Of this English upper-middle class speech we may note (a) that it is not localised in any one place, (b) that though the people who use this speech are not all acquainted with one another, they can easily recognise each other’s status by this index alone, (c) that this elite speech form tends to be imitated by those who are not of the elite, so that other dialect forms are gradually eliminated, (d) that the elite, recognising this imitation, is constantly creating new linguistic elaborations to mark itself off from the common herd.
—E. R. Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure, 1954
The internationalized art world relies on a unique language. Its purest articulation is found in the digital press release. This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English. It is largely an export of the Anglophone world and can thank the global dominance of English for its current reach. But what really matters for this language—what ultimately makes it a language—is the pointed distance from English that it has always cultivated.
In what follows, we examine some of the curious lexical, grammatical, and stylistic features of what we call International Art English. We consider IAE’s origins, and speculate about the future of this language through which contemporary art is created, promoted, sold, and understood. Some will read our argument as an overelaborate joke. But there’s nothing funny about this language to its users. And the scale of its use testifies to the stakes involved. We are quite serious.
IAE, like all languages, has a community of users that it both sorts and unifies. That community is the art world, by which we mean the network of people who collaborate professionally to make the objects and nonobjects that go public as contemporary art: not just artists and curators, but gallery owners and directors, bloggers, magazine editors and writers, publicists, collectors, advisers, interns, art-history professors, and so on. Art world is of course a disputed term, but the common alternative—art industry—doesn’t reflect the reality of IAE. If IAE were simply the set of expressions required to address a professional subject matter, we would hardly be justified in calling it a language. IAE would be at best a technical vocabulary, a sort of specialized English no different than the language a car mechanic uses when he discusses harmonic balancers or popper valves. But by referring to an obscure car part, a mechanic probably isn’t interpellating you as a member of a common world—as a fellow citizen, or as the case may be, a fellow traveler. He isn't identifying you as someone who does or does not get it.
When the art world talks about its transformations over recent decades, it talks about the spread of biennials. Those who have tried to account for contemporary art’s peculiar nonlocal language tend to see it as the Esperanto of this fantastically mobile and glamorous world, as a rational consensus arrived at for the sake of better coordination. But that is not quite right. Of course, if you’re curating an exhibition that brings art made in twenty countries to Dakar or Sharjah, it’s helpful for the artists, interns, gallerists, and publicists to be communicating in a common language. But convenience can’t account for IAE. Our guess is that people all over the world have adopted this language because the distributive capacities of the Internet now allow them to believe—or to hope—that their writing will reach an international audience. We can reasonably assume that most communication about art today still involves people who share a first language: artists and fabricators, local journalists and readers. But when an art student in Skopje announces her thesis show, chances are she’ll email out the invite in IAE. Because, hey—you never know.
To appreciate this impulse and understand its implications, we need only consider e-flux, the art world’s flagship digital institution. When it comes to communication about contemporary art, e-flux is the most powerful instrument and its metonym. Anton Vidokle, one of its founders, characterizes the project as an artwork.1 Essentially, e-flux is a listserv that sends out roughly three announcements per day about contemporary-art events worldwide. Because of the volume of email, Vidokle has suggested that e-flux is really only for people who are “actively involved” in contemporary art.
There are other ways of exchanging this kind of information online. A service like Craigslist could separate events by locality and language. Contemporary Art Daily sends out illustrated mailings featuring exhibitions from around the world. But e-flux channels the art world’s aspirations so perfectly: You must pay to send out an announcement, and not every submission is accepted. Like everything the art world values, e-flux is curated. For-profit galleries are not eligible for e-flux’s core announcement service, so it is also plausibly not commercial. And one can presume—or at very least imagine—that everyone in the art world reads it. (The listserv has twice as many subscribers as the highest-circulation contemporary-art publication, Artforum—never mind the forwards!) Like so much of the writing about contemporary art that circulates online, e-flux press releases are implicitly addressed to the art world’s most important figures—which is to say that they are written exclusively in IAE.
We’ve assembled all thirteen years of e-flux press announcements, a collection of texts large enough to represent patterns of linguistic usage. Many observations in this essay are based on an analysis of that corpus.
