Rhetorical Maneuvers in Contemporary Art, Part 1

** Image Caption: Sylvie Smith, Back it up Conceptually, 2007. Courtesy: Sylvie Smith. **

Rhetorical Maneuvers in Contemporary Art, Part 1

Chris Gehman

George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is generally read and interpreted, in the North American context at least, as primarily concerned with matters of style, and particularly with vagueness, pretension and clichéd, “dead” phraseology. It is taught as a warning and a corrective for writers. However, a more thorough reading of the essay shows that Orwell was more concerned with the political sources of certain kinds of poor writing than he was about style alone — a fact confirmed by the final of his six general rules for better writing: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.” [1] Writing just after the end of WWII Orwell had in mind, when he used the term barbarous, the kind of writing and speech-making produced by totalitarian regimes of the left and right alike; the language used by leaders, functionaries and apologists in regimes responsible for show trials, prison camps, political mass murder and genocide. “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” What Orwell describes is a language that is often designed to conceal rather than to communicate, to make horrific and morally repugnant realities acceptable, as a “mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”

What Orwell describes in this essay is the way that political reality, thought and language are bound together. In the immediate postwar context what was to be feared was the use of rhetoric to make the most enormous crimes acceptable or invisible, a process of rhetorical diminishment.


In the contemporary art world, the situation is in many respects entirely reversed. Whereas the surprisingly large numbers of people involved in art making, exhibition and criticism hold very little power in contemporary society — even within the field of culture, which is dominated by the mass-market products of international corporations — the political claims made for it are frequently extravagant. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins was an early and acute critic of this kind of rhetorical inflation in the context of his own discipline:

The current Foucauldian-Gramscian-Nietzschean obsession with power is the latest incarnation of anthropology’s incurable functionalism. Like its structural-functional and utilitarian predecessors, hegemonizing is homogenizing…. “power” is the intellectual black hole into which all kinds of cultural contents get sucked…. “A hyper-inflation of significance” would be another way of describing the new functionalism, translating the apparently trivial into the fatefully political…. Of course the effect, rather than amplifying the significance of Neapolitan nicknames or Vietnamese pronouns, is to trivialize such terms as “domination,” “resistance,” colonization,” even “violence” and “power.” [2]

It’s a short walk from the anthropology offices to the cultural studies department, shorter still from cultural studies to contemporary criticism and artistic practice, and the rhetorical maneuvers described by Sahlins are commonplace throughout writing on culture. It’s a tendency that should be dismally familiar to anyone who has spent any time reading the kind of contemporary art criticism published in magazines, in catalogues and essays printed by galleries to accompany exhibitions, and in some academic forums, particularly in the field of cultural studies.

Examples of this rhetorical inflation are legion. Craft forms such as knitting and cross-stitch, when the products are exhibited in public spaces or art galleries, or contain political slogans, are routinely described as “radical” and “revolutionary” or “seditious” either by the artists themselves, or by critics (3). Cory Arcangel has become an art star mainly by hacking video game systems and presenting the results in a museum context. A public art project in which participants decorate sleeping masks and then nap in a public space slated to become a park is framed as a radical political gesture, “a project in art and social engagement that playfully, but critically, aims to destabilize public and private space… Increasingly, neoliberal economic and cultural policies have led Western cities to implement social strategies that prohibit loitering and consequently limit public sleeping.” [4]

There’s surely nothing wrong with these activities in themselves. But there is something wrong with the puffery that compulsively characterizes the most benign artistic activities as radical political acts. Legions of contemporary artists are obsessively focused on the trivial and the commonplace, but seem incapable of admitting the fact. Instead, in order to justify this obsession with minutiae and trivia, the culture offers up claims of its radical intentions. Here the facts are obscured not through a process of diminishment and concealment, but through the proliferation of self-aggrandizing claims that are not supported by the actual work. Art that lacks any concrete political content, or in which the political content is feeble or tepidly ironic, is transformed in the crucible of critical writing into radical gold.

What exactly is happening here? I think that in this peculiar combination of extremely modest art buoyed by extremely grandiose claims there are a number of contextual factors:

1. The deskilling of art, particularly in the context of the art schools.

2. The rhetorical legacy of the postwar avant-gardes, on the one hand, and politically engaged art on the other.

3. The movement towards degree-granting programs in art, which produce a concomitant homogenization of thinking and writing.

