Artspeak and Audience by Cara Ober was commissioned by BmoreArt as part of Field Perspectives 2019, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field. Field Perspectives 2019 invites thinking that reflects on the future of the artist organizing field. The program, a collaboration between Common Field and nine arts publications, is published in two parts. Part 2 includes texts by Art Papers, The Artblog, BmoreArt, Momus, Terremoto, The Third Rail, and Title Magazine. Part 1 included texts by Chicago Artist Writers, The Rib, and Sixty Inches from Center. Generous support for Field Perspectives is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
“I don’t think contemporary art should be for everyone,” John Waters said during a recent interview at Indecent Exposure, his retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “What if contemporary art is just for a select few? What’s wrong with that?”
He might’ve been yanking my chain. After all, he’s the writer/director behind Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, internationally beloved movies so vulgar I can’t watch them in the same room with my parents. Still, I wanted to know why his retrospective didn’t include films, his finest works in my opinion, especially alongside Indecent’s film still photomontages and ironic sculptures, a cinephile’s cabinet of curiosities which did not resonate far beyond the museum walls.
He adult-splained to me that movies belong in movie theaters, whereas the work in the museum—including “Kiddie Flamingos,” a hilarious video featuring children in colorful wigs reading a slightly sanitized Pink Flamingos script—was Art with a capital A, intended for collectors to buy. He added that when he moved from films to art it was essential for him to separate his movie career from his art in order for the art world, meaning collectors and curators, to take him seriously. No matter how successful, Waters said his films did not belong in the art world. Similarly, the mass audiences for his films were also not invited to follow Waters on this journey. This conscious division between discipline and audience, between high and low culture, was ingrained in him by Colin de Land, his first New York art dealer.
I cited recent examples of films I had seen in museums, such as Arthur Jafa’s “Love is the Message, The Message is Death” at SFMOMA and Youssef Nabil’s “I Saved My Belly Dancer” at the Perez, where the gallery was dark and cinematic with comfy seating like a theater, but he wasn’t having it. I’m not sure if he thought I was being dumb or he just wanted to avoid the conversation, but I was earnest in my line of questioning.
Why is there a semantic divide between “art” and things that look and smell and act like art that are deemed not art? Who gets to decide? Whom does this divide serve? And how can art writers use their skills and influence to challenge antiquated barriers between art and audience? In an age with growing numbers of artists, why are cultural institutions decrying declining attendance and full-time art critic jobs disappearing?
The author with John Waters at the BMA, photo by Jill Fannon
As a pragmatist and the editor of an independent publication that collaborates with artist groups and cultural institutions, I see so much room for improvement in the language and accessibility employed to attract new audiences. I assumed that a filmmaker like Waters who based his career on brilliant, belligerent, lowbrow narratives would be able to expand my notion of audience, approachability, and the strategies used to attract interest, but he didn’t. Instead he presented a view of the contemporary art world that seems outdated and arbitrary to me, where divisions between genre and class are strictly enforced and punishable by excommunication.
And it’s stuck with me, this uneasy conversation, because it goes against everything I aim to do as an arts writer. Is he correct or am I? If he is right, and this strict division between “art” and “everything else” still exists, does this mean I’m doing my job incorrectly?
I have never been an art writer for other art writers. I don’t write about art specifically for those with an advanced degree in art history. I don’t use “Artspeak.” I grew up solidly middle-class in suburban Maryland to parents who were educators. I was a prolific reader of novels, not philosophy or critical theory. Before I founded BmoreArt, an art and culture magazine based in Baltimore, I taught art in public schools. This environment was frustrating for me, but also forced me to consider the implications and relevance of art for a wide and diverse audience, a group who can benefit immensely from engagement with contemporary art and artists, specifically the art of their place and time. Teaching art in public schools forced me to mature creatively and professionally in ways a museum never could have and to consider innovative strategies for engagement. Although I desperately longed move to New York to be part of an elitist, highbrow, and glamorous art world, or at least a full-time grad student in an MFA program, for most of my 20s I surrounded myself with people who didn’t think contemporary art was interesting, meaningful, or applicable to their lives and it was my job to sell them a new narrative.
These are people who would rather get a colonoscopy than go to a museum. These are intelligent, liberal-arts-educated individuals who work hard, pay their bills, and don’t want to spend their free time being told, via incomprehensible academic language, that they are too dumb for modern and contemporary art. They don’t want to spend their weekends at museums, getting scolded by security guards for standing too close to the art while trying to decipher inaccessible wall text. These are people who have been turned off by contemporary art, not just once but consistently over a lifetime, but could benefit from a relationship with it. Truly, contemporary art and artists have the potential to foster a sense of wonder, to expand one’s understanding of self and the world, and to present effective alternatives to the way we live our lives, but without the proper invitation, a huge segment of the population is missing out.
