Mind your Language

Image of signposts
Which way to the Hinterland?

When I was a stubby young ginger child, my parents sometimes took me to museums, or galleries, or to B&Q to play with the doorbells. I liked all of the above, but more than these, I liked following my Dad round the local estate agents – mainly because in the olden days, you could take away the free sheets of house particulars, go home, and colour them in, or use them as props. Sometimes, estate agents gave me KitKats – which may also have had something to do with the repeated interest in that particular art-form… I digress.

When we visited galleries or museums, I was annoying. I still am now, and wanted to know ‘why?’ – A LOT. If I read something next to an exhibit, in my slow ginger* manner, that I didn’t understand, nothing could stop me searching out a clearly-marked grown up, and questioning them closely. It drove my older sister bonkers, but that’s a different story. I was too young to be afraid to say, ‘I don’t get it, what does it mean?’. And, the clearly-marked adults were usually very nice and helpful. They explained. I went away. Everyone was happy.

Now, I’m less interested in spending weekends cramming my pockets with housing particulars, but I’m still interested in the arts. I love discovering new ways of seeing the world – through the eyes, ears and ideas of artists. I don’t go to see things at museums & galleries nearly as much as I should even though I work in the arts. Nowadays, I’m one of the people who you could blame for the bewildering language used to describe an event or exhibition; one of the people you could wave your finger at when you haven’t heard something’s happening; one of those hateful marketers that made Bill Hicks angry. Genuinely, all I want to do is to try and convey to people, why something is wondrous, or funny, or smart or weird – and why they should take a gamble on an hour of their time and discover it for themselves.

But it’s not that easy. For many reasons, it isn’t easy & there are too many to focus on in one blog post. But I want to come clean about something that seems to create a needless obstacle between people and art. Language.

Shakespearian language is kind of unfamiliar to most people. It’s not the stuff of the street now is it? But actors bring it to life – they convey the meaning through actions and intonation, where the immediate meaning of the words has dimmed over time. In direct contrast, there is a type of modern language that I find harder to appreciate than Bill’s stuff, a language that is difficult to access and pointlessly obstructive. The language of the Visual Arts…

Here is my point. At last (raise a cheer, bang your keyboard).

If more people, not just people who ‘get it’, are going to take real enjoyment from art – be it visual, or aural, or land-based, or whatever whatever…surely we need to be persuaded to experience it through familiar language? Surely, we need to be led by the hand, to the point where the brilliant vision of artists who see things in new and remarkable ways, can be revealed.

So why is it necessary to talk about the visual arts as though they are remote and haughty, too clever for us, too intellectual, too difficult? It seems so counterproductive. You would never invite someone to a party by making them feel alienated and expect them to willingly cross the threshold..would you?

Why can’t we say it like it is? Why can’t we use common reference points, clear language, use good images and stills from the work itself? Why do we use weird, jargon-filled arts-speak to fill in for real language?

Who on earth says ‘hinterland’? Who?
If it’s unique, what makes it unique? Over-use has killed this word.
‘Dialogue’ Seriously?
‘Positioned at the intersection…’(!!!!)                                                                                                                                                ‘Multiples’. Multiples?                                                                                                                                                                                          ‘Modes of viewing’. Ye gods.

I could go on…

There are reasons known to me…
1) As a marketer writing about work, I have sometimes been to blame for not understanding the work fully myself so I can’t convey the ideas clearly. Language can be a good smoke-screen.
2) It’s sometimes felt that if you use accessible language, or reference points that are broadly understood (TV, Film or popular music references for example) that you may be taking some value away from the work, or dumbing down.
3) Sometimes work is not completed at the time of writing – makes it tough to talk about it honestly.
4) You are writing about ideas that are complex and intellectual – and there may be resistance to finding a more welcoming, less serious way in to enjoying the work, because people work hard and put their reputations on the line for ideas that audiences might very publicly reject – so understandably there may be some nervousness about doing anything to de-value it.

There are probably better reasons. I’d love to know…

I feel that we’re frozen with fear about the visual arts. Will I say the wrong thing and grossly undervalue or misrepresent someone? Will I ruin the painstaking work that someone has dedicated years to? If I say, I don’t get it, or describe it in really straightforward terms, will everyone realise what a fool I am – will anyone come – does straightforward = dull?

In a perfect world, I’d meet the artist, and they’d tell me or show me the work. They’d invite me to tell people about their work in terms that people can understand. They wouldn’t mind if I made popular references or comparisons. The work would be interpreted by people who are knowledgeable, but written without any jargon at all. It would be understood that unless we communicate honestly, openly, knowledgably, clearly and allow some irreverence, or fun or sarcasm where appropriate, we can’t compel more people to experience the work first-hand. Audiences would ask why, and get answers, and not give up asking. If people have stopped asking ‘why’, they simply don’t care any more…and if the work sits quietly in an empty space – what was the point?

