#institutions #work #language #InternationalArtEnglish
Writing in Triple Canopy last year, Alix Rule and David Levine coined the term “International Art English” (hereby referred to as IAE) to describe a linguistic mode that is part polyglot, part jargon—peppered with French, German, and Latin but based on the structure of English. The authors took this hybrid language to task for lending a veneer of substance to numerous examples of art world vapidity, which they culled from press releases circulated via the e-flux listserv. The resulting dialogue has identified a troubling but well-known tendency in the art world: making the pretense of saying something while actually saying nothing.
Numerous writers more prominent than I have addressed IAE in recent months, but none of their responses has hit the nail square on the head. What exactly is so dangerous, so insidious, and so telling about the over-abundance of inscrutable language in the press blasts that flood our inboxes daily? Why be concerned with this ephemeral space of language when more influential and elitist modes of expression yet exist within the arts? Before we can even address these questions, we ought to establish a few facts about e-flux. The subscription-based email service is open to nonprofit and state-run institutions but not to commercial galleries. Income from the subscription-based listserv underwrites e-flux journal, a publication edited by e-flux’s founders that promotes sharp and thoughtful debate around global and postcolonial perspectives in the arts. E-flux’s founders, and many of the journal’s contributors, are also prominent exhibiting artists on the international museum and biennial circuits.
Upon its publication, International Art English generated some buzz and some chuckles but little backlash. Months later, in February 2013, Triple Canopy editor Peter Russo and e-flux cofounder Anton Vidokle met on a College Art Association (CAA) panel about art magazines and the scheiβe promptly hit the fan. Vidokle asserted that the article’s focus on e-flux press releases was uncharitable, given that so many are generated by public and nonprofit art institutions outside the English-speaking world and produced by entry-level staff or volunteers. Russo defended the piece as being well researched and methodologically sound, arguing that press releases are as representative of institutional priorities as any other texts produced there.
At CAA, I was troubled by the suggestion that any museum, whether a large corporate venue in a major city or a small state-affiliated venue in a developing country, could be above institutional critique. While many of e-flux’s clients are small compared to the behemoths of MoMA or the Guggenheim, they are nonetheless official spaces of culture, supported largely by public funds. These institutions are situated globally, with the majority in Europe, where there are fewer alternative spaces and nonprofits that exist without state support than in the United States. This latter category, more common in the United States and increasingly in the developing world, is generally unable to afford e-flux’s services. As such, the listserv’s clients do represent a certain conflation of state, cultural, and market interests that warrants examination. While I thoroughly agree that neocolonial power structures are rampant within global contemporary art, I disagree with Vidokle’s assertion at CAA that Rule and Levine’s conclusions constitute a colonial imposition of language standards on an otherwise democratic mode of expression. This argument, which has since been reiterated in texts on IAE by Martha Rosler and Hito Steyerl in e-flux journal, leaps over real concerns raised by Rule and Levine regarding the public accessibility of e-flux’s client institutions and quickly assumes a perch of moral superiority from which the blame for art world elitism can be comfortably shifted elsewhere.
Rule and Levine’s article, which attempted to quantify and evaluate language in a scientific manner, took a tone that was both brusque and barbed. Though precise in its critique, the text was as plagued by an art world–insider attitude as any of the press releases cited. This is evident in the authors’ claim that “[i]f IAE were simply the set of expressions required to address a professional subject matter, we would hardly be justified in calling it a language. IAE would be at best a technical vocabulary, a sort of specialized English no different than the language a car mechanic uses when he discusses harmonic balancers or popper valves. But by referring to an obscure car part, a mechanic probably isn’t interpellating you as a member of a common world—as a fellow citizen, or as the case may be, a fellow traveler. He isn’t identifying you as someone who does or does not get it.”
