The purpose of gibberish

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Michael Fuerst of Urbana, Illinois wrote, “We all receive written material and invitations to art lectures. A lot of this material seems to be gibberish. Can you explain the purpose of it? One invitation to a lecture at the University of Illinois included the line, ‘a set of socially shared meanings the artist chooses to make visible in the space of art.’ What does this mean?” Thanks, Michael. That’s the long way of saying the artist lets people look at his stuff. You’ll notice that my interpretation is particularly dull and unimpressive. Fact is, some folks have a need to make things sound more important than they are. If critics and educators always told it the way it is and cut out the gibberish, they’d be out of a job. Terms like “collaborative gesture,” “foregrounding the power of context,” and “insisting on the metapoint” have burned their way into the sophomoric vocabulary of the merely educated. Unless pressed, working artists seldom use these sorts of terms. It’s all about obfuscation. Just so I don’t fall into the same trap with a big word, obfuscation means “covering up clarity.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “to obscure, stupefy and bewilder.” The human mind has determined that when a proposition is shaky, a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo is required to make it more acceptable. Some religions, for example, rely on whole other languages that no one but a chosen few can understand. Throughout history, this ruse has been the bastion of charlatans and it’s still on the tongues of the high priests of art. Obfuscation is an accepted way to influence otherwise bright people who don’t have the time or inclination to figure things out for themselves. Bright people, because they generally obfuscate in their own way, tend to buy into the ruse — wink, wink. Talking about visual art is difficult to do. Gibberish is a popular convention that has self-fulfilling benefits. Art that by its nature is confusing is bought by confused people who willingly submit to some form of verbal confusion. “Significant” and “important” art is magnified by the art of gibberish. Cut out the art of gibberish and many artists would also be out of a job. Best regards, Robert PS: “Talking about art is like trying to French kiss over the telephone.” (Terry Allen) Esoterica: In these letters I have been known to fall into unacceptable gibberish, and I’m generally informed by return mail. Thank you. It’s my firm belief that most of what we artists need and cherish can best be told in plain language. “Short words are best,” said Winston Churchill, “and the old words when short are best of all.” And when the sublime cannot be explained we have the option of silence. William S. Burroughs observed that “Modern man has lost the option of silence.” I think just about but not quite. We artists are living proof that human creativity evolves in relative silence. But you can rest assured there will always be those who come to fill the void. “Taurus cacas exit cerebella,” said Kjerkius Gennius (36 BC) “B.S. baffles brains.”   Michael Fuerst

pencil and black ink drawing
color augmented with Photoshop


water soluble crayons


digital art



          Do pictures need words? by Jack Richardson, Onancock, VA, USA  

original painting by
Jack Richardson

As a young art student 45 years ago trying to get through a copy of Art News or some such gibberish, it occurred to me that I was not fit to be an artist because I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. With that I proceeded to be just a painter of pictures, do my thing, and the hell with the rest of the world. I continue to paint, almost daily, and enjoy my small world. A picture says a thousand words, it is said.   There are 2 comments for Do pictures need words? by Jack Richardson
From: Anon Imus — Oct 03, 2012

yes but a good critique, or good writing about art, can help illuminate a work, or body of work. i often seek words about a show AFTER i have viewed the work. many times this has enriched my understanding of the work. on some occasions i disagree with the writing. in which case the writer is an idiot.:-) p.s. …if writing on art is gibberish…what exactly is this newsletter?

From: Gail Caduff-Nash — Oct 03, 2012

I feel the same way, Jack, and especially after reading bio’s of artists that were written by people who obviously were NOT artists, and who elaborate at length about an artist’s style or brush strokes or choice of subject and just don’t know what they’re talking about. It strikes me that it’s the gallery people who want some eloquent verbalization of the 2-D object to draw people in, as if into an inside joke that noone gets but everyone nods their head and acts like they ‘get’ it. Surprisingly I actually ‘get’ the title of your “Waughdamelin” ;)

  Are they afraid of ‘play’? by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA  

“Motorized Hearts”
by Ernst Lurker

A prime example of this syndrome is the art form of PlayArt. I’m often puzzled why so many peoplenin the art world have the need to circumscribe the term “play,” in particular in conjunction with art. In the introduction of this PlayArt site I wrote: PlayArt is frequently labeled by different names such as “interactive,” “participatory,” “experiential,” “relational,” “performance” art, etc. These are pseudo-scientific expressions, pretentious, and symptomatic of the pathological fear of play by our cultural elite. Do these individuals fear they will not be taken “seriously” if they use the term “play” in connection with art? For Alexander Calder and many others, these big words are serious misnomers.   A kind of poetry by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA  

“Softshell gazing”
digital art
by Bobbo Goldberg

Oh, dear. You know, language can be an art form, too, and it’s not all cognitive simplicity. I’d certainly hesitate before defining any complex notion or obscure reference as obfuscation, which is purposeful, evasive distortion of the facts. We have plenty of opportunity between now and November to see that obfuscation itself can be highly creative — albeit contemptible — and with no doubt as to its purpose. I have to admit that I see plenty of “modern” art and “modern” photography that, to my eye, seems like a lot of BS — and I’ve taken a year of Art History with a most inspiring and exacting professor, one Kenneth Bare. He had a way of unobfuscating that would make your eyes go around and around. But having said that, there are some concepts that, honestly and honorably, require some verbal gymnastics to even try to communicate. Anything that points to the subconscious, for example, or to dream symbolism, or attempts to discuss, say, surrealism or even dada, may best be represented by seemingly contortionistic passages, whose authors have no intention to obscure clarity. Rather, it is poetry of a kind, as a good abstract can be. There are 2 comments for A kind of poetry by Bobbo Goldberg
From: liz Schamehorn — Oct 02, 2012

Hear Hear!

