x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

An artful guide

Glossary As exhibition season gets under way this month with Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial, get ready to be deluged with obscurantist art world jargon.

The contemporary debate over what is art is divided between those who see the essence of art in the social institutions that surround it and those who think that there are universal properties that all artworks share.
The contemporary debate over what is art is divided between those who see the essence of art in the social institutions that surround it and those who think that there are universal properties that all artworks share.

Actually, this might not have been the easiest place to begin. Few topics have occasioned such philosophical contortions as the problem of defining art. The contemporary debate is divided between those who see the essence of art in the social institutions that surround it - a crude version of such a view might be to say that art is what artists make - and those who think that there are universal and fairly concrete properties that all works of art share, from the most ancient apotropaic mask to the latest piece of Turner-winning humbug. Neither point of view, whether conventionalist or functionalist, is particularly good at isolating all and only those things that are art. And this is hardly surprising, since - if you'll forgive a detour this early in proceedings - language doesn't work that way. It's a logician's fantasy that ordinary words can be defined by necessary and sufficient conditions, like the terms in a legal document. Instead, as modern cognitive science seems to confirm, objects fall into our various semantic boxes according to how well they resemble our paradigm cases for each word. It was Wittgenstein who observed that "game" seems impossible to define in such a way as to include everything from solitaire to bat-the-rat (this was in his apocryphal Purple Ronnie Notebook). He proposed that we understand what the word signifies by means of a sort of family resemblance across all its instances. And indeed, this phenomenon is quite common: see if you can think up an airtight definition of the word "salad". Not easy, is it? For now, accept this provisional gloss. Art is material shaped by humans with the intention of engaging the imaginations of other intelligent beings. All that other stuff is just the other stuff.

You can explain all the above to some people until you're blue in the face, and they'll still turn around to you and say: "Yes, but it isn't art, is it?" After long reflection, I think these people may be messing with me.

Literally, something that happens every two years. The grandfather of art biennales is the Venice one, established in 1895. It set the template for the massive international show that celebrates the best of each country's talent in jealously curated national stands. It was followed in the 1950s by biennials in Sao Paulo and Kassel. For decades, the word "biennale" connoted prestige and high-cultural gravitas. Then in the mid-1990s, inflation set in. The Sharjah Biennial in 1993 was ahead of the curve. It was followed by rival events in Santa Fe, Lyon, Berlin, Moscow, Gwangju and other places, all of which served to erode the currency of the term. Venice must be kicking itself for not taking out a trademark. Incidentally, I have heard a number of variant pronunciations of "biennale". The correct way is like "by nail".

Someone who collects artworks. However, the word takes on subtleties of meaning depending on how serious and rich the collector is. When an artist is in demand, for example, the gallery that represents them may become choosy about whom they sell to: after all, they have an investment not only in the current collection but in the artist's future reputation. Consequently, tastemakers will tend to trump hangers-on, and serious art-world people will be favoured over casual speculators. How does one demonstrate the right kind of seriousness? By establishing a track record for buying big names when they're starting out; by making sure that the works in your collection go out on loan to high-profile exhibitions, and if it comes to it, by endowing an art prize or foundation. Anything to get your chosen acquisition good gossip.

Mark Twain once said of Wagner that his music is better than it sounds. Conceptualism is likewise committed to the premise that art can be better than it looks. The object, if there is one, is merely the vehicle for an idea - typically a less lucid vehicle than the accompanying wall text. Laurence Weiner's series of descriptions of possible artworks that he never went to the trouble of actually building may be viewed as an acknowledgement of this fact. Conceptualism is now old hat, of course, in as much as few contemporary artists would apply the term to themselves. But the inclinations that motivated the 1960s movement of which Weiner was a part - a hermetic, confrontational and deconstructive tendency - can be found in spades in subsequent generations. See, for instance, the Young British Artists who were notorious in the 1990s for cutting up sharks and exhibiting their unmade beds. Not much aestheticism there.

It is sometimes complained that the role of curator has seen a falling-off in recent years: where once exhibitions were assembled by meticulous scholars inspired only by a love of learning, now they are thrown together by philistines in a feverish pursuit of the zeitgeist and ticket revenues. To this I offer three objections. Firstly, there has always, so far as I know, been an element of entrepreneurialism in the staging of art shows. Secondly, many of the curators I have spoken to were very learned and impressive. Thirdly, some of the ones who weren't still put on interesting exhibitions. Naturally, things may still be going to hell in a handcart. I just haven't seen any evidence of it yet.

