Emergent Phenomena and Heterogeneous Agencies; More Adventures in Art Writing

Clean and SureDick and Jane

* * *

A reader attentive to the quiddities of contemporary art writing sent in the following; it’s a catalog entry describing a program of study at an institution of higher education:

“The programs propose speculative debate and experimental architectural production based on a relational construct among theoretical inquiry, computational research, digital design, and technological investigation. To this end, the programs seek to formulate a contemporary approach to architecture that is ‘ecological’ in the sense that it provides collective exchanges which are both trans-disciplinary and trans-categorical. This ecological approach encourages feedback relationships among industry, manufacturing, political agencies, theoretical studies, and other categories and disciplines that are newly emerging in contemporary culture. This approach seeks to productively intensify heterogeneous interests and agencies. In addition, the program sees architectural innovations in both the theory and practice of architecture and the interconnected phenomena out of which it emerges. Recent courses . . . have investigated topics as iterative processes, fluid systems, emergent phenomena, logics of organization, complex urbanisms, globalization and politics, computational logics, material performance, and speculative fabrication.”

OK, be honest. At which point did your eyes start glazing over? The third sentence? The first? Trans-this, trans-that and “speculative fabrication”–Oy. What’s dreadful about this kind of overwrought verbiage (as my reader notes) is how blissfully it slips into self parody.

At least clunky phrases like “feedback relationships” and “iterative processes” don’t aspire to lyrical agitprop, as is the case of the wall texts accompanying After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s the introductory label:

“Recent tumult at home and abroad has prompted soul-searching in some quarters of America, and many people have a sense that the promise of our founding ideals and the positive international sway we once exerted are in eclipse. Recent flare-ups over art and censorship echo the ‘culure wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s, which, with an economic collapse and a war seemingly in a stalemate reminiscent of the 1970s, add to the feeling of deja vu.”

The anonymous poet manque continues:

“[The] works in the exhibition take an epic perspective that brings into focus the contradictions and complexities of our current condition-from the humanitarian ‘soft power’ that mitigates our often bellicose presence in the world to the isolating effects of how we pursue happiness.”

Forget the “bellicose” p.c. cant. This is poorly structured writing–bad writing. Doesn’t anybody pull Strunk & White off the bookshelf anymore? Or Dick and Jane? Now there was prose, clean and sure.

On a similar tangent: a reader asks why I dislike the word “gallerist”. Surely it’s preferable, because more economical, than “gallery owner”? Yeah, I guess. But it’s the nagging air of bad faith surrounding the term, the sense of gussying up a job description for the sake of appearances.

Here’s Sean Kelly, of Sean Kelly Gallery, quoted in a 2005 New York Times article about the “fashionable new word . . . bubbling up in the New York art scene”:

“I embrace the term [gallerist].”

What’s wrong with “dealer”, Mr. Kelly?

“‘Dealer’ has a very negative connotation. Dealers commodify.”

So sayeth the erstwhile capitalist.

In the early 1990s, there was a call from within certain circles to replace the word “artist” with “cultural worker”. “Artist” was deemed elitist. Thank the Lord, it didn’t take. But if “cultural worker” was a self-deluding nod to being down with the proletariat, “gallerist” is an ear-grating attempt at placing oneself above the tawdry business of, well, business.

Sometimes grammar is employed as a front. Anything that obscures the facts on the ground is worthy of our skepticism.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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  • Sam  On May 5, 2011 at 1: 38 am

    And “galleries” are now “projects” or project spaces. A friend of mine who worked for David Zwirner explained this to me. If a gallery fails, it closes. But projects never fail–they just end.

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