In order to examine the stylistic tendencies of International Art English, we entered every e-flux announcement published since the listserv’s launch in 1999 into Sketch Engine, a concordance generator developed by Lexical Computing. Sketch Engine allows you to analyze usage in a variety of ways, including concordances, syntactical behavior, and word usage over time. We invite you to follow our analysis by using Sketch Engine to do your own searches. Click on the blue dates to see original articles, and the red words to see sentences.
The language we use for writing about art is oddly pornographic: We know it when we see it. No one would deny its distinctiveness. Yet efforts to define it inevitably produce squeamishness, as if describing the object too precisely might reveal one’s particular, perhaps peculiar, investments in it. Let us now break that unspoken rule and describe the linguistic features of IAE in some detail.
IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes … experiencability.
Space is an especially important word in IAE and can refer to a raft of entities not traditionally thought of as spatial (the space of humanity) as well as ones that are in most circumstances quite obviously spatial (the space of the gallery). An announcement for the 2010 exhibition “Jimmie Durham and His Metonymic Banquet,” at Proyecto de Arte Contemporáneo Murcia in Spain, had the artist “questioning the division between inside and outside in the Western sacred space”—the venue was a former church—“to highlight what is excluded in order to invest the sanctum with its spatial purity. Pieces of cement, wire, refrigerators, barrels, bits of glass and residues of ‘the sacred,’ speak of the space of the exhibition hall … transforming it into a kind of ‘temple of confusion.’”
Spatial and nonspatial space are interchangeable in IAE. The critic John Kelsey, for instance, writes that artist Rachel Harrison “causes an immediate confusion between the space of retail and the space of subjective construction.” The rules for space in this regard also apply to field, as in “the field of the real”—which is where, according to art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “the parafictional has one foot.” (Prefixes like para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- expand the lexicon exponentially and Germanly, which is to say without adding any new words.) It’s not just that IAE is rife with spacey terms like intersection, parallel, parallelism, void, enfold, involution, and platform. IAE’s literary conventions actually favor the hard-to-picture spatial metaphor: A practice “spans” from drawing all the way to artist’s books; Matthew Ritchie’s works, in the words of Artforum, “elegantly bridge a rift in the art-science continuum”; Saâdane Afif “will unfold his ideas beyond the specific and anecdotal limits of his Paris experience to encompass a more general scope, a new and broader dimension of meaning.”
And so many ordinary words take on nonspecific alien functions. “Reality,” writes artist Tania Bruguera, in a recent issue of Artforum, “functions as my field of action.” Indeed: Reality occurs four times more frequently in the e-flux corpus than in the British National Corpus (BNC), which represents British English usage in the second half of the twentieth century.2 The real appears 2,148 times per million units in the e-flux corpus versus a mere 12 times per million in the BNC–about 179 times more often. One exhibit invites “the public to experience the perception of colour, spatial orientation and other forms of engagement with reality”; another “collects models of contemporary realities and sites of conflict”; a show called “Reality Survival Strategies” teaches us that the "sub real is … formed of the leftovers of reality.”
Let us turn to a press release for Kim Beom’s “Animalia,” exhibited at REDCAT last spring: “Through an expansive practice that spans drawing, sculpture, video, and artist books, Kim contemplates a world in which perception is radically questioned. His visual language is characterized by deadpan humor and absurdist propositions that playfully and subversively invert expectations. By suggesting that what you see may not be what you see, Kim reveals the tension between internal psychology and external reality, and relates observation and knowledge as states of mind.”
Here we find some of IAE’s essential grammatical characteristics: the frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” The pairing of like terms is also essential to IAE, whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases. Note also the reliance on dependent clauses, one of the most distinctive features of art-related writing. IAE prescribes not only that you open with a dependent clause, but that you follow it up with as many more as possible, embedding the action deep within the sentence, effecting an uncanny stillness. Better yet: both an uncanny stillness and a deadening balance.
