How did ‘Art bollocks’ become the default way of writing about visual culture? Could Mao have the answer?
The term ‘art bollocks’ was first introduced into serious art writing by Brian Ashbee in 1999, in Art Review. ‘A Beginners Guide to Art Bollocks and How to be a Critic’ was a popular, witty and widely quoted essay that one might suppose would have drawn a line under the worst excesses of 1990s artspeak. In fact, in the past seven years the situation has grown much worse. Art bollocks has become institutionalised, normalised and is now practically the default way of writing about art and culture for seasoned journalists and a-level students alike. Like Orwell’s Newspeak, art bollocks is variously used in a knowing way, as an in-joke, a private language, a posture, or maybe out of fear – to maintain some questionable status among equally questionable peers. This particular critical idiom has also spread from an increasingly politicised world of art theorising to adjacent areas of political and cultural criticism.
If some readers find it hard to believe that academia has been churning out people who can no longer distinguish between coherent argument and vacuous patois, it’s worth casting an eye over some of the more fashionable quarters of art theorising and cultural study. A cursory scan of Mute magazine (issue 27, January 2004) revealed the following nugget, from ‘Bacterial Sex’ by Luciana Parisi, a teacher of ‘cybernetic culture’ at the University of East London: ‘This practice of intensifying bodily potentials to act and become is an affirmation of desire without lack which signals the nonclimactic, aimless circulation of bodies in a symbiotic assemblage.’ Elsewhere in the same issue, I found this: ‘To be mediatised literally means to lose one’s rights. Hence, what happens to the idea of government by the people and for the people if the “false” is produced as a third relation which is not the synthetic union of two ideas in the conscious mind of the citizen or the general intellect of the organic community, but is a statistical coming together of variables?’ The article in question, ‘Bombs and Bytes: Deleuze, Fascism and the Informatic’, was written by Anustup Basu, a Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.
These extracts are not a mischievous attempt at satirical pastiche. Nor are they computer-generated artefacts of Andrew Bulhak and Josh Lario’s infamous spoof website, The Postmodernism Generator, which creates impenetrable essays, couched in non-sequitur and modish jargon, with titles such as ‘The Collapse of Narrative: Subtextual Capitalist Theory and the Cultural Paradigm of Expression’. The extracts above are the considered musings of serious thinkers, employed by supposedly serious academic institutions, and published in a supposedly serious arts and culture magazine.
Writing in The Guardian, the art critic Jonathan Jones scorned this suffocating use of theory and language (23 March 2005). His focus was the book Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Thames & Hudson, 2005), along with its quartet of statusful authors – Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Jones poked fun at these ‘mighty wielders of the poststructuralist lexicon’ and drew attention to the dubious nature of the theoretical assumptions shared by academics, curators and many artists: ‘The trouble with the theories that have piled up like a Tower of Babel is that they are never subject to testing; instead facts are filtered through heavy curtains of preconception.’ Jones suggested that the preoccupation with labyrinthine theorising is a result of insecurity, of feeling outstripped by the rigours and jargon of scientific disciplines.
An unspoken sense of intellectual inadequacy has, Jones said, resulted in ‘a facsimile of thinking’, in which evidence and substantive argument are replaced by obfuscation and sheer weight of words. ‘Art today likes to think of itself as very, very clever,’ he wrote. ‘You can learn all these big words – “narrativisation” is a good one – and feel you know something. Knowledge, however, only comes from a sensory encounter with the world, and knowledge of art from a direct study. Forget the visual theories … There is no good work of art that cannot be described in intelligible English, however long it might take, however much patience is required.’
For many artists, tutors and curators, purely aesthetic concerns are apparently inadequate. Theoretical ‘relevance’ is the order of the day, particularly if that theory can be construed as having a certain kind of political implication. In Art Since 1900, Buchloh frets, somewhat tendentiously, that: ‘The antinomy between artists and intellectuals on the one hand and capitalist production on the other has been annihilated or has disappeared by attrition’.
The world of new media art is peppered with numerous ‘platforms’ and ‘discussions’, organised and attended by a ‘community’ that appears united in its assumption that art’s primary function is as a vehicle for political transformation. Invited speakers frequently profess to ‘democratise’ art (in ways that can be somewhat unclear) and to ‘engage with new political constructs’. An exhibition-cum-discussion at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts entitled risk claimed to ‘celebrate the ways in which artists investigate the values of social inclusion – not as a political diversionary tactic, but as a radical art practice’. This couching of art in utilitarian terms of ‘raising issues’ suggests that artists who wish to be exhibited may find themselves being judged as much for their political sensibilities as for their aesthetic ones.