Any techie knows that there is camaraderie in shared professional jargon. Selective association through area-specific language is not restricted to the art world. Mariam Ghani’s follow-up in Triple Canopy cites examples from legal doctrine and political speech, the latter of which I would argue IAE is a subset. Like these other modes of language, and unlike most art writing, the press release functions as a public document rather than an academic one. The presence of exclusive language in such a text, without elaboration for a broad audience, demonstrates that these institutions are disinterested in communicating with their publics. Press releases are the most democratic of the many forms of writing produced by museums because they are produced by entry-level staff and because they are so widely distributed. IAE renders what could be a moment of discovery impotent, doomed to languish unread in the e-mail inboxes of influential curators while local supporters scratch their heads in awed confusion. Regrettably, this state of affairs mirrors the current hierarchy of the museum as workplace, within which a small group of world-traveling celebrities connected to market centers such as New York and London are often tapped for paid employment to the exclusion of regionally trained art workers, while local citizens are entreated to volunteer as fund-raisers and hype-creators within the community but given little access or input with respect to institutional programming priorities.
It’s notable that Rule and Levine’s critics have argued that the authors aim to police proper English usage. This is then interpreted as oppression, creating disadvantage for those who are not native English speakers. The benefit to such a reading is that it taps a righteous anger at a globally expanding art economy accompanied by the dismantling of steady employment, replaced by a reality of endless internships and contract gigs that has coincided with increasing professionalization and ever-higher social barriers to entry for those born outside the global elite. Yet to understand the analysis this way is to ignore the writers’ true concern. The British National Corpus, against which Rule and Levine compared IAE, is not meant to represent a linguistic ideal but rather a baseline or control group for the study. While, as Hito Steyerl notes, certain right-wing groups have elevated its significance, the BNC was not constructed as a prescriptive guide to language but as a compilation of language as it is actually written and spoken. IAE’s deviation is potentially exciting, as it indicates that a new way of using language has developed. What is concerning is the loss of meaning that has accompanied its proliferation. The article’s true power is that it has disrupted the art intelligentsia’s passivity in the face of a widespread rejection of socially relevant meaning or content that might impede the absolute commodification of contemporary art.
Rule and Levine’s critique of IAE rests not on its use of borrowed words from other languages but rather on the fact that whatever language is used, it serves to confound rather than promote understanding. Fearful of being dismissed as not serious by contemporary art elites versed in the Eurocentric values of the Enlightenment, emerging artists resist cultural specificity and deliberately mask their intentions behind erudition. This slipperiness of language also leaves open the possibility of abuse. In “When Artspeak Masks Oppression,” Mostafa Heddaya notes: “The unsurprising reality is that a specialized language fraught with euphemism and obfuscation is better known as propaganda.”
Heddaya cites Ai Weiwei as an artist who has been the target of oppressive state directives couched in totalitarian doublespeak, quoting Orwell’s “dangers presented by a degraded language.” However, Ai himself has made degraded language a calling card, whether singing about a “grass-mud-horse” on YouTube (a thinly veiled curse, popular for taunting government censors on the Internet) or exhorting his supporters to eat “He Xie” (“river crabs,” a homonym for the Communist Party slogan “harmonious”). Ai’s punning and the seeming superficiality of actions like posting a cover version of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” on YouTube are time-honored jester tactics, subversive because they mask cutting truths behind easy laughs. Ai’s reversal of the flow of doublespeak demonstrates that “degraded language” can be used both to impose and to reject oppression. His example should inspire us to flip the IAE script and use official language to critique itself.
In a sense the IAE question recalls a similar debate over abstract art at mid-century, hinging on whether abstraction could truly be free of political values. Is the slipperiness of abstract language anathema to politically motivated art workers? Can it represent a space of freedom from ideology or pedantry, as abstraction briefly did? Is it doomed by its very ambiguity to become a front for other agendas, as was the case in the 1950s when the State Department promoted Abstract Expressionism worldwide as a Cold War charm offensive? Mariam Ghani proposes that IAE evolved “as a circumlocution of the troubling terms that surfaced” in the radical identity-based art of the early 1990s, a moment of expressionistic inclusivity in contemporary art that institutions have struggled to dampen ever since. Even so, she argues that in censorious contexts IAE has provided vital cover for artists who wish to engage their audiences politically.
