How to Read International Art English

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 10, 2012

London collective BANK corrected press release

London collective BANK corrected gallery press releases and faxed back the markups (click to enlarge, image via

Have you ever read a press release — or even, say, the first line of a press release — for an art exhibition and promptly felt like you had no idea what just happened? Like a wave of vague descriptors and questionable nouns had washed over you, all of which were supposed to combine to create some sort of meaning, but you couldn’t, for the life of you, figure out what it was, and then you were ashamed? Have you ever read a press release and wanted to cry?

Yeah, me too.

So have Alix Rule and David Levine, apparently, but instead of hiding in a corner or rolling their eyes, they decided to do something about it. In the latest issue of the online magazine Triple Canopy, Rule and Levine analyze and attempt to understand art-world-speak, which they term International Art English (IAE).

“This language,” they write, “has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English.”

Rule and Levine say that they are “quite serious” in their task, and in fact, they do actually undertake real research: the duo understand the digital press release to be the primary purveyor of International Art English, and so they compiled every press release sent out by e-flux since it’s inception in 1999 and used Sketch Engine to examine trends within the digital archive (e.g. “Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009″).

They are also hilarious. Consider: “Spatial and nonspatial space are interchangeable in IAE.”

At best, their analysis of IAE is hilarious while being — in fact, because it is — so serious, and so spot-on:

Here we find some of IAE’s essential grammatical characteristics: the frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” The pairing of like terms is also essential to IAE, whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases. Note also the reliance on on dependent clauses, one of the most distinctive features of art-related writing. IAE prescribes not only that you open with a dependent clause, but that you follow it up with as many more as possible, embedding the action deep within the sentence, effecting an uncanny stillness.

Dependent clauses — OMG yes! All the time. So many, everywhere. Like a vortex.

Amid all the insanity, Rule and Levine manage to make some really interesting points, including a reflection on the global reach of IAE, pointing out that before e-flux, museums in Oklahoma City and Munich had nothing to do with each other, whereas now they exist in the same sphere. They also speculate that this impenetrable language was probably started by critics but then adopted by the commercial and institutional art establishment, leading to a crisis of authority among critics.

The most brilliant part of the essay comes at the very end, when the duo suggests how to should appreciate and enjoy IAE while we can. It would be injustice to give it away, so I’ll let you click through for yourself. Just know that you will (hopefully) never read a press release the same way again.

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  • GiovanniGF

    This almost makes me feel sorry that I unsubscribed from e-flux last year. Almost.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I had the same exact reaction. I even considered resubscribing…for a minute.

  • Chicken_Fingers

    The Triple Canopy article is brilliant and should be required reading for everyone who writes about art for money, which includes academics. I’m so cynical about IAE that when I wrote gallery PR, I regularly tested the threshold of what the director would publish. It was amazing what I got away with. And when I worked at another gallery, but did not write their PR, the director would have me OK the writing of their freelancer because she couldn’t decipher the language. I would guess a large number of gallery owners and directors do not understand the writing they pay for and distribute.

  • ChristopherM

    It’s interesting to think about why such a formally masturbated language never stuck itself to music with the same prominence. Popping on an album or going to a concert or however else doesn’t generally come packaged as an unintentional parody of intellectualism. Well, not usually … and even the BS layers that come with music seem thinner or less desperate to be taken seriously. Maybe the professional art world could drop IAE for some kind of system of stickers/rating codes to save everyone the trouble of shuffling those terms into new orders for every artist statement + press release.

  • JD Siazon

    The one sane way that a person could dare undertake to effectively combat and forever dethrone so-called institutional art speak is if by grace they just so happened to be foreordained with every literary and muscular superpower needed to thrive in the maze of becoming indisputably the best arts writer alive. A skeleton key to writing classic art criticism is not just wanting to enlighten future generations and thus inspire the globe but always striving to do so in the imperious yet amenable manner which without fail turns everyone else’s opinions on art into bad peanut brittle. This can be accomplished they say through a mastery of poesy.