IAE always recommends using more rather than fewer words. Hence a press release for a show called “Investigations” notes that one of the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.” And when Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow Fog “is shown at dusk—the transition period between day and night—it represents and comments on the subtle changes in the day’s rhythm.” If such redundancies follow from this rule, so too do groupings of ostensibly unrelated items. Catriona Jeffries Gallery writes of Jin-me Yoon: “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.” The principle of antieconomy also accounts for the dependence on lists in IAE. This is illustrated at inevitable length in the 2010 press release announcing the conference “Cultures of the Curatorial,” which identifies “the curatorial” as “forms of practice, techniques, formats and aesthetics … not dissimilar to the functions of the concepts of the filmic or the literary” that entail “activities such as organization, compilation, display, presentation, mediation or publication … a multitude of different, overlapping and heterogeneously coded tasks and roles.”3
Reading the "Animalia" release may lead to a kind of metaphysical seasickness. It is hard to find a footing in this "space" where Kim "contemplates" and "reveals" an odd "tension," but where in the end nothing ever seems to do anything. And yet to those of us who write about art, these contortions seem to be irresistible, even natural. When we sense ourselves to be in proximity to something serious and art related, we reflexively reach for subordinate clauses. The question is why. How did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?
If e-flux is the crucible of today’s IAE, the journal October is a viable candidate for the language’s point of origin. In the pages of October, founded in 1976, an American tradition of formalist art criticism associated with Clement Greenberg collided with continental philosophy. October's editors, among them art historians Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, saw contemporary criticism as essentially slovenly and belle lettristic; they sought more rigorous interpretive criteria, which led them to translate and introduce to an English-speaking audience many French poststructuralist texts.4 The shift in criticism represented by October had an enormous impact on the interpretation and evaluation of art and also changed the way writing about art sounded.
Consider Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” published in 1979: “Their failure is also encoded onto the very surface of these works: the doors having been gouged away and anti-structurally encrusted to the point where they bear their inoperative condition on their face, the Balzac having been executed with such a degree of subjectivity that not even Rodin believed (as letters by him attest) that the work would be accepted.” Krauss translated Barthes, Baudrillard, and Deleuze for October, and she wrote in a style that seemed forged in those translations. So did many of her colleagues. A number of them were French and German, so presumably translated themselves in real time.
Many of IAE’s particular lexical tics come from French, most obviously the suffixes -ion, -ity, -ality, and -ization, so frequently employed over homier alternatives like -ness. The mysterious proliferation of definite and indefinite articles—“the political," “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”—are also French imports. Le vide, for instance, could mean “empty things” in general—evidently the poststructuralists’ translators preferred the monumentality of “The Void.”Le vide occurs 20.9 times per million in the French Web Corpus; the void occurs only 1.3 times per million in the BNC, but 9.8 times per million in the e-flux corpus. (Sketch Engine searches are not case sensitive.) The word multitude, the same in English and French, appears 141 times in e-flux press releases. A lot appears 102 times.
French is probably also responsible for the prepositional and adverbial phrases that are so common in IAE: simultaneously, while also, and, of course, always already. Many tendencies that IAE has inherited are not just specific to French but to the highbrow written French that the poststructuralists appropriated, or in some cases parodied (the distinction was mostly lost in translation). This kind of French features sentences that go on and on and make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. These have become art writing’s stylistic signatures.5
French is not IAE’s sole non-English source. Germany’s Frankfurt School was also a great influence on the October generation; its legacy can be located in the liberal use of production, negation, and totality. Dialectics abound. (Production is used four times more often in the e-flux corpus than in the BNC, negation three times more often, totality twice as often. Dialectics occurs six times more often in the e-flux corpus than in the BNC; at 9.9 instances per million, dialectics is nearly as common to IAE as sunlight to the BNC.) One press release notes that “humanity has aspired to elevation and desired to be free from alienation of and subjugation to gravity. … This physical and existential dialectic, which is in a permanent state of oscillation between height and willful falling, drives us to explore the limits of balance.” Yes, the assertion here is that standing up is a dialectical practice.
October’s emulators mimicked both the deliberate and unintentional features of the journal's writing, without discriminating between the two. Krauss and her colleagues aspired to a kind of analytic precision in their use of words, but at several degrees’ remove those same words are used like everyday language: anarchically, expressively. (The word dialectic has a precise, some would say scientific, meaning, but in IAE it is normally used for its affective connotation: It means good.) At the same time, the progeny of October elevated accidents of translation to the level of linguistic norms.
