CHICAGO — A friend who was in London recently went to see what was on at the Tate Modern, and at the end of his visit he did something I never do: he went into the gift shop and bought something. “I’ve got something to show you, Philip!” he told me on his return. My heart sank. Was it a set of dinner plates decorated with Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls? An Ai Weiwei themed board game? Some other piece of dreadful museum kitsch?

Actually, no. It turned out to be a completely awesome pocket-sized book entitled Art Criticism 101: You Too Can Be An Art Critic. The author, Howard Pepperell, culled 101 genuine quotations from the pages of contemporary art magazines, reviews, and commentaries, with advice to the reader to pronounce them whenever you’re standing in front of contemporary art and you need to say something profound to impress a nearby boyfriend/girlfriend/curator. As he says in the introduction:

“Trot out whatever commentary comes to mind. You need not be selective as the quotes have been chosen for their universality. They are not piece-specific, so there is no need to worry that what you say seems to have little relevance to the picture at hand.”

Here, chosen at random, are a few examples from Pepperell’s treasure trove:

  • Seeks nothing less than the intuitive revelation of universal truth.
  • Required more than 100 coats of paint to achieve its atmosphere of chaos.
  • Demonstrates a failure to conform in the midst of the greatest desire to conform, the former ceaselessly feeding the latter.
  • The work goes beyond, seeking wavelengths for personal or topical expression in low-definition aesthetics.
  • Expresses nothing but the self.

Admittedly, some of the phrases sound more accurate than pretentious. Even without seeing the original inspiration for the following, I can imagine that the words “these works speak to the subconscious of a media-saturated culture” might be a perfect description for something or other.

But for someone like me, who writes a lot about all different kinds of art, this little book produced a little shudder in me. I mean, what if something I write on Hyperallergic turns up in a future edition? Memo to self: avoid academic word salad, and keep it simple.

Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...

8 replies on “How (Not) to Write Like an Art Critic”

      1. Hey I do this too (as a blogger and shamefully as a hipster). Not saying that it shouldn’t be discussed. Just pointing out that art-jargon has become so insular that some of the only people that seem to even complain about it are the people that use it.

  1. Thanks for the comments, Danny. This piece was written in a light-hearted tone, but there is a serious point: not trying only to be self-referential, but to think abuot what language we use to describe art.

  2. It’s a timely book on a subject that’s ripe for mockery –and we all saw it coming and paved the way for it. I, and many others have found great humor in the empty, thesaurus-driven ululations of art critics. It’s not just the jargon that’s hilarious; it’s the breathless superlatives, the mysticism, the damnable consensus! And the hagiography of certain artists is also laughable.

    Art, more than any other subject, brings out the vacuous windbags, the academics, the one-ups, and the head-nodders.

  3. Actually, I don’t think art critics are necessarily the worst offenders when it comes to the kind of nonsense parodied in the book. It’s gallery press releases. An art dealer friend of mine is always sending me the absurd ones he receives from other galleries. One of the keepers is this one, below in its entirety, from an NYC gallery that will remain nameless. It’s sure to brighten your day!:

    “[Gallery name deleted] is pleased to present a selection of works by four artists all of whom expand beyond postmodernism’s preference for horizontal movement. Although the term ‘truth’ in many arenas still functions upon modernist, linear, progress driven models in which ‘truth’ and ‘universal’ are synonyms; contemporary thinking over the past three decades has caused artists to recognize multiplicities, fracturing and dispersal.

    For some, the loss of absolutes results in an overarching skepticism, whereas in the works exhibited nonhierarchical multiplicities are seen and explored as multiple points of truth without irony. Together with the new circularity with which history is now being viewed, ‘truth’ is contained and explored by its stylistic, conceptual and material treatment. This is not to suggest the desire for conclusiveness within these artists’ work but rather an ability to see infinite possibilities within “An Inch of Truth”.

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