  • bill evertson

    I hope to see someone tackle museum wall copy soon. I’ve had too many insightful moments with artwork ruined by pausing to read the description.

  • Patrick Neal

    I bought Roy Harris’ “The Necessity of Artspeak” to help me with press releases and other art writing.

  • Guy Denning

    If you need the words then the visual art’s not working.

  • SB

    If the purpose of language is to communicate clearly, then jargon
    is to be avoided except when it is strictly necessary. There are surely times when jargon, as a
    specialized vocabulary, allows for a more concise and precise communication
    between insiders than ordinary language could accomplish.

    When a plumber asks his assistant for a specific plumbing
    part, by name, (“A 3/8 inch flibbetygibbet”) he does so knowing that his fellow
    plumber, also initiated in the specialized vocabulary, will hand him the right
    item. But, if my plumber drops his “3/8
    inch flibbetygibbet” and asks me (a non-plumber) to retrieve it, he will
    describe it differently. He will say
    something like. “Can you hand me that
    thing I just dropped over there – no, no – the other one. The silver pointy thing on the left.” That is the best way of describing the part
    to me (an uninitiated person), but it would be a clunky and inefficient way of
    describing the part to a knowledgeable co-plumber.

    Language, of course is intended for communication. The notable exception to this proposition,
    it would seem, is to be found in the world of International Art English, where
    language is used precisely for the opposite function – there, words exist to
    make things less clear and more obscure.

    Obscurantist phrases in the article on International Art
    English abound, and examples include the likes of “The artist brings the
    viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values
    and assumptions of artistic worth.”

    Language like this cannot even be honored as “jargon”. It is, instead, nonsense. Unlike the jargon employed by a plumber (or mechanic, or surgeon, or lawyer), these words do not have special meaning (and are sometimes used with utter disregard for their customary meanings). These words do not provide a shorthand by which an insider may reach for the right item.
    These words tell us less about the thing they purport to describe than does a perplexed look at the thing itself.

    Language like this is meaningless – literally without meaning – and this an offensive and worthless waste. Used like this, it is plain to see that words are being used precisely for the purpose of NOT clarifying, but rather for the purpose of further obscuring. There is
    no piece of art whose meaning, origin or provenance is made more clear by a thing like this. In fact, there is no piece of art to which this phrase cannot be said to apply. And there is no piece of art to which these words cannot be said to be inapposite.

    When a chunk of words (I hesitate to credit things like this as “sentences” or “phrases” or “paragraphs” or “thoughts”) can be read to mean anything then really, they mean nothing.

    Art has become more and more obscure, more and more specialized, and therefore more and more irrelevant to more and more people. Artists (and art-writers) have to acknowledge
    that they bear some degree of fault for this.

    If the art world cares at all about this (and perhaps it does not), then artists and art-writers ought to take a moment’s introspection and ask themselves what they think they are doing. If they wish to say that “the art is what it is — it speaks for itself and nothing else of meaning can or need be said,” (or, to quote Wittgenstein, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one
    must be silent,”) then they ought to hold to that and give up on the nonsense that occupies the walls and catalogues of galleries and museums and, as Wittgenstein and the Fifth Amendment urge – remain silent.

    If members of the art-world wish to say (as many reasonably believe they do) that “this art is for us (artists, holders of MFA’s, gallery owners, art-as-commodity-traders) and the rest of you are meant to keep out,” then they should be honest enough to make that point more directly.

    Of course, if (as seems improbable) art-writer’s words are meant to clarify, educate or elucidate, then art writers really ought to dust off their Strunk & Whites and work on that.

    If (as appears to be the case) the art-writing is meant to keep obscure art obscure – if it is meant to insure that art will be of interest only to the few (initiated insiders) and of no interest to the many, then the art world should be neither surprised, nor disappointed, when the rest
    of the world takes the art-world up on its disinvitation.

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