Digital Project

Chronicle of a Traveling Theory

“Chronicle of a Traveling Theory” originally appeared in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter, published in October 2015 by MIT Press.

International Art English is now an ineluctable, flagrant feature of the art-writing landscape. Prior to Triple Canopy’s publication of Alix Rule and David Levine’s essay by that name in June 2012, many readers may have had a vague notion of certain common linguistic peculiarities to be found on the websites of Chinese museums and Parisian galleries, in the press releases issued by Chelsea galleries and in the pages of German magazines—in all manner of venues that employ language to represent visual art and aesthetic experience, whether for promotional, educational, or critical purposes. Within six months of the publication of “International Art English,” those readers and many thousands more could not help but recognize the lexical tics (“spatiality,” “globality,” “potentiality,” “experiencability”), double adverbial terms, dependent clauses, adjectival verb forms, and past and present participles that so pervade writing about art. For the essay’s boosters as well as detractors—about which I’ll say more later—International Art English (IAE) has become a byword for the devolution of the language of criticism (and the diminution of the authority of critics) in the globalized, Internet-addled art world, but also for the possibility of redemptive reconfigurations of that language. This is true to such a degree that recent articles reiterating the phenomenon, whether published by the BBC or online content mills, have dispensed with references to the original essay.

As editor of Triple Canopy, I worked closely with Levine and Rule on “International Art English.” They initially presented the fundaments of IAE as part of a discussion organized by the magazine in 2011 at Artissima, the Italian art fair; in the months preceding publication, we exchanged tens of thousands of words via email and traded innumerable drafts and edits. Rule and Levine were thorough in the distillation of their observations, meticulous in the construction of their argument, and sensitive to the balance of seriousness and levity (without which the essay might veer toward pomp or snark). After all, they were not just describing enormous changes in the way in which we write about art and derive status from that writing; they were also anticipating that “International Art English” might be misconstrued as snubbing e-flux—which has for the past four years occupied the upper echelon of ArtReview’s Power 100 list and is currently vying for control of the .art domain—and as censuring MFA students in Skopje for desacralizing the rhetoric of academe. (And then there was the specter of the Sokal hoax: in 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, published “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the journal Social Text. The article purported to argue that “physical reality” is a “social and linguistic construct” but consisted largely of nonsensical jargon and ideological blandishment—a craven and unethical, if provocative, effort to expose the bankruptcy of “trendy” postmodernists and the “fashionable nonsense” they spewed about science.)

By the time “International Art English” was ready to be published, I believed that Rule and Levine had figured out how to handle the analysis of the e-flux corpus, the history of criticism after October, etc., all the while conveying the vertiginous feeling one gets when the semiotic order suddenly seems to be foundering. They managed to take art world press releases seriously but also to appreciate their brazen and often hilarious rejection of linguistic convention—which, they observed, betrays an entirely novel set of conventions, themselves worthy of scrutiny. And they addressed the evacuation of meaning from the vocabulary of poststructuralism without coming across as codgers, elitists, anti-intellectuals, or some monstrous combination of the three.

In the year following publication, “International Art English” garnered 69,023 unique page views (which is as close as Triple Canopy can get to an estimate of readership) and was translated into several languages. I was exhilarated, and very soon exhausted, by the feverish response as I felt compelled to read nearly every word of it. On MetaFilter—amid much discussion of whether or not Triple Canopy’s side-scrolling design was the user-interface equivalent of IAE, sorting expert users from the uninitiated—readers discussed the relationship between French and the prevalence of the definite article in IAE; the pressure felt by artists to employ IAE in order to identify their work as “significant and critical,” which results in increasingly rarefied language that ultimately alienates outsiders. On Facebook, there was the usual mix of boosterism and bile, dutiful affirmation and casual crucifixion, as well as a modicum of intelligent conversation—much of it concentrated on the page of Hito Steyerl, an artist and regular contributor to e-flux journal, who found the essay condescending toward those who spoke English (and not the Queen’s English) as a second or third language. In January, the Guardian published “A User’s Guide to Artspeak,” a glib account of the essay’s genesis and reception, which characterized IAE as “pompous, overblown prose” that serves as “ammunition for those who still insist contemporary art is a fraud.”

The next month, speaking on a panel at the annual College Art Association conference in New York City, e-flux cofounder Anton Vidokle dismissed “International Art English” for failing to recognize the difference between press releases published by international galleries employing non-native speakers and those published by powerful Chelsea galleries employing Ivy League art history PhDs. I attempted to correct him from the bleachers: The essay parses those discrepancies and the way in which academic training distinguishes writers of IAE. I pointed out that Rule and Levine are concerned with the ways in which non-native speakers might feel compelled to write in a manner that aggrandizes the art world elite, but also with the prospect of the diffusion of IAE despoiling their station. Vidokle’s response, as reported by the New York Observer: “Foreigners always imitate something, right? This is, like, the typical colonial argument.”

