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 to me in a recent interview at his retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “What if contemporary art is just for a select few? What’s wrong with that?”
I suspect he was yanking my chain to see if I’d bite. After all, he is the filmmaker who brought us Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, internationally beloved films so crass and dirty I cannot watch them in the same room with my parents. I bit, asking why his retrospective didn’t include film, which I see as his best works of art, especially in comparison with the film-inspired photomontages and ironic sculptures in the exhibition, which were smart and funny but, for me at least, not earth-shattering.
He adult-splained to me that movies belong in movie theaters to watch with popcorn, whereas the work in the museum (including “Kiddie Flamingos,” a hilarious video featuring children in colorful wigs reading a slightly sanitized script of Pink Flamingos) was Art with a capital A for collectors to buy. He said that when he stopped making films and started making art it was essential for him to separate his movie career from his art in order for the art world (i.e. collectors) to take him seriously. He decided that his films, no matter how successful, did not belong in the art world, with a logical conclusion that the mass audiences for his films were also not included. He said this divide was ingrained in him by his first New York art dealer, Colin de Land, and was sage and highly effective advice.
I pressed a bit further, mentioning recent examples of longer narrative films I had seen in museums, like 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 Waters wasn’t having it. I’m not sure if he thought I was being dumb or he 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 where art museums and institutions decry declining attendance and full-time art critics’ jobs are disappearing, the idea of accessibility in contemporary art communities and museum culture is a regular axe I grind. I see myself as a pragmatist and, as an artist-writer running an independent publication, working with but outside institutions, I see so much room for improvement in these institutional spaces.
I had assumed that a filmmaker who based his career on brilliant, belligerent, lowbrow narratives would agree with me and even expand my notion of audience, accessibility, and the strategies we use to attract them, 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?
The author with John Waters at the BMA, photo by Jill Fannon
I have never been an art writer’s art writer. I’m just not. 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, I taught art in public schools, an environment that was a healthy but immensely frustrating place for me to mature creatively and professionally. A part of me desperately longed to run away 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, but for most of my 20s I surrounded myself with people who didn’t think contemporary art was interesting, meaningful, or relevant to their lives.
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 can 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 life-changing 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, one part translator and one part evangelist/used-car saleswoman.
I do not blame this audience for a lack of interest or education or participation in the art world. For the art magazine I publish in Baltimore, a small city with abounding creative output and stark structural issues, our content has to resonate with a broad readership or there’s no point in doing this work. 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 for the contemporary artists in my city if my writing is designed only for other artists.
I blame the elitist class divisions that have always been a part of the art world. Specifically as an art writer, I blame the overly obtuse and grandiose language that surrounds contemporary art like a moat full of terrifying critical theorists. 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.
This is how I envision my job as an art writer, one part translator and one part evangelist/used-car saleswoman.
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, used 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.
At this point in art history, the best contemporary art is never merely decorative; it functions politically and socially and changes our ideas about identity, race, sex, history, human behavior, and a whole host of other relevant issues. 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.
To me, it’s disingenuous to use such language to discuss most current art-making, especially in educational contexts, and it feels backwards for an art publication to intentionally narrow its audience to a select few, assuming that 99 percent of the population is too dumb to understand or that they are 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 1 percent of the 1 percent, a group that continues to shrink in size but grow in the concentration of money and power.
My takeaway, based partly on Levine and Rule’s article and partly upon my own experiences as an artist and writer, is that the widespread use of International Art English is all about consolidating power, conferring insider status, and sales. The leaders of the art world take the language seriously and those on lower rungs must become fluent in the lingo to achieve promotion. In a postmodern 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.
According to Levine and Rule, 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. 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 individuals for survival, rather than a flood of small donations from the many.
Middle-class and poor people deserve art writing that conveys the historical significance and personal relevance of contemporary art, and in a way that makes them feel included and intrigued, seen and heard.
People without college degrees can benefit from a relationship with contemporary art that is challenging, spiritual, political, egalitarian, and fascinatingly weird. Art has the power to confront and delight us to our very core with ingenious materials, constructions, and concepts, and all 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.
I also think that contemporary artists benefit from the work of arts writers in translating their own idiosyncratic ideas succinctly to a broad audience. Artists are humans whose great passion is spending a majority of their time alone in a non-verbal state making aesthetic objects in their studios. Many 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 work through a vocabulary that translates and captures the essence of the art clearly, even if acknowledging questions that have no answers.
This vocabulary and surrounding space for conversations is an opportunity for empathy and connection, where issues can be rigorously tilled and turned over and upended and then serve as fertile ground for understanding, relationships, and growth. It’s not shocking that the New Yorker has lately hired novelists and poets to write some of their highest profile art reviews. You don’t have to have a degree in art history to look carefully, translate your observations, and produce writing that is colorful, personal, emotional, and often controversial. I find that solid writing from those operating outside the Artspeak zone is often the most effective at attracting new readers and new appreciators of contemporary art.
As the editor and publisher of BmoreArt, I deal with practical economic realities every day; fundraising and payroll and hosting events and establishing relationships with community partners take up a lot of my time. There are a million economic and political decisions I have to make every day, but none of it matters if the writing we publish does not reach a broad and diverse audience, or if our audience isn’t engaged and growing. It’s a futile pursuit if our publication does not simultaneously challenge readers and embrace them in our language and storytelling. Our goal is participation and engagement with arts and culture, especially art being made right now and right where we live.
John Waters at the BMA, photo by Jill Fannon
BmoreArt is an independent, artist-run publication and vulnerable to the brutal capitalist economy that squeezes the marrow out of commercial publications and then throws them away like garbage, experienced and inspired arts writers included. Perhaps my publication would benefit financially from employing IAE to attract the support of wealthy art collectors who live to purchase at Basel? 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, which brings me back to John Waters.
As the creator of truly groundbreaking films that featured actors in drag in the 1970s eating real dogshit to earn the title of “filthiest person alive,” Waters is the master of crushing elitist barriers through original and transformative films, all canon-worthy works of contemporary art and rendered in language that is perfectly crass and colorful, delivered in a stringy Baltimore accent.
Toward the end of our interview Waters stated, “I can’t be an anarchist at 72… I already did it. It’s boring now.” Perhaps after fifty years of producing 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 International Art English to dirty jokes? Or maybe he was just messing with me for fun.
The creative decisions of arts writers have an economic impact, and this aligns directly to 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, and our publication will continue to place equal importance upon museum-quality art and the local craft economy, upon global and local artists, with writers whose backgrounds and language are as diverse as possible.
BmoreArt will continue to include 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 contemporary art is and does. We want to present the art and artists of our time as they actually are—complex, relatable, passionate, odd, and compelling—through the use of accessible, conversational, and inspired language that democratizes and unites, questions and argues, and does not obscure meaning in order to posture ourselves 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.