Art for the Masses Starts With Me

and you and anyone else who makes art or likes it. And it starts with speaking about art in real terms not jargon-laden terms or a meaningless configurations of obsolete words.
Last year I went to a critique held in a gallery in Norman, OK that was led by an artist and writer from Kansas City, MO and which included a very small number of artists from OKC and Kansas. One of the things we did was read about art speak – which has it’s own name: International Art English (you can read much simpler and shorter examples here and, for fun, check out an article that can give you some fancy terms to throw around in case you go to a show of modern work here.) But back to my art critique experience … to be honest, when she pulled out those art speak handouts and I glanced down at it I was a bit intimidated. Despite being a reasonably bright person, despite my college education, despite receiving strong instruction in the foundations of writing back in Jr. High, despite possessing a rather impressive vocabulary. It was paragraph after paragraph of 10 dollar words held together by prepositions with virtually no punctuation and French thrown in for variety.
And while I am in no way saying that I’m the sharpest crayon in the box I am also perfectly aware that if I was baffled/bewildered/thrown for a loop/flummoxed/gob-smacked or puzzled it stands to reason that at least half of the general population would be overwhelmed and annoyed if presented with descriptions of artwork that used art speak. They would be like “I’m not going to see that crap” because if you can’t understand the first paragraph of a press release then it stands to reason that either you are not going to understand the artwork or you’ll be hanging out with a bunch of pretentious jerks. Not a fun way to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.
At the critique the leader of the discussion indicated that she wanted to read the reading materials out loud, which is what we did. It was awkward and stumbling because there are only so many words a person can spit out before having to pause to breathe. But the general point of the article was that the art speak type of wording veers to the ludicrous quickly. The meaning of sentences are massacred in the verbal onslaught and even the meanings of the individual words themselves are twisted and maimed. A written statement meant to direct or inform prospective viewers of artwork ends up making less sense than the Tetetubbies or adults in the Charlie Brown TV specials.
Of course, art speak also serves as a barrier between those who “”belong” in the tiny, insulated art world and those who don’t. The people who belong, those who can ignore the meaningless phrases or those who somehow actually believe them, are rewarded by their inclusion and then they, in theory, open their wallets and reward the artists by purchasing artwork. Art speak press releases (and artist statements) effectively discourage the typical American from wanting to attend the exhibitions and gallery shows. And on some level that makes sense as evidence indicates that the typical American doesn’t buy original artwork. In addition, in all likelihood, the average person can not afford to spend much money on original artwork. However, art isn’t all about the buying and selling. This isn’t JCPenneys or a car dealership. Art is a dialogue, an experience, it serves as a communal function. The art world should not be tiny or insulated – it needs to be huge and inclusive in order to keep evolving. A mirror of society as well as a beacon to society.
But, we can fix the long, slow, slide into pretentiousness and secure art as a world in which everyone can bump elbows. We can just refuse to play the art speak game. If, while looking at a reclaimed metal sculpture, someone says “Well, the contextual elements of concrete abstraction in this piece really speak to the oppression of the Roma during the first waves of Modernism.” You can look them directly in the eye and say “Totally. That is one big hunk of oddly shaped metal.” After all, an evening at a gallery opening is way cheaper than a movie and sometimes they have free cheese. Or cookies. Oh, and boxed wine … although I’m not sure why.