Fashionable Nonsense

– On writing and collective narcissism in contemporary art.

Facebook event pages are one of the predominant forms in which I receive press releases from galleries. A notification pops up and I click through to a page of cryptic, hyperbolic writing in the name of art. This form of networked, social interaction is a complicated thing, but it isn’t a culture and technology that puts art beyond communication. I’m not a fan of non-inclusivity and art world cliques are boring. I want to understand your exhibition and I want to know as clearly and as unequivocally as possible, what it says and does.

Daniel C. Blight is a writer, critic and curator based in London.

Daniel C. Blight is a writer, critic and curator based in London.

While most of these event pages remain open and therefore anyone can join and attend creating some sense of spurious democracy, the language used rarely speaks to everyone, instead preferring to couch itself in the worst form of opacity and conceit. Facebook is not the exclusive space for this kind of writing, one can also see it – especially for those that don’t engage with social media – in email newsletters, on gallery websites and importantly when one actually attends an exhibition, printed and available to collect at the door.

Here is a recent example from an East London gallery funded by the Arts Council:

When a page freezes on the syncopated browser of a web user, there is a moment of change in the landscape marked as a reduced distinction of it’s natural other, when it has been manipulated by technology. With a desktop tidy approach to the outdoors the exhibition reflects the increasingly conflated physical spaces of retail, business, and leisure.

This is both grammatically incoherent and ridiculous. The first problem is vocabulary. The use of the adjective “syncopated” in the opening sentence – somewhat ironically considering the word’s meaning – completely displaces the words that follow, offering no clarity to the opening statement. Secondly, what exactly is the reduced distinction of a web browser’s natural other? Either an unreferenced philosophical phrasing, or a superabundant word salad, this language is neither suitable for a press release, nor meaningful in any way beyond the author’s own sense of convolution and self-worth. Thirdly, and this needs little explanation of its failing as a statement, what is a desktop tidy approach to the outdoors? The jump in subject between the first sentence about a web browser and the second sentence about the outdoors, retail, business and leisure, is massive. There is no logical development between ideas and overall it is a facile, bombastic waste of time.

Here is another example from a small project space in South London. Its Facebook event page offers this, followed by the space’s opening hours:

right to silence
world as lover, world as self
God of the Eastern Sea
God of the Southern Sea
God of the Western Sea
God of the Northern Sea
biodiversity is us

The exhibition’s title is First Water to Tripoli. One might imagine that this is a direct reference to the second phase of the Great Man-made River Project, a practical and draining assault on North Africa’s underground water resources active since the 1980s, initially funded by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government. Here, we have a potentially interesting environmental and political subject being engaged with by the project space and the artist, but instead of a meaningful description of the artist’s research into the subject, total rhetoric in the form of some kind of abstract poem pervades.

On closer inspection, this strange riddle postures around some quite unrelated themes. In Hinduism the term Manomaya describes that which is “composed of mind” or perhaps more simply, mindful. Libya has an Indian minority, but no suggestion of the religion of Hinduism’s relationship to the Great Man-made River Project is offered. Is there one? If there is, what is it? What is the meaning and relevance of this religion’s presence within Libya and with relation to the GMRP? The last statement, ‘biodiversity is us’ is just simply untrue. Biodiversity is the acceptance than the human race is not the only living thing on the planet and that this world is more biologically diverse than just us. If this is irony – perhaps referring to the fact that the GMRP benefits man over nature in its potentially environmentally catastrophic extraction of water – then it isn’t available anywhere as information. This might be a conservative position, but press releases have a very particular function and are supposed to contain information. If this one had some that was meaningful, I might be writing a review of the exhibition here rather than a critique of its postured and facetious linguistic tendencies.

Is it a press release, an essay, or a poem? Is this so-called art writing? Why does writing like this exist and why is there so much of it present in the art world?

The art world socialises in cliques that defend and protect one another. This sort of behaviour perpetuates elitism and that clearly manifests in the writing that is produced around exhibitions. A form of collective narcissism is developed by groups of individuals that feel their particular set of peers are onto something – privy to some exclusive body of knowledge unknown to everyone else – and that these insights are to be protected. This kind of behavior might stem from a combination of personal insecurity and group ego. No one really knows what the next person knows, but we all know we have to sound like we know more than everybody else knows. In the act of trying to sound clever, one forgets to communicate clearly.

