A Beginner's Guide to Art Bollocks

Joe Nawaz undergoes 'the ultimate torsion of the old artsy cullions' at the Ormeau Baths Gallery

 NB * In a “thought to page” experiment exploring the constant dialectic flux at the heart of modern critical theory, in the following review this writer is going to collate, using *, the number of times he expresses, in a post-ironic context, a perfectly simple idea in an unnecessarily complex way. ie. uses art bollocks rather than plain language. See how many you can spot…

Furthermore, the writer apologises to those of a testephobic nature to the preponderance of “bollocks” in the following. Thank you.

Art Bollocks

As a writer or artist are you quite comfortable with a piece of work having a 'discourse' with its surroundings? Or have you recognised something in an installation that both 'confronts while at the same time acquiesces' to the viewer's prejudices? Perhaps you’re drowning in the sea of abused semantics and paraplegic parallels we fondly call 'art bollocks'.

We all know it when we see it. It’s the self-cast curse of the thinking classes. Or, as the majority of the population would have it, pretentious people. As a writer, I’ve certainly (and sometimes even ashamedly) been guilty of it from time to time.

*('represents the didactic discourse at the heart of the play').

But where does it come from and why is it so profligate in contemporary art writing and criticism? Maybe it is shorthand for those in the know. A code of language, just like mathematics and medicine have their own jargon Or maybe it is just a load of old figurative balls?

None of those questions are exactly answered during today’s talk at the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Jason Oakley, the editor of the Visual Artists News Sheet and Printed Project, tells the audience, who are mainly artists, that if they’re looking for an attack or an explanation, they’ve come to the wrong highbrow lunchtime chinwag.

His talk, which he mischievously called 'A guide to useless and ridiculous art appendages', isn't a critique or a dissection of the language of art critics. It is more to find a balance between justification and jollification of the *cultural hegemony of wilfully opaque critical discourse.

Oakley’s keen to assure us from the start that the 'bollocks' in question are non-gender specific. Everyone is relieved to learn obfuscatory art criticism is not principally a masculine pursuit.

The phrase was coined in the infamous and scathing 1999 essay by Brian Ashbee, 'A beginners guide to art bollocks and how to be a critic'. No-one stopped writing it, but now they write about it as well.

Oakley admits that the jargon of arts critics can be an infuriating way of obfuscating meaning, similar to Orwellian ‘Newspeak’. Critics often deride the pseudo-intellectual rehashing and co-opting of scientific, sociological, political and psychological jargon, used to cloak the half-baked concept in profundity.

It is a problem, but as Oakley points out, some impenetrable art jargon can also be lucid or even illuminating. There are no examples, good or bad, for 'fear of offending'. Hilarious and outrageous examples can be googled for those of a tolerant or ticklish disposition.

The debate is further complicated by the fact that the fiercest critics of art waffle tend to be purveyors of their own set of bollocks - hairier and more reactionary ones. Charges of 'Maoist influence' and malign leftist political conspiracy have hilariously been bandied about within the world of artspeak. 

One theory that Oakley floats is that Marxist critical theory, so influential in the lexicon of artspeak, has become corrupted. Instead of being used for the mundane betterment of society, it offers critical intellectual validation to the likes of Lady Gaga. Typically, it is a 'thinking aloud' rumination rather than one of the points of the lecture. It is left to us post-modern hipsters to take it as ironically as we choose.

Of course, Oakley points out during the talk, this discussion about art bollocks is, in fact, art bollocks in itself. It is the ultimate torsion of the old artsy cullions.

Oakley sources are often at odds, creating a *contrasting melange of dissent and defence. From David French’s decidedly hostile attitude to contemporary art parlance to Brian Eno’s celebration of the description 'pretentious', Oakley *treads the objective critical line finely, demonstrating his own personal ambiguity about this fractious subject.

In a summation of sorts, Oakley suggests that art writers should tighten up, describe clearly and make their opinion of what they’re writing about clear. And sometimes, in these tricksy post-post-everything times, a critic has to drop the odd metaphorical testicle to achieve this.

Or, in Terry Eagleton's words, 'Sometimes it is jargon that we need and sometimes ordinary language'. 

A Beginners Guide to Art Bollocks is part of the OBG and VAI Critical Writing Competition 2011. The second talk, The Artist as Critic, will be held on March 8 at 2pm.