Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 25, 2019

Art Bollocks

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Satire,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:10 pm

In the 18thC Antoine Coypel, president of the French Academy and purveyor of syrupy classical scenes, complained of the “Vapid and bizarre jargon” used by artists and critics when describing paintings. A complaint that seems as appropriate now as it when it was first made. I might notice I suppose that both were said in an age of rampant academicism, however I suspect that Art Bollocks has a long and venerably tedious history. I am not going to amuse you with too many examples of art speak, almost every “artist’s statement” is a parody composed entirely of such waffle.  My question is more why do people feel the need to descend into obfuscation and incomprehensible language when faced with talking about art? Is it just the art world that suffers?

The answer to that is a no. Wine critics seem to be badly afflicted too, philosophers and theologians as well to name but a few. A link between the differing areas is hard to discern. Up there with the most likely is perhaps that all of these topics are trying to express and describe the indefinable. Every bottle of plonk tastes different to each swigger and each one of these in turn will come up with some memorable bogus metaphor.

The cartoonist Thurber mocked wine speak in a 1937 cartoon:

Evelyn Waugh took a poke in Brideshead Revisited:

“It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”

and so forth. The link is plainer to me after reading an article on wine bollocks, it hit me like an alligator dropped on my head by a drunken protractor, the descriptor I am seeking is “Metaphor” Shakespeare’s example is the classic one:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …”

Here we have things we are familiar with compared to other things we are familiar with so we can reflect on the similarities. With wine and art speak the problem is that the metaphors are assembled from things we cannot with any certainty know a great deal about.

So it is hardly a surprise that attempting to describe subjective qualities with objective and poetic terms results in a word salad. The next mystery is why would any one take the texts seriously? Here is art writer and professor Carolyn Guertin writing in her essay called Wanderlust:

“The shuffling and unfolding of the information of her body in sensory space is enacted across a gap or trajectory of subjecthood that is multiple and present. Subjectivity is the lens and connector through which the spatio-temporal dislocation gets focused and bridged. The gap is outside vision – felt not seen – and always existing on the threshold in between nodes. Like the monster’s subjectivities, all knots in the matrix are linked.”

Would anyone care to have a stab at what the previous quote might mean? She is not really attempting to communicate, so what is the real intent. The text is composed in a way that feels like it is making an important point, but on closer attention the point or indeed any point appears to be absent. For those who think seeing the passage in context might help… believe me it doesn’t. However you could skim it quickly without interrogating the meaning too much and feel that something deep and thoughtful has been said.

Perhaps we might trawl further back into history to the Oracle at Delphi from which we get the word “delphic”. Horoscopes today deal with the problem of talking about things you cannot know about by phrasing in way that is as non specific as possible. They never say that at 10AM today all Libras will crash their bicycles into lampposts. They might however say, that they may experience accidents today, but although the result may be uplifting or not they mostly do not effect the positive feelings that the conjunction with Saturn encourages.

So in a way Art Speak is perfectly designed to fit with contemporary art. The requirement of the consumer of each is that they bring the meaning to the words or the art works themselves rather than the onus being on the writing or creating. Obfuscation in either area points I feel to insecurity. The Oracle cannot foretell the future in any detail so must be vague, so she can say she was right whatever the future holds. If the art critic has nothing to communicate about art that says nothing then Art Speak is perfect for the job. If an artist has nothing to say in their work the the same language is ideal for a statement that speaks of serious intent where there is none.

Well that was jolly.

On with the backlog of paintings.

Sea, oil painting, plain air

Here I wished to express the impermanence of form and explore the terminus of the shadow between resurgent reality and expectation. Or a quick daub of a bit of surf on Portland. 12in by 8in Oils.

Weymouth, beach, plain air, oil painting Dorset

Here I test the boundaries between individual experience and the transition to the ineffable isolation of the individual. Or some paint I smeared about to suggest a bloke  on Weymouth beach. 14in by 10in Oils

Portland Bill, Dorset, plein air, painting

Here I explore the dilemma of substance versus illusion, working on the periphery of dishonesty, I sought to enlarge the paradigm of truth and material. Or a moody old seascape with Portland lighthouse in it painted by a tediously boring painter on a bit of cheap reconstituted wood. 10in by 16in Oils.

