15 Bytes

Dissecting the Conversation

The conversation from which culture emerges takes form in many mediums: pictures, objects, actions, and always among the most important mediums is language. From a subtle hum to a plangent song, words carry some of the most useful cargo our fragile vessels can contain. The primary virtue of language is its utility: its ability to clearly and concisely convey precise meanings. If you want rich ambiguity, visual art may be just what you’re looking for. But if you want to sort the buzz from the noise you can’t beat a few well–chosen words. With that ideal in mind, 15 Bytes would like to invite its readers to submit their ideas about the language of art: to help us all differentiate the buzz from the noise. Is there a term you find particularly revealing? Inclusive? Sensible? Sensuous? On the other hand, are there terms whose use you find offensive? Misleading? Obfuscating? Here are a few examples to start the discussion, submitted in the hope that we’ll find a few to share each month.

Entry-point. Artspeak has many verbs that serve the wish-fulfillment task of suggesting that a work of art with nothing to say is nevertheless fully participant in the conversation: such works of art are said to “explore,” “investigate,” “confront,” and “interrogate” themes, motifs, arguments, assumptions, propositions, preconceptions, certainties, and so forth. The entry-point is the place in the artwork so described that resembles the Looking Glass through which we, like Alice, may enter in our minds the artist’s authoritative presentation of the subject matter.

Reference. Even better than an entry-point, a work that references something claims not merely to penetrate it, but to encompass it. A work with a $ in it references not just money, but the vast subjects of economics, desire, materialism—and just as well whatever is not those things. A work of art with a word in it references all knowledge—and all ignorance. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly reference it.

Themes. As in themes of:

Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

This charming work of poetic art, while saying very close to nothing at all, nevertheless manages to invoke such trenchant and timely themes as gender roles, animal rights, individual vs. communal property rights, agricultural policy, exploitation, phenomenology of color, environmentalism (perhaps including global warming, and hence the Academy and Nobel Awards), epistemology, imprinting, and freedom. And there may be more.

If you have an artspeak term you’d like to discuss, send your suggestions or analysis to artspeak@artistsofutah.org.


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