The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

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Art as Idea: Nothing, Joseph Kosuth, 1968 /Photo: NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART

Until now I resisted the urge to complain in public about the wall cards and catalogue texts that accompany this year’s Whitney Biennial. (Let’s be clear, the Kosuth piece up there is not one of them. It just felt pertinent to the mood I’m in.) That was partly because the atrocious writing connected to that show is not so different from what you get from a lot of institutions that deal with contemporary art. But this funny/depressing Tuesday post at Carol Diehl’s website, Art Vent (via) brought back to me the sense of being smacked in the face with a spitball that I got when I first ran across the wall card that welcomes you to the Biennial this way:

Many of the projects presented in the exhibition explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political and economic contexts, often aiming to invert the more object-oriented operations of the art market. Recurring concerns involve a nuanced investigation of social, domestic and public space and its translation into form — primarly sculptural, but also photographic and cinematic.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful? Why is it so clogged with the decrepit formulations of academic artspeak? Why does so much of it sound like it was written by an anxious schoolkid delivering a labored term paper?

My first assumption is that there’s a generation of curators who went to college and grad school in the 1980s and ’90s, when the congested language of Deconstruction, Critical Studies and so on still seemed important, intrepid and even a little glamorous. I get the impression that even if a budding art writer wasn’t fully commited to those lines of inquiry, the incredibly turgid writing they produced infected the academy in all directions.

But the industrial strength rhetoric of so much museum writing is also, I suspect, a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid simply to say aloud and in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at. What if they get it wrong? Better to fall back on cliches that stand in for thought without furthering it.

Finally, bad writing is just insider talk. It’s not directed to the public at all, but pitched to the coterie of other curators and academics who use jargon to signal to one another their initiation into the world of…. jargon.

Short of requiring by law that all wall texts be written in haiku — try cramming “problematizes” into that little compartment — I’m not sure what can be done about this. The most obvious thing would be for the directors of museums, contemporary art centers and whatever kunsthalles simply to insist that it stop happening. (I’m assuming here that they take some kind of sign-off responsibility for writing that goes out under the name of their institution.) Here might be a modest way to start. Let whoever edits museum catalogues — does anyone edit them? — ban just these five words, which are arranged into rhetorical daisy chains in every other catalogue I see.

1. Interrogates
2. Problematizes
3. References (as a verb)
4. Transgressive
5. Inverts

I know this is a small gesture, but deprived of this tiny arsenal, half the bad writers in the artworld would be disarmed.