Guffwatch - how it began

August 13 2012

Over on Artinfo, Kyle Chayka highlights an article by Alix Rule and David Levine on the origins of 'International Art English', known in this parish as Guff:

The hypnotizing argot of the art world is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to decipher a gallery press release or encountered a nebulous artist statement. It’s a vocabulary of modified adjectives and abstract nouns, of concepts that get deconstructed and ideas that get interrogated, distributed practices and embraced ambiguity. In a recent article for the innovative web publication Triple Canopy, Alix Rule and David Levine coin the term “International Art English” (shorthanded “IAE,” roughly equivalent to the popular nickname “artspeak”) to describe this language, tracing its history and divining its murky rules. IAE “always recommends using more rather than fewer words,” the authors write; it “sounds like inexpertly translated French;” is marked by an “uncanny stillness;” and has a heavy “dependence on lists” (guilty as charged).

Rule and Levine have arrived at their findings by sorting through the past 13 years of press releases from e-flux, an online art project and distribution platform founded by artists Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda, Adriana Arenas, Josh Welber, and Terence Gower in 1999 that sends out paid-for announcements to its 90,000-plus-member email list. Rule and Levine loaded the collected press releases into Sketch Engine, a piece of software that analyzes linguistic behavior and trends from bodies of text. The tendencies that they discovered are obvious in retrospect — an overreliance on adverbs, repetition of adjectives, and a preponderance of subordinate clauses — but more striking is their outlining of the past and possible future of IAE. 

Rule and Levine peg the origin of IAE to the critical journal October, founded in 1976 by art historians Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson. October introduced French post-structuralist philosophers to American audiences, translating the writing for the new publication. So begins IAE’s departure from standard English. The approximations, vagaries, and quirks of those French-to-English translations, as Rule and Levine describe, took on the status of art-writing tropes and were widely emulated by less scholarly magazines, then galleries, institutions, and artists, in a process of semantic entropy. A language originally invented by and for the elite of the art world that “allowed some writers to sound more authoritative than others” trickled down and became destabilized in the process, eventually morphing into the pidgin we know (and don’t love) today.

Here's a reminder of how they write IAE at the auction houses.

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