I began last year with a list of art-writing clichés I thought were worth keeping an eye out for or ditching entirely. This exercise helped me think about keeping my own language fresh during the year—though I don’t think I’ve been totally successful in escaping my own most stringent “don’ts.”
I thought I’d switch things up this year and look at some press releases to see if any exciting new emerging stock phrases leapt out at me. Contemporary Art Daily seemed a handy repository, because of its tastemaker status.
Scanning that site’s 2015 archive, you quickly note all the usual self-serious tics of the much-hated “International Art English.” At the same time, I sense that if anything the genre of the press release has become so self-conscious of its stilted character that it is in danger of going in the opposite direction. There are an awful lot of announcements written in the form of inscrutable poems.
In any case, to see if I could get a larger perspective, I fed every press release that appeared on Contemporary Art Daily in 2015 into a website that analyzes word frequency. Stripping out artist bios and just focusing on descriptions of shows, the analyzed text amounts to 281,419 words, or about 580 single-spaced pages, with no page breaks, the length of Moby Dick, Ulysses, or 50 Shades of Gray.
Staring into this pool of information, you get a small sense of some underlying habits of writing (though you have to check the words against the original archive, otherwise you’d think “mauve” was unusually popular this year, when all the occurrences are just from one press release that contains an anecdote about the “Mauve Club of America.”)
Here are some observations, based on the data.
“New” / “First”
Despite the pervasive sense that it’s all been done—or maybe because of it—the insistence on newness shines through. Originality may be, as Rosalind Krauss once declared, a “modernist myth,” but it is a myth that the art industry definitely still believes in.