Language Undermines Art

Cave Painting Describes This Art Well

I don’t know about you, but when I think deeply about visual art’s definitions today, I feel unhinged. There are so many contradictions, it's hard to keep my head from bursting. There is a mass of phenomenal contemporary art in circulation, but there is also a lot of flimsy, meaningless art made to serve the market instead of exploring the depths of human expression. Unfortunately today, the professional market’s discussion of art does not significantly distinguish between these two extremes.

Why do people make or keep art, and how do they define something as art? Historically, I think it is safe to assert that cave people carved and painted to express their common experiences. Their paintings were narrative and metaphorical. If they had a developed language, perhaps they would have had a word or phrase to describe their art, which in a sense, we can imagine as their definition of art.

Fast forward to the time of the Western Renaissance between the 14th and 17th centuries, and the world of art became utterly referential. Art became a way to share stories, memories, beliefs, politics, and create visual totems to celebrate a deity or a wealthy influence


And looking at the past two centuries, artists felt more liberated, allowing themselves to try out enriched, expanded formalities. The idealism of the Renaissance had expanded to include ordinary things as worthy of attention too. Colors, perspective, textures and many more forms were distorted to achieve alternative meanings and feelings, rather than to create illustrations.

As Cézanne revealed, a table top has more passion if its corner softly bends down and towards you. It was just a few decades later when early twentieth century's art liberation supported Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”. It was seen and understood as legitimate art. In that period, art still was described with clear specific terminology. But by the middle of the last century, there were suddenly many “-isms” to describe the different branches of visual art. As an art student, it was quite clear to me, when looking at an artwork, that it was related to one of these succinct descriptions such as Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, Dadaism and more.

In the 1980’s, money changed the discussion of art. Market competitiveness, selling art as investments, a lack of adequate supply and emphasis on institutionally attached artists added up to the failure of the professionals to expand the descriptive language in useful ways. To this day it is clear that the art master’s degrees have produced a profusion of artists and market makers, all of whom have suffered too much from institutionalization of their careers. In fact the studio artist, a creative who does art full time without the backing of a tenured teaching job or curatorial career writing for art publications, is now a distant second in what is regarded as a successful career. The problem is that folks within institutions are very reliant on language to distinguish themselves and to justify putting on the robes of presumed expertise. But any studio artist can tell you that talk is cheap and inadequate to understand what really happens to humans in their act of creating original art.

Yes, talk is cheap and questionable terminology became a means to distract the less informed person from the blandness of the artwork and its undeserved prominence. In fine art photography, an artist's statement has come to the point that it must include the word ‘memory’. The implication is that using the word memory as part of a description of the artist’s intent gives their images some high-minded significance. Really? Every photograph is made at a point in time, meaning there is always a memory factor connected to it. So how is that word useful for understanding an artwork?

What is most disheartening was to experience a lecture at New York’s New School, a darling of the “well recognized” art world. There were three people presenting, all teachers at the school and all widely celebrated artists. In fact one was a winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant worth a half million dollars, meaning whatever she said, we had better pay attention. The lecture was about the importance of the artist's statement.

At the end someone in the audience asked “are you saying that my artist’s statement is more important than the art it presumes to summarize?” “Yes, and we are sorry it is that way” came the answer. Oh money, thou art the devil crawling the walls of an artist’s sensibilities.

To add to the obfuscation, ‘memory’ is a word that is popular among photographers whose art project has to do in some way with themselves. My brain’s news flash is that all photographs ever made contain memory having to do with the photographer. Isn’t it possible to use words that more clearly define what the deeper meanings and metaphors are?

To further illustrate misleading language used in describing art, take this description from a well-known London gallery: "The artist brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth.


We don’t even know what or whose artistic worth is being referred to, or what the word ‘worth’ means in this context. And the first part of the sentence obscures the obvious, which is that the artist’s self awareness grew. Why use that disconcerting way to say it, forcing us to reread it several times to get what meaning was actually intended? But it sounds important, right? And therefore regardless of what our eyes tell us, this artwork must be important somehow.

Or this from the same gallery: "Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist's practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the 'original' source or referent that underlines the artist's oeuvre."

Yikes. Is that an ad for a publisher of a thesaurus?

If I buy a stick of wood and bring it to a museum, lean it against an exhibition wall, then write a presumptuous description of why this stick placed this way has meaning, should the public regard it as fine art? I saw this at a prominent Los Angeles art museum a few years ago, and as much as I tried, I could find no rationale for it. The wall text description was of no help. Unclear, deceptive language becomes like a hoax, and that hoax intends to muddy the conclusions about what constitutes fine art. Worse, it deceives everyone by making the ordinary into the substantial.

The public is understandably confused about the fine art world today, and therefore its trust in what art is has been eroded. The language that art marketplaces and art institutions use to describe artworks, and the decisions about which art should reach the public and which should not, is a problem. If the descriptions are used too broadly and cover a great many things that don't seem that related, it only leads to confusion. And if the language seems to be a coverup for the lack of real depth in part or all of an artwork, that too can be eventually felt by the public.

Let’s take a look at the birth and development of Street Photography. The term quickly became a popular means to describe a way of making candid images of eventful moments and characters in big cities. If these images had depicted stuff that the public needed to know immediately, they would have been used in publications and defined as photojournalism. But lacking that caché, these stimulating images had to find an alternate outlet: as fine art. Labeling it Street Photography helped the movement to gain public attention. Much of the movement was centered in New York City in the 1950’s. I was from that city, was a teenager in the ‘50’s, and loved photography. The term Street Photography was a clear, useful description for me.

Slingshot Games by Lawrence D'Attilio

Over the next two decades, a lot of photographers (including many amateurs) jumped on this bandwagon, so that the possible subjects and situations covered a far greater range. With almost no photography art galleries at the time, and the fact that most museums still did not recognize photography as art, Street Photography art sold poorly and the prices were very low. Despite the low value the movement grew and morphed to include poorly related images that were said to be Street Photography, which obviously broadened the term’s meaning thus rendering it less useful.

By the early 1980’s, Street Photography and all other photography of the past took on the hue of investment quality, as prices for vintage art skyrocketed. With vast amounts of money pouring into this erotic gallery and auction scene, there were bound to be effects as that money began to drive the bus. Street Photography morphed again to include images with almost no relation to the meaning of the term in its 1950’s interpretation. Maybe it was unconscious, but over the next forty years much money was made selling embarrassingly inadequate photo-based art by labeling it with that now historically celebrated 1950’s term.

Some of the effects of the golden ‘50’s and ‘60’s were positive, and many photo artworks that were deserving flourished, as did some of the artists who produced them. Then there became a great profusion of galleries; in photography alone they went from a scant few in the 1970’s to countless numbers of them in the 1980’s. That led to a supply/demand issue. There was just not enough good vintage artwork to supply these galleries year after year. Many turned to selling contemporary work, obviously a good thing from the artist’s position. But the same thing was going on: there simply wasn't enough really great work to justify the high prices required to keep all those galleries running. That led to it becoming okay to use language as a way to distract collectors from the true human value of some of the trite artworks that were for sale.

As I see it, the main points abou