“”The internationalized art world relies on a unique language. Its purest articulation is found in the digital press release. This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English.
International Art English (IAE) is the bullshit people write about art. The world of the visual arts has for many years had its own distinctive jargon, but proponents of the concept of IAE go beyond that, to argue that a significant amount of writing about art is intentionally designed to be incomprehensible or understandable only to those in the know. The term International Art English was originated by Alix Rule and David Levine in a 2012 essay in Triple Canopy magazine, but has been developed since then as part of a critique of how the art world functions.
IAE has some similarity with other forms of specialised language such as journalese (the language used by journalists) and legalese (the language of lawyers, judges, jurists, and other employees of the legal system). But it goes further than language used merely for technical purposes: "by referring to an obscure car part, a mechanic probably isn’t interpellating you as a member of a common world—as a fellow citizen, or as the case may be, a fellow traveler. He isn't identifying you as someone who does or does not get it." It draws on the language of postmodernism and critical theory, which is itself often considered a bastion of pseudery, constructed as much to confuse as to inform; however IAE is not primarily an academic language, but one focused on a commercial world where mundane objects are exchange for huge amounts of money.
IAE as a discourse has become part of the art world: a vast ecosystem including commercial galleries, dealers, auction houses, and collectors; public museums and charitable institutions; art schools providing practical instruction to would-be artists; history of art departments and other research bodies; scholarly journals and publishers of expensive, glossy books; art magazines and websites. This institution functions to define what art is and to assign value to it, as well as to facilitate its exchange and exploitation in galleries, auction houses, and elsewhere.
There is suspicion that much of the language and discourse around art exists to mystify and confuse, functioning according to Rule and Levine:
- to act as a badge or shibboleth to allow members of the art world to recognise each other and feel part of a club
- to promote contemporary art by elevating its perceived importance and significance (and hence increase artworks' monetary value)
- to obscure or distract from the more vulgar aspects of the art world, principally money and commercialism
- to increase barriers for entry into the art world, particularly for those from non-traditional backgrounds (anyone who's not white, middle-class, English-speaking, with the right education)
- to create jobs for those who write, teach, and interpret international art english (knowledge generally passed on as part of instruction in art-making, art history, curatorship, and museum science)
- to allow those in the art world to talk about controversial or taboo subjects away from the glare of suspicious politicians eager to cut funding and popular journalists eager to ridicule and attack
These principles require not merely a specialised language, but one that is intentionally hard to understand, designed not to convey meaning but to obfuscate it. While AIE can be seen as an egregious form of bullshit designed for nefarious purposes, even if you do not take it as far as they do, their concepts can be seen as part of a critique of the art world and of contemporary philosophy.
Art criticism and art philosophy are ancient, with Plato and Aristotle both making prominent contributions. Until recently, certain genres dominated writing about art: artists' biographies (with Vasari still perhaps the most famous); descriptions of artworks (ranging from the elevated writing of Walter Pater to every film review that begins and ends with telling you the plot); inquiries into the nature of artistic taste and viewers' response to the artwork (as with Immanuel Kant). However, as art moved away from the representational, the relationship of art and writer, the latter functioning as explicator or publicist, became more crucial: the Impressionists and Post-impressionists had their champions, while after World War Two, Abstract Expressionist depended on the theories of Clement Greenberg to explain what the apparently random daubs were all about.
While the nature of art had been debated for thousands of years, in the 1960s the critic and philosopher of art Arthur Danto came up with a radical new idea that turned everything upside down: there was a group of institutions called the "Artworld", and they got to decide what was art. Earlier in art history, Marcel Duchamp had suggested that art was whatever the artist said was art: this radicalises the notion of art, but still requires there to be a genius creator known as an artist who decides what is art. Danto went beyond this to say that art had nothing to do with artists. Rather than art being a property either of objects or of artists, it was something created by people who wrote about art and who exhibited, bought, and sold it.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, in western Europe and later the US, there was a flourishing of increasingly obscure forms of philosophy known as structuralism, post-structuralism, critical theory, and postmodernism. This led to a dispute over whether these were meaningless discourses designed to keep academics in jobs, or actually had some value in conveying truth about the nature of the world and the possibility of truth: opponents of postmodernism such as Alan Sokal set out to show that it was all rubbish.
This leads to the critique of International Art English, set out by Levine and Rule in 2012 in the online magazine Triple Canopy. They associated IAE with the rise of international biennials, art exhibitions held in various exotic world cities such as Venice, which bring in artists from around the world, and hence require communication in a kind of pidgin. They decided to analyse what they considered to be the writing about art that was most widely read by those in the art world: a set of press releases from e-flux, a service which publishes selected ("curated") press releases about art exhibitions in return for payment from the artist or gallery, and according to Levine and Rule had a larger circulation than even the most popular art magazine.
While their focus was in press releases, Levine and Rule traced the foundation of IAE back to the 1970s, and the journal October, whose editors included Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson. Ironically October attempted to inject a new rigour into writing about art, to avoid the woolly language of liberal art historians who talked about beauty and other unquantifiable, undefinable concepts; it sought a theoretical foundation in the French texts at the heart of postmodernism (Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard, Deleuze, etc) and the German of the Frankfurt School philosophers. So (per Levine and Rule) via October the postmodern philosophers provided a vocabulary and style of discourse, and the galleries and other institutions who controlled the art world and determined the nature of art fashioned this discourse into International Art English.