Julian Stallabrass, whose High Art Lite (Verso, 2000) was critical of the Young British Artists phenomenon and punctured its various pretensions, has been described as a ‘Marxist art critic’ – a term he seems uncomfortable with, while nonetheless claiming that ‘Marxist ways of thinking offer the most convincing analyses of capitalism and its cultural life’. He told ArtNet (2005): ‘I am happy to put left-wing thinking before a few million evening commuters [in the Evening Standard]. The danger [in doing so] is … when one’s positive programme starts to become conservative, and you end up arguing for a return to modernist formalism or some other anachronism.’ What’s important here is not Stallabrass’ personal politics, but the assumption that some kind of quasi-Marxist theoretical position is helpful, even necessary, in artistic production and criticism, along with the acceptance of a polarised opposition between ‘right-wing populism’ and self-defined ‘progressives’.
Theory is cheap
Among our current titans of conceptual art – around which art bollocks is most densely congealed – practical craft and expertise are often viewed as irrelevant, irredeemably passé or politically unsound. During a debate in 2003 with former ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) chairman Ivan Massow, Jake and Dinos Chapman dismissed craftsmanship as mere cosy capitalist folly: ‘You see, in our most humble opinion, the overt fetishisation of pastoral handicrafts by the bourgeoisie served the purpose of obscuring the true relations of Capital.’
The results of this conceptual approach are not so much art as a commentary on art – and, inadvertently, a commentary on the shortcomings of art education. And one should not discount how readily egalitarian assumptions and economic influence can be brought to bear in this realm. Whereas creative genius is, by definition, unequally distributed and often expensive to develop, theoretical facility is cheap to disseminate and all too easy to regurgitate. While very few of us can hope to create things of extraordinary beauty, rather more of us can learn to ‘reference’ things of beauty or, better yet, to say why beauty doesn’t matter. Interviewed in The Guardian last year, artist Gavin Turk said: ‘My work is full of quotations – as though I’m a DJ recycling other people’s work. I’m just doing what everybody else does, but more explicitly. What really interests me is the charade of creativity.’
One of the most obvious ways to ‘reference’ other works is by means of a carefully chosen title. The titles given to theoretical pieces are often more intriguing than the objects themselves, and this is far from accidental. A piece that springs to mind is Glenn Brown’s The Loves of Shepherds (2000), an oversized reproduction of a science fiction paperback cover by Anthony Roberts. The title’s link to a copied image of a spaceship isn’t immediately clear and several critics were baffled. However, Brown seems to be nodding to the term ‘loves of shepherds’, which has been used to describe overly romantic pastoral depictions of rural life, including William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, which replaces harsh reality with a far more idealised view. Perhaps Brown was suggesting that the impressive technology of Roberts’ book jacket served much the same escapist purpose. Again, without a detailed knowledge of pastoral art – and critical commentary of it – Brown’s artwork is merely a large but substandard copy.
Larios and Bulhak’s satirical website, The Postmodernism Generator, was inspired by Alan Sokal’s infamous hoax article, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. Sokal’s essay – supposedly demonstrating the political ramifications of subatomic physics, and complete with ludicrous annotations – was accepted for publication by the journal Social Text (issue 46-47, Spring 1996). Social Text, published by Duke University Press, describes itself as ‘a daring and controversial leader in the field of cultural studies, [focusing] attention on questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment ... and publishing key works by the most influential social and cultural theorists’.
Sokal attributed the acceptance of his parody to the proliferation of ‘a particular kind of nonsense’ among left-wing theoreticians. Specifically, he suggested that the editors of Social Text liked his politically fashionable conclusion and therefore saw no need to analyse his ‘evidence’ or his arguments, or the relevance of those arguments to the purported conclusion: ‘Nowhere in [the essay] is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.’ The credulous publication of Sokal’s meaningless article was widely reported, with amused and scandalised coverage worldwide. Sokal’s mix of Heisenberg and Derrida was not only funny but utterly damning. Yet the fact that Social Text is still published demonstrates a postmodern imperviousness to humiliation.
