Humans communicate with each other through a variety of means; touch, glances, visual art, music, language, and a host of other forms. Communication, in one form or another, is the backbone of society and culture. Language especially, is so heavily embroiled in the shaping of our lives, we hardly give it a second thought. Lera Boroditsky, Associate Professor of Psychology at UCSD, says, “When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature.”  If we can understand human nature through language, it follows that we can then gain insights into social groups, organizations, and even families.

A couple of years ago, art critic Alix Rule and New York and Berlin based artist David Levine wrote an essay about artspeak, titled “International Art English”, in which they reveal the intricacies contained in the pervading language of the art world today, particularly in reference to the press release.  They argue that International Art English, or IAE, is not only quite real, but taken very seriously in the art world, even though many artists can feel beleaguered by its presence.

image by Jim Starr
image by Jim Starr

IAE has a specific grammar, tone, vocabulary, and community that proves it stands above being mere technical jargon, and instead qualifies it as a language in and of itself.  Rule and Levine write “the language we use for writing about art is oddly pornographic: We know it when we see it. No one would deny its distinctiveness,” yet as distinctive as the language is, think of how many people walk away completely befuddled after reading a press release or artist statement written in IAE.

We as humans create languages to communicate better with one another, to hone specific ideas and thoughts, and to construct our social lives, but artspeak is used not to elucidate the viewer/subject, but rather to keep the meaning somewhat vague and muddled by verbiage that seems to be mostly directed toward academia. Such is the nature of a language, one might argue.  Language is used to communicate, of course, but it is also used to distinguish and set apart those who you wish to communicate with.  Claire Kramsch, Director of the Berkeley Language Center and author of the Language and Culture (is this a book, magazine, blog?), states “Language expresses cultural reality.  Speakers identify themselves and others through their use of language; they view their language as a symbol of their social identity.”

A benefit of artspeak may be to recognize one’s own – when you read a press release written in IAE, you immediately know the author to be one of a certain caliber who shares your education level and even interests, to some degree. It serves as a metric used to identify someone who should be well versed in the art world.

On the other hand, those who have not been educated in artspeak can feel intimidated by the elitism that such language carries.  There are many people heavily involved in the art world who are still confused by IAE and would rather it not be used. Those who champion art education find they frequently have to switch between IAE and regular English, depending on who they’re talking to, even inside the art world.  Artspeak can be pompous and far from welcoming, which can play a major role in inhibiting would-be art supporters and collectors.

So, is cultivating artspeak worth it? The demonstration of knowing and using such vernacular can play a practical role, signaling an art connoisseur to pay heed. Levine admits, "The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work, the more you can keep the value high."  But is this in the best interest for a market already viewed as being inaccessible to the general public?

Boston gallery owner Steven Zevitas writes, “When the public now thinks about the art world - if they think about the art world at all - the first thing that will likely come to mind is the unfathomable sums of money spent for a painting at the latest auction. I don't think there is any way to overstate the exclusion that this narrative creates. It moves art closer to commodity status in the collective consciousness, and in doing so, effectively tells the 99 percent that there is no point in thinking about the art world, or art itself for that matter.”

It seems there are already so many barriers to understanding and appreciating art outside of academia that surely developing an entire language devoted keeping outsiders out would be unnecessary.  But I have to admit, when I read IAE, I find it to be entertaining, thought provoking, and even whimsical. Instead of asking if IAE is worth it, maybe the portals through which it is used should be re-examined.  Instead of using IAE to communicate with the general public through a press release, maybe it should solely be used internally, between those who you know will already have a better chance of understanding, thereby increasing its efficacy.  Or maybe artspeak should be opened up and formally studied, bringing even more insight into the culture and world of art. After all, the world is replete with languages and the great Charlemagne, Father of Europe, believes, “to have a second language is to have a second soul."

- Serena Jetelina

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