“I don’t really like the way it looks,” wrote Mike Kelley in 1995 on the occasion of a Marcel Broodthaers exhibition, as a reason why he never dealt with this work in much depth: “I never found its surface aspects very appealing.” By taking the term “idiom,” these “surface aspects” serve as a starting point for investigating the local, social, economic, individual, and temporal specificities that are inscribed in the way something “looks.” Our focus is therefore less on specific image-languages than on the specificity of image-languages.
In linguistics, an idiom is a way of speaking or a particular mode of expression that is defined as a sociolect, as a socially determined group-language, or rather as a singular form of articulation (an “idiomatic expression”) that cannot be translated. In art-historical and art-critical texts, one repeatedly encounters the concept of the idiom, but it is rarely, if ever, precisely defined. We intend to seize on the open-endedness of this term in order to pursue possible definitions thereof and to test how “idiom” might resonate depending on its application. Instead of reducing art to a supposed intention, as in the ubiquitous “My work is about …,” which is, not least, a professional need on the part of artists to market themselves, we inquire, here, into the specific connection between material forms of articulation, references, iconographies, and aesthetic points of contact in artistic works.
Why do we consider the analysis of idioms so important in the present moment? The striking difference, demonstrated this summer, between two of the world’s most prominent contemporary art exhibitions is one reason: whereas Skulptur Projekt Münster received general approval (because art, there, still seemed to be recognizable as art), Documenta 14, with its claims to escape the canon(s), was met with widespread bewilderment. One can conclude from this that the relations within and among artistic systems are no longer so self-evident – and that the question of which artistic means one takes up has become a critical issue. For this issue, we have thus asked artists for statements that tell us not what their work is about but how they go about developing criteria for their practice. For example: what aesthetic and material connections might they have to previous artistic idioms (such as those related to Land art, or the abject, or the discourse on speculation in sculptural practice); and according to which criteria did they select a particular idiom in order to articulate their feminist, political, social, and ecological concerns?
Our interest in the current state of artistic idioms goes well beyond the two aforementioned large-scale exhibitions, however. It began with the observation that, up until the late 1990s, art was primarily concerned with expanding its canonized forms of expression (key term: blurring/breaking boundaries), and that in the wake of globalization and the dissolution of the (Western) canon, aesthetic references grew scattered – so much so that Western art forms have arguably since forfeited their hegemonic status. In any case, debates over an entangled postcolonial and transnational art history have expanded substantially in recent years. While until quite recently Third Text was the leading journal, at least in Europe, a number of new art spaces now exist that primarily show African artists, and that systematically pursue discussions of decolonization and the global exploitation of resources (e.g., Berlin’s SAVVY Contemporary, Paris’ Bétonsalon). But the situation has also changed thanks to the influx of ever-more distinct voices of non-European art theory and criticism (including those published via journals such as Contemporary & , alongside the already-established Nka ), as well as through a now fully accepted practice of global curating (Documenta 14 being one prominent example), in which the emphasis is placed on “undiscovered,” idiosyncratic, and/or marginal artists. We, here, ask what happens when one no longer speaks of “global art,” but rather in terms of a universalistic concept of art and the permanent negotiation of local specificities therein; will new idioms of art not then develop accordingly? See here the contributions of Monica Juneja and Susanne Leeb? In fact, art today already appears to have more to do with making claims regarding specific (idiosyncratic) content than the broader post-Conceptual formal language (which Peter Osborne had claimed to be “guarantor” of the “contemporary”). It seems less interested in revising art (history) than seizing on the interaction of already canonized formulations of art. This displacement is exemplified, for example, by a present-day discourse on sculpture that is conceived on the basis of trash and deskilling, and which now intersects with ecological questions of global waste production (see text by Yvonne Volkart). The question of “artistic means” also appears, now, in a form that explicitly proceeds from the investigation of documents: a mode that, under the label of “artistic research,” already entered the academy some time ago. Years after its institutionalization, has artistic research developed its own distinctive idiom? And if so, how can it be understood within current languages of art (see contribution by Dieter Lesage)? Investigating artistic idioms also means looking at the temporal limits of their relevance and end effects. Do the languages of art inherently have an ever-shortening half-life? How long can, say, a painterly idiom hold its ground, and when and under what circumstances can it reassert itself? Sven Lütticken addresses this question vis-à-vis the diverse and conflicting framings of Günther Förg’s œuvre, reminding us how the term “contemporary,” in its common art-world usage, came into vogue circa 1990 to mean more than just “of our time” but also “cool,” or more bluntly, “market-relevant.”
While painting remains the dominant referent for most Western idioms, other materialities – namely those that require “connectivity” or otherwise cite the digital space – have recently gained visibility as “contemporary” art. In this, however, it is important to understand that anything we (as a capitalist society) deem “contemporary,” whether blue chip painting or post-net sculpture, is still fundamentally based on modes of production oriented around the paradigm of (post)industrial progress, which depends on exploitative labor and resource structures. Yet what if art managed a political deployment of technology that refuses the mimicry of techno-capitalist aesthetics, and did so without giving rise to anti-technological resentment (see the contribution by Giovanna Zapperi). With this issue, we ask: what languages does art speak today?
Susanne Leeb, Mirjam Thomann
Translation: Daniel Spaulding