How (Not) to Write Like an Art Critic

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.

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