Artspeak or, art words and phrases we use all the time and might wish we didn’t

Artists are often a serious bunch and we use words and catch phrases that hover around us to reflect our serious nature. Sometimes they are just normal words that take on abnormal traits when coming from the mouth of an artist. Sometimes they really are abnormal words to begin with. These are the words and phrases you often hear in Hollywood’s portrayal of the arts and you sometimes read in pompous artist statements and cringe when you do. Not surprisingly, a few weeks later you catch yourself remorselessly using those exact same words… This is Artspeak and it is our legacy!


Artspeak: “NICE…”

Context: As in “Nice use of pencil here…” or “That’s a nice painting…” or “This part of the piece is pretty nice, but…”

Verdict: Nice seems more a moral judgment or a vacuous way to express pleasure that isn’t really so pleasurable but you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Last time I checked, art doesn’t have morals and if something is only just nice then is it really so special? This word is best kept at bay. See also; good, swell, OK, lovely, pleasant … Cringing yet?


Artspeak: “Inspire, Inspired, Inspiration, Inspiring”

Context: “I was inspired to use this bold color…” “It’s an inspiring piece…” “I just don’t have any inspiration…”

Verdict: This word has and always will have a place in art. We get our, um, information for our art pieces that we use to move forward with… AAGHH, OK, We get our inspiration for our art somewhere outside ourselves and inspire is a perfect word to describe that exchange. It’s not a bad word really; it just is so overused in the arts that it grates on our hearing after awhile. It has been replaced in art schools by the more authoritative and smarter sounding “informed;” “I was informed by the landscapes’ color relationships” as opposed to “I was inspired by the landscapes’ color relationships.” They mean almost exactly the same thing but you sound smarter saying informed.


Artspeak: “Juxtaposition, Juxtaposed, Juxtapose”

Context: “The juxtaposition of these color relationships creates a real symmetry in the piece.” “When these are juxtaposed it creates a range of possibilities…”

Verdict: Artists are an insecure bunch. No one really cares about what we do in the wider society so we have a hard time feeling good about ourselves. As such, artist use big words when small ones will do just fine. Juxtapose is just such a word. In the dictionary juxtapose means to place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. So why don’t we just say that? Try these two sentences; “If you put orange next to blue it will cause color tension.” A nice sentence but are you going to believe me? How about “Juxtapose orange with blue and it will cause color tension.” Now we’re talking! Are you going to doubt that!? You can’t hide from Juxtapose!


Artspeak: “Ism’s”

Context: From wikipedia; Ism’s usage is to signify larger organized systems and concepts. Mannerism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Expressionism, Deconstructionism, Etceraism…

Verdict: Maybe the only groups more insecure than artists are the people who criticize those artists. In order to protect the validity of their criticism they have been labeling different kind of art movements with these Ism’s to make the theories seem better than they are. Basically, using an ism is a way to confuse and to create enough insecurity in someone’s point of view so that they won’t dare call you on the ridiculous notion you just brought up.

See what art ism you are at:


Artspeak: “Duality”

Context: “I wanted to create a duality of…” “My work is about duality.”

Verdict: I have to admit, I thought I knew what this meant and when I looked it up in the dictionary I’m a little more confused. Duality; n. a dual state or quality. Um, I guess it means there are two things happening at once. It’s like having good and evil actually existing at the same time or light and dark dancing in harmony or cats and dogs living together. Or, imagine if you put black and white on the same canvas! I think duality comes up when you don’t know what else to say. “I love it, your art is just so full of….Duality!”


Artspeak: “Investigate, Investigation”

Context: “I investigate complex systems to find visual order.” “My work is about the investigation…”

Verdict: Not so bad, really, investigate is just a word that is used too much in the arts. It makes the search we perform seem harder and thus our works seem bolder by association. If you are searching for something then you’ll just find it eventually. If you investigate something, well then… what you are searching for must be elusive and important! There are no private searchers, private lookers or private checker-outers in the yellow pages that I could find. I’ll need to investigate this some more…


Artspeak: “I hope to…” “My work attempts to…”

Context: “I hope to intercept taken for granted concepts by refiguring fixed subject / object hierarchies as unexpected and dynamic encounters.” “My work attempts to accent and examine fields of emergence.”