For many years, my experience in editing critical texts was that artists were often better — clearer, more concrete, less pretentious — writers than many academics and professional critics and curators. For one anthology I labored for many hours to clarify meanings, correct errors, and generally improve a few essays by scholars with PhD’s, while the contributions of practicing artists, even if they were sometimes tendentious or obscure in some respects, were direct and to-the-point and required little editing. What I notice about writing coming from artists who have emerged more recently from the educational system, however, is that it has begun to look more and more like the writing produced by curators, critics and academics. It is increasingly homogeneous. This should not be a surprise: as more and more art schools become degree-granting institutions, students spend more and more of their time in academic courses and courses that deal with the professional world in which they are expected to function — i.e., courses on curating, critical writing, museology, etc. At the same time the cost of education has risen rapidly, so that many, probably most students need to hold down jobs during their years of post-secondary education as well. All of which must logically leave the student with less studio time, less time to devote to developing his or her own ideas and to the making of art, but well schooled in the thought patterns and linguistic habits of curators, critics and academics, hyper-aware of the art historical context in which they work, and with a pretty good understanding of the art system. The art-school graduate of 2010 may leave school without having made anything of much consequence, but set up to write a pretty impressive sounding artist’s statement. We have moved as far as possible from the position expressed by Barnett Newman’s famous quip that “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” (5)

After minimalism, conceptual and performance art, the idea of the artist as someone in a skilled and thinking occupation, engaged with a particular set of materials and visual ideas, has been thoroughly suppressed in favour of the idea of art as mainly an intellectual activity. The artist as thinker, manager, intellectual rather than maker, worker, craftsperson. In other words, the artist as bourgeois – but apparently a radical, critical bourgeois. At the same time, there are other contradictory trends that move partly in a different direction, but are partly complementary in a way seldom acknowledged. For example, young artists are also aware of a legacy of political art, art emerging from “identity politics,” from feminism, queer liberation and the utopian aspirations of postwar avant-garde movements like Fluxus and the Situationists. What the post-conceptual, post-minimalist high art strain and the politically engaged strain share is an emphasis on context, concepts and language. Minimalism and conceptualism established their importance by invoking ideas and philosophical questions in a condensed visual form, leaving art writers with plenty to say. The artist was allowed to provide less and less, while the significance of the gesture appeared to grow and grow under the lens of critical discourse. Politically engaged art, on the other hand, emphasized its connections to power struggles taking place in the larger social context, and intended to support progressive social change. But this kind of art tends to date quickly — it loses its currency as society changes, even when those changes are exactly the ones sought by the political artist. What is left of this today is an art that is seldom politically engaged, but carries a residue of expectation: the expectation that the artist is motivated by a critical politics, however removed artist and work may be from concrete political struggles.

If I’m right in thinking that these strains form an important part of the context in which most contemporary artists are educated, and that the idea of the artist as engaged with a particular set of materials and processes is in abeyance, we can begin to see how we have arrived at this particular alliance of art and rhetoric. The artist has learned that to do less is to be credited with doing more. The artist has learned that to be engaged with physical materials and processes is to be a mere craftsperson, while to work with concepts is to be respected as an intellectual worker (now properly identified as a member of a creative class by the ubiquitous urbanist Richard Florida). The artist has learned that art should be able to claim a political subtext, but not a political subject per se, as the latter will often be derided as unsophisticated and unartistic. We are left with a situation in which the increasingly meager offerings of artists are accompanied by a kind of critical discourse that is both maddeningly academic in its style and often politically pretentious as well. It is the kind of bad faith that arises when a population with the highest ideals is marginalized to begin with, and is then further stripped of the tools it once possessed to assert its unique importance. The birds are now well up on their ornithology; but they may no longer know how to fly.


1. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, v. 4. Eds. Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970). 169.

2. Marshall Sahlins, Waiting for Foucault. Second edition. (Cambridge, England: Prickly Pear Press, 1996). 16-17.

3. See, for example, http://radicalcrossstitch.com/craft-gallery/

4. http://theatrecentre.org/wordpress/?p=236 .

5. The Barnett Newman Foundation.”Chronology of the artist’s life” entry for 1953. http://barnettnewman.org/chronology.php .

Chris Gehman is a grouchy experimental filmmaker and occasional curator and critic. He was Artistic Director of the Images Festival from 2000 to 2004, and was co-editor (with Steve Reinke) of The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema (YYZ Books).


  1. Brilliant.
    FINALLY someone has written on this issue.
    I was beginning to wonder if I was the only person taking note of this “trend”… problem … ??
    As an active visual artist myself, however one not educated the traditional route, i have become increasingly frustrated by the nonsense that appears to dominate the contemporary art scene and particularily the work of relatively recent graduates come “art stars”. I have lost track now of how many times that I have read statements or event listings that seem promising and then don’t even come close to delivering.
    It’s about time someone calls them out.

  2. plk

    Very, very well said Chris, but I’ll take issue with one point:

    “At the same time the cost of education has risen rapidly, so that many, probably most students need to hold down jobs during their years of post-secondary education as well. All of which must logically leave the student with less studio time, less time to devote to developing his or her own ideas and to the making of art, but well schooled in the thought patterns and linguistic habits of curators, critics and academics…”

    I’d suggest that this lack of time in fact leaves students poorly schooled in the thought patterns of academics, curators and the like. Understanding contemporary social and political theory and philosophy involves a great deal of reading, writing and debate. I’m not sure if sufficient time is spent in art school, or any undergraduate program for that matter, engaged in such purely intellectual pursuits today.

    Having said this, though, this probably just strengthens your argument…

  3. “Follow the money” -Popeye Doyle

    Artist statements are better than the art because that’s where the money is. No-one buys art in Canada do they? Canadian artists get grants for art, scholarships, and the promise of paid positions in the gallery system or academia. Artists statements and the rest of the theoretical web they weave around their practise is much easier to grade than the work itself and much easier to justify to the higher-ups. It’s a mess we’ve gotten in with good intentions, Canadians love artists, but really can’t be bothered with art.