The roots of unreality
The assumption that art and art criticism should serve an overt political function, generally of an anti-capitalist and entirely speculative kind, is widespread and increasingly taken for granted. In 2005, when the Tate Britain website assured us that Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed ‘provides a kind of buttress against the pressures of modernity, mass production and global capitalism’, many people outside the art world laughed. But I suspect few were surprised. And it is this default acceptance of a deconstructed quasi-Marxist premise that underpins so much art bollocks, and the bollocks found more generally in cultural criticism. Nancy J. Troy, a professor of modern art at the University of Southern California, devoted much of her appraisal of Art Since 1900 to championing the authors’ ‘dialogical strategy’, the ‘complexities of [their] discursive modes’ and their efforts to ‘destabilise the sense of an unfolding narrative’. In the book’s index, the exponents of ‘destabilising narratives’ and leftist deconstruction are all represented: Jean-François Lyotard gets five mentions, Derrida fifteen and Michel Foucault 29.
In his book, Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks argues that the political lockstep of postmodern criticism is ‘a response to the crisis of faith of the academic far left. Its epistemology justifies a leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism, and … justifies using language not as a vehicle for seeking truth, but as a rhetorical weapon in the continuing battle against capitalism’. Certainly, Lyotard rejected notions of truth and clarity as synonymous with ‘prisons and prohibitions’. Foucault shared these sentiments, claiming ‘reason is the ultimate language of madness’, suggesting that nothing should constrain our beliefs and political preferences, not even logic or evidence. Frank Lentricchia, another left-wing theorist, said the postmodern movement ‘seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change’. Hicks’ suspicions are confirmed by Stanley Fish’s argument in Is There a Text in this Class? (Harvard, 1982) that theorising and deconstruction ‘relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.’ (An endeavour in which he, like many of his peers, has often failed.)
In its political aspect, postmodernism is almost entirely a left-wing phenomenon, placing great emphasis on alleged power relationships, real or imagined, and denouncing everything from clear textual meaning to notions of an independent and comprehensible reality as tools of political ‘oppression’. This tendentious position has coloured great swathes of art education and cultural criticism, often blunting analytical clarity in favour of an oppositional stance couched in gratuitous jargon. The more sceptical among us might suspect that the use of gratuitous jargon and the unintelligible nature of much postmodern ‘analysis’ is a convenient contrivance, if only because it’s difficult to determine exactly how wrong an unintelligible analysis is.
Writing in Why Truth Matters (Continuum, 2006), Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom note the rise of deconstruction or ‘Theory’ within parts of academia: ‘Theory’s near hegemony in literary and cultural studies has had various important consequences. It has changed the way many subjects are taught, and the status of particular approaches. This in turn has had an effect on faculty hiring and promotion, and in what gets published in journals and as books, which naturally has changed the rules of what people need to do to succeed.’ The authors cite David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (Poseidon Press, 1991), a lamentation on the state of English departments, in which he recounts being told: ‘If you want to make it in the criticism racket, you have to be a deconstructionist or a Marxist, otherwise you’re not taken seriously. It doesn’t matter what you know. What counts is your theoretical approach. And this means knowing jargon.’
Academia has always had its fashions, but the pervasiveness of this particular fashion is troubling insofar as it has explicitly marginalised expectations of accuracy and truth in favour of ostentatious political conformity. Andrew Ross, an editor of Social Text at the time of the Sokal hoax, has described rationality and reliance on evidence as ‘just another form of rhetoric’, one whose ‘founding certitudes’ have apparently been ‘demolished’ in ways that are, curiously, never specified. That acquiescing to evidence is, for some, a failing demonstrates just how far postmodern theory can deviate from reality. And one has to marvel at ‘thinkers’ who disassemble the basic tools of rational thought for fear of disproving their own political beliefs. Grimly, I’m reminded of Mao Tse-tung’s infamous dictum: ‘There is no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.’ With this in mind, the prevalence of postmodern bollocks is more than a trivial irritation confined to cultural criticism. If those who ‘wield the poststructuralist lexicon’ take their theoretical and political cues from people who openly disdain reality and coherence, particularly when such details conflict with a chosen ideological posture, one has to question their motives – and pray that, as with Sokal, it’s all just a joke.
David Thompson, writer, Sheffield
First published in Eye no. 62 vol. 16 2006
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.