The Artist’s Museum begins with the impulse to collect and connect, bringing together large-scale installations, photography, film, and videos that employ artworks from the past as material in the present, animating existing artworks, images, and histories to reveal unexpected relationships and affinities.
—Press release for The Artist’s Museum, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, October 31, 2016 (via e-flux)
In 2012, the New York-based online magazine Triple Canopy published a piece regarding a kind of art writing that has increasingly come to dominate the global scene. They named it “International Art English.” Written by Alix Rule (a doctoral student in sociology at Columbia) and David Levine (an artist based in New York and Berlin), the project attempted to define the contours and history of the “language through which contemporary art is created, promoted, sold, and understood,” a language which “has everything to do with English,” but is “emphatically not English.” International Art English (IAE), Rule and Levine argued, is a form of “global” English used primarily in press releases for art events, and in critical art writing more generally. It’s a bona-fide language, they claimed, and not just a professional or niche jargon; Rule and Levine hoped to prove this “scientifically.”
The piece attracted a number of responses in the years following its publication—many of them very critical—and its success as a provocation was largely due to its shortcomings, its unevenness and overly tongue-in-cheek approach. “Some will read our argument as an overelaborate joke,” Rule and Levine admit. “But there’s nothing funny about this language to its users. And the scale of its use testifies to the stakes involved.” The stakes, ostensibly, have to do with IAE’s being an image of power, the very language of Empire, a beguiling rhetoric that incites everyone to play its game. Like many critics before them, Rule and Levine basically suggest that art-speak equals elitism, and that anyone who calls themselves progressive would do better to avoid its opaque, circle-jerk language altogether. “International Art English” managed to stir up a conversation that far surpassed the limited and poorly articulated terms of the original article: a much-needed conversation about the politics of writing about art in the early part of the 21st century.
The comedy of “International Art English” stems mostly from its posture as a research project in linguistics. Sampling from e-flux, a curated listserv that circulates art-related press releases and announcements daily, Rule and Levine used a simple quantitative methodology to elucidate the lexical and syntactical characteristics of IAE. They compared word frequency in the e-flux corpus (from its inception in 1999 to 2012) with word frequency in what’s known as the British National Corpus (BNC), a database, maintained by Oxford University Press, that contains around 100 million words intended to represent general, late-20th century English usage. Statistical deviations were isolated using a metric of “words per million.” (For example, a search for the word “reality” yields 313.7 words per million in the e-flux archive, but only 64.1 words per million in the BNC). e-flux is statistically significant for the regularity and size of its output—around four or five mailings per day—but the list promotes only non-profits, and is aimed at a much more intellectual and experimental sector of the art world than its commercial counterparts (Artforum, Contemporary Art Daily or Blouin Artinfo). Rule and Levine weren’t clear on why they thought e-flux was representative of the larger art world and its linguistic trends, but, in any case, this seemed to be their wager.
Rule and Levine showed that IAE, statistically, relies on buzzwords ripped from English translations of French and German academic theory: terms like ‘aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy,’ ‘dialectics, production, negation, and totality,’ not to mention prefixes and suffixes such as ‘para-, proto-, post-, and hyper-; -ion, -ity, -ality, and -ization.’ They traced the present ubiquity of this terminology to the influential art journal October, founded in 1976 and still active today. Led by academics like Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, October helped to popularize trends that were emerging in Europe in the late ’60s and early ’70s, introducing American art writers to new developments in deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism, and postmodernism. Levine, in a panel discussion held at Triple Canopy’s Brooklyn space in 2013, suggested that the new theoretical trends were eagerly received at the time by the English-speaking art world, which throughout the 50s and 60s had been dominated by turgidity of a different kind: the masculinist rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, which in writing made overblown claims about “death,” “transcendence,” and the “spiritual.”
The point here is that the story of IAE is primarily a story of translation and transcultural development within English. As Rule and Levine write, the most quintessential IAE is a mutant: not “Standard English,” but a language developed through variations and displacements in non-Anglo contexts. There is French IAE (Rule and Levine’s case of “French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics”), there is Scandinavian IAE, and—though this goes relatively uncommented upon in Rule and Levine’s analysis—there is non-European IAE: Chinese IAE, Korean IAE, and IAE from the global South. Rather than writing in local languages and translating to Standard English, galleries based in Taiwan, Mumbai, and Brazil all appear to write in IAE. This is the colonizing force of English at work. Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović’s description of the state of things in 1992—“An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist”—is no less true today.