    On a positive note, some artists make art like birds fly and when the occasion demands, they make art that responds to specific political situations. This is not always encouraged or respected.

    Remember the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover(blurbs)

  4. Chris, what a great article.

    “What exactly is happening here?” you rightly say. The three conditions you describe – from the deskilling of art in art schools, rhetorical post war art and politically engaged art, and the movement towards degree granting programs and their homogenized thinking and writing – are just so to the point. You say this so well. I like cultural studies – a lot – but it seems odd to me that they cannot see the way words are dictating the best form of visual literacy we have on the planet… that of the independent fine artist. There legacy is dying. I think that they will see it soon and fire there cannons on the perpetrators. I for one can’t wait.

  5. The first sentence from “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell sums it up for little old me. “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

    Aesthetics is the domain of the are tist in are tism. Please excuse my bad spelling in this instance, it addresses the point of art as are or aha in that all is reduced down to the fun da mentals of technocratics, F=MA, Newton’s second LAW OF MOTION. The is that is a tis in identification of the attributes in possession of this humble servant to Queen and country, to the imperialistic dictators who tell us what to think and do, who press us into service on their ship of state via the truncheons of policemen reduced to payment’s of fines for speeding after being shot by hidden cameras at 4AM on the open road doing the despicable speed of 110 k’s per hour in a 100K zone and not one other car on the highway. The camera position at a point after an on ramp to catch ones not paying due care to acceleration. Speed KILLS they love to tell us sorry folks, wrong: strong inertia KILLS even below the SPEED LIMIT.

    Ten meters is one second in gravitational time as you plummet head first toward earth says this birdy to the ornithologist’s. Like Icarus falling into the sea in a cloud of melted feather dusters called sales. And that after Daedalus revealed state secrets to Ariadne about the Labyrinth that Minos built to his enemy, Theseus, whom he had given the task of slaying the half man, half bull Minotaur that Daedalus had built, according to some tellers of tales. All Cretans are liars. Minos’s Queen was having a secret affair with it! Does this tale remind you of Julian Assuage? The paradox continues in this entry concerning the heap.


    To this mind your manners please, Aesthetics is the study of the senses in relation to moral/mortal judgments. Which path leads to the best of all possible worlds? “Time is MONEY” yes “MONEY is time. That is time spent doing it tough exercising mind, heart and soul’s muscles breaking rock’s in a prison of poisoners who were poisoned by their guardians who said they were taking care of them for the publics safety. The law is for the safety of the people.

    For a policy to exist it first must be legislated for, then it is up to it’s constituent’s to administer it. What occurs when one step is forgotten and the document is falsified? Perjury or slander in the witness stand that’s what. Johnny took the cookie no one saw him, it could have been anyone, but NO, it was not him, so he said! Infer from first principles or deduce from generalizations then who stole the cookie or still better educe that whatever happens, happened and that Johnny is a rotten little liar. Still one cookie before dinner when you are hungry is not a crime punishable by death. Did Mum have Johnnies best interests at heart of not?

    Peat the paparazzo of plagiarism!

  6. This thread in the clouds dated 20070803 August 3rd 2007 preceeded this discussion by many years. What Orwell was attempting in the essay is summed up by the trivium of logic, grammer and rhetoric.

    Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known,
    Grammar is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-symbolized, and
    Rhetoric is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-communicated



  7. Right of reply

    George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is generally read and interpreted, in the North American context at least, as primarily concerned with matters of style, and particularly with vagueness, pretension and clichéd, “dead” phraseology. It is taught as a warning and a corrective for writers. However, a more thorough reading of the essay shows that Orwell was more concerned with the political sources of certain kinds of poor writing than he was about style alone — a fact confirmed by the final of his six general rules for better writing: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.” [1]


    In the present era global communication appears to of reached on one hand it’s nadir on the other it’s zenith.

    Orwell said in the first paragraph:
    “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the
    English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we
    cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is
    decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share
    in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse
    of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to
    electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the
    half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an
    instrument which we shape for our own purposes. ”

    Get a haircut, get beard cut to the skin, get a suntan.
    Queen Elizabeth FIRST I believe to begin the trend.
    Barbarousness it seems depends on what’s in fashion.
    Barbary coast was where tripoli now is: fatal shoals.

    Imperial powers use of wealth gained from taxpayers to Impose the will of a few upon the many for good or evil.
    Yes road, social and economic networks are all the rage.
    No and know are homonyms most transcend the context.

    Water, food, clothing, fuel and speech in descending order,
    Of importance in the time it takes for you to die without.
    Receipt of second, third-hand here-say anecdotal evidence
    Is not without the will of the inquirer to penetrate deeper.

    Evidence to support the claim is all around all all the time.
    Fragments of information from which inferred are causes.
    Infer acting from first principles toward general direction.
    Deduce acting from general direction toward first principals.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>