Sunday, May 30, 2010


If you don’t understand what is written maybe you haven't made an effort.

If a reader doesn’t immediately understand something they are quick to blame the writer for using unnecessarily “big” words. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but most of the time if you can’t understand something easily it is because it is not easy. It is written for intelligent people who will take the time to read something complex and difficult rather than dismissing it because they didn’t understand it immediately. Much popular writing is written to be easily consumed on the train, to the reading level of a ten-year old. But that writing isn’t about big ideas or new ways of thinking.

When an artist uses the language of their profession it is often dismissed as "artspeak". Other professions are not ridiculed for using terms that relate to their work. Engineers are not accused of deliberately using difficult language when they speak about their subject. Physicists talking about complex topics are not told to simplify their language so that everyone can understand. But artists and art critics are derided for their manner of writing and speaking about art, an often difficult subject. It is commonly accepted that those writing about art try to make it “sound important” and purposefully use complicated language in an attempt to hide the fact that they have nothing to say or to be exclusionary.

Writing about a piece of visual art is a difficult thing. Do you describe it, judge it, explain it, talk about the maker or all of the above? And who are you to judge it or explain it? If a picture is worth a thousand words then what about a complex picture with ten years of build-up behind it? How do you write about a mind-mending, multi-faceted, hard-to-grasp concept, about something you understand with your eyes, not with words? Art writers are making the word-less into words. To simplify the idea I will modify the anonymous quote: Writing about art is like dancing about architecture.

If an artist works at expressing a new philosophy visually it may take ten years of making work about that set of ideas to get to a point where the artist feels the idea is well communicated. If it is a complex idea then why would someone writing about the work not need to use complex terms? If the artist took ten years to explore an idea and then shares the results with us, why would you think it could be explained in a paragraph that could be read in one minute? The artist put in the effort, the writer put in the effort, if you want to know what they are talking about you will need to put in some effort, too.

Sometimes understanding a work of art is easy but writing about it might be difficult and reading that writing might be difficult but will probably be fascinating. Sometimes understanding a work of art is hard so reading what someone has written about it will probably be hard, too. It is fashionable to bash “artspeak”. But, the next time you hear someone doing it think for a minute about how hard the artist and writer worked and ask the speaker if they actually tried to understand it.

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