Studland bay, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is a statement of ephemeral uncertainty described by using the anodyne security of a historical modus operandi and delineating how the ego is juxtaposed with transcendent ignorance of a futile world. Or a plein air of Studland Bay done by a painter thinking more about breakfast than art and worried that unless he paints a bit quicker his feet will get wet. 12in by 8in Oils.

Old Harry, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Here I reacted to the endless repeated depositions of the unreconcilable slimeaval past and its post structural decay in opposition to the semi-permeable crisis of the ideal self. Or a quick knock off of Old Harry by a painter desperate for a sale. 10in by 10in oils.

Portland Bill, lighthouse, Dorset, oil painting

Here I investigate the inextricable interface between being and not being using ironic reference to the desperate cry of primeval man marooned in an age of mechanisation and home baking. Or it was a really wet nasty day so I painted a picture of Portland Bill in the studio to pass the time pleasantly? 24in by 8in Oils.

That’s it I am off to the studio to wrestle with imponderables for all you poor folk who aren’t artists. So you can see beyond your poor mundane existences and be uplifted for a brief moment nearer to the unreachable mysteries that underly our improbable incorporation into sentient flesh.


  1. Love it. Very apposite, some artists have a coat hanger up there bottoms

    Comment by Susan Bates — January 25, 2019 @ 3:12 pm

  2. Wonderful piece, had us both in stitches. And of course so true. I think a lot of it is pomposity – trying to make everyone believe that there is a level of mystical insight (only understood by artists and critics, of course) in the art of painting, when the reality is that it’s a lot of hard work and endless practise, not always completely enjoyable, and often for little reward. But then, who would want to read about that?

    Comment by Martin Harris — January 25, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

  3. So telling in its recrudescent synchronicity!

    Comment by Fred Cairns — January 25, 2019 @ 4:35 pm

  4. That was fun!

    Comment by Doug Elliot — January 25, 2019 @ 9:59 pm

  5. Wow, I’m impressed with your Art Speak and enjoyed your comments! I’m black country though so most use of English impresses me! I nearly got thrown out of Art College for not playing the game of puffing my Art up with verbal nonsense. Very bewildering at times.

    Comment by Gabriella Smith — January 26, 2019 @ 10:03 am

  6. When I worked in advertising, I used to try to persuade people to look at a price of communication without their pre knowledge of the objectives and strategy. If a commercial needed a five minute explanation from the creator, it probably wasn’t going to do its job. You don’t get a free account director with every ad.

    There seems to be a parallel here with a lot of what I think of as ‘Turner Prize Art”. It isn’t particularly beautiful or skilful,, so it doesn’t attract on those levels. Nor does it have the ability to tell a story, or point a moral implicitly, by reference to existing narratives and stories, or cultural clues. So the title, and increasingly, the exposition , has to step up to the plate and tell the audience why they should be moved or excited by the artwork.

    Even worse, I now detect that the imposed ‘ message’ is becoming critical in the evaluation of the work. Would the recent winner have received the same plaudits if the auteur had been a straight, middle class girl from the Shires, musing on her coming of f age or whatever? I think you can guess my opinion.

    Comment by Niobe — January 27, 2019 @ 9:13 am

  7. Niobe, I think your analysis is spot-on. And as a result no-one but a minuscule minority will be “moved or excited” by the work in question. It seems to exist in it’s own tiny bubble of artist, critic, dealer and very wealthy collector, and barely impinge upon the rest of us at all. “Turner Prize Art” has become an irrelevancy. Personally, I have given up even looking at it.

    Comment by Martin Harris — January 27, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

  8. What contemporary artists and commentators seem to struggle with is the “If art is created in the mind of the viewer, then what part does the artist play” conundrum. So if someone says, “Look at this” by putting it in a gallery is that sufficient to make what we label art? You might when out walking with friends point at an interesting geological feature, your companions duly admire it. Have you made art? They might not have noticed the feature at all without prompting, so plainly your pointing it out has made a difference to their experience.
    My point is that looking and being interested, moved or enlightened by a thing does not necessarily constitute art appreciation. An art object should be the concrete result of a set of purposeful human actions to an end. We as viewers then judge the results of that activity and are moved, intruiged, impressed or not. The consistency of the reaction of the viewers determines the interestingness or not of the work. The depth or intensity of those reactions determines whether the art label might be appropriate.
    So Salisbury cathedral might push the reading on the Artometer up the scale, but the Bovis estate down the road would produce a mere flicker. So though both the objects are buildings made by the hand of man they are qualitatively very different.

