Postmodern International Art English Gibberish / by Chris Hall

Noam Chomsky on Postmodernist language:   What I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate . . .lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.  

Christopher Hitchens on Postmodern language:  The Postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.  

Perhaps you don’t know what language I am referring to.  David Thompson, in his article Art Bollocks is Everywhere gives a great example in Carolyn Guertin’s essay, “Wanderlust:  The Kinesthetic Browser in Cyberfeminist Space.”

The shuffling and unfolding of the information of her body in sensory space is enacted across a gap or trajectory of subjecthood that is multiple and present.  Subjectivity is the lens and connector through which the spacio-temporal dislocation gets focused and bridged.  The gap is outside vision – felt not seen – and always existing on the threshold in between nodes.  Like the monster’s subjectivities, all knots in the matrix are linked.

In 1996 Physicist Alan Sokal submitted an essay entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries:  Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, an academic journal for Postmodern Cultural Studies, sponsored by Duke University.  The article was accepted.  Shortly afterwards Alan Sokal exposed the work as a hoax, an essay of buzzword filled gibberish.  “Nowhere in [the essay] is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.”

Why did he did he do it?  It wasn’t because he was right leaning critic of the left (Social Text states that its mission is to cover questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment).   No, Sokal believes that the left intellectual elite have gone off track:  

Why did I do it?  I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.  And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover them . . . Theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming.  Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

Chomsky also suggests that these writers are, as Nemo says on in a blog post entitled Chomsky on Postmodern Theory, “apolitical charlatans doing nothing to advance the cause of social justice.”  I would agree, but that is for another blog on another day.  Returning to the language, why has academia adopted such puffed up, pompous, impenetrable rhetoric? It is a linguistically meaningless jumble of buzzwords and critical posturing, borrowed from such French theorists as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault (all champions of Postmodernism).  The writing is often obtuse, polysyllabic, and full of unnecessary and meaningless words.  Honestly, why use words like “horizontality” when “horizontal” will suffice.  Reading Postmodernist writing gives me a headache.  There is nothing pleasing in the language, nothing to attract me to the writing.  It is never clear or concise.  Perhaps the reason why academia uses such an opaque, pompous and suffocating language is insecurity.  Could it be that the humanities writers are insecure that their work has no meaning when faced against the sciences, who also use, necessarily, a jargon filled language, but to better effect?  Or is it an insecurity that they themselves are a fraud, and they must obfuscate their content with opaque and imposing language? After all, using a clear and transparent language would mean intellectual honesty and the risk of public correction. 

Academic Postmodern puffery has infiltrated the visual arts.  Perhaps the first person to call attention to this was Brian Ashbee who wrote an article for Art Review in 1999 entitled A Beginners Guide to Art Bollocks and How to be a Critic.  In it he muses: 

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Vision is primary, according to this view, and language secondary.  But not anymore – not, at least, in the visual arts, where the experience of the work of art is often meaningless without the critical text to support it.  This is especially true of much installation art, photography, conceptual art, video and other practices generally called post-modern . . . This is not art to be looked at; this is art to talk about and write about.  It doesn’t reward visual attention; it generates text.  In that, it is the model for much art since the ‘60’s, which we have come to call post-modern:  art as a machine for producing language.

In 2012 Alix Rule and David Levine coined the term International Art English to describe the language currently in vogue among Art Cognoscenti.  They cataloged and studied thousands of museum and gallery press releases and published their results in Triple Canopy.  “The language,” they write, “has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English.”

The problem is that what Brian Ashbee defines as post-modern art practices (with their baggage of bad language) has become institutionalized in both the art world and in academia.  In order to get ahead in the art world, and by extension, the academic world, one has to put on pretenses and use the default language of postmodern puffery (International Art English).  In Why Truth Matters, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write, “Theory’s near hegemony in literary and cultural studies has had various important consequences.  It has changed the way many subjects are taught, and the status of particular approaches.  This in turn has had an effect on faculty hiring and promotion, and in what gets published in journals and books, which naturally has changed the rules of what people need to do to succeed.” Brian Ashbee also posits that: 

We may be in a situation that mirrors that of the 19th century.  Most of the art that was deemed important then, which was exhibited in the annual salons and written about in the newspapers, is now forgotten.  The art which has proven historically significant was produced outside the system, in opposition to the academic establishment . . . Since the 1960’s, we have witnessed the complete institutionalization of the avant-garde.  Our major institutions are devoted to cutting-edge art.  Apart from a brief flurry of expressionist painting in the ‘80’s, most of this has been in the areas of conceptual art, photography, video and installation.  This is the work that people in power in our institutions deem significant.  It gets written about, funded, and shown.  It is the Official Art of our time.

I am in complete agreement with Brian Ashbee, with one exception.  I believe that those artists who work outside of postmodernist practices are the true inheritors of the avant-garde tradition.  These artists are the ones that challenge our institutions of accepted pedagogy. For all their pluralist posturing (we welcome all types of art practices and denounce all hierarchies) they do little to hide their contempt for traditional craft, which they deem passé and politically unsound.  For example, take Jake and Dinos Chapman, who during a 2003 debate for The Guardian with former London ICA Chairman Ivan Massow dropped this nugget:  "You see, in our most humble opinion, the overt fetishisation of pastoral handicrafts by the bourgeoisie served the purpose of obscuring the true relations of Capital . . . "  Masson, it should be noted, was encouraged to resign in 2002 for his critical stance against the Art World's obsession with Conceptual Art, further evidence that having an opinion on art outside the norm is detrimental for your career.

It is clear to me that the use of Postmodern and International Art Language is often used to prop up weak arguments and weaker art, but what can we do about it?  Perhaps we can choose to parody it and expose it for what it is, as Alan Sokal has done.  Perhaps we can write to our institutions and newspapers and demand more from our art.  The following are some interesting links that parody Postmodern and International Art Language.  You might get a good laugh out of them.  

Postmodern Essay Generator by Andrew C. Bulhak and Josh Lario:

Art Statement Generator by David James Ross and Joke de Winter:

Art Biography Generator by Jasper Rigole:

Instant Critique Generator by Petra Haschen.  Create your Critical Response to the Art Product – “CRAP” for short.  The website states, “Now you can produce CRAP critiques as easily and fluently as anyone in your MFA program!”:

As always, defending the right for all people to appreciate and understand art against Intellectual Elitism.