In March, Hyperallergic published “When Artspeak Masks Oppression,” in which Mostafa Heddaya interpreted Rule and Levine’s gestures toward the liberating qualities of newfound strains of IAE as parody. He gently chastised the authors for missing an essential point: in “emerging contemporary art superpowers” like the United Arab Emirates, IAE often functions as propaganda, with artists and institutions alike employing “ostensibly subversive language” to obscure the facts of oppression and save face. Heddaya participated in Critical Language, a symposium on International Art English organized by Triple Canopy, along with Levine, Rule, and several other writers, curators, and artists. Among them was Mariam Ghani, who soon authored an essay on the subject for Triple Canopy, in which she observed that IAE “can be used to circumvent both explicit and implicit restrictions on freedom of expression in places like Afghanistan,” where art is understood to be politically potent and is thus restricted by the state.

In May, e-flux journal published negative commentaries on IAE by Hito Steyerl and artist Martha Rosler. Steyerl, the more unsparing of the two, marked Levine and Rule as language police, denounced them for harboring “nativist disdain for rambling foreigners,” and ridiculed them for adhering to what she called the maxim of English art writing: “never offend anyone more powerful than yourself.” In turn, she lauded “the sheer wildness at work in the creation of new lingos,” fabricated “between Skopje and Saigon by interns and non-resident aliens on Emoji keyboards,” which might “show the outlines of future publics that extend beyond preformatted geographical and class templates”—and somehow dismissed Rule and Levine’s appreciation of the same scenario as merely patronizing.

Agree with them or not, there was much to like about these responses: first of all, the fact that people felt sufficiently stirred to formulate and publish so many squibs and screeds. Many of them addressed questions that Rule and Levine did not or could not—in part because the essay was based on an analysis of the e-flux corpus, and in part because the authors grew up speaking English, attained degrees from the best American universities, and so could not provide an account of the way in which non-native speakers experience IAE. Nevertheless, I was struck by the omissions that went unnoticed, the context that went uncharted. Critics of various stripes have scrutinized the uses and abuses of theory for quite some time, and the discussion around IAE was mostly bereft of citation—the means by which disparate publications are marshaled into a greater body of knowledge, at least in academia. One notable touchstone is François Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, published in French in 2003 and English in 2008. Cusset supplies an incredibly rich and detailed account of the unexpected uses and putative abuses of French theory in the United States, which have in turn been absorbed by Europe. “When revolution is reinterpreted as stylized rebellion … when mottos coined during Left Bank marches are being reused in New York art galleries, then indeed one can speak of a ‘structural misunderstanding,’” Cusset writes, referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept, “not in the sense of a misreading, an error, a betrayal of some original, but in the sense of a highly productive transfer of words and concepts from one specific market of symbolic goods to another.” Elaborating on the way in which ideas mutate as they circulate globally, Cusset asserts that the reading proffered by a foreigner may be more open than that of a native speaker “because it loosens the structure and opens a text onto brand-new uses, but also because it may often be more profitable to base a career on some distant, foreign, exotic body of texts.”

Since the e-flux journal responses, the chatter around IAE has essentially gone dormant except for the occasional belch of magma and ash. My point in describing the essay’s circulation is not to identify who was right and wrong, but to provide a fragmentary account of how knowledge is formed on and in relation to the Internet. Triple Canopy is meant to facilitate conversations that hinge on the movement of texts between digital publications and symposia, social media and exhibition spaces, online and IRL venues. This requires a particular approach to the design of the magazine’s online platform, but also faith in the existence of a public sphere that bears some vestigial relationship to the one described by Juergen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), however flawed and outdated his model may now seem. The explosion of “International Art English” tested certain of our theories and assumptions about Triple Canopy’s model of publishing, and about what might be called the post-Internet public sphere. Can you, through scrupulous and sensitive editing, ensure that a click-baiting reporter or polemic-chasing video artist will not treat the essay either flippantly or meretriciously? Unlikely. Can you, through restrained and reasonable comment-bombing, reverse the tide on Facebook of praise or condemnation by people who have almost certainly have not read the essay in question? Definitely not. Can you, by organizing a symposium that addresses the issues raised by the essay from a variety of sympathetic and hostile perspectives, harness or direct the conversation? Not so much, but noble effort.

Of course, Thomas Paine had no idea how Common Sense (1775–76) would go over, and he didn’t try to micromanage the debate. (If Paine had published on his own website, maybe he would have tweaked it so as to represent that debate in real-time via the citation and annotation of assenting and dissenting tracts.) But now the public house is everywhere, and so the drawing room seems to disintegrate; you can’t help but bear witness to the commentary, all the while wondering about the presence of some agreeable, silent—or simply offline—majority. What might have happened if Rule and Levine had instead published in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, or the New Left Review, with their impervious paywalls; posted the essay semi-anonymously on MetaFilter, as a prompt for debate within a fairly coherent community (TL:DR?), or as a string of aphoristic Facebook comments meant to be consumed piecemeal; foregone the verbiage and churned out a Buzzfeed listicle (“15 ART WORLD PRESS RE-LEASES THAT HAD US ROTFL”). Actually, in retrospect, we probably should have published “International Art English” serially via thousand-dollar e-flux mailings—but who really reads, much less takes seriously, those press releases anyway?