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Say what?

Most advice that I read or am given about writing is to keep it simple, concise and leave out the Thesaurus inspired vocabulary. Many email software management providers like MailChimp, or writing support like Grammarly, encourage a more conversational tone, casual, short words, add some humour if that’s your style, but very much a less is more approach. You want to invite people in, not leave them out or alienate them with frou-frou language where they feel dumb for not understanding or so bored that it sounds like it's being read out loud by Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Writing about my art may very well be the hardest part of the whole artistic process. I certainly don’t want to be lazy about describing what I do, my inspiration or the end result by saying “I don’t know. I just felt like trying shades of blue.”

I’d like to put a little more thought into it, drill down on the “What” and “How” (not the “Why” as our noggins freeze up and we get defensive when asked why) of how was I feeling, what inspired me, what was it about these shades of blue that appealed to me. For my benefit as well as the audience’s. But then there's this...

Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist's practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the 'original' source or referent that underlines Levine's oeuvre." (Excerpt from a Sherry Levine exhibit in London UK)


What the heck does that even mean?! 


The term “Artspeak” was coined in the 1970s and is a derogatory term that means “Obscure, esoteric, or pretentious language used to discuss art.” Even the definition itself requires a dictionary!

Why is it still used so frequently? Is it snobbery? Is it a result of formalized art education and art history studies? Is it used to sound knowledgeable, to impress? Is it a way for Galleries, art auction houses,  art collectors and brokers to keep the art world an exclusive and, often, very expensive club?

 "Dinnertime Series 1-03" by Claire Donnison, 2022

I have spoken to other artists about this who share my head-scratching befuddlement at how to name a piece, describe it, write an artist statement or just generally describe an often hard to explain endeavor. We joke about making note of rarely used words and weaving an incomprehensible tale from them to describe our art. But we won’t do that. We want our art to be inclusive, to be experienced in your heart or your gut, and for the audience to know that it is more than okay to say:

“I love this because it reminds me of my Gran’s living room. We’d sit and watch “General Hospital” on the couch together.”

“This made me smile because the shapes are a little wonky and that’s how I feel every day.”

That’s the kind of art speak that I want to hear and read, that's the kind of anti Artspeak that I want to write. And will.

What sorts of descriptions of art do you like to read? How do you talk about or describe art that you enjoy? Let me know!

1 comment

  • Yesss! Comprehensible, driven by emotional connection, not overly or overtly analytical. Most of all, I appreciate a personal angle — because after that, what is there really? A few textbooks or an article that will gather dust whereas the art will be carried on in the living mind.

    Sherri Phillips

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