From: Conrad — Oct 02, 2012

good try, but you can see by the comments on this page that people are not buying it

  Artspeak by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA   Observe this Painting to our right:

“Oceanic stroll”
mixed media, 5 x 7 inches
by Theresa Bayer

Every brushstroke crisply deft. Its crypto continuity restrains the ambiguity, and pure aesthetic form that culminates the norm of cultural gratuity in socialized vacuity. The Artist cannot be concerned with anything she ever learned of figure, form, or gravity, perspective, or anatomy. Her attitude is sunny: She hopes to make some money! There are 3 comments for Artspeak by Theresa Bayer
From: Julie Roberts — Oct 01, 2012

It was a delight to read your poem, and I like how the painting represents its sentiments. First you see someone earnestly trying to be a fish and then you notice the happy little mermaid just having fun.

From: Darla — Oct 02, 2012

Your poem is a work of art! (I also like the painting!)

From: Monika Dery — Oct 03, 2012

What a great poem and painting! Did you write the poem or is it by someone else? At any rate you’re very creative and honest and I’m going to bring that poem to my art group AGM next week. Everyone will love it.

  Valuable gibberish by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA  

“Call and Response”
original painting
by Mary Moquin

No, no, please don’t give credence to the stereotype that all art talk is “gibberish”! Can’t we just accept the fact that we all can’t understand everything? The minute something seems too dense and obfuscated it is so much easier to throw up our hands and say that is all mumbo jumbo BS instead of taking the time to really think about it. I used to be the same way until I was forced to speak and think more specifically about my work and increase my verbal vocabulary in the same way that artists need to increase their visual vocabulary. I learned not to condemn what I didn’t understand because often, a few months/years later, I was struck by how ignorant I really was at the time I read it and when the light finally dawned that ignorance felt uncomfortably exposed! Some artists are trying to explore and express things other than formal issues of light, color, composition, etc. They are thinking of things like “socially shared meaning.” That is an abstract non-visual idea the artist is trying to give, a visual interpretation, and the words help her better understand her goal. That is different than painting a concrete subject. Some viewers actually enjoy this intellectual component; art can be something to think about as well as look at. No, it isn’t the “type” of art that excites a lot of people — some people want things spelled out more clearly, they want to know exactly what they are looking at. That is okay too. Art can be different things for different artists and viewers, as I have attempted to hammer down in previous responses. At one extreme it can be decoration or, at the other, it can have a complex string of carefully chosen words (that may appear gibberish to some) to help us understand an intellectual component that went into the work. Sometimes we see a movie for entertainment, sometimes we see one that makes us think about life differently. It is the same with art because it is all art. Lest it be said I don’t have a sense of humor, if you really want legit art gibberish, you might like this link. (RG note) Thanks, Mary. And thanks to everyone who sent in a link to the Phrase Generator. It’s a hoot. There are 12 comments for Valuable gibberish by Mary Moquin
From: Andrew van der Merwe — Oct 02, 2012

Mary, I couldn’t agree with you more, and you have said it far more tactfully. I was going to say that it was plain arrogant to call something nonsense the moment it goes over your head. That would indeed be arrogance but I doubt an artist of Robert’s stature easily finds stuff going over his head. What I’ve learned is pretty similar to what you have: one can’t be intellectually lazy about this kind of thing, and especially where religious language is concerned. To call it word salad or obfuscation the moment you struggle is crude. The reality is a subtler affair than we might like. In reality we have word salad alongside and mixed up with lots of sensible, insightful stuff that we simply don’t understand, and there are only two ways to deal with it: either understand or shut-up. You should only comment after you can separate the word salad from the sensible stuff and that takes understanding and the understanding takes effort and the effort requires curiosity. To dismiss out of hand an analytical term like “insisting on the metapoint” likely shows a lack of curiosity. Of course, it could also show that you understand only too well or have a more lucid way of stating the action. It could also show that you recognise the pretence of an amateur or the use of pixel’s phrase generator. Either way, understanding is an imperative. I think it’s also worth recalling one of King Solomon’s more easily understood passages: there is a time to talk about art and a time to just enjoy it. Analysis can sometimes deepen one’s appreciation of a good work, sometimes kill one’s pleasure in a bad work, sometimes be difficult to understand, sometimes be nonsense, sometimes just do nothing for you, but it is ALWAYS a killjoy at the wrong time and place. To take analysis out of it’s rightful time and place, show how it meaninglessly flaps and gasps there on the shore and so declare that it cannot swim, perhaps even make fun of it … Which well-known fallacy is that? Confusing the general and the specific?

From: Darla — Oct 02, 2012

I think it becomes “gibberish” not when it is difficult to understand, but when it is written in a purposefully obscure way, as when 50 long academic words are used instead of 10 clear, precise ones, for the purpose of making the description more impressive. Obscurity for its own sake is an acquired taste.

From: Conrad — Oct 02, 2012

Don’t worry, there will always be those who will fall into the intelectual inferiority trap and buy what you folks are selling. But it’s good to know that it is now a majority that thinks with their own heads.

