Transversal IAE Interrogates the Real

The Guardian reports on a recent study of gallery-speak, officially christened 'International Art English':

If you've been to see contemporary art in the last three decades, you
will probably be familiar with the feelings of bafflement, exhaustion
or irritation that such gallery prose provokes. You may well have got
used to ignoring it. As Polly Staple, art writer and director of the Chisenhale Gallery
in London, puts it: "There are so many people who come to our shows who
don't even look at the programme sheet. They don't want to look at any writing about art."

With
its pompous paradoxes and its plagues of adverbs, its endless sentences
and its strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing
serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist
contemporary art is a fraud. Surely no one sensible takes this jargon
seriously?

David Levine and Alix Rule do. "Art English is
something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time,"
says Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin.
"But we all use it." Three years ago, Levine and his friend Rule, a
29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia university in
New York, decided to try to anatomise it. "We wanted to map it out,"
says Levine, "to describe its contours, rather than just complain about
it."

They christened it International Art English, or IAE, and
concluded that its purest form was the gallery press release, which – in
today's increasingly globalised, internet-widened art world – has a
greater audience than ever….

IAE always uses "more rather than fewer words". Sometimes it uses
them with absurd looseness: "Ordinary words take on non-specific alien
functions. 'Reality,' writes artist Tania Bruguera, 'functions as my
field of action.'" And sometimes it deploys words with faddish
precision: "Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009;
2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have
its best year ever."

Through Sketch Engine, Rule and Levine found
that "the real" – used as a portentous, would-be philosophical abstract
noun – occurred "179 times more often" in IAE than in standard English.
In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd
combination of stiffness and swagger, they argued that IAE "sounds like
inexpertly translated French". This was no coincidence, they claimed,
having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and
the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art
writing via October,
the New York critical journal founded in 1976. Since then, IAE had
spread across the world so thoroughly that there was even, wrote Rule
and Levine, an "IAE of the French press release … written, we can only
imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating
American academics imitating French academics".

The mention of
interns is significant. Rule, who writes about politics for leftwing
journals as well as art for more mainstream ones, believes IAE is partly
about power. "IAE serves interests," she says. However laughable the
language may seem to outsiders, to art-world people, speaking or writing
in IAE can be a potent signal of insider status. As some of the lowest
but also the hungriest in the art food chain, interns have much to gain
from acquiring fluency in it. Levine says the same goes for many
institutions: "You can't speak in simple sentences as a museum and be
taken seriously. You can't say, 'This artist produces funny work.' In
our postmodern world, simple is just bad. You've got to say, 'This
artist is funny and …'"

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