Recently a minor hullabaloo erupted in the art world, and the art blogosphere in particular, over the dense curatorial writing that accompanied the Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary art here in New York. Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal recaps the controversy here; to put it simply (as this story pretty much forces us to do), the text was called everything from “impenetrable” to “unalloyed gibberish,” and was quoted as providing descriptions like this one:
“. . . invents puzzles out of nonsequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial . . . inhabits those interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion.”
“But the industrial strength rhetoric of so much museum writing is also, I suspect, a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid simply to say aloud and in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at. What if they get it wrong? Better to fall back on cliches that stand in for thought without furthering it.”
True enough—no one wants to be the wet blanket who misunderstands genius in its own time. Another possibility, of course, is that the art itself doesn’t hold up to the close scrutiny of plain English, forcing the writers to bluff and bluster their way through the descriptions. Finally, the artgoing public who wades through the verbiage could just be nodding along, pretending to understand as the writer pretends to interpret what the artist has pretended to express. The whole table could be bluffing.
But most likely the situation isn’t that dire. Writing of the kind quoted above may set our editorial teeth on edge, but we’re longtime fans of the Whitney Museum, and we know from experience that when their curatorial skills are joined with a concise, illuminating text, the results are dynamite:
All in all, Lacayo is probably right. There’s nothing wrong with contemporary art, but evaluating new art in concrete terms is risky, so many writers choose to tiptoe around that risk. In any case, the problem is an old one—much older even than those Calvin and Hobbes cartoons that satirized it so brilliantly in the ’90s (“I wanted to be a neo-deconstructivist, but Mom wouldn’t let me”). Gibson in the WSJ looks back fondly to the age of post-WWII criticism, but as George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” reminds us, impenetrable art writing dates back at least that far:
“In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,’ while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,’ the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.”
The jargon words themselves may have changed, but the epidemic of jargon hasn’t. What to do about it? As Arbiters of Style, we’re not suggesting that art writers go to the other extreme and describe things only in terms of the literal and concrete. There’s nothing wrong with waxing verbose about art, but as long as you’re going to fly off into that stratosphere, you might as well do it full-throttle, à la Walter Pater on the Mona Lisa:
“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.”
If art museums ever featured captions like that, we’d never miss an exhibit.