John Haber
in New York City

No analysis of a building is possible unless you have the right vocabulary. "That thing sticking out of the roof" won't do. If it's a chimney, call it that.
      — J. F. Gorman, ABC of Architecture

Oliver Herring

Listen carefully. This special invitation may never appear on my Web site again.

It could offer that "entry point" to "explore . . . transformation." To "view the supporting framework" could mean "new freedom" and "rich opportunities." It could allow every visitor to this site to "dominate" an "industry with quality implementation of methodologies."

Okay, I admit it: I took the last from a Dilbert strip, and I quoted the rest fiendishly out of context, from an art dealer I happen to admire. But am I imagining it, or do they blend together—the gallery press release and a parody of management jargon? I even saw them both on the same day. Oliver Herring's Silver Surfer (Max Protech Gallery, 1997)

Money talks

I am not an art critic. Cross my heart. At least, I can never admit it without bending the truth and ducking.

People need critics, to know where to go and where not to go on a Saturday afternoon and when it is safe to laugh. They envy critics that thing called the art world—in other words, better parties. Most of all, though, they despise critics, for placing works of art behind a wall of words. Critics, to put it bluntly, speak artspeak even on Facebook, or so goes the angry reception. Anyone can do better, since everyone is a blogger now.

By these standards I make a lousy critic anyhow. I write almost only about artists I admire, especially when they catch me by surprise. (All right, I seem to have made an exception.) If art provokes me, I can evoke it for others. Besides, as solely a creation of the Internet, like some art I hesitate to mention, this critic never meets quite the right people. But alas, I know artspeak when I see it, and I see it at the desk of almost every gallery I visit.

Contrary to popular belief, that is where artspeak begins. It may have roots in academia, where scholars hope to share their hesitant insights with students and peers. It may look back to art journals, where critics fumble for words to describe works of art rich in emotions and ideas. However, that is not where artspeak begins, and complaints about it hide its origins all too well.

Worse comes to worse, academics will trip up on their own humanity. Worse comes to worse, they will stumble on insights as unfamiliar and unpronounceable as art itself. Artspeak really starts sometime later, when critical clichés pass through the gallery system and into the marketing departments of major museums, eager for a larger public and bigger institutional gifts.

Promoting art is business, big business, and money talks. I call its language martspeak.

Kitsch as kitsch can

I heard it talking just this weekend in Chelsea, at a solo show by Oliver Herring. Herring's native language may be German, but his work, the object of that press release I quoted, positively cries out for artspeak. It looks like soft-core porn made of bubble wrap.

Working in transparent and blue-green Mylar, his molds flow ever so smoothly. I thought of those "galleries" that really sell imitation 1970s' blown glass. The shapes, often close to the floor, flow onto each other—or stick up provocatively. Think of certain body parts I hesitate to mention on a family medium like the Internet.

Herring wants to have it every which way. Far too knowing for mere self-expression, he parodies kitsch and decoration as happily as Rudolf Stingel. A proper postmodern, he also prefers them to "fine art." At the same time, he wants the modernist veneer of formal mastery. He targets blunt parody, fashionable low-brow formulas, and truly high-brow art. The first makes him hot, and the second makes him accessible. Best of all, the third makes him very expensive.

For a dealer, that is a potent combination. Max Protech has shown one of my favorite painters, David Reed, as well as artists on the border between fine art and architecture. I am talking class.

Thanks in part to the Whitney's taste in Biennials, kitsch as kitsch can stand as a hallmark of upscale galleries. The trick is to announce all that without someone laughing, especially in The Times. So a proper gallery takes preemptive action: it uses martspeak. Quite sincerely, without intending to defraud me or anyone else, a press release pulls out all the stops. Its author, J. M. Welker, knows whereof he speaks.

Before I read it, however, why speak at all? Why is it dead wrong to complain that one should not "read the fucking catalog" and "just look"?

Breaking the silence

Long before words, art already comes surrounded by walls. Unfamiliar works have the barrier of their strangeness, almost akin to fakery. Famous ones come with an even more dangerous obstacle, their familiarity and reputation, almost akin to a religion. Faced with art, then, most people just let their needs and their parents' truisms do the talking. Or they wait for the artist to start lecturing. Thankfully, they usually wait in vain.

Words never contain a work of art. Words can, though, encourage its reconstruction. They can create small openings in the walls that already exist, so that others may begin to look—and to see. Art, Rilke said, is of an infinite silence; it can be reached only by love. Yet anyone who has sustained a loving relationship knows that it takes a lot of communication.

