The Emergence of Orwellian NewSpeak in Art
” In the new speculative market, it is often the quality of patronage, not the quality of the art, that determines its initial success.”
Words have a history and a definition. Control the definition and you control meaning and by controlling meaning you control what people understand by what you are saying. Control what people understand, and you control those people.
This is not to do with the sway of oratory but the mundane language of the everyday dedicated to the single purpose of controlling definition.
The richness of language flows from an admixture of time, place, associations, idiom and derivation. Harold Pinter found these gave a subtext which informed all his work.
“Language … is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore. You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. (Writing for the Theatre” (From a speech made by Harold Pinter at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962)
Personal subtext, a way in which the same word carries subtly different meaning to different people, exists because we all learn words slightly differently. We will find them at different stages in our lives, the connections in our brains will associate them with slightly different experiences, we come from differing cultural roots. So though we can all speak to each other with broad comprehension, we can never share exact understanding of each other without long conversations, without going over things many times, and answering many questions. This deeper level of understanding is what Socratic method aims to create, and, indeed, most teaching in the European and Indian history of debate and argument.
NewSpeak is all about short circuiting any such long conversations.
NewSpeak is about deleting the subtext. It aims to create an immediate, programmed response that is not questioned by the hearer. Most interesting to the student of Orwell is his appendix in which he states that the development of NewSpeak in his book is in its infancy and that the fullest control of language and by extension what people understand, will not be completed until 2050. In saying this Orwell has placed us in an historical context that is still unfolding.
NewSpeak doesn’t want to have a conversation about changed meaning, and demands, indeed, that emphasis be controlled.
NewSpeak is breaking words down to short, precise meanings the definitions of which have been so perfectly associated with the words that they mean the same thing to all of us.
Politically correct speech has long understood the value we apportion to words, and how negative values have to be challenged if we are to change people’s perceptions. It is however a valueless exercise because changing the words is cosmetic. It may make the individuals concerned feel better than when highly emotive words are no longer acceptable they are no longer used, but in wider society it changes nothing but the words. Cultural norms take much longer to change and depend upon the themes of our education from the start of our schooling.
Definition gives us a measure of understanding but we all have to be aware of who is in charge of definition. Language develops organically and derivations are vitally important because like glazes on a painting they work behind modern definitions to give a rounded view of the history of a word. NewSpeak wants to destroy history. NewSpeak needs to destroy history otherwise it cannot perform its function, which is to control understanding.
“How do you change the way people think? You start by changing the words they use” (The Emergence of Orwellian Newspeak and the Death of Free Speech, John W. Whitehead | Rutherford Institute.)
But you can fool some of the people all the time and the art world has used NewSpeak to brilliant effect. Mostly because once it was agreed that everything is art, art itself loses a definition and without a definition a word has no meaning and therefore cannot be understood. Duchamp’s Fountain, at its simplest, to its aficionados said ‘if a human being makes it, it is art.’ In one stroke every person was made an artist and the culture of a country, indeed of all countries, was not an agreed summation of works taken from history, but everything produced by everyone. (Indeed artists as a classification comes to mean no more than saying ‘s/he is a human-being’, yet we still all feel it has an additional meaning.)
Supported by this revelation the art world, which still defines itself and still feels distinct from the rest of the population, like children in a toy factory, began to play.
I have no argument that the Academies tightly defined art and Modernism needed to break down their definition. Their definitions were written down and restrictive and the need for them to be challenged goes without saying, as does my appreciation for the skills and excellence across a broad spectrum of the avant-garde. But the players have become Orwellian.
Orwell knew, as a political theorist and commentator, that to control definition you need to have enough control of the news outlets to make them conform to your definition and use the words you want them to use. Today we have a catch-all name for such control: marketing.
