Art Culture

A Language Guerrilla on Art Writing

An open letter to new art writers about the revolutionary power of refusing inaccessible art language

To whoever is taking their first steps into the world of arts, whether in academia or as a profession. To whoever comes next: filled with expectations and a love for the arts, well-spoken in a language which is not English or unfamiliar to the language of art.

To those who may never read this article after being told repeatedly that art isn’t something for them, or that they don’t belong in an art space.

This letter is to you, to the art community and to me. To my first-year self who felt like an outsider, inappropriate in the art world; called out on her wonky pronunciations and scrutinised by abstract academic entities that talk about art in inaccessible ways. To myself now, who still sometimes feels this way.

I came to art journalism with English as my second language. I never had a problem understanding the meaning of artistic terms such as chiaroscuro or basso-rilievo or contrapposto or any concept left untranslated from Italian. Instead, I struggled anytime I needed to write an art essay, anytime I realised how much slower I was at reading in English than in my native language. Anytime I stumbled upon a word that I didn’t understand, and anytime I pushed myself to research and grasp every single word, in constant fear that I would miss out a fundamental concept even if I understood the overall meaning of a sentence. I suffered by the inaccessibility of a subject I loved, kept away from it by obscure words and isolated in my belief that I was the only one not understanding or being too slow. None of my peers ever complained, so I thought it was my defect.

To be seen as legitimate and lay claim my place at the art table, I concealed my accent and learnt the fancy artistic terms and the big essay words. I learnt out of fear and isolation.

Eventually, I found myself able to navigate this secret language, this codified, guarded knowledge that claims to ‘translate’ art: originally one of the most ancient and accessible forms of communication. Rewiring myself to understand this language, I realised too late that I had internalised those expressions and word choices that had made me stumble and feel small. Moreover, I began to reproduce it in my academic writing.

Initially, my journey in art journalism came from this feeling of inadequacy. I struggled with my words because I felt that I needed to regurgitate the language used in mainstream art literature. But eventually, through journalism, I discovered the possibility of reclaiming and creating a different artistic space. I discovered the freedom to reinvent a language of art that focuses on connections rather than exclusion, one that talked about emotions, raw feelings and a sort of primordial pull towards artifacts that can be shared by people no matter their education or socio-economic background. I found a place where I could stop punishing myself for not fitting in and where hopefully I could write about art in a way that made others feel like they belonged.

Even though I am an art editor, and even though my articles have been published in different newspapers, I still stumble on pronunciation and I still shrink every time someone points out that I made a so-called ‘non-native speaker’ mistake. I still feel small in the face of an unwelcoming art world. But my hope with this letter is that whoever will read this, whoever comes next, won’t feel like they are facing these feelings alone. I hope that you will refuse to feel ‘inappropriate’ by realising that almost everyone is struggling to decodify art literature. I hope that by knowing you are not alone you will be able to challenge the necessity to conform and adopt an inaccessible language that serves a discriminatory art world. I hope you will discover early on how dangerous it is to erect language barriers to guard artistic knowledge as it keeps its ownership in the hand of a privileged few.

So come with your accents, impose your words and loud writing production that talks about art as something first and foremost human! It is through our shared humanity that art can make us feel connected. Keep holding this ‘imperfect’ space, as your refusal to fit in and use ‘inappropriate’ language to talk about art could be a revolutionary act for you and for those who will come next.

[Empty Golden Frame, Credits: MaxPixel]

By Sofia Cotrona

Originally from Italy, Sofia Cotrona is a history of art student at the University of Edinburgh. She is a young freelance art writer published by Hyperallergic and art editor for The Student. She is passionate about feminist and decolonial art interventions, and she is also an advocate for youth art accessibility as a member of the Scottish National Youth Arts Advisory Group.