From: Andrew van der Merwe — Oct 03, 2012

Conrad, are you suggesting that there is no such thing as intellectual inferiority? Do you or I really have nothing to learn, no new words, no new tools of analysis to acquire? I remember a time in my youth when “focal point” was concept I had to learn. How far do you think I’d have gotten if I’d called it “gibberish”, laid trips on people about intellectual inferiority, appealed to popular ignorance, ranted about why they don’t just say “the middle”?! The subtlety of what I’m saying has evaded you. I thought I’d made it clear that I was not denying the prevalence of pretension, obfuscation, showy or inappropriate use of jargon, etc. I also once remember having some of my work called “derivative” and I’m glad I didn’t respond defensively, as the arrogant do when faced with unfamiliar concepts. Instead, I was curious, learned what it meant and responded in my work. I think now I’d like to add that a poverty of analytical skill is even more prevalent – a trend backed by good whack of arrogance.

From: Conrad — Oct 03, 2012

No dude, you are missing the point – see the title of the letter? It’s “gibberish” not “education”. And you sure use lot of words…

From: Andrew van der Merwe — Oct 03, 2012

Gosh, and here I am with the the impression that you’re saying there’s not difference between those two. I wonder where I got that idea?

From: Andrew van der Merwe — Oct 03, 2012

– extraneous words and letters there with my compliments.

From: robin christy humelbaugh — Oct 05, 2012

Just read that someone thought “focal point” meant “middle”. fraid not friend. One of the things I have learned in many years teaching is to translate as I go. Whether teaching ballet or visual 2d art, I have found there are no absolutes about understanding, even when we all speak the same language. And I love the Phrase Generator.

From: Andrew van der Merwe — Oct 06, 2012

Robin, you have missed my point about “focal point” and “middle”. It was a parody of people who, as a rule, mock the use of terminology they don’t understand. My whole point was to use the fact that “focal point” and “middle” are not the same to illustrate how useful special terminology / jargon can be (e.g. “focal point”), as well as to illustrate what you might look like if you insist like a fundamentalist on always only using so-called simple words (e.g. “middle”).

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 15, 2012
From: Rick Rotante — Oct 15, 2012

Mary the “art phrase generator” is GREAT! Gotta use some of them when next I see a contemprary exhibit.

From: Sally — Oct 15, 2012

Andrew – does the word “verbose” mean anything to you? You must be a politician. Much of what is being said can and should be more concise and to the point. The attention span of most humans today is calibrated in nano-second sound bites. Its one thing to expound on an issue, and another to bore anyone listening. I concept of dialogue is to communicate not obfuscate. “Less is more.” “come to the point”. These are concepts that allow people to exchange ideas. I certainly don’t mean the above comments to be rude. When one is longwinded, one tends to lose ones audience.

  Just what is the avant-garde? by Vickie Reynolds, Grand Rapids MI, USA   Thank you so much for tearing at the seams of that sacred cow! In art school, it took me a while to realize that “art speak” sometimes baffled me, not so much because I lacked the sort of spiritual depth necessary to be truly creative, but that it actually is a self-perpetuating, self-preserving, highly-polished method of B.S. to (sometimes) make naive work appear grandiose and — a word that continues to make me cringe — avant-garde. I’ve always tried to explain my own work in plain words, however poetic they may sometimes become, but plain. People might still raise their eyebrows and wonder, “Really?” But I try to be honest and plain-speaking when there is a story behind any given work I produce. And NOW that you’ve got me on a roll! When I am at a regional exhibit somewhere and view the juror’s second place entry which is a dirty mattress from Goodwill attached to the wall, with blue paint splattered on it and a bright beach ball embedded — and, naturally, it is Untitled — and the juror explains his reasons for being totally mesmerized and drawn to this “piece” and uses the word avant-garde, I want to ask him if he ever heard of Marcel Duchamp and others who sort of started avant-garde nearly one hundred years ago with assemblages stuck on walls. Those crazy artists really “got a conversation going!” And it was great, and I like to see art that is intriguing as much as the next guy; but don’t tell me that a mattress on a wall is avant-garde or I may throw something hard at you. And, frankly, don’t give it Second Place just because it “created a conversation.” There are 2 comments for Just what is the avant-garde? by Vickie Reynolds
From: Carolyn Rotter — Oct 02, 2012

Bravo! My sentiments exactly. Some jurors think they are so high brow that they must select a piece that to the average viewer (and me) seem to be a dreadful mistake. Shock art does get a conversation going but ultimately you will find it hanging on very few living room walls…the question is, will it stand the test of time. The old saying “Here today, gone tomorrow” is an appropriate metaphor.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Oct 02, 2012

I love the old story of the cleaning lady who let herself into the gallery with her own key early on the morning of the opening of the latest “avant-garde” artist’s first exhibition, to make sure everything was spiffy for that evening’s do, saw a pile of rubbish on the floor slap in the middle of one of the rooms, said, “tsk, tsk”, and cleaned it all up! Emperor’s new clothes…