These individuals—family, friends, and former students—have remained the primary audience I write for, perhaps because I’m a glutton for punishment but mainly because I see the potential value of contemporary art in their lives as well as the benefits to artists and institutions in broadening their audience and discourse. This is how I envision my job as an art writer: part translator, part evangelist, and part used-car saleswoman.
I do not blame the audience for a lack of interest or participation in the art world. I don’t blame the Internet for short attention spans, although it is littered with click-bait and garbage writing, or Instagram for presenting a faux-cool curated distraction from rigorous discourse. And I don’t think I’m doing any favors to the artists I cover if my writing is designed solely for other artists or art world insiders. I publish an art magazine in Baltimore, a small city with abounding creative output and stark structural issues, and our content has to resonate with a broad and growing readership or there’s no point in doing this work.
It’s an uphill battle and I blame the elitist class divisions that have always been a part of the art world for turning away a majority of the population, communicating very clearly that this world is not for them. Specifically as an art writer, I charge the overly obtuse and grandiose language that surrounds contemporary art like a moat full of self-important museum curators wearing matching Cartier watches. I blame “Artspeak,” also known as International Art English or IAE, which reflects the insular snobbery of the top tier of the art world and reinforces class barriers to the detriment of contemporary art and most living artists who would benefit from a growing network of fans and patrons.
In the defining article, “International Art English,” published by Triple Canopy, authors David Levine and Alix Rule attempted to study and map out its history, usage, and syntax and found its “purest articulation” in the digital press release. “This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English,” they wrote. “It is largely an export of the Anglophone world and can thank the global dominance of English for its current reach. But what really matters for this language—what ultimately makes it a language—is the pointed distance from English that it has always cultivated.”
The writers acknowledged later to The Guardian that, “Art English is something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time, but we all use it.” Rule took it a step further, admitting that, “This language has enforced a hermeticism of contemporary art… that is not particularly healthy. IAE has made art harder for non-professionals.” They said that the MFA graduates and art professionals fluent in Artspeak feel oppressed by it and there is widespread use of it among the galleries, academic institutions, and museums in order to be taken seriously by other art world insiders. Levine claimed a direct correlation between a flood of new money into the art market and the widespread usage of IAE, employed to make art seem less commercial and more subversive and intellectual. “The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work, the more you can keep the value high,” said Levine.
The best art is never merely decorative; it achieves market value through cultural capital. Regardless of market, art functions politically and socially to change our ideas about identity, race, sex, history, human behavior, and other issues significant to living a meaningful and engaged life. Some contemporary art is heavily theoretical and influenced by academic text, and relevant only to a small, highly educated and elite audience, but most is not.
I believe it is disingenuous to use such language to discuss most current art-making, especially in educational contexts, and backwards for an art publication to intentionally narrow its audience to a select few, assuming that 99 percent of the population is too dumb or undereducated to understand it or deeming them an undesirable audience because they cannot afford to buy blue chip art. This seems unhelpful to artists as well, who would benefit from an expanding audience that includes people of diverse backgrounds and not just the one percent of the one percent, a group that continues to shrink in size but grow in the concentration of money and power.
The widespread use of International Art English is all about consolidating power, conferring insider status, and raising sales records, so it’s no surprise that this language is also responsible for keeping “undesirable” audiences at bay. The top museum curators, collectors, and gallery directors of the art world take this language seriously and those on lower rungs must become fluent in the lingo to achieve promotion. In a post-modern art world, verbose rhetoric translates to seriousness and intelligence, and those of us who write about art in conversational, accessible language are viewed with suspicion, even though I would argue that it’s intellectually lazy to rely on absurd insider jargon to convey complex meaning.
The overly academic, classist, and pretentious language of many arts publications is designed to attract academic, rich, and pretentious readers and to reinforce the illusion of superiority in a market based upon scarcity and perception of value. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the elite individuals that IAE caters to serve on the decision-making boards for museums, collect blue-chip art, and have an interest in keeping power in a few hands rather than sharing it. Despite the hand-wringing that museums and art colleges engage in about declining attendance, it’s possible that the wealthy individuals on their boards have little interest in making contemporary art accessible and available to people like me, my parents, or my students—and institutions rely on consolidated financial support from just a few wealthy persons for survival, rather than a flood of small donations from the many.
