The Burlington Contemporary Art Writing Prize
Last month we launched the 2018 Burlington Contemporary Art Writing Prize, our annual award of £1,000 to a writer under thirty-five for a review of a recent exhibition of contemporary art. We are delighted that Fiona Banner, an artist who has made writing a central part of her practice, and Jenni Lomax, former Director of the Camden Arts Centre, London, have agreed to be judges. Full details are on our website, www.burlington.org.uk.
Among the entries we have already received is this critique of a much-acclaimed show by one of Britain’s leading young performance artists (and art historians):
Born in London in 1982, and currently living and working in Kensington, William Windsor creates performances that contest the division between the realm of memory and the realm of experience. As his exhibition Myth, Memory and Monarchy at The Crown Gallery, London (to 31st December) reveals, Windsor creates work through labourintensive processes which can be seen explicitly as a personal exorcism ritual. They are inspired by a nineteenth-century tradition of works, in which an ideal of ‘Fulfilled Absence’ was seen as the pinnacle. By referencing romanticism, grand-guignolesque black humour and symbolism, he absorbs the tradition of remembrance art into daily practice.
As you may already have suspected, this was not written by a human being. The words were produced by a computer programme devised by the Belgian artist Jasper Rigole in collaboration with University College, Ghent, in answer to numerous requests from curators for a statement about his artistic practice. His very funny response, which can be found at www.500letters.org, is an online form that allows an artist to enter personal data, information about media and a list of artistic themes and then click on a button, whereupon the programme generates 150 words of convincing International Art English, the near-universal language used by critics and curators of contemporary art.
The concept of International Art English (IAE) goes back to a celebrated article published in 2013 in the art journal Triple Canopy.1 Written by the New York artist David Levine with Alix Rule, who was then studying for a Ph.D. at Columbia University, it is a witty attack on the language of the contemporary art press release: ‘IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces [. . .] IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes . . . experiencability’. As they ask, ‘How did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?’
Levine and Rule trace IAE back with some precision to the foundation in 1976 of the American journal of art criticism and theory October, which, under the direction of writers such as Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, blew away what was seen as the belletrist tradition of Anglo-American criticism with the bracing wind of French poststructuralist theory. The ‘new’ art history is now rather old, and it is curious that writing about contemporary art should still be dominated by a tradition initiated over forty years ago.
Levine and Rule developed the concept of IAE in a light-hearted spirit: their target was the press release rather than academic writing about art, but the two are of course intimately linked. IAE has been embraced by the market: at its worst, it is the patter of the snake-oil merchant. Although all disciplines develop their own vocabulary, IAE draws a particularly rigid line between those in the know and those on the outside. As every good Foucauldian knows, structures of discourse reflect structures of power. This point was taken up in an article by the writer Mostafa Heddaya, ‘When artspeak masks oppression’, in which he argues that there is a sinister side to IAE, as its jargon is used to conceal the way that dictators and oligarchs have embraced contemporary art as way of acquiring legitimacy.2
So where should writers look for guidance? Levine and Rule argue that although a return to concepts of clarity is possible, IAE won’t be replaced by anything more inclusive: ‘More likely, the elite of that world will opt for something like conventional highbrow English’. For the German artist Hito Steyerl, writing on IAE in e-flux in 2013, that would be simply another form of oppression: ‘Interns and assistants the world over must be told that their domestic – and most likely public – education simply won’t do. The only way to shake off the shackles of your insufferable foreign origins is to attend Columbia or Cornell, where you might learn to speak impeccable English – untainted by any foreign accent or non-native syntax’.3
Since The Burlington Magazine has resisted the influence of the ‘new’ art history, we are well placed for a return to ‘conventional highbrow English’, never having given it up. But the thought that our approach to writing about art – that clarity of expression is a reflection of clarity of thought – can be interpreted as an instrument for oppression is disturbing. One thing that might be mentioned in our defence is something that is not mentioned by Levine, Rule or Steyerl – editing. Editors are rarely involved in most online writing about art, and, depressingly, play a diminishing role in print media. But, as a journal with a wide range of international contributors, we regard editing as central to academic publishing: collaboration between writer and editor means that a ‘foreign accent or non-native syntax’ need not be a barrier to communicating new research and ideas.
In any case, we stand by the priorities of our Contemporary Art Writing Prize, which was launched ‘to promote clear, concise and well-structured writing that is able to navigate sophisticated ideas without recourse to over-complex language’. The closing date is 26th February 2018: IAE will not be welcome and entries by computers are unlikely to win.
1 It can be found at www.canopycanopycanopy.com, accessed 16th November 2017.
2 Mostafa Heddaya, ‘When artspeak masks oppression’, hyperallergic.com, 6th March 2013, accessed 16th November 2017.
3 H. Steyerl, ‘International disco Latin’, e-flux 45 (May 2013), www.e-flux.com, accessed 16th November 2017.