, you could sit at home with a nice cup of tea, and wonder why on earth the visual arts world is still using a language that almost everyone else has dropped. You could plough through some exhibition catalogues, and some visual arts criticism (which often doesn't seem to be all that critical) and look at some galleries' websites, and wonder how it was that people who are often quite young learnt to speak the kind of language that would have gone down very well on a cultural studies course in the 1970s, but which seems very, very, very old-fashioned now.

You might, for example, wonder why they seem to think it's better to use the word "notion" than "idea", or the word "narrative" than "story", or the word "interrogate" than "ask". You might wonder why every piece of art they write about seems to "subvert" something, or "disrupt" something, or "deconstruct" something, and why what it seems to "subvert" or "disrupt" often seems to be "traditional hierarchies". You might wonder what those "traditional hierarchies" were. You might, for example, want to ask if they were the "hierarchies" of a world where art is bought by hedge funders as an investment, and a brand. But if you looked at the art that was meant to be "subverting traditional hierarchies", or "interrogating capitalism", you might wonder why, if the artist hated capitalism so much, the work was so often for sale.

You might think that it was fine for art sometimes to "question" things, but that most of the "questions" that were being raised were questions that had been raised in art quite a lot before. You might want to say that you thought art was meant to be a kind of answer to the world, and that you weren't sure why these artists thought that the answers should always be left to someone else.

And when you went to see the art, you might even wonder if the people who were using language you couldn't really understand were trying to hide something: and that what they were trying to hide was the fact that the work, which they wanted you to think was clever, and interesting, and worth thinking quite a lot about, often wasn't clever, or interesting, or worth thinking quite a lot about.

You might even think that what they were trying to hide, though they would never put it in words like this, was the fact that the work wasn't very good at all.

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