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.

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