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Dropping Adjectives from Art Writing

Art criticism, art history, and contemporaneity grapple with crises because Eurocentrism and elitism have pigeonholed the fine arts. I would like to advocate for an art history not based on objects (as Jonathan Hay has done in “The Mediating Work of Art”), but first, for some sound practice, I propose an art criticism and art history free from the use of adjectives.

The idea came to me while searching for a way to liberate my research interests from classification by nation or race, and through repeated struggles at being a woman editor/writer/curator who doesn’t want to be qualified as “female,” or “feminine.” Not that I have anything against skirts or eyeliner, but why monopolize gender conventions to the exclusion of men?

Experiment with speaking and writing using no qualifiers, I urge you. In some contexts, genres or mediums could be considered adjectives, such as “conceptual art” or “installation art,” and thus should be avoided. There can be no more “Chinese contemporary art,” “brilliant” personages, or “excellent” shows, because everything exists within frameworks no longer built on assumptions. Yes, in this world, there will be no modification of nouns (and in spirit of camaraderie, adverbs ought to be outlawed).  There is logic behind it: the information age is upon us, knowledge structures are changing, and the lure of subjectivity is waning as information systems empower nonspecialists with access to information. Digitization, databases, and keyword searches are changing the nature of questions art historians ask; social media is changing our experience with art, and its meaning. 

No adjectives. It’s just an exercise, after all, like learning a second, or third language. Give it a try. In the “art world,” style still trumps all, but what we say should be just as important as the way we say it, artists as well as critics and art historians. Relieve yourself of the burden of choice, slim your vocabulary two sizes in the New Year, this is my commitment to myself.


Lee Ambrozy

LEE AMBROZY is the editor and translator of Ai Weiwei’s Blog (MIT Press, 2011), and is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York City. She writes for Artforum, and is editor-at-large of


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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