  Not making this stuff up by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA  

acrylic collage
by Liz Reday

I am more amused than puzzled by the opaque writings of the art world. Oh, to learn how to speak artspeak with a straight face in the correct situation, say in a gallery, chatting to a serious collector: “After what could easily be an awkward face-off between the artist’s self-reflexive subject and the viewer’s awareness of its purely pre-textual role, the work alights without fail on the side of refinement and tact.” (Robert Pincus-Witten, Artforum March 2012). Without words, art magazines would be forced to just show images, and, trust me, some of these images are even more opaque and obfuscated than the writing. I’ve walked into many a gallery to be faced with collections of plumbing detritus, lovingly curated, or perhaps beautifully framed arrangements of blurry B & W photocopies of blank walls. With relief, my eyes alight on the wall text, hoping for profound explanations to relieve me of my unsophisticated provincialism: “deploying media contra medium-specificity, and through repetition hacking the loop of the “same” to leak the extremity of difference.” (Bruce Hainley, ArtForum). I’m not making this stuff up. I understand that art writers have to make a living and art critics need to say a few words to explain their attraction to certain works in order to fill up spaces in the art magazines which even I (yes, reader, I follow their every word, hoping to crack the master code and figure out how I, too, can play with the big boys at the zillionaire art fairs) attempt to read. Some of it I actually “get” and out of those, there are images, videos, installations, photos and wall texts that I actually like, but it’s a pitiful fraction of the whole. But, hey, I’m learning! Refusing to give it all up as rubbish, I subscribe to contemporary art magazines and go to gallery shows. It’s not entirely pleasurable, and it’s usually head-scratchingly puzzling, but every once in awhile I encounter a sublime exhibition/ performance/ installation and leave the gallery with my mind re-charged and bursting with ideas. More often than not, I attended that particular gallery/museum show because I read about it from some wordy art critic. As artists, we really need to have writers to come to our exhibitions and say a few words regarding our work, however complex and confusing those words are. If we provide clear Artist’s Statements in our press release materials to the gallery, that may help. There are 3 comments for Not making this stuff up by Liz Reday
From: Jackie Knott — Oct 02, 2012
From: Rick Rotante — Oct 02, 2012

The avante-garde has one purpose and one purpose only – to show the world in all it’s ugliness and rebuke anything beautiful. There! Simple, plainly spoken and to the point. What’s next?

From: Karen R. Phinney — Oct 03, 2012

Liz, you made me laugh out loud! I like the “unsophisticated provincialism”, I am also guilty of that! Haha. You are right about the code, it is for sure. And we all try with mystification to crack it at times. Well, at least now I know I’m not alone!

  A single, indistinct entity by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA  

“Reverie by Moonlight”
oil painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Carolyn Edlund

Attending the reception for a fellow artist, I chanced to meet another artist, familiar only by name, not by the artist’s work. His website does nothing short of confound the visitor; it isn’t clear whether the product of his artistic endeavor is sculpture, painting, or photography. Here are excerpts from the artist’s statement: “My enterprise is elliptical and parallel, with varying episodes of linearity …The effort to fill it with meaning, to deal with its relentlessness and to periodically supersede its insistence with the experience of an infinite presence, an infinite presence that could traverse ten minutes or five hours at a stretch …One of my aims is to close the distance between thinking, looking and making, to the point where it is hard to tell the difference.” And there, in the final sentence is an admission to obfuscation. Creation, observation, and contemplation are said to meld to a single indistinct entity that is his art. ‘Be impressed,’ he says, through prattle meant to conflate the value of the art and the stature of the artist. For me, the babble only increases the distance I’ll keep between myself and his art! There are 5 comments for A single, indistinct entity by Carolyn Edlund
From: Mike Barr — Oct 01, 2012

Great comment and quote. Despite what arguments may be put forward in defense of such descriptions this is an example of the complete sillyness of of it. It has a fog-factor of 10!

From: Anonymous — Oct 02, 2012

Amazing painting!!

From: Darrell Baschak — Oct 02, 2012

Lovely painting! I witnessed something similar the other nite when the moon was full, you have painted my sentiments perfectly.

From: Helen Hamrick — Oct 02, 2012

My exposure to art-speak obfuscation began in my college art classes where the professors taught nothing at all about the techniques, materials, and marketing of art. Instead they spoke just this sort of gibberish about then-favored artists while constantly sneering at any art (such as Norman Rockwell’s) that could be understood and appreciated by unsophisticated people. That was in the late fifties. I didn’t learn a thing from them that I could use but I did see through all that art-speak enough to realize it was a bunch of B. S.

From: Kathleen Knight — Oct 04, 2012

Helen Hamrick: I took one art class in college in the mid-50s, with the idea of majoring in art — until I got a bad grade on a scrapbook project in which I included a Rockwell drawing. Now that Rockwell is in the good graces of the in-crowd, all I can do is laugh.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The purpose of gibberish

From: Marvin Humphrey — Sep 27, 2012

I once had a bumper sticker, back in the day: “Eschew Obfuscation”. I still like it.

From: Claire Remsberg — Sep 28, 2012

Some artist feel pressure to create or state something profound. It is not profound, however, if it can’t be understood. Some artists and art critics seem to also feel the need to condescend to the mere mortals, which is insulting. Some artists and art critics are just bad writers. I admire and envy a writer who can say so much with small, common, carefully chosen words.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Sep 28, 2012

Dear Robert, You are never, I repeat, never obscure! Unless of course you use a word well known to North Americans but not to the rest of us – there have been one or two occasions, but why else do we have the internet? ;-) Those who don’t understand you are probably not paying due attention; I say to them your words are worth careful consideration. I can’t imagine how you come up with something worth reading every few days, and what’s more it’s so well-written, informative, and often hilarious. I am filled with admiration. Gibberish in art is annoying, but its use in business and politics is really worrying. Who knows what they’re hiding. Marvin, I love your bumper sticker.