FeaturesAccording to Levine and Rule the central feature of IAE is its vocabulary. They came up with a list of words that seemed omnipresent in gallery discourse, with examples including "aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy." But the way these words was used was distinctive:
An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes ... experiencability.
Rather than the concrete, AIE loved these strange abstract nouns often fashioned by sticking strange suffixes on normal words. There is also a fondness for compound words where a single one would arguably work as well: "functions to subvert" rather than "subverts". The creation of new words from old reflects a desire to establish new shades of meaning, and is something philosophers have been doing for hundreds of years. However while Kant or Heidegger may have created a new word or reappropriated an old one, they generally specified what the meaning of the term was, or at least attempted in the course of their philosophy to explicate it at extraordinary length. In contrast, IAE exists in a sphere where it's kind of assumed that everybody knows what the words mean because they look similar to English words, but there is little or no attempt to define them.
One grammatical feature they identify is overuse of the passive voice. (Care should be taken here because many people don't seem to know exactly what the passive voice is, although an objection to the passive generally means criticism of a vagueness about agency, things just appearing with no explanation, which is probably what Levine and Rule are attacking.)
IAE is often described as resembling texts that are repeatedly or inexpertly translated. This may reflect the way people write when they've read too much dense theoretical texts written in foreign languages, translated by people who don't particularly understand them, and then quoted by other people whose expertise is not always unchallengeable. It appears to propagate by the spread of formulas copied from one document to another, cliched forms of expression about art in which the name of one artist can be removed and another inserted to create a new press release.
Weaknesses of critique
Many people implicitly assume IAE is bad because it forms a jargon that ordinary people cannot understand. However there is a difference between writing which is hard to understand because it encodes difficult, unintuitive ideas (e.g. calculus or quantum mechanics) and writing which is incomprehensible because it is badly written and vague and the writer didn't know what they wanted to say. It is inevitable that the art world as a repository of knowledge will have its own unique vocabulary, just as any other discipline does. But Levine and Rule go beyond that to assert it has functions beyond communication: it is intended not for communication but for discouraging communication, and functions as a barrier to outsiders as well as creating an in-group of practitioners.
However, Levine and Rule's claim that IAE originated as a pidgin in the context of international art events suggests that it could actually be a more successful method of communication than regular English. The use of a limited vocabulary and standardised forms of expression can make something easier to understand. Levine and Rule assume that we as native English speakers can recognise bad writing, but for non-English speakers IAE's prolixity and repeated formulas may act as reference points, its use of long Latinate words may aid speakers of Romance languages, and its lack of vivid metaphors or relation to everyday life may help those who do not have the vocabulary to understand metaphors drawn from disparate fields and terms so mundane that they may have never encountered them in a foreign language. A native French speaker will be more able to translate "visuality" (visualité) than "dog" (chien), while a native English speaker will talk more slowly and carefully (and hence comprehensibly) when declaiming IAE than when talking about everyday matters.
But still, it is undeniable that IAE is difficult and confusing at least for non-practitioners.
There is a movement to encourage simpler writing about art. In part this relates to wider outreach programs from public institutions who are put under pressure to appeal not just to traditional, narrow, upper-middle-class white audiences, but to a wider public who may come to art in other ways with different educations. It also relates to the education of children about art, where there is the challenge of engaging with people with less knowledge, and who are also more easily bored and distracted. The movement for wider art education is driven in part by the desire for money, including the requirements of funding organisation, the need to appease hostile politicians, and the creation of the role of professional gallery outreach and educational staff (with their own university courses and professional training infrastructure). But it also reflects a desire to democratise art and distribute its benefits to a wider public. Alternative styles are spread in various ways including the creation of style guides by museums and the growing professionalism of art educators, as well as more informal channels.
Some specific techniques to this end, promoted by theorists of art education, include:
- imagine you are writing for a 12 year old
- avoiding abstractions, especially abstract nouns, in favour of the concrete and verbs of doing.
There are also methods of art education that avoid the necessity of language. There is the mainstay of art history as a traditional discipline, the classic twin-projector slide-show pioneered in the early 20th century by Heinrich Wölfflin. There are also formats such as the purely visual essay used by John Berger.
- International Art English, Alix Rule and David Levine, Triple Canopy, 2012
- What Is ‘the Artworld’?, Ben Eastham, Art Review, 30 November 2020
- Plato’s Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Concept of the Aesthetic, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- See the Wikipedia article on Aesthetics.
- Clement Greenberg, Art Criticism, Donald Burton Kuspit, Encyclopedia Britannica
- A user's guide to artspeak, Andy Beckett, The Guardian, 27 Jan 2013
- Hey folks passive voice != vagueness about agency, Mark Liberman, Language Log, May 31, 2004
- The passive in English, Geoffrey K Pullum, Language Log, January 24, 2011
- See the Wikipedia article on Heinrich Wölfflin.
- Ways of Seeing, John Berger, 1972