Writing + Curating + Projects

10 new words to fake it in the art world

A screen grab of Old Navy (USA, 2014) television advertisement satirizing the pretentious language of the contemporary art world. Source Ottawacitizen.com

I take a look at new art language trending to set up you up to talk “art” – or not? You be the judge.

‘O’ used to be the way to go – ontology, oeuvre, ostensibly, objectification, not to mention the compulsion to use the pronoun ‘one’ in an objective manner, standing in for the writer with a kind of aloof elitism – authoritarian and undoubtedly artificial.

We then moved to add “ality” on everything: spaciality, performativity, visuality, potentiality, and experientiality. We were no longer looking but rather had moved into the realm of interrogating, encoding, subverting, displacing and imbricating… No wonder we are a little confused where language is taking us.

While there has always been a level of backlash against artspeak, in recent years it has ramped up against the über-fashionable lingo that has been favoured by sectors of the arts world, in particular the visual arts.

In 2012, social theorists Alix Rule and David Levine published a paper in the online journal Triple Canopy, assigning the term International Art English (IAE) to artspeak as an attempt to scientifically prove the art world was driven by meaningless buzzwords in a style important from French theory. They ran 13 years of press releases through a computer to support their theory, which was received heavily and debated heartily.

The zeitgeist had shifted from using artspeak, to lampooning artspeak.

In August last year, the American apparel company Old Navy produced a cutting satire of artspeak to advertise its latest line of jeans, casting comedian Amy Poehler as the clichéd art dealer.

Old Navy’s spoof on the art words, gets the help of commedian Amy Poehler to see jeans. Source: YouTube.

Not convinced? Then maybe the antithesis to Old Navy’s television ad, in terms of production levels, is  The Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator, again another stab at art language going back to a kind of pseudo scientific algorithm.

Author Robert Atkins launched the latest edition of his book, ArtSpeak (Abbeville Press, October 2013), to lukewarm responses; its 146 categories and jargonistic banter explained – to stick with our use of ‘O’ – words that by their very inclusion had become outdated, overriden and devoid of overtures with the speed of communication and linguistic trending today.

And, it goes without saying, the Twittersphere is the constant watchdog; it’s bark is loud and persistent.

Clearly, we have all become aware of the futility of artspeak. Our times demand that we communicate regularly, quickly, and often. Simply, there is no longer time for such experlatives.

So, then, how do you fake it in the art world today? How do you subtly indicate that you are abreast of the trends, have your eye on the market, and have a pulse for all things art…now?

We arm you with ten words that are guaranteed to make you sound like a pro.

1. Flipping

Flipping is a term assigned to collectors who chase works by up-and-coming artists with the intention of reselling them quickly, playing the art market in a speculative manner as one would with more traditional commodity trading. Some have said they art flipping has fueled the creation of a bubble in the contemporary art market. From 2011 through 2013, the number of works three years old and under that sold at auction topped 7,300 annually, compared with 4,023 in 2007 when the art market was peaking, according to research firm Artnet Worldwide. ArtsHub recently spoke with Wall Street Journalist Kelly Crow on this phenomenon.

2. Biennihilism

As biennales and triennials internationally have become increasingly formulaic – an elite club of super curators offering their next idea parachuted in for largely a tourism exercise – there has been a swelling feeling of Biennihilism against this exhibition model.

3. Fairtigue

With the number of art fairs now in triple figures, it was only a matter of time before we started suffering from Fairtigue. This term started to gain traction around 2012, and like art fairs themselves, has grown globally popular. It can be heard brandished by dealers and collectors alike, and will be sure to be on many’s lips this week as Art Stage Singapore kicks off.

4. Sharking

No – this is not about appropriating Damien Hirst.Sharking has been used by dealers to describe their own activities at art fair – hunting fresh collectors.

5. Bid Rigging

This term is not exclusive to the art market, but it is one that is whispered quietly. What does it mean? It usually refers to the collusion and price fixing among art dealers buying at auction. The New York Times explained it as: ‘It has long been rumored in the art world that some dealers try to buy on the cheap, by forming rings of dealers who agree to refrain from bidding against one other. The practice, called ”bid pooling” or ”bid rigging” inhibits prices from reaching their fair value at auction. Then the dealers resell the work at an exaggerated profit’


An acronym for “fear of being ostracised by fair folk”, it is an art world spin off of the more popular version FOMO, or “fear of missing out”. Well we all know the art world is plagued by insecurities, but this term again refers to the art fair bandwagon – and fear of not being in the club by not dishing out the dollars to be part of it.

7. Cultural entrepreneur

Usually self-anointed with the term, a Cultural Entrepreneur (yes they would prefer capitals), is a person who advises individuals and institutions on purchases of contemporary art, presenting their personal savvy across the market, art history and social connection.

8. Foundress

It has nothing to do with metal work or a foundry. It is a self-appointed term, and one I recently came across in the United States, used to describe a philanthropist (female in this case) who has set up a foundation to support the arts.

9. Dribblite

A term used to describe a person who is blinkered by, and proliferates, the social dribble of the art world, that they have forgotten how to filter what they see and what they hear.

10. Social Practice

This one is getting a lot of “air play” lately, perhaps given that it so delightfully ticks the boxes of accountability for funding and institutions. The origin of the term social practice is somewhat mysterious, but Artnet describes it as a synonym for the following: public practice, participatory art, dialogical aesthetics, and relational aesthetics (a term coined by French theorist Nicolas Bourriaud). This term has become so embedded in the system that some university now offer a degree in social practice, the first being California College of the Arts in San Francisco, which established the first MFA program in social practice in 2005, ahead of the celebrated SPARC (Social Practice Arts Research Center) at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz.

First published on Artshub.com.au, January 2015