From: Karen Wardle — Sep 28, 2012

To say that “a set of socially shared meanings the artist chooses to make visible in the space of art” means “ the artist lets people look at his stuff “ is not my interpretation. Socially shared meaning refers to almost anything like language, objects or spaces that people collectively agree means something. So if an artist takes an image of a pot, an object which is commonly known as a cooking utensil, and then puts an image of three little boys inside the pot floating on the water the pot now has two meanings; that of cooking utensil and that of a boat or raft collectively understood among the three boys. Communication requires quite a bit of shared understanding in order to successfully interpret meaning. This meaning can be between a large population and as few as two people. Psychology, philosophy, anthropological and social studies, just to name a few sciences, also use this terminology when considering society and culture. If you place this kind of dialogue in relation to art as gibberish then I think you do the same for any other science. Making the viewer think about the meaning of your art can enrich the experience they take away. Many artists engage in several levels of communication just as a singer would talk about the intimate or personal subject matter of a song to a fan but to a fellow musician they may talk about cadence, tone, instruments and the process of song making.

From: Barbara Youtz — Sep 28, 2012

I really liked this piece and had to laugh at the reason you give for artists using lots of big vague words or “obfuscation” as you call it. I’m keeping this one for sure. Lots of galleries ask me for an artist’s statement when I enter their shows. And so I sit down at my computer and struggle to write some long boring thing that I think will sound as if I know what I’m about. That is I did, until I found that one of my favorite artists used only a line or two for her statement. After all “one picture is worth a thousand words”. Here is a line I heard years ago from an old TV show. “He has the unique ability to make statements that are seemingly vague, but in reality they’re meaningless.” Whoever “he” is may be the one who is writing all of these artist’s statements.

From: Jo Robinson — Sep 28, 2012

To comment on the “art speak” I wish to tell you my experience. When asked at a one man show of my work to speak to the press, I merely said “let my work speak for itself”. The curators were unhappy and, after a four year relationship with the gallery, I was not invited to show there again.

From: Carmen Beecher — Sep 28, 2012

Someone needed to say this! What a great post. I worked for the military for 31 years, and they do the same thing. A toothpick was an “interdental stimulator.” I recently received an honorable mention in a competition, and the judge saw lyrical things in my work that I never consciously intended. Her words were much appreciated, but I had to laugh. It was at that moment that I appreciated the difficult job of judging an art competition.

From: Peter Pook — Sep 28, 2012

So enjoy your twice weekly letters. This one on the B.S. about writing & talking about art was wonderful. I suspect that there should be a saying that” the amount of verbiage about an artist’s work and the degree of obfuscation in the writing are inversely proportional to the quality and clarity of the art/artist being described…… Art speaks for itself.”

From: Norman Ridenour — Sep 28, 2012

I think this is what your longish ‘O’ word means. The condition has two aspects: 1. So much of the daily world is built on massive BS, sales, advertizing, marketing, it becomes acceptable. 2. People who can tear part in detail the workings of a double play or balk have no comparable skill is seeing and discussing the arts, painting, ballet, music. It is cultural, the arts are too often seen as feminine thus second rate. Thus the potential fans/buyers are at a loss for words and can only nod in agreement when presented with the flood of glossy verbage. As a teacher my main goal is clear thinking, getting past the BS and learning reality.

From: Peter Geisser — Sep 28, 2012
From: Kitsune Miko — Sep 28, 2012
From: camille Bodey — Sep 28, 2012

I read an art book recently and the lofty haute explanations of the auther who was explaining9?0 the social interrpretations and the phiseo, psychological aspects of art and how it affected early caveman primitive renderings….ad nauseum- you get my point.

From: anon — Sep 28, 2012

I was once had a dinner with an artist and an art administrator when they started doing the art talk. It was obvious that they immensely enjoyed and gave importance to that conversation. Their main point was that a piece of art is worthless unless the method, meaning and importance of it can be verbalized by someone if their kind. The talk went on and on and they even produced written notes that should be kept as a record of all that wisdom for posterity.

From: anon — Sep 28, 2012

Karen Wardle you missed Robert’s point. We can all interpret what “a set of socially shared meanings the artist chooses to make visible in the space of art” means. It is art that is needed in this world to communicate for itslef, not the parasitic hangers on who call it upon themselves to explain it.

From: Barry Kleider — Sep 28, 2012

Thanks for using the word ‘obfuscation’ in a sentence! When I was in college (I’m sure it was before the time of Christ — if not during the time of the dinosaurs) I used to walk past a car on campus. It must’ve belonged to somebody important — a little silver sports car always parked in the same spot right next to the main door of the Cage…. Anyway, this car had a bumper sticker that said ‘Eschew Obfuscation’. Needless to say, I saw it enough times that it burned a hole in my brain. 40 years later, I still remember the spring day I took out my notebook and wrote it down. Minneapolis, MN USA

From: Teresa Chow — Sep 28, 2012

I agree that there is a lot of gibberish written out there to explain what the artists are trying to show. Sometimes just the title of the show is good enough. I go by one motto – Let the paintings speak for themselves. If the work is not captivating and do not get the message across – the writings are meaningless, no matter how long; fancy; flowery the words may be. Look at the old masters work hanging in the museums. They can be summarized as “A picture tells a thousand words”, there’s only the title, date, medium and size. In modern day terms, the WOW factor has already been achieved, words are mere added information. Short and precise sentences are preferred. Nowadays, the long extended explanations on the hidden meaning behind the art work are so confusing. Does the writing mean to strengthen the work or is the work so weak that it needs words as vitamin supplements to spur growth?

