[International Art] English Spoken Here

In “Tip of the Tongue” (Frieze, Spring 2012), writer and translator Vincenzo Latronico asks, “Since English has become the lingua franca, what has happened to art – and to language?”

It’s an interesting question, which was brought to my attention a few years ago during a studio visit. A Lithuanian curator asked why I make my text-based work in English. As a native speaker born in the US, my initial reaction was that it was somewhat essentializing, though now I think he wanted to question any assumptions about English’s neutrality. Latronico delves deeper into the implications of art world English:

On the predominance of English in the art world and its effects:

[When artists switched from writing in their native language to English] The most obvious transformation was formal – short sentences, modest vocabulary, basic syntax…. English has a distinct intellectual style: language-specific criteria for a convincing argument, a well-grounded idea, a strong proposal or a good quotation.

Contrast English with Italian intellectual style, whose description recalls visions of my graduate school readers, scribbled marginalia asking, “What’s the point?”:

Italian intellectual style … has been determined, until very recently, by … 19th-century German philosophy … and French post-Structuralism…. This mixture makes the prose meandering, strenuously long, convolutedly composed of subordinates nested within other subordinates in a smoky mise-en-abîme. To anyone used to English writing, it’s most likely to sound as if no argument had been made at all.

And consider a study by

…artist David Levine and the sociologist Alix Rule…. ‘International Art English’ is exemplified by a large set of English-language, art-related press releases and newsletters. They analyzed the corpus and found a tendency towards overly long sentences, a proliferation of superfluous abstract nouns, the excessively frequent derivation of nouns ending in ‘-ization’ and even a slightly peculiar metaphysics: writers granting agency to inanimate objects – exhibitions, projects, research – when this agency should be ascribed to the people who created them. For Levine and Rule, the cause of these traits lies in a foreign influence: the imitation of French philosophy and theory as read in English translation.

Which the author interprets thusly

The foreign influence makes the language more accessible for a different, wider, more diverse audience than one composed of native speakers only. International Art English … uses fewer words and less varied syntax than ‘high’ standard English; at the same time, the words used are not necessarily the easiest, nor are the syntactic constructions the simplest. Adapted to the needs of non-native speakers, the language becomes at once complex and easy: a combination of convoluted, abstract refinement and down-to-earth directness….

This is a satisfyingly optimistic conclusion, and I hope it’s true.


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