Martha Rosler’s response for e-flux journal suggests that Rule and Levine’s article is a mean-spirited joke at the expense of a struggling underclass of interns and contingent workers. I don’t think it’s a joke, though I appreciated the light tone of International Art English, as language analysis is a fairly dry subject. Also in e-flux, Hito Steyerl asserts that the location of IAE’s perniciousness within press release language rather than academic writing is misplaced: “Typically written by overworked and underpaid assistants and interns across the world, the press release’s pompous prose contrasts most acutely with the lowly status of its authors.” To this underprivileged group, I would add most artists and curators, both of whom increasingly employ IAE. What is most troubling about the ubiquity of IAE is how it reflects the narrow parameters within which art workers view their intended audience. That specialized language runs rampant in an entry-level communication format speaks to the necessity of affective labor in today’s art world, by which I mean one must not only do the labor but also perform the act of doing in order to be rewarded. The press release (or the artist or the curatorial statement from which the language is culled) becomes a perpetual plea for status, through which the disenfranchised art worker broadcasts his or her acceptability to a perceived audience of influential insiders. This tendency underscores the scarcity of employment and concentration of resources within the art professions. Rule and Levine asked, “Without its special language, would art need to submit to the scrutiny of broader audiences and local ones? Would it hold up?” The answer to this question depends entirely on whether broad and local audiences have any input with respect to the concerns of publicly funded cultural institutions.
For this reason, I’m inclined to agree with Steyerl’s claim that “IAE is an accurate expression of social and class tensions around language and circulation within today’s art worlds and markets: a site of conflict, struggle, contestation, and often invisible and gendered labor.” IAE’s popularity is due both to its usefulness as a status bearer and its ability to invoke social relevance without admitting institutional responsibility for social concerns. This latter aspect prompts me to disagree with Ben Davis’s assertion that IAE is only relevant to “institutions with quite specific reasons for maintaining a veneer of academic seriousness in a way that, say, an art fair does not.” IAE is a sign of academic institutions’ synchronicity with market interests, functioning to validate commercially successful art as culturally significant, because a market artist must be run through the institutional machine in order to justify the price and establish pride of place in both private and public collections. Official language is essential to that conferral of value, as is a lexicon that obscures the work’s fundamental emptiness and lack of social or historical self-awareness. In the global economy, nations, industrialists, and art workers each have a vested interest represented by IAE’s conflation of Marxist terminology with neoliberal corporate values.
Steyerl and Heddaya indicate that political Newspeak has leached into the space of contemporary culture, now exposed by Rule and Levine’s essay. IAE is the language of the new global baroque, of state power and capitalist excess. Contemporary art is promoted by emerging nations as an indicator of their readiness to receive Western investment and of their conformity to Western intellectual biases. Press releases are more than “the art world’s equivalent of digital spam, vehicles for serial name-dropping and para-deconstructive waxing, in close competition with penis enlargement advertisements,”(1) they are representative of an entrenched transnational hegemony that maintains a colonial balance of power even as it wears a brown face. “And while they may well constitute the bulk of art writing, they are also its most destitute strata, both in form and in content.”(2) They are also its most visible layer, never placed behind a paywall, and likely to end up cited verbatim by “journalistic” outlets that cater to a local readership. Press releases are the texts that reach the ticket buyers whose dollars drive art tourism, and they are written in a language, however problematic, that transcends nationality.
So what, then, would be a way forward that preserves the transnational character and the critical origins of International Art English, while excising its neoliberal agenda? Steyerl proposes “International Disco Latin,” which is playful but presents two problems. One, it preserves the fundamental Eurocentrism that still plagues universalist global discourse. Two, it rejects the common structure of English as a colonial relic but proposes no better structure to ensure mutual understanding. We don’t need another art language that speaks only to the initiated. Fortunately, we also don’t need to create a whole new paradigm of language to suit this need, for models of hybrid and subversive transnational speech already exist, for example in the patois of the colonial subject or in the punning cockney of the culture jammer, hacker, or rapper. In this spirit, I propose a move to “International Alt Hinglish,” a multilingual language of rhyme and malapropism that is at once global and deeply specific. Neither pure nor corrupt, this is language as postnational masala. Its basis in English is cannibalistic and parasitic, its structure fundamentally political. It’s the camouflaged language of the enslaved—a war cry masquerading as a song. It’s our revolution and we’ll dance to it, but we might get some blood on the dance floor.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.
1. & 2.) Hito Steyerl, “International Disco Latin.” e-flux journal #43 (March 2013)