Chief amongst the culprits in the art world are the art colleges who teach their students that they have to be controversial. If you can make a headline it does not matter what level of skill you display, you can get some traction in the minds of the art world and that traction may grow to be appreciated by collectors. Controversy, being the bad child, gains media attention, which in turn incorporates celebrity. The relationship between publicity and success is key to understanding how the A-list art world governs itself.
“… art colleges” typically teach that the “avant-garde” is against traditional, historical art. They even imply that it originally formed as opposition to traditional art. But the fact is, the Impressionists were against contemporary art, not historical art, and resurrected earlier, i.e., “historical” forms to mount their opposition, Goya for one. NewSpeak, as practiced in the prevailing art system, has indeed “destroyed history” as it proclaims the point of advanced avant-garde art is to subvert old art, in the name of progress. The Impressionists – as the “avant-garde” – indeed went forward, but they did it by insisting on historical values. Thus, they did not deny historical art but rather affirmed it as more valuable than what “contemporary” art was producing. Controversy was the side effect, not the point, and in the case of Cezanne, at least, he wanted to be accepted by the Academy, not rejected.” (John Link, letter 5.04.2016.)
In tandem with the academics always comes the control of language. Much has been written about how cadres of people get together and invent their own language, their own ‘word order’, that excludes those who have not learned their vocabulary. Academia proliferates in such words. These are not the words of teaching the visual arts like ‘visual metaphor’ to describe an object or ‘middle ground’ to describe a place on a canvas.
Remember, as Orwell explains in his appendix,
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
The art world, through its training from the PR and Marketing world, attempts to control art language. Marketing specialist spend hours talking about the ‘appropriate’ word to use in a campaign. They are masters of knowing how the public receives certain words.
But what they misunderstand is that NewSpeak was and is a description of the attempt to control language. Being organic and ever changing using a particular word to describe an art movement or coin a phrase adds the new definition to the layers of meaning of those words. They can come back to bite the hand that first wrote them down. (It is little known that both Duchamp’s brothers applied to and were rejected by the Academy in Paris. They wanted to belong.)
Take the word ‘new’. Primarily this is supposed to suggest the first time something has happened. But in the International arena ‘new’ may just mean an artist who is showing for the first time in a country other then their own. So we have always have to ask, ‘new to whom?’
If you don’t question the words used by those trying to sell you work and you take the words at face-value, then the world today is filled with the greatest artists who ever lived. But since we are all artists and since everything we do is art, all we are entitled to say is today there are more artists alive than have ever lived. But saying this doesn’t get any media juices flowing. The media needs news, needs a tag. It is insatiable for the immediate. A-List art jargon is designed to fit the needs of the media. The end result of this process is that ‘selling’ the art and the artist to the ‘media’ becomes the name of the game.
The art market itself is a self serving, money making, investment business. Way back in 1985 when it was really getting going Jane Addams Allen wrote:
“In the new speculative market, it is often the quality of patronage, not the quality of the art, that determines its initial success. If a young painter, fresh from art school, gets picked up by the right collector, his or her prices can zoom …” (Speculating: A Fine Art. Jane Addams Allen 1986)
And to give a rounded example of how language is used to promote ‘difference’ and ‘new’ and even ‘modern’ we need look no further than the highly successful Kassel Documenta, in particular Documenta 8 when Manfred Schnackenburger said to Jane Addams Allen that the exhibitions were demonstrating the idea that art was making a move from ‘form’ to ‘iconography’, from ‘analysis’ to ‘narrative and drama’, from ‘structure’ to ‘metaphor’.
The Saatchi Gallery show Newspeak in 2010-2011 was a promotion of those artists they thought would be the new a-list but the irony of the title should not be lost in any judgment of the way in which the art elite crucifies language. The apparent freedom given to the post-modern artist by the liberation from all definition is in fact as great a straight jacket in its way as the one the Academies introduced which created the avant-garde. With the ‘found’ object now worthy of inclusion in a gallery artists can suborn the entirety of the brilliance of nature, caste-offs from our throw-away culture, rubbish and others pre-manufactured works to their name. Their singular skill is to have the chance encounter with the object, nothing else is needed not even the pretence to wanting to be an artist or be shown in a gallery. These latter have become merely the ways in which collectors are found for galleries, too, are only as good as their buyers list.
But note the works have to fit into a gallery. A roadway is also a found object and art by the post-modern definition but no one can actually place a quarter mile of road into a gallery so they make do with photographs, suggestive sculpture and broken pieces et al. Since everything on the planet is art perhaps we are meant to assume the Earth is actually a museum and we are all on display. Conceptually rewarding as that may be, where does it leave us in the discussion of art?
There has always been a mechanics to all art, for where would we be without the ability to make a pen or a brush, create from organic and inorganic chemicals the colours and hues we need. The singular skills developed in using all the artistic manufactured products once defined art. Quite rightly the avant-garde began to chip away at what ‘skill’ actually meant. Now we have gone to the extreme that the skill is in the idea behind the artwork more than in the object created and on display. The skill of the wider crafts isn’t even thought of highly as there are apparently few collectors of crafts, so why teach them? Craft faculties in the UK have shrunk in recent years. Skill is a word that is now rarely used. It was one of the go-to words of critics, and we all know about their demise. NewSpeak is as much about the words forged for a purpose as those discarded as not serving the purpose.
There are many art worlds. From community galleries, clubs through auction houses, right up to national galleries and museums and private collectors. They all have their own purposes but they will not all use the same words the same way. There is not yet full control of the entirety of art worlds but that is not from the lack of trying.
What has happened with ‘post-modern’ demonstrates the nature of art NewSpeak. While Orwell envisioned words closely defined, in the art world we have a word so loosely defined it is impossible to tie down, even for academics whose life is close definition. It is so under-defined that it is impossible to flaw. Now the ‘everything is art’ brigade have deskilled and deprofessionalized the artist, but given them a title in the history of art, the flood gates are open. As long as what is produced by the artist resonates within a display space, it can get away with being called art without fear of contradiction. You can, and they do, go anywhere with this definition of art.
But it isn’t a definition of art, anymore than saying God is in everything is a definition of God. You have to have a definition of God to have the slightest understanding of what that means and you have to have a definition of art to understand what ‘everything is art’ means. A definition many are reluctant to propose. Artists used to have the bravery to write manifestos but in recent years those have been in short supply.
This beautifully elastic PR machine owes a debt to the instinctive ability of the self-confessed neophyte, Charles Saatchi to take the cultural pulse of the United Kingdom and sell it back to the population, dressed in whatever clothes his pay masters wore – most notably redesigning Margaret Thatcher from the opinionated wife of a multi millionaire to Margaret I, in the 1980s. That he then refashioned the art world is a matter of recent history.
Post-Modernism as a title is the creation of itinerant salesmen going around the world making fortunes for collectors by claiming a slice of art history. By creating a culture in which anything can be art and then defining what makes headlines as art, they have left a wake in which community art and much of the population is disconnected and discontented with what is portrayed as significant culture. The thing they lack, which is the very thing Charles Saatchi lacked, is good taste. Taste doesn’t matter when you are not selling art but investments dressed as art. Though wouldn’t it be ironic to find that in some corner of Saatchi’s homes there is a Degas sweetly lighted reminding him of what controversy and social conscience really mean?
At some stage Modern Art and Post Modern Art will be given new names, they have to as the new generations will also be modern yet different and they will not think painting is dead like many Post-Modern ‘deadists’. Before that happens there will have to be a conversation on what has been done to art by these movements. That re-assessment is the vital readjustment needed to lift the entire art world out of PR and PC and place it back into the living, spatial and visual metaphors of the human condition and away from the artificiality of celebrity.
It also depends upon a critical understanding of how words are being used to force a certain understanding in us and to have the knowledge to confront simplifying art to the point of meaning less to cultural thinkers than it once did.
Daniel Nanavati, UK Editor
Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 10-14