How to put people off contemporary art

Inspired by Nicky Getgood’s excellent Digbeth Is Good blog, I looked up the web page for the current exhibit by the Mexican collective Tercerunquinto at Ikon East.


Stuart Whipps
photo: Stuart Whipps


The exhibit looks great, but oh, how my heart sank as I read the accompanying blurb.

Apparently “the inscription of language onto buildings particularly corresponds with Tercerunquinto’s established interest in institutional self-definition through architectonic modes”.

I’m sorry?

“institutional self-definition through architectonic modes”

Repeating it doesn’t make the meaning any clearer, does it?  I have no idea what institutional self-definition means, and I had to look up the work “architectonic”.  Pertaining to architecture, it seems.  Did someone else have dibs on the work “architectural”, so the Ikon people couldn’t use it?

From the pic, this exhibit is bold and accessible. I could see it appealing to a wide range of people; maybe some who wouldn’t normally sample contemporary art.

But compare it with the words that someone has chosen to drape over it like an obscurantist shroud.

What on earth does the person who wrote this nonsense imagine its effect will be?  It doesn’t interpret the work; it clouds it.  I can’t imagine that many people would be more likely to visit Ikon East having read it – apart from a small group of institutional self-definition enthusiasts, that is.

I like contemporary art.  I’ve recently visited the Psycho Buildings exhibtion at the Hayward Gallery, and the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design end of year show.  I’ve even commissioned a piece, in a very small way.

But I long ago learned to ignore the pseudo-academic verbiage that accompanies contemporary art.  Let the work speak to you directly.  You decide what it means, if it means anything, and you decide how you’re going to react to it.

After all, if you wanted an interpreter, wouldn’t you want one who speaks English?

7 thoughts on “How to put people off contemporary art

  1. Don’t be so thick Keri. “Institutional self-definition through architetonic modes” means writing what you do on a wall. I believe shops often do it with signs.

    I agree the exhibition looks great – I must get down there – but I don’t tend to read the waffle. Even if I understand it I never agree!

  2. As an artist I think there exists the ability to be both intelligent and accessible. You don’t necessarily have to be one or the other. That sentence could have easily read :

    “the inscription of language onto buildings particularly corresponds with Tercerunquinto’s established interest in how institutions define themselves through architectural language.” It would be saying essentially the same thing, without sounding unnecessarily pretentious. One doesn’t have to sacrifice accessibility to make people understand you know what you are talking about.

  3. Is there a fear, do you think, that unless the language is abstruse the writer will be considered shallow, simplistic?

  4. Pseudo-academic is probably apt – since it defines a class of people that pretend to be academic, and who confuse fancy words with intellectual expertise. But there’s more to it than a bit of make-believe intellect. The person who wrote those words is probably employed by the arts establishment and is expected to write that way for a living. The language comes with the territory, and the territory is defined by powerful people who want to obscure the obvious so as to make it seem profound.

    In plain English, if you want money from the Arts Council, be prepared to describe your work with tosh words.

  5. Hi Keri, just caught onto this post.

    Wholeheartedly agree with you and VERY glad I didn’t read that properly before going to see it, it’s really off-putting. Thing is, amongst all the tosh there can be some really cool stuff. I loved the story of Tercerunquinto proposing a San Francisco New Langton gallery ‘sacrifice’ its entire archive and start afresh with zero assets to its name. Their sheer gall really grabbed me.

    To me, Tercerunquinto are a group that make brave and bold statements that speak for themselves and Ikon’s sludgy, verbose blurb is in danger of diluting that and diminishing the work, which is seriously self-defeating. Yes, intelligent commentary has its place but I think with these guys it needs to be kept to a minimum so they can be left to hit their audience hard between the eyes.

    Thanks for saying Digbeth Is Good is excellent, it made me smile wide! YAY!

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