Guffwatch - how they do it

June 18 2012

This is invaluable - a former intern at Sotheby's, Alice Gregory, lifts the lid on those impenetrable contemporary catalogue entries:

After a few months on the job, I was assigned a new duty—writing the essays that are printed beneath and between the reproduced images in the sale catalogue. [...] The essay copy is mostly a formality, but it plays a role in the auction house’s overall marketing strategy. The more text given to an individual piece, the more the house seems to value it. I sprinkled about twenty adjectives (“fey,” “gestural,” “restrained”) amid a small repertory of active verbs (“explore,” “trace,” “question” ). I inserted the phrases “negative space,” “balanced composition,” and “challenges the viewer” every so often. X’s lyrical abstraction and visual vocabulary—which is marked by dogged muscularity and a singular preoccupation with the formal qualities of light—ushered in some of the most important art to hit the postwar market in decades. I described impasto—paint thickly applied to a canvas, often with a palette knife—almost pornographically and joked with friends on Gchat that I was being paid to write pulp. Pulp was exactly what I was writing. It was embarrassingly easy, and might have been the only truly dishonest part of the Sotheby’s enterprise. In most ways, the auction house is unshackled from intellectual pretense by its pure attention to the marketplace. Through its catalogue copy (and for a time, through me), it makes one small concession to the art world’s native tongue.

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