There’s a deadening logic to the anti-language of art criticismby Edward Skidelsky / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
The language of art criticism has long been a byword for preciosity and pretention. Part of the problem lies in the nature of the task: how can an experience of light and colour be translated into words? The very attempt seems bound to produce large volumes of gibberish, as well as the odd flight of poetry. But it does not help that most writers on modern art are steeped in continental philosophy, whose obscurity they mistake for depth. The result is a kind of linguistic knickerbocker glory, with words chosen more for assonance than meaning. “In voicing the void, Kapoor returns us to the discourse of the diagonal. How does the transitional nature of true making—spatially out of balance, temporally in between—relate to the myth of ‘originality’?” Thus Homi K Bhabha on Anish Kapoor, but similar examples could be drawn from many sources.
Postmodernism is an easy target, and an old one too. More worrying is the popularity with art and other critics of terms such as “important,” “seminal,” “major,” and “influential.” These originally purely descriptive words are now commonly used as expressions of praise. This is bizarre, because there is nothing ipso facto praiseworthy about influence or importance. The Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer was undoubtedly influential; Stalin was very important. Moreover, all these words have the odd power of bringing into being the very state of affairs they describe. If enough critics call Anish Kapoor major or seminal, he really is major or seminal. By contrast, if they all call him good, he might still be bad. Collective infallibility is assured, at the cost of a debasement of critical vocabulary.
The logic of terms like “important” and “influential,” which become valid in virtue of being widely perceived as valid, is familiar from the stock market. Indeed, recent years have seen a strange convergence of artistic and financial vocabularies. Funky Business, the latest management bible from Sweden, urges bankers to take a lesson from experimental art: “If you want to do something really interesting and revolutionary, learn to ignore your customers. They are extremely conservative, boring, lack imagination, and don’t know their own minds.” The analogy holds true in more senses than one: works of modern art, like financial derivatives, are fundamentally unintelligible products marketed in incomprehensible language. No wonder one’s crash was followed sharply by the other’s.