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Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research

I love the Artybollocks Generator, a site that spews a perfectly contemporary bit of all-purpose, grammatically correct nonsense for use as an "artist's statement." Just hit a button and it fills in a template with variable words such as "spatial," "practice," "gendered" and "discourse" to come up with such convincing gems as: "As momentary derivatives become reconfigured through studious and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the inaccuracies of our culture."

The joke is becoming an old one now, and in fact there are a few other "instant art phrase generators" on the web. Its best manifestation was a semi-serious analysis of "International Art English (IAE)" by a couple of PhD students who in 2012 wrote a guide to its rules and usage. David Levine and Alix Rule used software to analyze thousands of gallery artists' statements and isolated several linguistic devices that have become mandatory in their writing. They published the findings in the art journal Triple Canopy.

They explain that, in this language, 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." They reveal that the phrase "the real" (as opposed to reality) recurs 179 times more frequently in published art writing than it does in the rest of written English.

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The point of this dialect, the researchers claim, is simply to show insider status, to exclude those without the proper credentials or background from the conversation.

This language has been the subject of mockery since at least the 1990s but it shows no signs of going away. Recently, I read a call for papers for a Canadian conference on art writing that was written by an anonymous master of this vernacular. "As writing calls and responds in proximity to bodies both present and absent, what performativities of language embody speaking subjects?" asked the conference. It went on for a page, saying exactly nothing. Choose another paragraph at random: "How do inscription, gesture and language formulate and reveal cultural knowledge and difference? How does language gesture across and within difference, and how might we consider geographies, histories and futurities in this context?"

"Futurities" is great, admittedly. But also note the rhythmic tropes. In this dialect, prepositions are often paired – "across and within" – as are verbs – "formulate and reveal" – and adjectives – "present and absent" – and nouns – "knowledge and difference" – carefully avoiding one meaning and constantly suggesting ambiguity and flux.

Intelligent and educated people write this way, and they have a justification for it. They argue that the theory they are reading cannot be easily simplified, that each of these phrases is the product of many years of "research" and that they are writing for other connoisseurs of the theory. Each of these phrases is a shorthand for a complex idea that experts would understand, and what's the problem with experts writing for other experts? Scientists do it all the time. You wouldn't ask a doctor to explain every technical term in a research paper meant for other doctors.

I have a couple of responses to this. First, I am not convinced that each of these phrases represents a genuinely new or difficult concept. Many of them complicate very simple concepts. (For example, "performativities of language embody speaking subjects," above, probably refers to the idea that people of different backgrounds use language differently.)

Second, the idea that critical theory is a kind of scientific research is a misleading one. Middling graduate students often want us to believe that because a theory has been put forward it has proved something, akin to a pharmaceutical study that proves the efficacy of a certain drug.

You can see this belief system subtly represented in the style of citation notes that the writers use. In-text citations (APA style as opposed to MLA style, for those in the know) are creeping into philosophical writing and they do not belong there. Let me explain: It is traditional in papers in the humanities to use endnotes to provide source material – you put a little number in the text and a note at the end. Endnotes say something like: "1. This idea was most fully developed in R. Smith's 2017 work Wankers and Hogwash (Pretence Press, 2017)." But scientists use a different style, in-text citations, which are parentheses containing the author of a study and a date (Smith, 2017). The idea here is that there was a study that demonstrated something you are claiming.

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But philosophy and art criticism prove nothing. Essays in criticism are not summaries of experiments done in labs. They just advance ideas. The use of this scientific reference style has crept into the humanities through the vaguely scientific social sciences (I'm looking at you, sociology). It has been welcomed by those who want to call criticism "research" so as to maximize its authority.

If I make a loony statement – "chronormativity both negates and releases binary hegemonies" – then follow with an in-text citation (Authority, 2017), it looks as if I am referring to established fact. But I may be referring to a sessional instructor at Simon Fraser who published in an online journal called Radical De-Everything. The source and its persuasiveness needs to be addressed in the text itself.

Let's stop pretending this language reflects "research." Let the reader decide whether an idea is plausible or implausible by explaining it, not by presenting it as established fact. Let's have an end to academic artspeak – and while we're at it, start letting art speak for itself.

Video: Learning Jamaican patois, the Toronto dialect with deep roots
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About the Author
Culture columnist

Russell Smith's most recent novel, Girl Crazy, is currently being adapted for cinema for New Real Films of Toronto. More

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