In my Gmail account, I have a specific folder called, "Bad Art Writing" where I file any particularly atrocious art press release or gallery announcement that gets sent my way. This happens fairly regularly, if you are an artist who is on the receiving end of gallery and artist mailing lists. Bad Art Writing (sometimes known as International Art English), is basically Academic English (AE), which David Foster Wallace probably eviscerated best in his brilliant Harper's essay, excerpted below. Simply substitute the word "artist" for "academic" and "scholar" and it amounts to pretty much the same thing:
…I cite no less an authority than Mr. G. Orwell, who 50 years ago had [Academic English] pegged as a "mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence" in which "it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning."
...the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer's own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar's vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer's erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak ("revenue enhancement," "downsizing," pre-owned," "proactive resource-allocation restructuring") that it's tempting to think AE's real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.
There's an addictive, "fun-to-hate" quality about this sort of writing. It's similar to the way I can gleefully despise Sarah Palin or the show Girls, and still be compelled to click on every single knee-jerk piece of click-bait that comes out on those respective topics. Not that this is something I'm at all proud of. As any creative-type knows, hating the work of others is much easier (and lazier) than producing something of your own that's any good, and so far as I can tell, I am no wiser or better off for having read about the societal implications of Lena Dunham's gratuitous nudity or Palin's latest outrageous tweet, or whatever other distraction was making the rounds last week.
But my hatred of Art/Academic Speak is a little more personal than hating an inane politician or a TV show. I think all artists are done a disservice when this type of writing is seen as perfectly acceptable. How can the phrase "questioning the commerce or carelessness of re-appropriation through producing a space-as-document," or "our cultural presentation of identity and contain ambiguous or potentially contradictory statements about their creator" be uttered with a straight face? Why are "notions" of [insert perfectly stable art form, such as painting] always being "challenged?" (Which of course, always just translates into, "The artist decided to do something different.") The reasons this is a detriment are obvious (I hope). Terrible art writing is a distraction from art that's actually good, it makes the artist look insecure at best and like a disingenuous jackass at worst, and artists who would never dream of writing this way feel obliged to, so that they may join an exclusive little club of People in the Know. But unfortunately, bad art writing is mostly shrugged off, on par with going to the Scottish highlands and complaining that everyone there speaks with an impenetrable accent. (Well, of course they talk that way. What did you expect?) And as International Art English cofounder David Levine points out: "The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work, the more you can keep the value high." Maybe that's a handy insider's trick, but hearing it said outright is heartbreaking. Has it come to this? Is squelching clarity really the key to the kingdom?
One of my 'hard to explain' drawings.
Here's the thing that makes me a tad sympathetic, however: writing about art is hard. Very hard. And even harder to do sincerely, maybe moreso for artists than anyone else. When artists create work I suspect many* are not even in the same universe as words; they are hanging out in some meditative zone where language itself ceases to exist. My absolute favorite aspect of drawing—and also the thing about it that makes it easier and more enjoyable than almost anything else I do—is that during its creation, I do not have to talk about it. Because I can't, or at least, not very well. There is literally nothing to say; the image is handling the Saying part for me. Thinking and explaining and making a case for oneself is never the point when I draw. But admitting, "I just wanted to see what happened when I expanded this shape," or, "this composition felt right to me after looking at a book of Saul Steinberg drawings" doesn't sound all that smart or interesting, and yet again, it's easier to revert to vague, nonsensical prose.
Still, I'd like to think we artists can do better. We can omit needless words. We can sound like human beings and not like random adjective generators. We can admit that these things are not easy to write about, and be honest when we don't know what we're doing instead of disguising it in blabber.