Poll professionals in any industry, and you'll inevitably hear about a small set of practices that are almost universally reviled... and yet almost universally adopted, with no apparent course-changes in sight.
Do the same in the contemporary gallery sector, and I guarantee that one of the first entries on the response list will be the exhibition press release: almost without fail, a page-long chunk of text as indecipherable to today's readers as a wall of hieroglyphics––and despite all the distaste, as sacred-seeming, too.
To clarify for the less familiar (and to entertain fellow die-hards), here's a random sampling of language pulled from actual press releases for gallery exhibitions in Los Angeles right now. Names have been redacted to protect those involved:
- "Worded in a representational visual language translated into the physical presence of objects, the artists' works are brilliant diversions of absurdity and anonymity. Beyond the mask of visual detritus lies the naked syntax of the contemporary visual experience."
- "[The artist's] objects exist at the perceived perimeter between original and reenacted, swimming around a hidden, idealized source. Centered on the inextricability of surface effect from interior core, his work reveals a profound fragility in material and symbolic identity."
- "Assignments and practices separately identified under the heading of art or curatorship enter a labyrinth of reflections and projections that give these assignments and practices multiple purposes. Objects are turned into images, creating special and linguistic binaries that allow them to be turned back into objects. This also changes the terms for their consideration as objects or images."
If any of the above examples makes sense to you on the first read, let alone compels you to want to see the show it describes, I will switch to a diet consisting entirely of gas station hot dogs. Because I promise that even the people who wrote them are shaking their heads.
The off-putting word-sludge of the standard press release raises an obvious question: Since many, if not most, decision-makers in the gallery sector agree that the style is ridiculous, why is it so widespread and persistent?
While there's certainly a degree of truth to the obvious answer––that writing about contemporary artwork in a clear, concise way is just plain hard––that explanation is also incomplete. The rest of the story is about business.
At first this idea may seem strange. After all, the business of galleries is selling art. And one of the first principles of selling anything is the importance of clearly, concisely explaining to potential customers A) what it is that you're selling, and B) why they need it. The contemporary gallery press release is a complete photo-negative of those principles.
However, we have to recognize two of the structural walls supporting the gallery sector and, more broadly, the entire fine art industry: the notion that artwork is something higher than just "product"... and therefore, that it requires specially qualified experts to snatch it down from the heavens for buyers.
If any potential collector, especially the common man, could walk into a gallery and feel certain he understands the work simply by looking at it and reading a one-page press release, the mystique would start seeping out of the gallery like air from a punctured tire. Instead of a shrine to the ineffabilities of high culture (and high value), the gallery would look a lot more like a showroom for expensive decorations.
This is why arts professionals, particularly gallerists, have very real incentives to promote the complexity, even borderline-incomprehensibility, of contemporary art. It's a means of self-defense and self-enrichment.
On one hand, the barrage of jargon helps fend off outsiders (see: average people), most of whom lack the resources to buy and therefore tend to be viewed by gallerists as, at best, walking ciphers. Marketing "the naked syntax of contemporary visual experience" et al is just one more way to deliver the subliminal message, "This is not for you."
More importantly, the press release's rhetoric propagates a desired narrative for serious collectors. It helps "remind" them that when they walk into contemporary galleries, they're dealing with higher beings than just salesmen. They're dealing with INTERPRETERS––cultural seers uniquely qualified not only to decipher the work but also, crucially, to distill its value into a fair price. The incense screen provides enough cover for sellers to slip commerce out of their vestments while collectors pretend it's something else.
In short, the "labyrinth of projections and reflections" found in the average gallery press release isn't an accident. It's just business. And for better or worse, at least now you know why we're all still trapped inside.