From: Alayne Speltz — Sep 28, 2012

I appreciate your thoughts on gibberish…I was once given an A- rather than a solid A by a professor at the University of Michigan School of Art & Design because I didn’t, “…speak the language of art well enough.” In class I said things like, “it’s beautiful”, “it’s well crafted”, which lacked of the assumed educated language. I argued that I liked to simply say how a work of art made me feel…but I was not the one with the power in that situation. I got a chuckle out of your use of the word obfuscation in this context today – thanks for that.

From: Nancy Davis Johnson — Sep 28, 2012

Robert, this letter is one of your best! It gave me my belly laugh of the day – so short and deliciously sweet. So many reviews of art and artists fit the ‘obfuscation’ definition today, you have to wonder if the reviewers take courses in this ‘art’. I especially treasure your last two sentences under “Esoterica” – ‘B.S.’ indeed! Many thanks for the giggles.

From: Jeane Vogel — Sep 28, 2012

I read today’s letter with amusement and nodded in agreement. The gibberish of the art world often masks an inability to speak intelligently or cogently about the work — one’s own or another’s. I came up short when I read this line: ” Some religions, for example, rely on whole other languages that no one but a chosen few can understand.” I’ve read you for a long time and I’ve never detected a hint of disparagement toward others. I have trouble believing I read this correctly. As a Jew — who just spent many hours praying in another language during Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur — I do not think I was engaging in a conspiracy of obfuscation and trickery. I understand what you were trying to say, but I wish you might have chosen another analogy. This one was hurtful, though I’m sure unintended.

From: Darla Tagrin — Sep 28, 2012

Gibberish is everywhere, especially in political ads that, instead of making the simple incomprehensible, make complex problems seem simple. Let’s face it, in a society where we are bombarded with carefully designed visuals every minute, fine art is marketed on the premise that it is somehow “above” the common crowd, and gibberish supports this premise. If you can’t understand it, it must be refined. The Emperor’s clothes are too aristocratic for you to see. Of course there are clear ways to describe art. They won’t replace actually seeing the art, any more than reading a food critic’s column replaces eating, but verbal explanations can supplement and add to the experience.

From: Mike Hill — Sep 28, 2012

Love your articles and enjoy your opinions about the arts and the execution thereof. I must say that your comment about religions using “other languages” may be at best …. misguided! The Roman Catholic Church (after Vatican II) moved away from latin as the language preferred over the vernacular, but the advantage of a common language worldwide gave a unity to all the mass participants world wide. A person could go to mass in Uganda, Ecuador or the United States and knew the meaning of each and every word spoken by the priest … sometimes they used an interpretive missal, but they always had the opportunity of understanding the words … NOT A RUSE!

From: Gillian Hanington — Sep 28, 2012

I had a wonderful teacher at art school in Halifax a million years who delivered a lecture on gibberish during which he told us to avoid it, to speak the plain truth and not worry about being “articulate” because if we were articulate for heavens sake we’d be be writers. Artists speak a different way, through their visual media and that we should accept and revere that.

From: Margaret Bernstein — Sep 28, 2012

Words can be gibberish, it is true, but they also can be as much fun as paint! Public art words really do need editors, rather than advert writers, perhaps.

From: Martha Jablonski-Jones — Sep 28, 2012

I’m so sick of artists’ statements I could gag. They should just start showing the statements and forget the art, the way things are going. (ps before we come down too heavily on some of the dreadful writing, it might be kind to bear in mind that they feel pressured, especially by the public galleries, to come up with this stuff. Since most of them are visual artists not writers, no wonder it’s dreck! I’ve done it myself, I hate to say.)

From: Flora Baumann — Sep 28, 2012

Very funny and fun to read! I think I must write a letter to the editor of the last Harper’s about obfuscation. One article had it in spades. Either that or I am too illiterate for the magazine(I think not). It was filled with obfuscating terms and long super-intricate sentence structures that would take a grammatician to resolve. Thanks for the entertainment and observations.

From: Holly Abraham — Sep 28, 2012

For a painter Robert Genn has an excellent understanding of human nature.

From: Michael den Hertog — Sep 28, 2012
From: Joanna McCoy, DVM — Sep 29, 2012

I had a great laugh at this one. Your comments could not be more applicable than they are today with all the obfuscation going on in the presidential election! Seriously, I took my non-artist husband to an art talk ONE time… never again. Although he has a great eye and is my best critic, he could not understand how anyone could talk on and on and never say anything! Why couldn’t they just say, “I made the wheel red to draw attention to it”? So much simpler! Cambridge, MD

From: Megan Moore — Sep 29, 2012
From: Andre Satie — Sep 29, 2012

Why don’t we all just pretend that we’re musicians? A musician never has to put strings of letters after his/her name, never has to present a gibberish-filled statement. We can say something like … “Joe Jones is showing new work at the Downtown Gallery this month. His work is astounding. Stunning. Takes the breath away. “

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 29, 2012

When I was a young man I had the fortunate experience of being taken under the wings of some “older” smarter people than myself who didn’t allow me to shoot my mouth off without having the information to back it up. These people weren’t arrogant intellectuals. They didn’t consider themselves better or smarter than anyone else. They felt that if you participate in a conversation, know something of which you speak. Find the information to speak correctly and informatively. This has stood me in good stead for years and I sleep well at nights knowing I’ve been as truthful as I can whenever I talk with others. This isn’t the case in today’s society where lying, cheating and “obfuscating” an issue is the norm. You find the kind of situation especially when there is a sale involved, when the speaker doesn’t know about the issue they are talking about or when a product they are selling is not worth the money. Gibberish hides the fact you don’t know what your taking about but sounds like you do. Our politicians, our investors, our officials find this process of gibberish easy and have no difficulty speaking without the facts. It takes all kinds to make a world, but if seek out proper information, you should have little difficulty seeing when the wool is being pulled over your eyes.

