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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Speaking of Art

Monsieur G. has a horror of blasé people. He is a master of that only too difficult art—sensitive souls will understand me—of being sincere without being absurd. — CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, 1863

How did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?  — ALEX RULE & DAVID LEVINE, 2012

The latter quote comes from a recent article* in which the authors dose electronic art journal e-flux with an amusing taste-of-own- medicine. They deconstruct the hell out of its five years communicating in ‘International Art English’, scrutinising the vocabulary and syntax of this peculiar language.

No doubt art writing is a beast often fraught with agendas and habitus, elitism amongst its pitfalls; yet at the same time, it’s hardly a simple self-serving phenomenon. Critics play a crucial role in supporting the careers that shape our cultural environment. We’re arguably as indebted to writers and teachers for the work we love as to its makers, and at best the marriage of art and language is magic.

An excerpt from the aforementioned article on International Art English though, reads as disparagingly satirical of the whole undertaking:

IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal… An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes experiencability…

Mercy: surely the delicate precision involved with conceptual exploration requires a distilled vocabulary, sensitive avoidance of unintended connotations words pick up with common use. A good nugget just wants the coining of its own phrase.

So then who gets it right, this fraught craft? I asked several figures in the arts in Wellington for their favourite arts writers, a wonderfully affirming process. Ask anyone for their favourite authors, and you can feel their hearts swell; but there’s an additional, pronounced sense of camaraderie with which people love an arts writer. No wonder: writing art is often done in close proximity to both subject and audience, and demands a balance heartening when struck: sensitivity and irony, precision and poetry, poignance and play. As I inquired, it seemed that these writers are admired not for the dry genius they so apparently require, but for having a personal voice in spite of the habitus the industry appears luringly to perpetuate.

Amongst traits admired were Hamish Keith’s flair, Rob Taylor and Mark Amery’s dedication, Hamish Winn and Ron Hanson’s informed critical courage, Laura Preston’s poetics, and Danny Butt’s concern for topical issues. Ian Wedde and Justin Paton were overall favourites; both have a wonderful knack for writing relatably in the first person.

Recurring favourites were Paton’s How to Look at a Painting, Wedde’s How to be Nowhere and Making Ends Meet, Hanson’s White Fungus editorials, and Tessa Laird’s Shards of a Jealous Potter. The writing of Wynstan Curnow, Francis Pound, Damian Skinner, Greg O’Brien, Peter Ireland, Christina Barton and Giovanni Intra. Luit Bieringa’s pieces on photography and Julian Dashper’s This is Not Writing.

When Justin Paton was asked how to look at a painting, he responded: “If I thought I could get away with it, I would answer that question with one word: slowly.”

Looking at the list above, I think—in a world where judgements so often come hard and fast, thank God for the spheres that celebrate slowness.


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