Tag Archives: Arts and Culture

Those Interstitial Spaces

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.”

Unless we’re inhabiting those same spaces, it sounds to us like the author’s just not sure what to make of the piece. Richard Lacayo surmised as much on his art blog for Time:

“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 enoughno 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 onemuch 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Books and Publishing, Media, New York

How Do You Spell “Publishing Excellence” in Japanese?

The Abbeville blog has moved! This post is now available here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books and Publishing, Style Points

How Do You Spell "Publishing Excellence" in Japanese?

maya.jpg arabic.jpg hiero1.jpg chinese-calligraphy.jpg


Better yet, here’s another question: how many publishers do you know whose catalog even has an Alphabets & Symbols division, never mind an expanding one?

[UPDATE 6/12: SPECIAL DISCOUNT ON JAPANESE ALPHABET – 30% OFF AT ABBEVILLE.COM! From now through 6/30, enter the coupon code “alphabet” at checkout to receive this special discount.]

Following in the footsteps of Abbeville’s popular Maya Script, Arabic Script, Hieroglyphics, and Chinese Calligraphy titles comes our latest volume about a non-Roman symbol system: Japanese Alphabet: The 48 Essential Characters. In this book, expert polyglot Gabriel Mandel (author of Arabic Script) guides the reader through all 48 principal Japanese characters and their associated sounds, providing the roma-ji, or Roman phonetic spelling, for each. Also included are diagrams that demonstrate how to reproduce each character stroke by stroke, leaving you, the reader, just one fancy calligraphy pen away from writing in one of the world’s most elegant languages. If you’ve already bought the four volumes mentioned, you can even try combining all five ancient languages into one truly impenetrable secret codeor one hell of a party trick (“Any ancient Maya in the room?”).

Readers who are interested in ancient languages qua art can also look forward to one of our upcoming fall publications: Egyptian Wall Painting. A tome as monumental as its subject, this survey of two-dimensional depictions in ancient Egyptglyphs and pictographs that stood squarely at the intersection of art, language, and religionfeatures full-page illustrations on special matte paper that actually re-creates the texture of the stuccoed limestone on which the original works were painted. Is there anything we don’t think of?

Style Points


1.1. “Both in Chinese and Japanese [writing], each character is composed of a series of strokes executed in a prescribed order. Strokes are made from the top down and from the left to the right; horizontal lines are drawn before verticals, whether they are alongside them or cross them. The central stroke is completed before symmetrical parts, and the strokes are made from the inside outward. The final base line is added when the central stroke has been completed; vertical or horizontal lines that cross the entire ideogram are written last.”

– Japanese Alphabet

Got that? Don’t think you can master the fundamentals of English style and then start getting all sloppy in other languages. Even in East Asia, Abbeville’s got its editorial eye on you, bub.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books and Publishing, Style Points

Italian Frescoes At ABBB

Be sure to check out Bob Duggan’s very detailed and kind review of Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era this week at Art Blog By Bob. Our favorite sentence:

“While such perspective was permitted [in Baroque fresco painting], it literally blew the roof off these churches, opening up the imagination of the viewer to an entire cosmos of spiritual possibility.”

We like to think our books do the same thing to our readers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Books and Publishing, Media