If an artist’s work is difficult, you might think those writing about it would want to make it more accessible. If only
On 14 March 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about his latest canvas: “It is a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky – the river blue as well, the banks orange coloured with green grass and a group of women washing linen in smocks and multicoloured caps.”
Dear, oh dear. Little cart, blue sky, green grass, multicoloured caps: simplistic or what? When you go to The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, currently on show at the Royal Academy, don’t bother with His Letters. Vincent, a word in your unbandaged shell-like – this is the way you write about art. It comes from the online catalogue for Esther Shalev-Gerz’s exhibition, opening next week at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. “Over three decades, Esther Shalev-Gerz has consistently performed a process of unravelling particularities.” Now that’s more like it. It certainly beats: “Over three decades, Esther Shalev-Gerz has consistently performed a process of painting a drawbridge with a little cart going over it.”
I’ve never unravelled a particularity, or even ravelled one, which many consider the first stage in the particularity-unravelling process. But I have, for nearly 20 years, been married to a painter, so I appreciate the agony. Not the agony of painting but the far greater torture of writing about paintings, in order to attract people to see them. Art for art’s sake? Forget it. What you need is artspeak for artspeak’s sake. Let’s return to that catalogue: “Shalev-Gerz mines the personal in order to address and interrogate the ways in which the present is understood. Drawing on the fictions of history and speculations on the future, she amplifies the ethics of being invited to speak and being invited to” – nearly over now, honest – “listen. Hers is a powerful artistic practice that complicates how we understand our place in the world.”
There, at the end, is the message, loud and clear as an amplified ethic. Shalev-Gerz complicates. She’s a complicator. Thank goodness for that. Complication is what artspeak is all about. It seeks to confer status and worth on an artist’s work by insisting on its obscurity, which it conveys through a grey porridge of abstract nouns. The purpose of those unravelled particularities? “To reflect on the ways in which the generalities of history and memory are constructed.” The overall effect? “This gathering of works interrogates assumptions and opens the space between understanding and perception.” (That’s it. No more extracts, I promise.) You might think that if an artist’s work is difficult, those who write about it might want to make it more comprehensible. You might be wrong.
Artists, in my experience, are practical. They’re earthy. They worry about money. They have interesting stains. Grayson Perry never fashions a sentence so obscure it shuts the space between understanding and perception and knocks them both on the head. Then again, none of the above artspeak was written by the artist herself. It’s the work of a contributor to her catalogue. For all I know, Shalev-Gerz is an unpretentious woman who likes a laugh and always buys her round. As for her work, I’ll never know. The artspeak has had precisely the opposite effect from the one intended – it’s convinced me not to see it.
As a 16-year-old, I once read my poetry in a Hampstead pub called The Freemasons Arms. As I stepped onstage, I had an overwhelming urge. I was desperate to baffle the audience. I ached for them to be baffled by my poems and attribute their bafflement to the fact that my poetry was “deep”. In the event, they giggled and that was the end of my poetry career. But at least I understand the adolescent impulse behind artspeak. I just don’t understand why it’s written by grown-ups.