One of those doubly abused notions, which has been used to justify a lot of bad and boring art and also made a lot of press releases unnecessarily difficult to read. Jacques Derrida coined the word, though true to character he refused to offer a pithy explanation of what he meant by it ("All sentences of the type 'deconstruction is X'... miss the point," he once said). In art, the word tends to refer to a style that calls attention to itself, or that disrupts some other style, often with the nannyish intention of alerting the viewer to the work's artificiality. Bertolt Brecht was an early explorer of this terrain. During the 1940s he produced plays that undercut the theatrical illusion to bring about so-called "alienation effects", thereby (so the theory went) shaking audiences from their bourgeois torpor. In subsequent generations, the technique has been used as a fig leaf for artists too inept to make work about anything other than their own techniques.

A euphemistic way of describing an artist who is not famous or in-demand but who, on a charitable assessment, may yet become so. The expression has largely replaced talk of cutting-edge or avant-garde artists, which is odd. Why should these violent, military metaphors have given way to something as blandly statistical as the idea of emergence? A sociological puzzle I leave for the reader.

What the actual physical object is like, quite apart from what it means. Is it acceptable to care about this? Fashions change; at the moment, however, one may. Until further notice.

Someone who owns a gallery. The slightly Gallic ring to the word makes it sound like an art in its own right - as indeed it is. The art in question, however, is PR. Gallerists are the guardians of reputations; they will filter buyers for the artists they represent, knobble rivals, and attempt to influence the rate of productivity of their charges so as to match market demand. A thug's game played by gentlemen - or rich kids, at any rate.

An intermittently voguish style in which a painting or sculpture strives to be, in some respects, indistinguishable from the thing it represents. The effects can be very lifelike: the clammily convincing work of the Australian sculptor Ron Mueck, for example, takes one deep into the uncanny valley. If you have a spare afternoon in West London, there's always fun to be had by going to the Saatchi Gallery and standing very still. When some curious person starts peering up your nose, break the pose and introduce yourself. Then follow them to watch how they cower from all the other hyperrealist works in the place.

The use of (typically common or found) materials to transform an environment. Installations are the bane of art dealers' lives. No one wants to display a hospital gurney buried in a mound of wood bark in their living rooms. For artists unreconciled to the commercial dimensions of their industry, this is a large part of their appeal.

A word that has some legitimate application in anatomy, but that is more commonly found in mystifying arts press releases. It means, literally, pertaining to the space between two things. If an artist is neither one thing nor the other, it is polite to call his or her work interstitial.

A style in which the work of art is stripped down to its bare essence - some blank surfaces, the suggestion of a design. Remarkably, in most cases, that essence suggests little beyond a preference for minimalist aesthetics. As they say, inside every Wreck of the Medusa there's a plain white canvas waiting to get out.

An artist could be said to have successfully problematised their subject if they make the viewer see that something they had previously taken for granted is full of deep and tricky questions. In inventing cubism, Picasso is sometimes said to have problematised the concept of space; this, it is agreed, was a good thing for him to have done. There's a fine line, however, between showing that something is full of deep and tricky questions and looking as if, for reasons of education or neurology, you just can't get your head around it. Certain things - hygiene, personal finance, traffic regulations and so on - are best left unproblematised.

Artists who have worn out the designation "emerging" without ever making much of a splash may still achieve relevance. This happens if work in their mode suddenly becomes fashionable or newsworthy: the obscure or forgotten artist can then ride the slipstream of something else in which people are actually interested.

An exhibition area. Call it a space if you want to convince someone very naive that you are dashingly au fait with the intricacies of staging an exhibition, or if you have already used all its less pretentious synonyms so many times that they have started to lose meaning. Never otherwise.

An art movement invented by the Warhol-like Japanese tycoon Takashi Murakami that blurs the distinctions between high and low culture, art and commerce. In practice, this means commandeering venerable institutions such as the Guggenheim and using them to sell Manga-style figurines and Louis Vuitton handbags. This, you must admit, is clever.

A preview of an exhibition, which one attends by invitation. The artist is generally present, which can be awkward if, for example, you tend to make startled exclamations of disgust when confronted by work you don't immediately take to. The presence of vol-au-vents, however, is always nice.

The caption beside a piece of art when it appears in an exhibition. This is generally the point at which the curatorial sensibility behind a show is most clearly exposed. For example, the wall texts for the Tate's Lure of the East exhibition (now showing in Sharjah) were what several London reviewers seemed most interested in; there the political sensitivities of the organisers were at their tenderest. Captions may be quite voluminous - they often are in shows of historical material put together by a national institution. In edgier, more commercial settings, they tend to be laconic to the point of unhelpfulness: you're lucky to get a name and a date. Not that this matters: it's frightfully gauche to be seen to read the things at all. True art aficionados know it all already.