Last month art blogger Carol Diehl wrote about the impenetrable prose at the Whitney Biennial. Or rather she exposed it for what it was, merely by quoting it in its invisible clothes. This is a language all of its own “where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings”. Ugh.
Richard Lacayo picked up the theme at Time online – that's how I found Carol's blog – beginning with a visual slam by reproducing Art as Idea: Nothing by Joseph Kosuth. Two pertinent comments here: “Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful? Why is it so clogged with the decrepit formulations of academic artspeak? Why does so much of it sound like it was written by an anxious schoolkid delivering a labored term paper?” Followed by: “Finally, bad writing is just insider talk. It's not directed to the public at all, but pitched to the coterie of other curators and academics who use jargon to signal to one another their initiation into the world of… jargon.”
Now Eric Gibson at the Wall Street Journal has turned the emerging theme into a full-fledged piece. He points to Duchamp and conceptual art as the point where the rot set in – at least for the plastic arts.
This all hits a nerve because a lot of writing about music… Stop. …because nearly all bad writing about music suffers from the exact same flaws that Lacayo identifies. (Some bad writing about music is bad for other reasons, it's true.)
The key difference between the two art forms might lie in the point that Gibson makes:
“From the late 19th century to just after World War II, writing about modern art was clear. It had to be. Critics from Émile Zola to Clement Greenberg were trying to explain new and strange art forms to a public that was often hostile to the avant-garde. To have a hope of making their case, these writers couldn't afford to obfuscate. Today, when curators and critics can count on a large audience willing to embrace new art simply because it is new, they don't have to try as hard.” [Italics mine]
In this respect art bears no resemblance to the concert world. Contemporary composers and their "curators" might feel they have to try harder than ever, because the audience willing to embrace new music simply because it is new is woefully small. But perhaps it could be said that we've been trying too hard and in the wrong ways: writing about contemporary music can be as impenetrable as what the Whitney's dishing out for its Biennial.
And in any case, for concert-goers the problem isn't confined to contemporary music: there's plenty of impenetrability (or simply inept writing) attached to writing about music from the classical canon too. Which is not to say there aren't many many good program notes and fine, perceptive annotators (I couldn't not say that, I belong to the breed!). But there's also plenty of writing that seems determined to put the listener off; and plenty of writing about music that might read well enough, but which simply isn't helpful or illuminating.
What's the solution? Ridicule (along the lines of there is nothing the devil hates more than laughter)? That would be George Bernard Shaw on the matter of Hamlet's soliloquy:
“Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.”
Lacayo, on the other hand, suggests a starvation method. He believes the bad writers in the art world (well, half of them) would be disarmed if the following five words were removed from the lexicon:
3. References (as a verb)
So perhaps it's time to give some thought to the five words I would ban from music writing. When the revolution comes…