From recent reading of newspapers, magazines and general conversations (both personally engaged and surreptitiously overheard) there seems to be, once again, various crises in that strange world that calls itself the art world. The arguments and the issues are the same as they’ve ever been over the years – the first is the perennial nugget that a greater number of the general public seem to be incapable of falling in line with the art establishment’s critical pronouncements on what constitutes ‘good’ art. The second is that, once again, the contemporary art market is supposedly heading for another financial crash. The two wouldn’t seem to be immediately connected but there are certain links where each has a degree of involvement with the other.
Firstly my main assessment of the problem regarding the public distrust of the critical acumen of today’s visual arts commentariat is that it is a problem of language and definitions.
To simplify and lower the arguments to its base level you have a majority of public opinion that has continued referring to much of the twentieth century’s and current art production (that which is critically celebrated) as being:
- Capable of being made by my four year old niece
- Nothing more than the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’
To which the usual arguments wheeled out by supporters of these assumed excesses of contemporary visual art are:
- You don’t understand it so you are not qualified to comment on it
- Art’s essential purpose is to ‘challenge’ the viewer
Before any of these (admittedly simplistic – but essentially accurate) arguments can be addressed there is a far simpler (or perhaps more complicated depending on your position) issue to be dealt with; that is of the language used in establishing what we are at least talking about – let alone the language of the debate itself.
For example… the word ‘contemporary’ with regards to art production… Initially you wouldn’t think this should be problematic. The word ‘contemporary’ sits in the English dictionary quite merrily. It’s been there now for a few years and there is a generally agreed consensus on its everyday use. However within the argot of the “contemporary art” critic (which is not necessarily the same thing as a “contemporary art critic”) “contemporary art” does not encompass the work of all art production currently being made by artists despite their being contemporaries. This use of the word “contemporary” refers to its definition as being at the forefront of recent or current artistic fashion. Thus Tracey Emin and Hughie O’Donoghue, though coming from different artistic perspectives would be happily considered by most critics as fulfilling their criteria of “contemporary artists”. However many of these same critics would not consider someone like Shepard Fairey or BANKSY “contemporary artists” as their work would be considered insufficiently intellectually engaging despite them both being contemporaries of the other two artists mentioned. The ‘contemporary art’ critic uses a professionally specific definition of a word that has a common everyday currency. The same problem lies with the term “modern art”. For those educated in art history and critical theory “modern art” is an historical term (of amorphous definition but obviously always preceding post-modernism) and does not refer to art of our, contemporary, modern day. For the general public not schooled in this tortuous world of art-world English ‘modern’ art generally means the same as ‘contemporary’ art… Perhaps for the sake of the clarity of all the experts in the field could relinquish their grip on the word “Modern” and replace it with “Modernist” or “Modernism”; I’m sure that would indicate to the public (not educated in ‘art-speak’) in much the same ways that the words “Cubist” or “Impressionist” do that the speaker is referring to specific usages of the words regarding a specific field of intellectual specialism. It should not be the responsibility of the listener to decode the meaning of the lecturer. Isn’t elucidation the raison d’être of exposition? If the lexicon of contemporary art criticism could limit its use of the everyday language being associated with everyday definitions, and art-specific definitions residing with language constructed specifically for such specific terms, then that might go a long way to at least smoothing the way for a debate that’s not weighted against the non-specialist from the start.
Cutting-edge science is presented for a popular audience through the media of television and print with its main thrust seeming to be to engage the audience with complex concepts reduced to a simple form.
Cutting-edge art however, is frequently presented as excessively complex ideas whose intellectual authority need to be taken as a given, by an audience incapable of comprehending because they have not studied the subject’s theory sufficiently. If a public audience has been witness to the critical declaration of ‘found’ object or ‘readymade’ as art for over a century now, and they still refuse to accept the validity of that argument then the critical and theoretical presenters need to up their game. They could start by talking in clear language as opposed to this recent gem of ‘critical discourse’:
“…As a consequence of the reductive parameters of these conservatisms, such as rigid canons, fixation on objects and absolute field demarcations, activist practices are not even included in the narratives and archives of political history and art theory, as long as they are not purged of their radical aspects, appropriated and co-opted into the machines of the spectacle.”
If your job is to provide comprehensible commentary in a specialised forum to specialists with a specialised language – and those specialists understand you – then you’re doing your job; if the non-specialist doesn’t understand you it’s not your fault.
If your job is to provide comprehensible commentary in a public forum – and the public think you’re talking bollocks – then you’re not doing your job; and it’s your fault.
To be continued dot dot dot