From: Alayne Speltz — Sep 29, 2012

I was once given an A- rather than a solid A by a professor at the University of Michigan School of Art & Design because I didn’t, “…speak the language of art well enough.” In class I said things like, “it’s beautiful”, “it’s well crafted”, which lacked of the assumed educated language. I argued that I liked to simply say how a work of art made me feel…but I was not the one with the power in that situation. I got a chuckle out of your use of the word obfuscation in this context today – thanks for that.

From: Julie Mayser — Sep 29, 2012
From: Jon Edmondo — Sep 29, 2012

When I started painting and selling my work, I started my prices at what I thought was a fair price based on the prices of other artists in the area. Although I’ve sold some work, I haven’t been selling like my friend who has much lower prices. I’m concerned that I initially priced my work to high. You have always said that you shouldn’t lower prices, so now I think I’ve painted myself into a corner. Is there a way to bring prices down so I can sell more of my work? How do I know where my prices should be?

From: Florie Baumann — Sep 29, 2012

I think I must write a letter to the editor of the last Harper’s about obfuscation. One article had it in spades. Either that or I am too illiterate for the magazine (I think not). It was filled with obfuscating terms and long superintricate sentence structures that would take a grammatician to resolve. Thanks for the entertainment and observations.

From: Theresa A Henderson — Sep 29, 2012

Real art happens when a close up of the texture just painted looks like gibberish, and then you stand back and it takes form. Right before your very eyes!

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Sep 29, 2012

My primary medium is a visual art. But guess what? I’ve a book of poetry ready to go to print, and after a year and a half I’m completing a 23 chapter intense metaphysical book. I spent my early years playing a cello- and have been a music programmer for more then 30 years. Robert is both painter and writer. These multiple creative things are not mutually exclusive.

From: Pat M Kelly — Oct 01, 2012

Or…..Robert we could look at this kind of language as a way to elevate the art and the institution placing it in the realm of “high culture.” This is the language that identifies art and ideas with academia and museums. Note that in the marketplace, auction houses will use a different vocabulary when describing art. To separate the art and put it on a linguistic pedestal seems to give it a place of honor. I am more interested in what art actually does, with the wordless power of images. They are powerful precisely because no words can come close to saying what beauty describes so eloquently.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 01, 2012

I got off this site on Saturday night and have spent the time since fed up with much of what I read above. A few letters back many comments were made about a woman who demanded an apology because some jurors asked her- in public- to explain and defend her work. Really folks- some of you just don’t get it. A unique piece of art must be interesting enough to stand on its own and speak for itself. If your work isn’t that good and doesn’t do that- you have failed. But guess what? If 4% are creating but only 2% are buying- to think any artist anywhere on the planet wouldn’t take the time to give an explanation of both their work and their vision and their process to the potential buyers- as an educational service for all of us- is just plain pathetic. So- GROW UP. If you can’t explain your work- what the hell are you actually doing? If you can’t paint AND write- where’d you get your useless education. Yes- a lot of artist’s statements are trash. Where’s the problem? Oh- with the artists themselves. My medium is fiber- which came out of a female-based handicraft. Handicrafter hobbyists make BS artist’s statements. Believe me. If you can’t explain what you are doing- why are you doing it? Because you can’t even explain it to yourself. There is magic in producing great art. Explaining that magic is difficult. Not explaining it is BS. Some people are visual. Some people are intellectual. Right brain- left brain- us lucky ones ARE BOTH. But for a person who is more left-brained- the WORDS describing a wonderful successful visual work of art still help the left-brained person truly appreciate that beauty. Any artist unwilling to explain their work and self do a huge disservice to every other single artist on the planet. When will you all learn?

From: Gavin Logan — Oct 01, 2012

Artspeak is the insider language that helps build the mystique of work that falls short of or goes beyond plain truth and beauty. In advanced, controversial and entertainment art, this language is necessarily a part of the art.

From: Ramon Juan Robles — Oct 01, 2012

Regarding “metapoints,” they are points (often of view) based on previous points of view. Metapoints of view come about when people are willing to look into their previous points of view and make changes based on them. Comprendo?

From: cassandra — Oct 01, 2012

As usual Robert’s topic spurs responses that dash off madly in all directions. Curator/critic art speak must be incomprehensible as they rush to justify salaries ludicrous compared to the paltry sums most Canadian artists can command. Of course it is bull hockey but to paraphrase Andy Griffith, “It’s high classed bull hockey. On the slightly different topic of ‘artist’s statements’: why not demand that all authors must produce a ‘writer’s painting’ describing their latest work in sophisticated colour, line and form? Music composers could be forced to knit elaborate but cozy explanations, dancers could be asked to provide sculptures or static installations to explain their hard to understand movements. etc. Get the picture????

From: John Dobrowolski — Oct 01, 2012
From: What’s Ina Name ? — Oct 02, 2012

The words I had to type into the comment form, to prove I am not a spam program were “taryop proclivities”… ‘Nuff said !

