At the Tate Modern I saw an exhibition by an artist I didn’t know.
The first piece was dull, so I read the card on the wall.
The artist had written:
“I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response”
I thought, I recognise this.
This is marketing bullshit.
Someone trying to make a dull piece of work sound interesting.
This is how CEOs speak at advertising conferences.
This is how marketing gurus speak on videos.
This is what Stanley Pollitt used to describe as “Bullshit Baffles Brains”.
I can speak this language, not fluently, but enough to decode it.
It’s like working out a bad brief.
First you need a pencil for crossing out.
Let’s start at the top.
“I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence”
Translated into English: “in the first instance” is redundant.
It simply means when you first see it.
So cross it out.
“Formal presence” is also redundant: it just means what it looks likes.
So cross that out too.
Now, the bullshit-free version is “I want it to look strong when you first see it”.
Okay, now the next bit: “and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response”.
Again, most of that’s redundant.
The dictionary defines physical as: “relating to things perceived through the senses as opposed to the mind”.
The dictionary defines ‘experience’ as: “practical contact with and observation of facts or events”.
So ‘physical experience’ simply means the real world.
Well we’re in the real world, so that’s redundant: cross it out.
How about: “psychological and emotional response”?
The dictionary defines ‘psychological’ as: “related to the mental and emotional state of a person.
So they mean the same thing and, since mental and emotional are the only responses we can know, they’re redundant.
We can put the pencil through them.
After we’ve crossed out the redundant parts, the artist’s remarks are more understandable:
“I want the work to look strong and to get a response”
Fair enough, I think it’s what we all want.
But it would look silly against work that looks weak and doesn’t get a response.
Like this artist’s work.
So he or she needed long words to disguise the dull work.
Which is exactly what most marketing and advertising language does.
But there is an upside to this use of language.
It is exactly how you can recognise bad advertising.
Remember, Stanley Pollitt called it “Bullshit Baffles Brains”.
So when you see work that needs that kind of language to describe it, you’ll know immediately what sort of work you’re looking at.