Verdict: I feel bad because I took the above examples directly off of an artist statement on an artist’s website. The work on this website was actually very engaging but can you make any sense of those sentences? I fall under the spell of using “I hope…” and “My work attempts…” all the time. It’s like we’re afraid to actually say what we actually did! If we are always hopeful and attempting then can we ever really fail? In opposition, I am reminded of the sports adage “you are what you are.” I hope I am not what I am as I attempt to be something that I’m not…


Artspeak: “ – “

Context: “re-imagine” “in-spiration” “di-chotomy” “land-scape” “beer-bottle”

Verdict: 1) Take a perfectly good word or two perfectly good words. 2) Add a hyphen to it at some opportune break or between the two words to make a pseudo new word that is so much more meaningful than the old and maybe not so good word(s.) 3) Won-der how you ever managed to co-mmunicate with plain old En-glish be-fore.


Artspeak: “Conceptualize, Conceptualized”

Context: “I conceptualized this piece using…” “When I’m working, I conceptualize…”

Verdict: Noticing a pattern here? If your gonna go, go big! I really don’t get the reason to use conceptualize(d.) This is one of those words that when you hear it you think “yea, I know what that means…” but as you think harder and harder you cant quite come up with a definition that makes sense. I’ve even gone so far as to conceptualize what conceptualized means and it still doesn’t make sense!


Artspeak: “En Plein air”

Context: “This piece was painted en plein air.”

Verdict: Because I made this painting en plein air and not just THAT I PAINTED IT OUTSIDE it’s a much better painting. That’s all those fancy French terms mean – done outside. En Plein air is not a style, nor an art movement, nor a particular medium but just a fancy way of saying “done outdoors.” Imagine two identical paintings side by side and one was labeled “En Plein air” and one was labeled “Done Outside” and which one would you buy?


Any other Artspeak terms to add?

Comments 19

  1. Deb wrote:

    OMG I am sending all my students to read this, just think how much more interesting critiques would be if these words were banned!!

    Posted 23 Jan 2008 at 1:56 pm
  2. Philip Koch wrote:


    Great commentary- I laughed my head off.

    Posted 25 Jan 2008 at 8:08 pm
  3. Matt wrote:

    Hey cool topic Prof. Brockert. A high percentage of my brain output is focused on lingo busting… here’s a couple.

    Concepts that only make sense in Latin or French:
    In situ, vis-á-vis, oeuvre, etc.
    Are there really concepts out there that English is to clumsy to handle?

    The word “notion”
    I am exploring the notion that….
    Whenever artists declare their conceptual starting point a notion, I see them subtly distancing themselves from their own idea — as though this notion belongs to the masses or to the times. This minor shift in language makes them less culpable should their premise be shown to be faulty. Better to claim the idea as their own — call it an idea or concept or thought.

    [Sidenote: I found that the New Oxford dictionary (on your Mac) presents a pecking order of terms under IDEA that is pretty interesting — notion, thought, concept, impression, etc.]

    Also, I am bothered by name dropping and mixing one’s lingo. Like whenever anyone brings annoying rock n roll or jazz lingo into art crits, eg.”riff’ing”

    Posted 12 Feb 2008 at 1:27 pm
  4. Deidre Adams wrote:

    I found this post with a Google search on “artspeak plain English” while writing on the topic on my own blog. You gave me a huge laugh for the day. I also spent a lot of time looking at your paintings. They are wonderful. Such inspiring juxtapositions and conceptualized duality! :-)

    Seriously, I really do love them!

    Posted 17 Oct 2008 at 12:42 pm
  5. Robert L. Jones wrote:

    The world of “fine art” photography is littered with artspeak euphemisms. My top ten favorites are:

    1. “Gelatin Silver Print” – The print was made on photographic paper.

    2. “Signed on verso” – The artist wrote his signature on the back of the photograph.

    3. “Giclée” – “I’m too ashamed to admit that I printed this on an inkjet printer, so I’m using a fancy French word to obfuscate the fact.”

    4. “Purist” – A member of the f/64 Group who postures that he is engaged in a “pure” and “unmanipulated” form of photography. He then goes back to his darkroom and dodges, burns, tones, crops, and uses other manner of manipulations to extract an even purer form of purity from his purist prints. Warning! When this is done by pictorialists, it must be shunned as “crass” and “juvenile.”

    5. “Black and White” – “Black” is the color of the turtleneck worn by the effeminate and officious gallery curator who, despite having no talent beyond his wardrobe pretensions, holds the fate of the aspiring in his flaccid, uncalloused hands. “White” is the color of his multicultural, upscale and progressive clientele.

    6. “Interpretation” – An attempt to sound scholarly by reading into a work of art things that were never meant by the artist to be there in the first place.

    7. “Holga Camera print” – If you don’t have any talent, worry not: This piece of crap camera from Lower Slobovia will create cool looking halo effect, soft focus, and vignetting through its shoddy workmanship, and your negatives will look like they were masterpieces from the archives of Matthew Brady’s drunk assistant.

