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Friday Ephemera

Drowning in Language

Readers with an interest in visual culture should visit the blog of Eye magazine. While you’re there, you could even take a minute or two to read my post on the art world’s rhetorical flummery:

Take artist Aliza Shvarts, for example, who rose to fleeting prominence last year with a work that purported to involve “repeated, self-induced miscarriages”. She described her efforts thus: “This piece – in its textual and sculptural forms – is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body. The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above, as an installation that will take place in Green Hall, as a time-based performance, as a [sic] independent concept, as a myth and as a public discourse… It creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership.”

It isn’t clear how form or function can ‘converge’ on the body, not least because the human body is already a form with numerous functions. Can function, strictly speaking, ‘converge’ on anything at all? Can ambiguity be a ‘focus’ and ‘isolate’ something else – something that is terribly important but unclear and at no point explained? Despite such mysteries, one thing is unambiguous. Ms Shvarts believes that the extract above is itself a work of art: “The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above…”

The rest.


Spiny Norman

"Faced with the private languages of mathematics and physics – which are generally treated as serious even by people who find them incomprehensible – resentful artistic souls may find compensation in opaque and imposing rhetoric, comforted by their ability to perplex and impress."

I think the same could be said of Ethnic and Gender Studies departments of any University as well.


It often seems that the less substantial a subject is, the thicker its layers of baroque rhetorical frosting.


Here's the juice, courtesy of James Burke:

Art and culture are all essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of humanity's existence. They do not feed us, clothe us, make babies (yes, I know some "art" does), or anything else which matters.

It's a trenchant and provoking statement. I've been thinking about it for months now, and it's essentially true. Art has no value other than internally to ourselves. Great art has meaning to more people than art bollocks. Thus fecal smearings or urine-dunked crucifixes are bollocks while films such as "The Lives of Others" are great art. Pop culture itself is great art, but in a few thousand or hundred thousand years it will not matter.

Perhaps it is the failure to understand and embrace the impermanence of existence which causes the creation of ludicrous jargon. The jargon hides the lack of meaning and the failure to connect with the bit of all of us which art can reach. One needs no jargon to understand why Mozart was a genius or Cicero a great orator. The mind awakes when exposed to these and other great works, not to the fetid swamp of the po-mo wasteland.

I count it a blessing that though my university career has not been a success in finding me employment (yet), it did expose me to art which I would not have known to seek out on my own. My mind was awakened, and that is the true and worthy purpose of art.

Alan Kellogg

"If you can't dazzle with brilliance, baffle with bull" says it best.



noel douglas

"Art and culture are all essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of humanity's existence. They do not feed us, clothe us, make babies (yes, I know some "art" does), or anything else which matters."

Candice that's a pretty reductive view of humanity, no? Art and culture are not 'meaningless' in fact it is possible to argue that Art is the highest form of expression human beings have, that is we are only truly 'free' when we do this, otherwise we are just animals. Are other things that don't 'feed us, clothe us, make babies' meaningless too–like say Love or the need to have collective experiences such as dancing? Art and culture are part of the grand scheme of things, you shouldn't let some nonsense written by artists blind you to that fact.


The priests started all of this, back when language was first invented, to try to explain the unexplainable. Then, when government started to become representative, politicians picked it up. Eventually, easy reproduction of printed material led to advertising and marketing, with claims to "put some bounch in your step", if only you buy a particular brand of toothpaste.

Scientists and engineers are not immune - scientists need to justify grant requests for new research, and engineers need to be able to convince people to buy what they are making, and they have adopted the lingo of modern business practices, which are filled with blather(see, e.g., those inspirational posters(I forget their names)).

The humanities have always argued that although the scientists and engineers save people's lives, THEY save people's souls, by providing uplifing content, and this trend to flowery language is their contribution to the ongoing corruption of language that has been occuring in the latter part of the 20th century. The politicians are the worst, because they just tell outright lies, and no one calls them on it, but their slogans get picked up and become accepted as truth.

Gramsci explained how it would happen - just keep talking about something over and over, the way you want it to be heard, and eventually it becomes part of the fabric of the society. Until the society collapses because the language can no longer be used to support production of basic needs.



I believe art and culture are very valuable. To me, personally that is. But can any great work of art compare to the sheer utility of the steam engine? The way technology on one hand enriches, expands, and changes our lives for good or ill makes it of more utility than artistic expression.

Does art truly make you free, or does having plenty to eat, warmth in winter, clothes to wear, and all the many mass-produced products which enable our lives to be free from the struggle to survive? I believe it is the relative valuation of art vs. technology (not science) which is at the heart of the corruption of language in the humanities. It also has something to do with words being cheap, too many voices diluting the spectrum, and feedback among a closed caste.

Back to the value of culture- I deeply value the personal impact that culture has had on my own mind. Yet, what really does it matter to me unless I choose to make it important? Many people, I believe, do not. Perhaps they choose to make things I do not value important to them, such as American Idol, football, etc. These things have meaning only because people say they do.

Does love exist? We say it does, but what exactly is it? Is it a wave, a particle, a mathematical formula? It is none of these things. It is an emotion- a phantom of the mind. So too is art. We create art by experiencing it. We create love by experiencing it. We do not create food by experiencing it.

It is the needs for food, safety, and reproduction which drive us. We are in fact animals. That doesn't mean there is nothing more to life than survival and mating, but it does mean that all else has meaning only in that we make it for ourselves. You mention a grand scheme of things. I say there is no scheme other than mine, yours, and everyone else's.

James S

Wow. That MLA person over in the Eye thread is hilarious:

"However, I suspect that even if an 'accesible' translation were possible it would still meet with the entrenched positions displayed here, in which 'aesthetic values', 'scientific reality/clarity', and your own reliance on logical consistency ("does not compute") would miss the very arguments of power, control, dominance, and the potential of creativity to problematise these assumptive predicates. As I said before - How very disappointing."

He just keeps digging that hole.


Well, the longer and more elaborate the defence of Shvarts gets, the less persuasive it seems. And the more distant it is from anything that might be considered art. But I’m sure readers will arrive at their own conclusions.


"As I said before - How very disappointing."

They shouldn't be so hard on themselves. ;-)



I’m sure the arch condescension didn’t pass unnoticed. I wonder if our friend entertains the possibility that some of us find such bafflegab objectionable precisely *because* it represents the “power, control, dominance” of what amounts to a priestly caste.

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