So my question to you is ‘Why?’ and what should we do next? This isn’t a rant that intends to shame or blame. I just hope you’ll tell me what you think – why it happens – why it matters that art is kept mysterious by our choice of words? And if you share my horror of hinterland, what phrases or words have struck you as pointlessly obstructive – post them below and let’s see if we can banish a few FOREVER! Or tell me I’m wrong…that you like what you read & I should go back to school – but tell me why?

*The references to slow+gingerness are in no way reflective of any other ginger, this description is specific to my younger-self. I only dislike Harriet Harman, no-one else.


  1. In my experience it is because of the artists, more often than not, that the work is so hard to place in plain English. Because they don’t want to or are unable to talk about it in that way. Contemporary art is so often these days about a concept rather than a product the product is often less interesting. So how do we as markeers find a way to make these things enticing when often the artists themselves are less interested in the final art ‘product’ than the intellectual process of making it. The barriers not only lie in the language used by artists to describe the work but also often the fact that it iften bears no resemblence to the physical items produced. I will probably be shot for saying this but sometimes I feel cheated. If the artists themselves are so disinterested in the final product why are we then being asked to look at it? Why have an exhibition at all?

    (I also relate this experience to some live art performance that I have been forced to sit through wondering why I was there when the company/artist clearly had no need for me – for them the interesting part was over before they stepped on the stage)

    So the question is, do these artists even care or want us to understand, their work? It is rarely offered up for aestetic reasons, which I think is another barrier to many people (not necessarily their fault, in school we are taught that art is beauty). Why would I want to look at this, it isn’t attractive and I couldn’t put it on my wall.

    I’m not saying either perspective is right but I am saying that firstly artists need to think hard about why they want to exhibit their work in the first place and if they do expect people to come and see it then it is their responsibility to be able to talk about it clearly. The language barrier starts with them.

    I have, on occasion, met with artists and been shown images of work and still had no clue what it was about. Don’t get me wrong, I am in love with creativity and ideas but I am not a translator. I am a marketer. And I, for one, get very bored of rewriting every piece of copy I come in to contact with. There. I said it. You may now haul me over the coals.

  2. The reason it’s like that is because most art is produced by students who want to impress their lecturers with footnotes the size of doorsteps, and then by ex art students who can’t break the habit. I happen to have a random example on my desk as I write this . . . ***** is “an artist and writer. Her work explores the apparatus of power and offers resistance through the re-appropriation of systems and social conventions. ****** often works collaboratively.” I’m not sure but I think this may mean that she’s an eco-feminist skip jumper who sometimes makes stuff with her mates? Hard to tell what that vacuous verbiage really means, but it sure impresses the intellectually anxious.

    I’ve often wanted to stage my own artistic intervention (one of the most nauseating of arty weasel words!) where I swapped all the blurb in an exhibition with bits of computer generated nonsense . . . I wonder who would notice?

    My own least favourite piece of art speak is “”interactive.” Any artist that attempts to interact with me gets a poke in the eye and a short lecture on good manners.

  3. I’d love to hear from some artists and curators on this question too – how do artists feel about the way their work is described, how do you feel about giving communicators a freer hand in conveying their work to broader audiences? When film is written about, I’m often envious – the language is clear, there’s theory but its not mystifying…is it because there is a bigger audience for films and film festivals – that more people already feel knowledgeable and have experience of lots of films whereas in the visual arts more groundwork is needed to explain the thinking behind the work? I don’t know honestly…tell me?

  4. Beautifully put Fran.

    On the one hand, I think often it’s because artists, of all kinds, express themselves in non-written ways, which is the point. In my experience it’s often in the visual arts that use of language is most challenging. Sometimes, I think, because the writer (often a curator) seems to be writing for peers rather than audiences. It would be interesting to hear contributions from curators. Words such as ‘discursive’, ‘site-specific’, ‘responds to’ are not usually helpful. The denser the language, it seems to me, the less substance there is behind the words.

    Films, plays and narrative art forms are perhaps easier to write about in our culture. Story-telling is something we don’t need to have ‘sold’ to us. In contemporary visual arts in particular, it’s tricky, because the currency is one of ideas and concepts.

    Not easy for the artist that is written about, or the writer trying to be true, clear, interested and interesting.

  5. After completing a painting, the excited artist had someone come view it. The viewer admired it for a few moments then asked the artist what it meant. The bemused artist replied that if she could verbalise what she was trying to express, she would have written a book instead.