IAE channels theoretical influences more or less aesthetically, sedimented in a style that combines their inflections and formulations freely and continually incorporates new ones.6 (Later art writing would trouble, for instance, and queer.) Today the most authoritative writers cheerfully assert that criticism lacks a sense of what it is or does: Unlike in the years following October’s launch, there are no clearly dominant methodologies for interpreting art. And yet, the past methodologies are still with us—not in our substantive interpretations, but in the spirit and letter of the art world’s universally foreign language.7
Sketch Engine permits you to get a global picture of a word’s behavior by doing a “Word Sketch.” Here you can see the various ways in which a word is deployed and the frequency with which it is paired with other words all at once. Select “Word Sketch” in the sidebar, enter the word you’re looking for in the “Lemma” field, and then select the grammatical form of the word for which you’re searching.
We hardly need to point out what was exclusionary about the kind of writing that Anglo art criticism cultivated. Such language asked more than to be understood, it demanded to be recognized. Based on so many idiosyncrasies of translation, the language that art writing developed during the October era was alienating in large part because it was legitimately alien. It alienated the English reader as such, but it distanced you less the more of it you could find familiar. Those who could recognize the standard feints were literate. Those comfortable with the more esoteric contortions likely had prolonged contact with French in translation or, at least, theory that could pass for having been translated. So art writing distinguished readers. And it allowed some writers to sound more authoritative than others.
Authority is relevant here because the art world does not deal in widgets. What it values is fundamentally symbolic, interpretable. Hence the ability to evaluate—the power to deem certain things and ideas significant and critical—is precious. Starting in the 1960s, the university became the privileged route into the rapidly growing American art world. And in October’s wake, that world systematically rewarded a particular kind of linguistic weirdness. One could use this special language to signal the assimilation of a powerful kind of critical sensibility, one that was rigorous, politically conscious, probably university trained. In a much expanded art world this language had a job to do: consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and, indeed, contemporary. IAE developed to describe work that transcended the syntax and terminology used to interpret the art of earlier times.
It did not take long for the mannerisms associated with a rather lofty critical discourse to permeate all kinds of writing about art. October sounded seriously translated from its first issue onward. A decade later, much of the middlebrow Artforum sounded similar. Soon after, so did artists’ statements, exhibition guides, grant proposals, and wall texts. The reasons for this rapid adoption are not so different from those which have lately caused people all over the world to opt for a global language in their writing about art. Whatever the content, the aim is to sound to the art world like someone worth listening to, by adopting an approximation of its elite language.
But not everyone has the same capacity to approximate. It's often a mistake to read art writing for its literal content; IAE can communicate beautifully without it. Good readers are quite sensitive to the language’s impoverished variants. An exhibition guide for a recent New York City MFA show, written by the school's art-history master's students, reads: "According to [the artist] the act of making objects enables her to control the past and present." IAE of insufficient complexity sounds both better and worse: It can be more lucid, so its assertions risk appearing more obviously ludicrous. On the other hand, we're apt to be intimidated by virtuosic usage, no matter what we think it means. An e-flux release from a leading German art magazine refers to "elucidating the specificity of artistic research practice and the conditions of its possibility, rather than again and again spelling out the dialectics (or synthesis) of 'art' and 'science.'" Here the magazine distinguishes itself by reversing the normal, affirmative valence of dialectic in IAE. It accuses the dialectic of being boring. By doing so the magazine implicitly lays claim to a better understanding of dialectics than the common reader, a claim that is reinforced by the suggestion that this particular dialectic is so tedious as to be interchangeable with an equally tedious synthesis. What dialectic actually denotes is negligible. What matters is the authority it establishes.
To generate your own histogram, do a concordance search for the word of your choice. Then, in the sidebar, select “Frequency.” In the new window, select the type of analysis you want to do (e.g., by year or by institution) in the “Text Type Frequency Distribution” panel, and then click “Frequency List.”
Say what you will about biennials. Nothing has changed contemporary art more in the past decade than the panoptic effects of the Internet. Before e-flux, what had the Oklahoma City Museum of Art to do with the Pinakothek der Moderne München? And yet once their announcements were sent out on the same day, they became relevant—legible—to one another. The same goes for the artists whose work was featured in them, and for the works themselves. Language in the art world is more powerful than ever. Despite all the biennials, most of the art world’s attention, most of the time, is online. For the modal reader of e-flux, the artwork always arrives already swaddled in IAE.
