Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: The jargon, the waffle and the bollocks

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Munch, on hearing IAE.
Munch, on hearing IAE.

Over in London, the pointy-headed are again getting their knickers in a twist about "art bollocks". That's how controversial art critic Brian Sewell described art jargon in 1999, although these days they're calling it "International Art English" (IAE).

You know the stuff: waffle that doubles the number of required words and squares the number of required syllables, all about "juxtapositions", "spaces" and "fields", "affect", "reading" objects and "non-objects", and "challenging orthodoxies". Alanis Morissette-style "ironies" abound.

They don't say Artist X thinks his holiday snaps are relevant to others; they say Artist X "will unfold his ideas beyond the specific and anecdotal limits of his Paris experience to encompass a more general scope, a new and broader dimension of meaning". Occasionally, it's poetic: the "sub real is ... formed of the leftovers of reality". Oh, sub-really? Bon appetit!

These examples are cited in a 2012 Triple Canopy article by sociologist Alix Rule and artist David Levine, who coined the term "International Art English".

Rule and Levine found that IAE is hugely influenced by French post-structuralist philosophy. They imagine IAE French press releases are written "by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics". Who no doubt want to sleep with French interns.

A recent piece on the Guardian website about Rule and Levine's work attracted hundreds of comments such as: If van Gogh had heard this stuff "he would have retreated into the garden to cut both ears off. Caravaggio would have knifed them." Meanwhile, the Independent asks why is work "interrogating capitalism" so often for sale?

But what exactly is wrong with IAE? It depends on who you ask: either it's hiding how bad and empty the art is, or it's obscuring how good it is; or it's simply elitist, keeping plebs out of the playground art gang; or it doesn't know what it's talking about, and is mis-using radical and revolutionary language, creating clichés out of once-powerful terms.

It's hard to find IAE that is critical of an art work. In a word, IAE is pseudo-intellectual. One of the most frustrating things about IAE is its tentative vagueness. Art works feebly "question" and "explore", and just after they promise more exciting "ruptures" and "breakages" it turns out that these dramatic happenings refer to "viewer perception" and not to anything outside the gallery walls.

Fuzzy mist is a tempting tactic when trying to appreciate an artwork without closing down other interpretations. But to quote Waiheke artist Denis O'Connor, artists "ask themselves questions like everybody else" but they have to "make something as the reply".

Is there good IAE usage? I would contend that, yes, there is. It's writing which has a genuine point to make, using technical terms with precision and elegance rather than just being show-offy or evasive.

But of course I would say there's hope for IAE - I've used a fair few syllables here myself.

- NZ Herald

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