Why artspeak? Seriously, why?

Art galleries want to get people to come in. Maybe they’ve got visitor targets linked to funding, maybe they are commercial and want buyers, but most of all, they want people to see the art they have on show because, well, that’s the point. It’s beautiful, interesting, challenging – all the good things. I work in the John Hansard Gallery and its wall text is clear and understandable – as it should be whether contemporary white box or not. We want visitors to come in and enjoy the experience. They may not like everything on show, but at least they hopefully feel (a) welcome and that (b) contemporary art might be for them. We certainly don’t want to put barriers in the way, and artspeak can be one of these; for those who want to delve, art books are available. So, when I went to an exhibition recently and was given blurb with various examples, including the following, my brow furrowed:

“Through the fictional construct of an elliptical narrative, [title removed] attempts to explore the necessity of forgetting and interiority in an accelerative contemporary digital milieu”.

Way to put off 99% of the population, especially as the pieces had no titles by them which meant deciphering the artists’ statements (some of which were missing) to try to determine which was which. It wasn’t straightforward, and I’m primed to read this sort of thing.

So, firstly, what does this statement mean? As far as I can tell, something along the lines of “[Title] uses an elliptical narrative* (one where sequences not necessary for understanding it have been removed, commonly used in film, also in literature) to look at our ever faster-moving digital world. In particular it explores how it’s impossible to remember everything we are presented with, and the importance of maintaining our own identity when faced with an overwhelming amount of information.”

[* An elliptical narrative in film might simply mean showing someone sat in a chair when the doorbell rings. You see them start to get up, then it cuts to them answering the door. You don’t see them cross the room because that’s a given. The missing bit is the ellipsis.]

Or, to put it another way, “The digital world (being permanently contactable via social media, mobiles etc etc) provides us with more data than we know what to do with, too fast for us to process it all, so we forget/ignore most of it, and have to hold on to our identities lest we become anonymous constructions of data. And therefore, the gaps (ellipses) in the structure of the piece echo the gaps in our use of data.”

Secondly, and more importantly, why the artspeak? Why the need to decipher it in the first place? True, the artspeak version is shorter, but if most people wouldn’t understand it, then it isn’t an effective form of communication. It felt as if either someone hadn’t bothered rewriting a formal degree-show statement for public consumption (disappointing if so, it doesn’t take long), or that there was an assumption the reader would simply know who was who – possibly both. Or maybe it’s assumed that the only people who’d want to visit are those already versed in artspeak, or willing to pretend they are. If so, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and inherently limiting. Maybe it’s a symptom of work being brought to ‘the provinces’ from the London bubble. Whatever the reason(s), I don’t think there’s anything conspiratorial here, that anyone’s keeping it exclusive on purpose to stop the Muggles getting in, but still, exclusivity and barriers were put in place through the use of language. This is not a good thing.

Before I go on, I want to say that I liked the work, especially the piece I’ve quoted here which is by an artist who (IMO) makes interesting art exploring valid and important aspects of society. This post isn’t a critique/review of the art or artists, hence anonymising it, but why choose an approach that will generate ‘meh’ in many people rather than writing in plain terms? The art itself isn’t indecipherable and it isn’t lessened by having more transparent blurb – I’d argue quite the opposite. Why make the opaque choice when galleries are trying to work out how to get more people through their doors rather than reinforcing the (usually inaccurate) stereotype of contemporary art ‘not being for the likes of us’? It’s not a huge effort to present work in a readily understood manner, and surely the aim is to increase accessibility and engagement. Why not have an A-board outside with a big arrow saying “Free exhibition. Awesome art. All welcome”? No-one wants good art to be spoiled by bad blurb, or simply end up unseen as potential visitors turn away.

So, my final point – hooray for the plethora of exhibitions and other cultural events of which this was just one of several the same day. This is part of a major positive shift recently – by all means challenge audiences and don’t under-estimate them, but let’s make sure it grabs people outside the usual-suspects-art-circle.

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