Because members of today's art world elite have no monopolies on the interpretation of art, they recognize each other mostly through their mobility. Nevertheless, the written language they’ve inherited continues to attract more and more users, who are increasingly diverse in their origins. With the same goals in mind as their Anglophone predecessors, new users can produce this language copiously and anonymously. The press release, appearing as it does mysteriously in God knows whose inboxes, is where attention is concentrated. It’s where IAE is making its most impressive strides.
The collective project of IAE has become actively global. Acts of linguistic mimicry and one-upmanship now ricochet across the Web. (Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have its best year ever.)8 Their perpetrators have fewer means of recognizing one another’s intentions than ever. We hypothesize that the speed at which analytic terms are transformed into expressive, promotional tokens has increased.
As a language spreads, dialects inevitably emerge. The IAE of the French press release is almost too perfect: It is written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.9 Scandinavian IAE, on the other hand, tends to be lousy.10 Presumably its writers are hampered by false confidence—with their complacent non-native fluency in English, they have no ear for IAE.
An e-flux release for the 2006 Guangzhou Triennial, aptly titled “Beyond,” reads: “An extraordinary space of experimentation for modernization takes the Pearl River Delta”—the site of a planned forty-million-person megacity—“as one of the typical developing regions to study the contemporary art within the extraordinary modernization framework that is full of possibilities and confusion. Pearl River Delta (PRD) stands for new space strategies, economic patterns and life styles. Regard this extraordinary space as a platform for artistic experimentation and practice. At the same time, this also evokes a unique and inventive experimental sample.” This is fairly symptomatic of a state of affairs in which the unwitting emulators of Bataille in translation might well be interns in the Chinese Ministry of Culture—but then again might not. The essential point is that learning English may now hardly be a prerequisite for writing proficiently in the language of the art world.
At first blush this seems to be just another victory over English, promising an increasingly ecstatic semantic unmooring of the art writing we've grown accustomed to. But absent the conditions that motored IAE's rapid development, the language may now be in existential peril. IAE has never had a codified grammar; instead, it has evolved by continually incorporating new sources and tactics of sounding foreign, pushing the margins of intelligibility from the standpoint of the English speaker. But one cannot rely on a global readership to feel properly alienated by deviations from the norm.11
We are not the first to sense the gravity of the situation. The crisis of criticism, ever ongoing, seemed to reach a fever pitch at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Art historian and critic Sven Lütticken lamented that criticism has become nothing more than “highbrow copywriting.” The idea that serious criticism has somehow been rendered inoperative by the commercial condition of contemporary art has been expressed often enough in recent years, yet no one has convincingly explained how the market squashed criticism’s authority. Lütticken’s formulation is revealing: Is it that highbrow criticism can no longer claim to sound different than copy? Critics, traditionally the elite innovators of IAE, no longer appear in control. Indeed, they seem likely to be beaten at their own game by anonymous antagonists who may or may not even know they’re playing.
Guangzhou again: “The City has been regarded as a newly-formed huge collective body that goes beyond the established concept of city. It is an extraordinary space and experiment field that covers all the issues and is free of time and space limit.” This might strike a confident reader of IAE as a decent piece of work: We have a redundantly and yet vaguely defined phenomenon transcending “the established concept” of its basic definition; we have time and space; we have a superfluous definite article. But the article is in the wrong place; it should be “covers all issues and is free from the time and space limit.” Right? Who wrote this? But wait. Maybe it’s avant-garde.
Can we imagine an art world without IAE? If press releases could not telegraph the seriousness of their subjects, what would they simply say? Without its special language, would art need to submit to the scrutiny of broader audiences and local ones? Would it hold up?
If IAE implodes, we probably shouldn’t expect that the globalized art world’s language will become neutral and inclusive. More likely, the elite of that world will opt for something like conventional highbrow English and the reliable distinctions it imposes.
Maybe in the meantime we should enjoy this decadent period of IAE. We should read e-flux press releases not for their content, not for their technical proficiency in IAE, but for their lyricism, as we believe many people have already begun to do.12 Take this release, reformatted as meter: