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February 2013

Transversal IAE Interrogates the Real

The Guardian reports on a recent study of gallery-speak, officially christened 'International Art English':

If you've been to see contemporary art in the last three decades, you will probably be familiar with the feelings of bafflement, exhaustion or irritation that such gallery prose provokes. You may well have got used to ignoring it. As Polly Staple, art writer and director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, puts it: "There are so many people who come to our shows who don't even look at the programme sheet. They don't want to look at any writing about art."

With its pompous paradoxes and its plagues of adverbs, its endless sentences and its strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist contemporary art is a fraud. Surely no one sensible takes this jargon seriously?

David Levine and Alix Rule do. "Art English is something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time," says Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin. "But we all use it." Three years ago, Levine and his friend Rule, a 29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia university in New York, decided to try to anatomise it. "We wanted to map it out," says Levine, "to describe its contours, rather than just complain about it."

They christened it International Art English, or IAE, and concluded that its purest form was the gallery press release, which – in today's increasingly globalised, internet-widened art world – has a greater audience than ever....

IAE always uses "more rather than fewer words". Sometimes it uses them with absurd looseness: "Ordinary words take on non-specific alien functions. 'Reality,' writes artist Tania Bruguera, 'functions as my field of action.'" And sometimes it deploys words with faddish precision: "Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have its best year ever."

Through Sketch Engine, Rule and Levine found that "the real" – used as a portentous, would-be philosophical abstract noun – occurred "179 times more often" in IAE than in standard English. In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd combination of stiffness and swagger, they argued that IAE "sounds like inexpertly translated French". This was no coincidence, they claimed, having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art writing via October, the New York critical journal founded in 1976. Since then, IAE had spread across the world so thoroughly that there was even, wrote Rule and Levine, an "IAE of the French press release ... written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics".

The mention of interns is significant. Rule, who writes about politics for leftwing journals as well as art for more mainstream ones, believes IAE is partly about power. "IAE serves interests," she says. However laughable the language may seem to outsiders, to art-world people, speaking or writing in IAE can be a potent signal of insider status. As some of the lowest but also the hungriest in the art food chain, interns have much to gain from acquiring fluency in it. Levine says the same goes for many institutions: "You can't speak in simple sentences as a museum and be taken seriously. You can't say, 'This artist produces funny work.' In our postmodern world, simple is just bad. You've got to say, 'This artist is funny and ...'"


Fighting Sexism in Germany: The Answer is Simpler than You Think

The New York Times publishes an op-ed on sexism in Germany:

Based on the global reputation and overall popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany appears from the outside to be a country where equality between men and women has long been established.

Yet thousands of German women have taken to social media in recent days to tell a radically different story — one of daily sexism experienced by female interns who are told that “hot girls” receive special treatment or a young woman being informed that she will not get a job because she might become pregnant....

A woman who gave her name as Gudrun Lux posted about seeing her application for a job rejected because, she was told, “the boss does not want any women of childbearing age.” Another calling herself Su-Shee recounted interviewing a young male applicant who asked to see “the real boss, the man.”

Nicole Simon, 42, a social media consultant in Germany who also contributed to the debate, described the outpouring as an example of the years of pent-up frustration over episodes that are so prevalent that women learn to simply block them out.

“Consensus online seemed to be, ‘I thought I could not share these stories, but reading all the other things, I am surprised at how much I have suppressed over the years,”’ Ms. Simon said in an e-mail.

According to ministry for women and families, 58 percent of German women say they have been subject to sexual harassment, with more than 42 percent of the cases happening on the job.

In Germany, this sort of thing provokes a lot of thumb-sucking about What it All Means, and warnings that we must change our priorities, etc.

In other words, ineffectual hand-waving.

The first thing to do is separate out the serious from the not-so-serious problem. The not-so-serious problem is occasional flirtatious remarks. This is something that women can, and should, handle themselves. If you don't like a co-worker's clumsy or creepy remarks, tell him that, to his face, with increasing levels of acidulousness. You don't get as much respect in this life as you deserve, you get as much as you demand. What use was feminism if it hasn't put women into a position to set boundaries and denounce misconduct?

The more serious problem is women being denied job opportunities or asked for sexual favors by superiors, etc. First, though, let me list the things that don't work:

  • bureaucratic reports
  • vague laws
  • finger-wagging speeches by superiors
  • waiting for a 'sea-change in social attitudes'
  • sensitivity training

None of these things will change ingrained attitudes and prejudices. What will change them is meaningful, painful financial penalties and public shaming. Germany has various laws that are designed to combat pregnancy and gender discrimination, but they're toothless, and therefore little-used. If someone in a position to hire people actually tells a woman she won't get the job because she might get pregnant, that should lead to a €10,000 penalty payable by the company and a public denunciation on a government webpage. Of course, the supervisor who made the remark will probably get fired for getting his company into so much trouble. Good! That's called accountability. Of course, the actual behavior will probably still continue underground, etc. But at least it won't be openly tolerated. And there are ways of rooting out even subtle discrimination.

To get an idea of what transparency and accountability looks like, just go here, to the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws. The agency boasts that it filed 100,000 lawsuits in 2012, and forced companies to pay $365 million in fines and compensation in 2012 alone. Also, as you can see, there is a running ticker on the webpage listing, by name, companies which have recently been forced to compensate people whom they discriminated against. It's not a perfect system, but it's certainly more effective than what Germany is doing.


Crime on the Decline Germany, Probably Because There's Less Lead Around

I've been following with fascination the debate in the U.S. about the relationship between crime rates and early childhood lead exposure. One of my favorite bloggers, Kevin Drum, recently wrote a fantastic piece for Mother Jones arguing that America saw dropping crimes rates in the 1990s in part because the U.S. banned leaded gasoline in the 1970s, saving an entire generation of children from exposure to lead, a fiercely potent neurotoxin which permanently lowers intelligence and disrupts impulse control in children. Read it here. Drum reports on reactions to the article and takes on critics here.

And now for Europe:

Here's the latest crime news from the Guardian:

There has been a surprise 8% drop in crime across England and Wales, according to official figures, suggesting the long-term decline in crime since the mid-1990s has resumed.

As near as I can tell, crime declines are always a surprise to the folks who look for answers solely in social trends. But Britain's continuing decline isn't a surprise to everyone. Europe adopted unleaded gasoline in the mid-80s, and EU countries all showed drops in lead emissions in subsequent years. In Britain, lead emissions began to decline about a decade later than the United States, but they made up some of that gap via a much steeper drop. So, to the extent that the crime decline is a function of less lead exposure among children, they're about five years or so behind us. This means they probably still have a few years of crime decline ahead of them.

So, you might be wondering, if Germany began seriously reducing lead emissions in the the mid-1980s, what impact might that have had on teenage criminality in the late 1990s, when children born in the mid-1980s became adolescents? Here's the relevant graph for Germany, from this source (g, .pdf):

TatjugendThe top line shows total criminality, the middle line criminality among German adolescents, and the bottom line among immigrants. Interesting, isn't it? The much smaller decrease you see among non-German offenders could well be explained by the fact that some percentage of them probably did not grow up in Germany.

Of course, the standard caveats apply that correlation is not causation, other factors are at work (especially the crime increase following reunification), etc.. But if you want to be convinced that lead exposure is a powerful (though, of course, not the only) explanatory factor, read Drum's piece -- and, more importantly, the studies it links to.

If this theory holds, it has to be one of the best pieces of news in a long time: because of a wise policy choice made decades ago, we will enjoy less crime -- and less of all the social ills and expense it causes -- for years to come. Kind of restores your faith in humanity, doesn't it?


One Man's Cheesy '90s Nostalgia is Another Man's Hot Trend

We Anglo-Saxons are a race of reckless innovators, especially those of us who risked everything to cross the Atlantic and found the Land of Opportunity. It's our job to create the trends everyone else imitates, and we take it on gladly. Meanwhile, we look at the Continent with bemusement. There, 'stars' that would long have been forced down into the septic tank of obscurity continue to be venerated by millions of people. Hugh Schofield noted the curious French tolerance of Johnny Hallyday:

In fact, when one looks around, one realises that there is an unusual level of flattery - one might even say obsequiousness - in French public life, especially when it comes to culture.

If you have ever watched French television, you will get the picture.

A typical mid-evening programme is a chat show on which the invitees are members of the small, unchanging - and therefore ageing - club of national celebrities.

Behind in rows of seats, a youthful audience hand-picked for telegenic good looks bursts into applause at every anecdote or hackneyed clip from the archives.

At the more serious end of the market, the annual literary season is in September, when there is a rush of new publications and the big book prizes like the Goncourt are announced.

Here, too, listening to the reviews is like being beaten about the head with a powder puff.

Nothing is ever mediocre, let alone bad.

Everything is uplifting, exquisite, crafted, delicate, challenging, or that most irritating of French words: "engage", which means "committed", though to what is never spelled out.

...

One realises after a while that the French view their stars almost as members of the family. They enjoy going to see them in the same way they enjoy catching up with the latest family gossip.

That kind of conservatism is actually quite refreshing after the brutal neophilia (the constant need for the new and the culling of everything that is familiar) that one associates with British culture.

The bad reason is that it is all about self-protection.

Succumbing to sycophancy, after all, is a way of reassuring oneself that all is good in the world, when clearly it is not.

Seen like that, the French are merely deluding themselves that their culture matters the way it once did: sticking their fingers in their ears, if you like, and whistling to Johnny Hallyday.

Much of this applies equally to Germany. Die Zeit, despite its many virtues, is probably the worst offender here, dutifully reprinting every syllable that drops from the mouth of Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Schmidt. In the culture pages, virtually every writer, no matter how obscure, is dutifully given the epithet groß (great). Pop acts that are long-forgotten (or who have degenerated into jokes) in the Anglo-Saxon world --  Metallica, Ozzie Osbourne (g) -- fondly embrace Germany as a sort of geriatro-rocker retirement home. Quondam innovators Kraftwerk, who haven't released any genuinely new music in decades, continue to pack them in in Germany (and to be fair, MOMA, where their concerts were billed as a 'curated' retrospective, drenched with nostalgia).

Which brings me to this clip from the 1996 direct-to-video movie 'Vibrations':

Someone in the US unearthed it and it's become a minor Internet sensation under the heading '90s nostalgia. Yet in Germany, 'techno' music is alive and well -- in fact, the 2010 version of the Love Parade attracted almost a million people. If it hadn't been for the overcrowding that killed 21 people at that event, it would still be going on.


Trivia Contest Solution

A few days ago, I challenged readers to identify this film still:

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I was a bit disappointed that nobody came through. Mr. M wanted to know the answer. The still is from the 1963 Czech science-fiction movie Ikarie XB-1. The entire original version, with good English subtitles, can be found on YouTube and is highly recommended. It's a moody, philosophical film about a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an abandoned ship from an earlier voyage and much else besides. As you might expect from a Czech movie, the futuristic spacecraft furnishings are stylish and appealing. There's even a party scene in which we hear the easy-listening music of the future and watch astronauts dance to it!