Style guide to obfuscation (new updated edition): Laura Gascoigne investigates the continued manglings of syntax and punctuation by those with space to fill and nothing intelligible to say

“Nothing and no one ever heard so many stupidities as a picture,” remarked Jules de Goncourt, and since he made his observation things have got worse. The insults to intelligence endured by 19th century pictures were as nothing to those routinely heaped on contemporary art.

Some things never change, however. Stupidity almost always originates in vanity, and art criticism is never more stupid than when it wants to sound clever. If the situation has deteriorated, it’s partly because conceptual art offers endless opportunities for cleverness. But other factors have contributed. For one thing, critical faculties are now weakened in advance by heavy shelling with stupid press releases and wall texts. For another, in order to praise a work of conceptual art it is no longer enough to wax stupidly lyrical; a lot of the time, you have to lie. And lying, for some physiological reason yet to be scientifically researched, affects the part of the brain that deals with sentence construction, resulting in obfuscation, the mortal enemy of intelligence.

For the liar, tautology and tortuous grammar are lifelines. Consider this sample from a wall text for the 2007 Turner Prize: “Enrico David’s imagery has developed through his use of drawing and painting and also finds form in sculpture, painting and works on paper.” If a stress test is carried out on the meaning of this sentence it collapses into: “Enrico David draws, paints and sculpts.” So why the extra verbiage? Because, on the visual evidence available to anyone visiting the exhibition, he did none of those things. It beats me why the security services waste money on polygraph technology, when a simple, hands-free lie detector test is to listen for the strangulated syntax. Here’s Serota in 2008 defending the Tate against criticism of the Turner Prize selection process: “We’re at the forefront of being as open as we possibly can”. Beep! If the convoluted phrasing sounds familiar, it’s because it comes straight out of Bliar’s Grammar Primer.

‘Heavy on style and light on substance’ is the obfuscator’s mantra; once the tortured phraseology has been mastered, the only real obstacle in the way of success is words. If a word has a clear meaning, it must be excised and replaced with one that makes a significant-sounding noise without adding anything quantifiable to the sense. But the trouble with buzzwords, like bluebottles, is obsolescence – when the buzz becomes annoying, people reach for the fly swat. Since we published our A-Z of Artbollocks in 2004, the language has moved on. ‘Innovative’ has lost its novelty and ‘rigorous’ its stiffness. ‘Navigation’ has drifted off course and ‘negotiation’ is grinding to a halt. Even ‘interrogation’ may soon be over. It would no longer be sufficient to say of 2005 Turner Prize nominee Gillian Carnegie that she ‘interrogates painting’. The present climate calls for something tougher: ‘rendition’, perhaps.

There are survivors from our earlier survey. ‘Investigations’ are ongoing and ‘exploration’ continues; ‘identity’, perforce, is ever with us. And there are newcomers. ‘Conversation’ and ‘discourse’ are now widely practised – witness Mima’s circuitously titled 2007 exhibition Draw: Conversations around the Legacy of Drawing and Kettle’s Yard’s 2008 offering Beyond Measure: conversations across art and space. Not to be left behind, in August the once fuddy-duddy Fine Art Society gave us Wit, Fear and Sarcasm, an exhibition featuring “the

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work of five artists whose practice presents a discourse with historicity”.

But the most notable stylistic advances have been in the formerly neglected field of punctuation. The past decade has seen a relentless rise in the use of the hyphen, in defiance of Keith Waterhouse’s sound advice in his immortal handbook On Newspaper Style: “Hyphens should never be used when they have nothing to do,” he warns. “Before admitting one to the page, ask what it has come for. If it cannot say, or if its answer is vague… refuse it admission.” Waterhouse might have made a special case for ‘ludic-artistic’, but I suspect he would have been less welcoming to ‘venue-based’, ‘text-based’, ‘time-based’ or ‘process-based’ – though ‘pizza-based’ he might have allowed. And I doubt he would have given elbow room to ‘site-specific’, ‘semi-site-specific’ or the now preferred locution ‘location-specific’ – not to mention ‘non-specific’, an expression formerly only associated with STDs that now appears regularly in respectable ‘non-specific contexts’, such as the “non-specific sense of discord with the general state of things” experienced by contributors to the Cafe Gallery’s summer exhibition Personal Use. We know how they feel.

A distinctive feature of the art hyphen is its decorative use, like a grace note, between a prefix and the stem of the word it qualifies. So we have ‘post-structural’ or ‘post-minimal’; if mail art was still in fashion, we might have ‘post-box’. But the art hyphen’s partner of the moment is the 404 Not Found prefix ‘re’, sometimes italicised for added impact. In the endlessly repeating cycle of conceptual ideas, there’s no end to this little prefix’s usefulness. From ‘re-contextualising, ‘re-configuring’, ‘re-investigation’ and ‘radical re-visioning’ to ‘re-definition of space’, ‘re-investment in aesthetic language’ and ‘re-assessment of the relationship between realism and spectacle’, re is in a prefixal class of its own. If we’re to believe the publicity for FACT’s 2008 exhibition Sk-interfaces, it’s even capable of ‘re-virginisation’ – a felicitous coinage that, if it had any meaning, might absolve pious Muslims of the need for honour killing. Following the epidemic of art hyphens, we now seem to be experiencing an outbreak of art brackets. Originally introduced by abstract painters as a way of smuggling in a title behind the title Untitled, art brackets now perform a purely ornamental function, like emoticons emptied of emotion. The publicity for a 2010 exhibition organised by Romanian curator Mihnea Mircan for the David Roberts Art Foundation Fitzrovia contained a couple of choice examples: one exhibit was described as ‘a (counter-)manifesto etched in stone’ while another was titled ‘The Remains (The Making of)’. Mircan must be an indexer manqué, since his whole exhibition was filed under the title ‘History of Art, the’. But the prize for prettiest confection in the bracket bracket goes to Flowers East for its reference, re Jerry Judah’s 2009 exhibition Babylon, to “the redundancy of traditional hierarchies at the End of (art)-History”.

And so we come to subverted commas. Just as inverted commas are used by tabloid headline writers around words like ‘MURDERER’ or ‘RAPIST’ as “typographical crossed fingers to ward off libel actions”, as Waterhouse describes it, subverted commas allow art commentators to shrug off responsibility for apparently loaded, non-relativist statements – or indeed any statements, full (old-fashioned-)stop. Thus the Arnolfini’s current series of exhibitions The Apparatus is “about the ‘makings’ of artists, of artworks, of institutions, and of a cultural infrastructure,” while Sharon Lockhart’s film-making, in the words of the Whitechapel,


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“looks back to the pivotal interest in gesture and the ‘everyday’ of the late 1960s and examines contemporary manifestations of ‘work’”.

The ultimate syntactical shrug is, of course, the question mark. In this category Newlyn Society of Artists wins the pioneers’ prize for the trailblazing introduction of the Hispanic inverted question mark into the title of its 2005 exhibition ¿DRAWING? I’m not making this up. ¿Would I lie to you?

The Jackdaw Nov-Dec 2011