From: Jim van Geet — Oct 02, 2012
From: Nan Fiegl — Oct 02, 2012

I have a billy-club, too.

From: alicia chimento — Oct 02, 2012

I had a gallery owner put it simply to me once, while looking at an abstract piece he loved of mine that I was struggling to title. “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to think.” That openness to the work itself clarified what my own hope for any viewer is; a personal connection between him/her and the work itself. Just as titles can overstate the visual, I think words which describe can complicate the pure emotion of reacting to a painting on it’s face for the viewer. Books need titles to draw the reader in, and the text which follows tells the story. But art is different. It speaks to the viewer in some way, in that one look. That being said, every artist has an internal process which develops the work, but how that connects to the viewer may just be irrelevant to all but art writers and critics. I like Helen Frankenthaler’s quote “I wanted things that I couldn’t at times articulate.” So she painted.

From: Patsy — Oct 02, 2012

“2. People who can tear part in detail the workings of a double play or balk have no comparable skill is seeing and discussing the arts, painting, ballet, music.” As always, I’ve enjoyed the comments, laughing in appreciation at some; shaking my head at a few. But this point of yours, Norman, left me obfuscated! ;-) Is it perhaps a result of editing your sentence and forgetting to read it again for sense before posting? I’d love to know what you actually meant. === “Right brain- left brain- us lucky ones ARE BOTH.” It’s “we”. Leave out ‘lucky ones’ and you’ll see why. Confuses a lot of people. Actually, you’ve missed the points people have been making: it’s fine to explain your work in simple language; using gibberish to make you seem cleverer than the rest of us (not we) is the problem. ;-)

From: Gabriella Morrison — Oct 02, 2012

A picture, object, writing, music is not always perfectly understandable to someone who encounters and experiences it for the first time. As a green (salad green, green with envy) 19 year old, I saw for the first time Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” in the Louvre. I was gob-smacked, but feeling very much ignorant of what the painting referred to. Yes, the subject was entirely clear, but the content of the picture eluded me because of my own ignorance. What was the “Medusa”? What back-story was not to be known by me? A lot, as it happens – the historical aspects, the research done by Gericault, some aspects of visual design, the cutural context of the work escaped me. Sometimes there is more than meets the eye in art, which requires for the mind to become fully engaged, to be curious about. And, yes, sometimes words must be used to throw light onto patches of non-knowing, or not understanding. Language is not always simple and mono-syllabic. Nouance often has to be expressed in slightly more complex ways. Visual art is not always straightforward or an easy direct read, obtainable in totality of meaning at first glance. Say, the difference between a simple melody picked out with one hand on the piano, and a full symphony interwoven of many harmonic components. Me, I like both the simple hummable melody and the more complex arrangement. If we can accept there is a range from the simplest to the most complex in many situations, why does it rankle to accept the same capacity in the visual arts?

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Oct 02, 2012

Most writing about art is an attempt to make the ineffable “effable” . It is like trying to wrangle a cloud. Left brain vs right brain

From: Gail Caduff-Nash — Oct 03, 2012
From: Gail Caduff-Nash — Oct 03, 2012

@J Wilcox: I know this isn’t a debate but the reason we artists and crafts people have OTHER people speak for us is because we, by trade, are less capable with words – maybe verbally more than written. Our art is our language. We should just say no if we don’t want to speak about it. Our paintbrush/pen/quill/medium is our loudspeaker. We ‘speak’ all the time but make no sound. For that matter, many musicians make lousy speakers, and also many writers. I’ve been bugging a certain artist I know to tell me about his process in painting, his choices, his point of view, for months and he won’t. He’s very obtuse. But I love his work. He forces me to think about it because there’s no explanation. And most art isn’t meant to explain to you anything. It’s for you to explain it to yourself. Lots of dead artists can’t “defend” their work – you either like it or you don’t.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 04, 2012

Dear Patsy! Thanks so much for correcting me!!!!!!!!!! Henry Miller be damned!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Us artists and Us writers and Us humans sometimes like to abuse the so ridiculous to the absurd English language. Why you’re right about your writing! Nothing like a rite of passage, is there? Which passage were you talking about? Thanks, I’ll pass. Gail- I can’t even believe you could say: You have OTHER people speak for you. (So let me be rude to the max, here.) Is that a female thing? I can’t even believe it. You let other people put words out there for you? You just wrote a paragraph to me! Artists need to learn to speak for themselves- do so succinctly- intelligently- and be honest and direct about both what they are producing and what they are saying about it. Viewers will get it.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Oct 05, 2012

Dear Bruce! Believe me, it was an enormous pleasure!!! Unlike you, I believe in admitting when I’ve made a mistake, because that’s how to learn what’s correct. Pretending to mock the English language for its foibles? Pull the other one. I would have respected you more if you’d said, “Oops”. But don’t feel bad; you’re not the only one I’ve annoyed over the years by pointing out language errors they make because it isn’t important to them. It is to me, but most of the time I grit my teeth and keep quiet. At least I don’t constantly insult men for being male… or women for being women, or anyone else for being whatever they are. Gail merely put her point of view – would you have been as rude if her name was John? You might be interested to know that here in Ireland Patsy is a diminutive of Patrick (may that give him sleepless nights). ;-)

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oil painting, 12 x 9 inches by Judy Maurer, Gold Canyon, AZ, USA

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