An editorial posted the other day in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research, claims that “Artspeak” does not reflect “actual” research in the arts. The conventions and validity of the arts are under attack daily at the moment. As a member of a research institution where my research is art-making, and is occasionally supported by dense writing, I was disheartened to read this uninformed editorial in a major newspaper.
Artspeak is the often satirized form of English that showcases artists’ proclivity to use complex and absurd-sounding words and phrases. I do appreciate the difficulty of artspeak and acknowledge my complicity. Yes, when possible and appropriate artists and theorists should write for lay audiences. However, I also recognize the necessity of Artspeak as a discipline-specific form of writing with its own quirks and peculiarities. Several authors at Triple Canopy, a New York magazine, did a wonderful analysis of Artspeak calling it “International Art English” in 2002, yet there are many artists and writers like Russel Smith, who likely never had patience for French poststructuralism nor the florid universe of International Art English it helped to spawn. To the author’s three main points:
The author’s first point is that artists use big words to overcomplicate simple concepts. The author claims that “performativities of language embody speaking subjects,” is the same as “people of different backgrounds use language differently.” These sentences are not the same and have different meanings. To tackle the first part of this mistranslation, the performative aspect of language (or anything else) is different than language itself, language itself being the province of linguists, grammaticians, and even anthropologists. Performance itself is an important part of the fine arts, as is the performative aspect of words or materials etc–what words materials etc. can do. Secondly, embodying is an important concept in the fine arts as well; the fine arts necessarily deal with identity, the body, and the ways that individuals or materials can express certain ideas in ways that other disciplines do not. While in other disciplines people “use” language, in the arts language is additionally free to embody speaking subjects or vice versa. Finally, the word “subjects” is not the same as the word “people”. A subject is an important concept in the arts—the subject of a painting, a subject as a distinct entity and not necessarily an individual belonging to some specific “people“, as is the case in the authors example simplified sentence. Admittedly, this is a clunky sentence that could be improved. Yet, the author’s thesis that complex ideas like embodying and performativity are analogous to simpler words like “use” is nonsense.
To the author’s second point, I am not sure who is claiming that “critical theory is a kind of scientific research” in the first place. This is a straw man argument. Critical theory is necessarily and deliberately unscientific but it is research. The fine arts celebrate ambiguity in ways that chemists generally cannot (lest they blow up the lab). And God forbid critical theorists and artists use the wrong style when using citations! The authors critique that artists and philosophers have it wrong by using “APA style as opposed to MLA style, for those in the know [emphasis added]” is an appeal to the same kind of discipline-specific elitism he attempts to condemn.