Because of this vacillation between self-doubt and hubris, the tendency is to attempt to write an exhibition or an artwork into history by offering it fake profundity. To do this the writer turns to philosophy: the most profound and complicated linguistic toolkit of all. If it’s not philosophy, then instead a more cryptic engagement with literary experimentalism might suffice – perhaps a riddle, an ideogram or some concrete poetry. Whatever the case, it must not directly address the content of the exhibition, or the meaning of the artworks, for to do this is to give the game away. Simple and direct articulation is, after all, not very “cool”.

The practical-linguistic result of this is that buzzwords are extrapolated and misappropriated from meaningful histories within philosophy and art theory, multiple hyphenated clauses go in and out of fashion, willfully obscure adjectives are dug up and badly placed in incoherent sentences, and rarely are artworks addressed directly, on the terms that they were made. Simply put, an artwork, which is often a complicated object layered with multiple references and meanings, instead of being explained is deliberately obscured.

That’s just style though – what about subject? Well there isn’t one really: these types of writing around art are written for no one outside the cliques they address; the maintenance of a text’s own superiority over other forms of written culture; the placating of an unnamable, centralised ego; the re-enforcement and unnecessary production of prose which anyone can write, because it has an entirely transparent structure with little depth, if you care to familiarise yourself with it by socialising on Facebook, subscribing to gallery newsletters or picking up that piece of A4 paper at the entrance to a gallery.

What is really at stake with this issue, culturally?

We live in precarious times in terms of funding and labour within the arts, and we all need to be speaking as clearly and as openly to each other as possible, so we stand a chance of getting through this political crisis. And it is a crisis, because funding cuts are rife and the British Education Secretary Nicky Morgan thinks young people shouldn’t chose to study arts or humanities subjects at school, college and university. We need to actively break down cliques and in-crowds, in order to open up art practice to debate, criticism and direct communication.

Fashion might be the problem. Contemporary art is a sucker for it. It changes direction like a piss in the wind. It’s meaningless and futile trying to follow it. In his book On the New (Verso, 2014), Boris Groys aptly distinguishes between what is new and what is fashionable:

Wyndham Lewis once rightly pointed out that, in modernity, the fashion compulsion replaced the tradition compulsion. New cultural trends are no indication that individual freedom has triumphed; rather, they create new – albeit relatively minor, temporally limited – homogeneities, social codes, patterns of behavior, and the new group conformity that goes hand in hand with them. This description is of course accurate, but means only that fashion establishes an inequality between values and allows us to draw a sharp distinction between ‘our’ values and ‘other’ values: when we do, some individual differences are defined as especially valuable and decisive, to the detriment of others.

So fashion is to be avoided. Perhaps the position of any artist or writer should be to work against, rather than reinforce, the status quo? Fashion is the tool with which collective narcissism communicates to the rest of the art world: a clique establishes a series of visual or literary tropes and a sort of question and answer engagement is set up between the key practitioners within that group. Gradually the materials, processes, forms and theoretical references of this group become alike as these individuals produce new work. Practically this is how any art movement might develop, the problem here is that the end goal remains a combination of visually homogenous and conceptually undisclosed. What direction is the practice moving in? Who is it speaking to? What exactly is the point of the production of this work?

Without any sense of direction – a manifesto for inclusivity; a methodology for clear articulation; a process of grounded and rigorous contextualisation of the work produced – one is left with a set of postured and incoherent values. Art becomes unvarying and conformist and writing becomes full of jargon and confusion. Artistic value emerges as fashion: fashion, in turn, forms a culture of inequality.

It is the responsibility of curators to address these issues, as they are the individuals that should be responsible for producing and overseeing press releases and other forms of writing around exhibitions. Artists should be free to communicate through various materials, processes and concepts. It is the job of the curator, through writing, to offer historical context and linguistic clarity to these actions. The rise of the popularity of curating as a cultural pursuit and as an academic degree has, and I would argue to its detriment, left the status of the curator comparable to the artist in that he or she wants to work abstractly, and often not produce any writing at all.

As a result, curatorial activity often fails to mediate the gap between artistic production and public engagement, when it should, at its most basic level, be doing just that. Writing is the thinking that surrounds exhibitions: without a sense of it being produced on clear and articulate terms, there is little left in the way of meaning. Accessibility fades, and forms of individual and collective narcissism prevail.

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