But there is more at stake than a straightforward tension between homogenizing English center and a non-English periphery. While the periphery is coerced—by global capital—into speaking the major form of English, it also deviates from it at the same time, letting new material multiply and spiral out into the major form. It is this deviation from standard English in IAE that concerns Rule and Levine, betraying their conceptual over-investment in something like ‘correct’ or ‘untarnished English.’ On the one hand, Rule and Levine admit that writing in IAE seems to be some kind of imperative wrought by global capital; on the other hand, they mock and admonish IAE’s writers—most of whom, by Rule and Levine’s own logic, work for non-profit institutions—for buying in at all.
In her response to the Triple Canopy project, artist Hito Steyerl unfavorably compares Rule and Levine’s position to the nativism of a “Standard English Defense League,” which would aim to protect the integrity of the major language against minor uses by immigrants and insurgencies. Rule and Levine don’t give a consistent, normative account of what art writing should be—they certainly don’t advocate “Standard English”—but their argumentation leaves the tired prescriptions of high school English teachers uncontested: English writing should be economical, sparing, clear, plain, uncontaminated by too many decadent, foreign elements.
Rule and Levine are not wrong to associate IAE with power and the global 1%. No doubt, IAE often marks the spread of “neo-feudal, ultraconservative, and authoritarian contemporary art rackets,” as Steyerl writes. But the association is only hastily articulated in “International Art English.” Critic Mostafa Heddaya, for one, has a much stronger account of what might be the complicity of IAE; his piece for Hyperallergic, “When Artspeak Masks Oppression,” convincingly reads certain deployments of IAE as propaganda for American projects recently undertaken in the Gulf region, of which NYU and the Guggenheim Foundation’s developments in Abu Dhabi are the most visible examples. At the Guggenheim, the United Arab Emirates’ history of human rights abuses was sublimated into benign, IAE-endorsed “self-criticism”: as Guggenheim Abu Dhabi curator Reem Fadda put it to an American audience, what Guggenheim valued was art about “looking and introspecting and commenting and criticizing,” “asking ourselves” about “ethical positionality.” This sort of neutering language does nothing other than serve multinational oligarchs who want to appear “concerned” and “vaguely subversive” in their aesthetic choices, all while collaborating with American cultural institutions to exploit migrant labor.
But there is nothing novel here, as long as IAE is understood simply to be Orwellian doublespeak. If it were only a matter of identifying European academic theory’s filtration into the global art world as a mystifying, ideological obscurantism, the concept of International Art English would have no purchase. It is IAE’s gaps and imperfections—its failure to encompass the real affects, materials, and processes of art today, in short, its failure to convince—that makes it useful as a concept. Perhaps Rule and Levine were onto something when they chose press releases, the spam of the art world, as their initial object. Is there not, as Steyerl suggests, another radical potential to this spam? What would an articulation of IAE around the concept of spam, and its weird contortions of the digital, open up? Is it possible that IAE hasn’t gone far enough towards abstraction and deterritorialization?
International Art English in a minor register—an insurgent IAE—would record, rather than elide, imperial expropriation, further layering on mutations and degradations. More than a language of clarity and neutrality, maybe art needs a ‘degenerate’ language, a delirious, spammy language, one that goes beyond vacuous rehearsals of well-known French and German critical theory to actually modify them, to produce a more exciting kind of imperfect or poor writing. If there is, as Rule, Levine, Steyerl, Heddaya, and Mladen Stilinović all agree, no way to opt out of English (and its European ‘critique’), there is still the possibility of making English resonate differently, with the voices of the marginalized and excluded. Rather than essentializing and disavowing theory-heavy IAE as an elite form of socioeconomic distinction, maybe we might encourage a more inventive, excessive use, spearheaded by the unschooled, by those without ‘expertise’ or ‘qualifications.’
ALEC MAPES-FRANCES B’17 regrets the exclusion of a number of excellent voices in the IAE debate. Find them here:
Mariam Ghani, “The Islands of Evasion: Notes on International Art English” https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/the-islands-of-evasion-notes-on-international-art-english
Alexander Provan, “Chronicle of a Traveling Theory” https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/chronicle-of-a-traveling-theory
Martha Rosler, “English and All That” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/45/60103/english-and-all-that/