    8. “Soft Focus” – Out of focus.

    9. “Zen” – The major Eastern influence on white American art photographers who read the “I Ching” while stoned in college. This group believes you can achieve a better photograph with your eyes closed than open.

    10. “Archival print” – The photographer finally has enough money to use his own darkroom and discretely wash each print for one hour in filtered water and then hypo-clear it, rather than using the communal washer at the community college darkroom, which has more fixer and mildew in it than water.

    Posted 13 Nov 2008 at 4:26 pm
  6. Art Speak wrote:

    This was a “nice” reading. J/K haha. All kidding aside, I actually enjoyed it, it brings back many memories from art school critiques.

    I had a bit of a problem, however, with the last artspeak: En plein air.
    From what I remember, this was a phrase popularized by the Impressionists and it described more or less, not just the act of painting “outdoors” but literally “in plain air.” The distinction exists in that one can be “outdoors” yet still have a roof over one’s head, or even a couple of walls beside you. This type of partially-protected outdoor environment is quite distinct from, say, a cornfield, or a natural river. It’s the latter of these two environments to which “en plein air” would have been used 19th c. Impressionists.

    Posted 17 Mar 2009 at 7:49 am
  7. sandra407 wrote:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

    Posted 09 Sep 2009 at 11:33 am
  8. Lulu560 wrote:

    Chiaroscuro – meaning ‘light and shade’
    Used for a black and white picture???
    Awesome commentary, witty in areas too!

    Posted 22 Jan 2010 at 12:42 pm
  9. stacey wrote:

    Great read. I have a strong affinity for the KISS approach myself.

    Posted 26 May 2010 at 5:46 pm
  10. harris wrote:

    Great article. Very funny. I’ve managed to avoid using all of the ‘artists speak’ in my own artists statement on my website – I very nearly used the classic ‘en plein air’ and wish i’d read this article before using the ‘painted on location’ option as ‘done outdoors’ is far more hardcore. But I am now unsure if score bonus points for not using any of the highlighted words in your article or does this just mean that all my insecurities are true and I’m simply not a real artist? Please read and advise as to whether I should slip some big words in just incase?

    Posted 31 May 2010 at 6:36 pm
  11. DeAndre wrote:

    Good ghad….. most over used words in art critiques… I love your blog!

    Posted 29 Apr 2011 at 1:42 pm
  12. tom and otto wrote:

    It’s great to see someone trying to keep it real on the other side of the big pond. Try to do that in the Netherlands. In our country artspeak as they call it almost has a scientific lecture kinda quality to it. It’s just plain crazy.

    Dutch Art Reviews

    Posted 29 May 2011 at 3:54 pm
  13. pete wrote:

    i read this in a statement years ago and still laugh:

    Posted 15 Jun 2011 at 1:49 pm
  14. Kathy wrote:

    This is a great place! My art teacher sent me here as part of an assignment…I like it.

    Posted 27 Jun 2011 at 10:55 pm
  15. wenceslao wrote:

    Excelent and just show how most modern art is a joke.

    Posted 02 Dec 2011 at 12:41 pm
  16. Janet Glatz wrote:

    Whew! As a self educated artist, I’m so relieved to discover that my new artist statement contains NONE of the snob speak in your blog. Thanks for the reassurance!

    Posted 06 May 2012 at 9:18 am
  17. thomas mcnickle wrote:

    I feel I must add, ” My purpose is to INFORM the viewer…..” Huh? so nice to find folks with a sense of humor. When I was in grad school you couldn’t go to the bathroom without JUXTAPOSING something.

    Posted 04 Aug 2012 at 4:33 pm
  18. bill wrote:

    great website. It certainly blows the cover off the B. S. used to describe so-called art..Using the foney words i can make a child’s scibbling to seem like real art..great stuff

    Posted 21 Jan 2013 at 11:02 am
  19. Whitney Knapp wrote:

    This is phenomenal! I discovered this post while pulling together a list of banned words and phrases for a crit. I’ve forwarded the link to my students! :)

    Posted 01 Nov 2013 at 6:12 pm

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 2

  1. From Deidre Adams » Blog Archive » You’re not helping! on 17 Oct 2008 at 12:45 pm

    […] My brain hurts. Here’s a good, funny post on “artspeak” by Jason Brockert that we all ought to take heed of. Take a look at his web site, too […]

  2. From A Year in Art - Why Do Artists Use Such Big Words? on 31 Jan 2010 at 8:38 pm

    […] wrote an article years ago about artist’s lingo ( click here ) and in sleuthing for backup of that point I surfed the internet and artist websites and their […]

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