    Recently, I was visiting a large municipal art gallery and I entered an exhibition room. At least I think it was an exhibition, as it had a bored attendant guarding the room. Apart from myself, he was the only person in the room. The room itself was filled with flat pack furniture that had carelessly been half assembled by ten year old children with attention deficit syndrome. At least that is what it looked like. My first thought was, ‘what does this mean?’ My next reaction was to look for a sign that explained it all for me.

    So, was I being stupid or had the artist failed to communicate? I think the answer is more like this.

    Art is a language like any other. To communicate, everyone has to understand the language and so basic words, concepts, structures et-cetera are agreed to mean something. And so it is with art, with representational art being the basic language. As people become specialised in certain fields however, they begin to develop a more advance language with new words, subtle nuances, specific ideas, acronyms et-cetera. People outside of this sphere will find any conversation difficult to follow because they are not familiar with the extended language.

    Eventually you can get a field of study that is so specialised and insular, that only those working within the field can understand what is going on at all. The extreme result of this process is where only the author of a particular text or speech can understand what is being said (and so, by definition, there is now no communication).

    This is what happened in the exhibition room. I had no doubt that the artist had a train of thought which eventually led him to the pieces he had produced, but I couldn’t understand the language because it was too far removed from my familiar territory. Maybe some art critics could understand the language, otherwise, why would they have given him some space in the gallery?

    The great trick, of course, is to make any art work on many levels. As in literature, you can tell a simple story which everyone can understand at one basic level, but the more perceptive practitioners of the language may see allegory and symbolism in the text or images. For them it works on several levels and thus becomes a profound story.

    A piece of art either takes you to another place metaphysically, or it doesn’t, in which case it is then just a pile of material. An explanation may help but it would be analogous to having to explain a joke to someone. Ultimately, the piece has to stand alone.

    This is why I advocate that all labels are removed from works of art in galleries and only numbers are assigned. The labels are a distraction from the true visceral moment of reflection when considering the artwork. If someone really wants to find out more about a work then they have to make a note of the number and consult a book at the exit of the gallery. That way, it becomes an intellectual exercise after the event.

  6. Interesting blog raising lots of contradictory issues (personally).
    Firstly Jaye’s comment Re: …’in school taught that Art is beauty’!
    Surely not – isn’t Art a reflection of life + life can be far from beautiful!
    Re: Phil ‘swap all blurb in an exhibition with bits of computer generated nonsense’ – check out Jake + Dinos Chapmans ‘We are artists’ (1991) where they exhibited mud splattered mumbo jumbo as art + left it for the critics to decipher! The critics did decipher it + it meant jack shit!
    Re: Anita – artist do express in none verbal ways but are encouraged in college/uni to justify their works in academic terms + the habit is hard to get out of + thought unprofessional when you do. Every profession has its own language.
    Ivor, l think you hit the nail on the head in so many ways – ‘the piece of art either takes you to another place’, ‘the piece has to stand alone’. l’m undecided on the titling of Art though, some times it helps me to ‘get it’, some times it doesnt but l like the idea of being able to refer back to it if you wish. l have stopped titling my own Artworks (other than for what it is) in order for the viewer to decipher for themselves + to not distract from their own interpretation but l would be more than happy to discuss (in laymans terms) its origins.
    l think this is what is missing – the option to discuss with the Artist if so wished, but l don’t feel it is always necessary.
    As Ivor said, the piece of Art either takes you to another place or it doesnt. You cant expect to ‘like’ everything you see, + the same goes for life!

  7. People have to learn how to write. One of the most important things they have to learn is how to visualise, and address audiences – often diverse audiences. At art colleges, the only writing required of art students is the dissertation, and the only audience they have to address is the tutor.
    When they leave college and start to exhibit, they often continue to explain their work as if presenting an essay to an academic in-group. This not only puzzles more ‘ordinary’ viewers; it angers them, because they see it (correctly) as excluding them from the dialogue that should make up any proper language exchange.
    Before I gave up the day job, I used to work with visual artists in practical workshops, helping them to write about their work in ways that were – not dumbed down – but clear, engaging and accessible. Success always came down to visualising a sort of ‘generalised’ listener to what you had to say – someone who was intelligent but not expert, interested but uninitiated, willing to learn but with limited time to spend. My personal model for this was my mum; if she could understand what I was telling her, then we’d be getting somewhere!

    Obscure language by writers-about-art though! That’s a different matter altogether. They ought know how to write clearly for a range of audiences, so they’ve got to be choosing to use in-house jargon, and in that they are no different from other professionals who are all too easily tempted to keep themselves in by keeping others out.

    My pet hates are ‘juxtaposition’ ‘investigate/interrogate’ and ‘the other’, but new ones turn up all the time. Apart from anything else, using stuff like this, which is just fashion after all, can really date you.

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