Art asks one to enter a broken conversation, a half-overheard dialogue between the work and the world. Newcomers to art distrust that demand. Most often, too, they would never know how to begin. A critic's job is to break the ice.

Once one is willing to ask why others take something as art, one can discover what makes it meaningful. One risks anger as well as pleasure. One also risks encountering some strange new words, even a whole new vocabulary.

It can lead to some unfamiliar sentences, even from the finest, clearest writers. If I need the right word for a chimney, imagine structures that no one has seen before. Art is exactly that kind of building and seeing.

Does that have to mean artspeak? Mostly, I think, when someone is willing to pay for it.

Street talk in Soho

Actually, artspeak comes about for any number of reasons. No doubt critics come with baggage of their own. One need not write well to like art. One need not even contribute all that much to the world. Just as good artists have hackneyed followers, so do many good ideas.

Then too, until America starts to value brains and questioning above sports and marketing, academics will stand apart from the mainstream. That isolation can breed innovative words, but it also promotes self-defeating anger. Political correctness will not go away until suffering ennobles. I will not hold my breath.

But whenever art looks puzzling, it may sound odd or offensive as well. Artists work with difficult materials, ideas, and impulses. Their influences and audiences have a specialized history, too, and art makes sense only when one makes the effort to understand all these. A gallery-goer who feels left out by street talk in Soho would probably find it tough going in the Bronx, too.

So artspeak stems from critical failures, social divisions, and indeed the very needs of art. However, I am claiming something far more important: news of artspeak is greatly exaggerated, distorted by public fears of experiment, the political agenda of conservatives, a culture suspicious of the intellect, and artists' own natural protective silence.

Try an experiment. Take the books by neoconservatives decrying radicals and the decline of standards. Ask how many have garnered reviews or articles in the paper this last month. Then ask how many of their targets got the same treatment.

No, the principal source of artspeak is the market. The same psychobabble that pervades corporate affairs infects art marketing. It takes over even the wall labels at a Biennial. Putting it all on critics is like blaming psychologists for all the managerial vocabulary of vision, impact, and change. Maybe money talks and bullshit walks, but they also talk intimately to each other.

Mortality and the Incredible Hulk

I want to go through Herring's announcement in context this time, at least a whole paragraph, to be fair. Here is how it begins:

In his November exhibit at the Max Protech Gallery, Oliver Herring continues to explore themes of loss, mortality and transformation, but jettisons the elegiac note of his earlier work.

So far, one has an elegy but not an elegiac one. How nice: the ideal male, sensitive but tough. Or maybe Herring represents the artist as Hollywood action hero, knowing death without regrets. Either way, more cartoon sentiments are on the way. Notice that to explore themes of loss, rather than simply loss itself, gives Herring's intentions greater solemnity.

The entry point for his new sculpture is a series of comic strip characters, including the Incredible Hulk, Silver Surfer, Hellboy and Bone. Herring appropriates these forms as an ironic shorthand; they allow him to investigate the expressive potential of both the human figure and his materials free from the conceptual weight associated with more realistic forms of representation.

Now, I could object that, after nearly a century of abstraction, so often considered academic these days, it does not take a superhero to get away from traditional realism. In fact, "more realistic" implies a hopelessly naive outlook after those same decades. Then, too, what could come with more conceptual baggage than comic strips and bubble-gum wrappers? (I hesitate to say "comes with more weight.") Turning mass culture into pure esthetics does not, in my book, amount to much of a loss, much less a reminder of mortality. But it does not come easily either.

What really interests me, however, is the conjunction of market needs behind the obvious contradictions. I have summarized them in Herring's work already. Buyers want expression and a recognizable human form, so that its distortion can stand for an emotion like loss. They want comic books as living-room decoration, too. And they want a passing hint that, despite it all, the artist has enough irony left over to know how stupid his public is. The works may not pull off so many assurances, but martspeak can.

Two more paragraphs follow, but that should do it: time is running short. It is time that the art world took pride not only in art, but in what writers have helped others understand about art, too. The finest critics and philosophers write lovingly and well, and that is why their influence has grown so pervasive. They have touched the world with news of art unlike anything seen before. Not even martspeak can spoil that.

BACK to John's arts home page

Oliver Herring's show ran through December 3, 1997, at Max Protech Gallery. The topic of artspeak and martspeak comes up again in reviews of the 2008 Whitney Biennial.


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