However, the central issue for me as an art writer, editor, and artist myself, is realizing that people without college degrees can benefit from a relationship with contemporary art. Engaging with the art (and artists) of your time and place is exciting, challenging, spiritual, political, egalitarian, and fascinatingly weird. Art has the power to confront and delight us to our very core with ingenious materials and concepts, and this enriches our lives, individually and collectively. Art writing doesn’t need to function like cultural broccoli; it should challenge the reader to grow and learn, whereas IAE’s purpose is to make its readers self-satisfied members of an elite and vapid club.
Contemporary artists also benefit from skilled and empathetic arts writers, who can translate idiosyncratic and abstract ideas succinctly to an expanding audience. As humans whose great passion is spending time alone in a non-verbal state making things with no practical purpose in their studios, many artists are not comfortable talking about their work to non-artists because their art is its own visual language requiring a complex and nuanced translation. Art writers can play an essential role in connecting audience directly to the makers of art and their output through a vocabulary that translates and captures the essence of the art clearly, even if acknowledging questions that have no answers or offering critical feedback.
Developing a vocabulary in literary, conversational, or creative diction is an opportunity for empathy and connection within cultural communities and spaces. Skilled art writing offers opportunities to rigorously examine who we are as individuals, communities, and collectively, to serve as a fertile ground for understanding, relationships, and growth. You don’t have to have an art history degree to look critically and write about art colorfully, personally, emotionally, or controversially, but you do need to envision the variety of reader you would like to build relationships with.
There are a thousand business decisions I have to make every day as the editor and publisher of an independent and regional art magazine, but none of it matters if the writing we publish doesn’t reach a broad and diverse audience, or if our audience isn’t engaged and growing. Perhaps my publication would benefit financially from employing Artspeak to attract the art world’s wealthy clientele. Maybe our financial model could be more sustainable if we catered to advertisers in real estate or luxury brands or plastic surgery instead of the museums, colleges, and arts organizations that support artists. There’s no way to know, but we can look to our cultural forebears for wisdom.
John Waters at the Baltimore Museum of Art Press Preview, photo by Jill Fannon
As the creator of truly groundbreaking films that featured actors in drag in the 1970s eating real dog shit, vying for the title of filthiest person alive, John Waters is the master of crushing elitist barriers through transformative films, all canon-worthy works of contemporary art, rendered in colorful language and delivered in a stringy Baltimore accent. “I can’t be an anarchist at 72,” he told me toward the end of our interview. “I already did it. It’s boring now.” Perhaps after fifty years of making art deemed pornographic and tasteless, he deserves to settle comfortably into the posh art world of New York galleries and wealthy collectors. Perhaps he now prefers Artspeak to dirty jokes? Or maybe he was just messing with me for fun and didn’t deign to engage in this conversation.
Whether we choose to approach it explicitly as I have here, in acknowledging a lack of accessibility through the obtuse language that mirrors the snobbery of the art world, or to write in simple and compelling vernacular, arts writers need to realize that their creative decisions have an economic impact, and this can align with our core values. We can choose to participate in the watery charade of IAE or insist on using egalitarian language, proving that a concise and literary vocabulary does not equate to a lack of intelligence or education.
I plan to continue writing about the art of my time and place, placing equal importance upon museum-quality art and the local craft economy, upon global and local artists, and publishing the work of writers whose backgrounds and language are as diverse as possible. My small publication will continue to cover art that is highbrow, lowbrow, and shockingly, randomly in-between. This is a deliberate choice—not because our writers and editors can’t tell the good from the bad, but out of our desire to broaden and deepen an audience for contemporary art and to question what art is and does.
Art history is currently being made all over the world and I want to write about the art and artists of my time as they actually are—complex, passionate, frustrating, and inspiring—through the use of accessible, conversational, and inspired language that democratizes and unites, questions and argues, but does not obscure meaning in order to posture as the one percent of the one percent of a self-imposed and hermetic arts intelligentsia.
Common Field is a national network of independent visual arts organizations and organizers that connects, supports, and advocates for the artist-centered field. Founded in 2013 and launched in 2015, the Common Field network has 700+ members across 43 states. Programs include national convenings, grants, research, resources, forums, meet-ups and advocacy. Our vision is to increase understanding, involvement and knowledge of artists organizations and their value, and increase their capacity through national connectivity, dialog understanding and support.
Common Field’s network includes contemporary, experimental, noncommercial artist-centric organizations and organizers including alternative art spaces, publications, digital exhibition venues, residencies, platforms, collectives, collaboratives, and individual organizers. These projects and spaces provide interdisciplinary and hybrid forms for art production, reception, and exchange. They generate independent, responsive, grassroots, artist-centered cultures. They support artists, connect artists with the public in intimate, experimental, and generative ways, and they are deeply involved in the shape and characters of the contexts where they work. Our members stimulate ideas, imagination, and innovation in their communities.