Leonardo DaVinci drawing - Five Characters in a Comic Scene, c. 1490

Leonardo DaVinci drawing – Five Characters in a Comic Scene, c. 1490

An editorial posted the other day in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research, claims that “Artspeak” does not reflect “actual” research in the arts.  The conventions and validity of the arts are under attack daily at the moment.  As a member of a research institution where my research is art-making, and is occasionally supported by dense writing, I was disheartened to read this uninformed editorial in a major newspaper.

Artspeak is the often satirized form of English that showcases artists’ proclivity to use complex and absurd-sounding words and phrases.  I do appreciate the difficulty of artspeak and acknowledge my complicity.  Yes, when possible and appropriate artists and theorists should write for lay audiences.  However, I also recognize the necessity of Artspeak as a discipline-specific form of writing with its own quirks and peculiarities.  Several authors at Triple Canopy, a New York magazine, did a wonderful analysis of Artspeak calling it “International Art English” in 2002, yet there are many artists and writers like Russel Smith, who likely never had patience for French poststructuralism nor the florid universe of International Art English it helped to spawn.  To the author’s three main points:

The author’s first point is that artists use big words to overcomplicate simple concepts.  The author claims that “performativities of language embody speaking subjects,” is the same as “people of different backgrounds use language differently.”  These sentences are not the same and have different meanings.  To tackle the first part of this mistranslation, the performative aspect of language (or anything else) is different than language itself, language itself being the province of linguists, grammaticians, and even anthropologists.  Performance itself is an important part of the fine arts, as is the performative aspect of words or materials etc–what words materials etc. can do.  Secondly, embodying is an important concept in the fine arts as well;  the fine arts necessarily deal with  identity, the body, and the ways that individuals or materials can express certain ideas in ways that other disciplines do not.  While in other disciplines people “use” language, in the arts language is additionally free to embody speaking subjects or vice versa.  Finally, the word “subjects” is not the same as the word “people”.  A subject is an important concept in the arts—the subject of a painting, a subject as a distinct entity and not necessarily an individual belonging to some specific “people“, as is the case in the authors example simplified sentence.  Admittedly, this is a clunky sentence that could be improved.  Yet, the author’s thesis that complex ideas like embodying and performativity are analogous to simpler words like “use” is nonsense.

As the current president of the United States has gone to great lengths to simplify and dumb down the English language, so too has the populace been somewhat dumbed-down and considered in highly simplistic ways.  Trump’s tweets do indeed have a “performative aspect” and the sooner we recognize this the sooner we understand the performance itself for what it is.  Words mean things yes, but they also do things, and an integral part of the fine arts is a sensitivity to how various media “work us over completely” (Marshall Mcluhan) impacting individuals and culture.  Arts finds itself at the extreme of a spectrum of language complexity, as an embrace of complexity is in part the job of the artist. In a time of oversimplification from our elected leaders, moving toward a greater appreciation of difficult ideas and a greater understanding of the limits of language is a moral imperative.

To the author’s second point, I am not sure who is claiming that “critical theory is a kind of scientific research” in the first place.  This is a straw man argument.  Critical theory is necessarily and deliberately unscientific but it is research.  The fine arts celebrate ambiguity in ways that chemists generally cannot (lest they blow up the lab).  And God forbid critical theorists and artists use the wrong style when using citations!  The authors critique that artists and philosophers have it wrong by using “APA style as opposed to MLA style, for those in the know [emphasis added]” is an appeal to the same kind of discipline-specific elitism he attempts to condemn.

Finally, the author states that “philosophy and art criticism prove nothing…They just advance ideas.”   Scientific theories do not prove anything either.  This is why we call them scientific theories.  “Just” advancing ideas is exactly what artistic as well as scientific research does.  And yes, considering various ideas over the course of a period of time can constitute “actual” research in the truest sense of the word: research is by definition the process of seeking—Middle French recerche, from recercher to go about seeking (merriam-webster)—and not the process of making decrees about “established facts” in the form of science.  When we concede research and ways of knowing to the sciences exclusively we lose our humanity (the Nazis were supported by “established facts” about racial superiority provided by scientific researchers).  Obversely, figures like Leonardo DaVinci demonstrate that ideas may be advanced and strengthened through both artistic and scientific disciplines.  Unbound critical thinkers, artists and philosophers point us toward a greater and fuller understanding of the universe, in all its complicated, seemingly superfluous performative glory.