** Image Caption: Sylvie Smith, Back it up Conceptually, 2007. Courtesy: Sylvie Smith. **
Rhetorical Maneuvers in Contemporary Art, Part 1
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.”  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.” 
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.” 
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/
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).