Initial Thoughts on Efficacy of Language Through the Lens of Art Writing


The more time I spend reading exhibition wall texts, exhibition catalogues, and other kinds of art writing, the more I am affirmed in my belief that the population of people who care for precision, accuracy, and informed language use is dwindling.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. We do not all have to agree. We should, however, be able to explicate that opinion and back it up with fact, lived experience, and pre-existing documentation to support it. Regardless of how I feel about what you say, I should be able to look at your wall text, exhibition review, or your facebook post and follow your argument.

Here are a few of the more egregious examples of these behaviors I’ve witnessed.

  1. When an author writes about a concept he or she did not himself create, as if he or she was in fact the creator, and doesn’t bother to cite the actual creator;

  2. When a well-known media outlet in the community, posts information about a forthcoming exhibition without using the text supplied by the curator/gallery owner but rather posts what he or she decides is appropriate;

  3. When opening remarks, wall text, and exhibition catalog are reminiscent of an exhibition that already happened years prior. And still, no credit is given to the work of the curators and artists of that first exhibition;

  4. When art writers write about exhibitions they haven’t seen;

  5. When art writers write about artists and work they haven’t researched;

  6. When, rather than actually writing about what one sees in the work (assuming the art writer in question has actually seen it, then see item 4 again), the art writer paraphrases the press release. (Pro-tip: it may not be illegal but it is fraudulent and thus unethical);

For me, these observations all point to a use of language that is not steeped in the realities of the area - in this case art - about which authors generally claim some level of authority. Whether authors claim authority or not, when one is tasked with writing about an artist, or an art work, one is placed in a position of authority and many abuse that position. Here, I am compelled to remind all non-artists working in the art world that without artists, and the works they make, your job would not exist. Many of us (and I include myself in this as an arts administrator, independent curator, and writer) forget where we stand in our shared industry. Well, I am here to remind you.

If you can not acknowledge that you don’t already know and own everything, then your language will inherently carry an energy of control and ownership and be centered on you, rather than on your subject. If you have not bothered to study that which you choose to write about, then all you can talk about is what you think is the case, versus what you know to be the case had you chosen to study your subject. If you ignore the content that is already in existence about an artist or exhibition, and opt to create something other, or adjust details based on your agenda, then again you are substituting your un-lived experience, speculation where their should be fact and interpretation based on lived realities.

These issues are ubiquitous in the slice of the art world I occupy. I could wax cynnical on why but ultimately I think it often boils down to individuals taking up space in places they have no business (e.g. no skill set, no experience, etc.) being. Apparently, it is an actual phenomenon to satiate one’s salacious need for approbation because without an actual skill set, ego is all they have.

To those whose point of departure is fact, lived experience, engagement, research, holistic, and dedication to the perpetuity of an artist’s oeuvre and thus the artist’s legacy - SALUT! You are my heroes, and my footnotes and bibliography will forever sing your praises. To the rest, you are being observed and you will occupy a very singular portion of the historical record.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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