    Comment by Rob Adams — January 27, 2019 @ 1:05 pm

  9. Rob, you are right, and Duchamp has a lot to answer for. But surely, the role of the artist in producing works of art has to involve the desire to communicate? If the artist has nothing to say, but is merely “going through the motions” the results are invariably dull and rather meaningless. I’m sure we have all seen plenty of such work, and if we are honest, we may even have produced one or two ourselves.
    It seems to me that the desire to express to others some aspect of the artist’s experience, be it visual, emotional, philosophical or whatever, lies at the foundation of any art work, be it painting, poetry, music, drama or anything else. If, after experiencing an art work, I can gain nothing from it, then perhaps I am too stupid or ignorant to understand subtleties of the artist’s message. But if almost nobody can make any sense of it, then surely the artist has either completely failed, or he or she had nothing to impart in the first place.
    As Niobe said, if a piece needs an elaborate explanation from a third party before anyone can gain anything from it, it’s not a successful piece.
    Oh, and don’t get me started on the subject of contemporary building (I won’t grace it with the term ‘architecture’).

    Comment by Martin Harris — January 27, 2019 @ 4:03 pm

  10. You can of course never really assess the rewards another might be gaining. You would have to get inside someone’s head! One of the most revealing figures a gallery can publish is the “dwell time” IE how long a visitor spends in the gallery. This is very important as dwell time relates directly to visitor spending. In turn of course you can after you deduct cafe time work out how long the exhibits detain the punters. As you might expect Museums and galleries are shy of publishing such statistics. They certainly collect them.
    A factor that certainly effects response is how the viewer would like to be perceived. You have a choice when faced with an artwork with no apparent content. Do you say, I can’t for the life of me understand what is special here, or do you pretend to understand. That in turn depends on how secure you feel in your ability to understand. People will always tend to claim they understand even when they don’t, as many studies have repeatedly shown.

    Comment by Rob Adams — January 27, 2019 @ 4:43 pm

  11. I suppose the insecurity that causes people to pretend to understand baffling art also causes them to pretend to understand the accompanying Art Bollocks, and so the whole pretentious charade is perpetrated. I have probably reached an age where I care less what other people think of my opinions than I might once have done, but if I can’t see some evidence of an artist working towards some goal, or trying to put across an idea or a vision, then I rapidly lose interest.
    I agree that you can never know what others gain (if anything) from your work. When we lived in South London I once painted a local park because I was interested in the challenge of capturing the evening light on the grass and trees, and depicting the textures in the various types of foliage. A couple bought it because they had done most of their courting there, but I don’t feel that that negates my reasons for making the painting or my attempt to convey the aspects of the scene that interested me.
    On another occasion I painted a Welsh lake as a “pot-boiler” to fill a space at a show. I didn’t have a valid rationale for painting the piece, it’s never sold, and I have it still to act as a dreadful warning!
    The concept of “dwell time” as a collected statistic is something I had not come across – very interesting, thank you for that.

    Comment by Martin Harris — January 28, 2019 @ 2:25 am

  12. I read somewhere that ‘Art-speak’, is a dialect of English evolved from translations of post-structuralist French philosophy, characterised by ‘pompous paradoxes, poses of strained rebelliousness, a combination of stiffness and swagger, lengthy sentences, a perverse interplay of absurd looseness and faddish precision, & plagues of words like ‘speculative’ ‘rupture’, transversal’, ‘transgressive’ ‘heterotopia’ etc.’  

    But this is curatorial art-speak, or a style adopted by gallerists’ which basically comes down to ‘You don’t know anything, unless I tell you, but you still won’t understand. Your only hope is to demonstrate a discerning respect – which you can do by handing over a very large amount of money’.

    On a more positive note, there’s no reason why language shouldn’t grapple with things hard to express in words, and subtle tastes and art can ‘push the boundaries’ of verbal categories to daunting limits. That’s a good thing, and shows art’s something very real.

    Comment by john pearce — February 1, 2019 @ 12:05 pm

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