BY Dan Fox AND Jennifer Higgie in Features | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141


An update of Raymond Williams's 1975 dictionary of culture for today's art world

BY Dan Fox AND Jennifer Higgie in Features | 01 SEP 11

First published in 1975, Raymond Williams’s Keywords is a ‘record of an inquiry into a vocabulary … concerned with the practices and institutions described as “culture” and “society”.’ Dan Fox and Jennifer Higgie attempt an update for today's art world. 


Abject A concept that intertwines psychoanalysis, linguistics, feminism and philosophy, developed by Julia Kristeva in her 1980 book Powers of Horror. She observed: ‘refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’. In case you’re still confused, we refer you to the title of this 1993 show at the Whitney Museum, New York: ‘Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art’.

Abstract Nothing is abstract.

Action Actionism: a violent art popular in Vienna in the 1960s. Now, action refers to something we all need more of.

Administration The scourge of art, yet seemingly necessary.

Aesthetics What we look at means.

Alienation Karl Marx blamed capitalism. The main reason young people go to art school.

Alternative To what? Not sure this exists any more.

Analogue Not digital. Sounds simple but it’s not.

Appropriation Very common. Often used as a euphemism for theft/immunity from the copyright laws that the rest of us have to follow.

Archive Popular. See: Appropriation; Research; Ruins.

Art Not always what it seems.

Audiences In the art world they’re always either too big or too small. See: Masses; Viewer.

Avant-garde A delightfully old-fashioned term. We say, ‘Bring it back!’

Bad Often disguised as good; often means good. Confusing, we know. Debates rage as to whether ‘Bad Painting’ (1978), curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum in New York, or Michael Jackson’s 1987 album Bad popularized the term.

Banal Often meant to be interesting. Confusing, we know.

Biennials Are there too many or too few? Are the best ones locally focused or is it nice for the locals to see stuff from faraway? What’s the point of them these days? Discuss.

Blurring See: Hangovers; Press Releases.

Boom (and Bust) See: Market.

Borders / Boundaries In the art world they rarely refer to geography.


Capitalism ‘The legitimate racket of the ruling class.’ Al Capone.

Censorship ‘Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.’ George Bernard Shaw.

Choice We all have one. It’s crippling!

Circulation ‘Like a wheel within a wheel / Neverending or beginning
/ On an ever-spinning reel / Like a snowball down a mountain
/ Or a carnival balloon
/ Like a carousel that’s turning
/ Running rings around the moon
/ Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
/ Past the minutes on its face
/ And the world is like an apple
/ Whirling silently in space
/ Like the circles that you find
/ In the windmills of your mind.’ Etc.

Class ‘Lady Hodmarsh and the Duchess immediately assumed the clinging affability that persons of rank assume with their inferiors in order to show them that they are not in the least conscious of any difference in station between them.’ W. Somerset Maugham.

Climate Change Called global warming until everyone noticed how cold it was.

Community We’re all part of one. Some artists like to include it in their work, which can be either boring, problematic or well-intentioned. Christoph Büchel’s recent Piccadilly Community Centre was rumoured to cost six times the amount an actual community centre costs. Discuss.

Collecting It supports artists. It usually involves a lot of money. Those who do it are envied, feared, worshipped and despised in equal measure. See: Markets.

Collective All together now!

Commercial A bit like the word ‘decorative’, it can be used as a disparaging way of describing an art work. See: Markets.

Concept A fancy word for a thought.

Conceptual ‘Concept Art’ was first coined by Henry Flynt in 1963: ‘It is first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of, for example, music is sound. Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.’

Context The stuff that surrounds us.

Crisis What crisis?

Criticism See: Crisis.

Critique French word. Artists dread it.

Criticality According to the OED: ‘The state or quality of being critical; esp, the condition of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction.’

Culture The stuff that surrounds us, sort of.

Curating We’d better be careful about this one.


Dada ‘Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness.’ ‘Dada Manifesto’ (1916), Hugo Ball.

Death Goethe stated that it was ‘entirely impossible for a thinking being to think of its own non-existence, of the termination of its thinking and its life.’ Woody Allen observed that, ‘Eternal nothingness is OK if you’re dressed for it.’

Dérive Fancy word for taking a stroll and having a think.

Design No, it’s not OK to put an IKEA table in your show and say your work is ‘about’ design.

Dematerialize It comes to us all. See: Death.

Détournement Coined by the Situationists. Means turning something back on itself. See: Alienation; Capitalism; Class.

Digital Some of us are old enough to remember when having a digital watch was to be at the cutting edge of technology.

Diversity Impossible to avoid. What marketing people from large museums want to attract.

DIY All artists are DIY experts.


Ecology ‘Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.’ Henry David Thoreau, who never flew with Ryanair.

Education The arts are always first to be cut. This annoys us.

Elite A creepy word; usually used pejoratively and prefaced with ‘self-appointed’.

Emerging One of those categories that no-one can agree on. One person’s emerging is another’s emerged. What they’re emerging from is rarely discussed.

Entropy Popularized by Robert Smithson, who, in his 1973 essay ‘Entropy Made Visible’, defined it thus: ‘On the whole I would say entropy contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view. In other words it’s a condition that’s irreversible, it’s condition that’s moving towards a gradual equilibrium and it’s suggested in many ways. Perhaps a nice succinct definition of entropy would be Humpty Dumpty. Like Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.’

Ethics A word used with surprising frequency by a community as murky and unregulated as the art world.

Everyday Life is short but the days are long.

Expert We’re all experts now. Aren’t we?

Exploitation See: Ethics.


Facebook Are we alone in thinking it’s getting creepier? Used by one tenth of the world’s population. Which doesn’t reflect well on the world.

Failure Over-rated and often boring. And please, stop quoting Samuel Beckett about it: what would he know? He was a never a failure.

Fame A poisoned chalice we all would like to sip from.

Fashion A poisoned chalice we all like to sip from.

Feminism 4.0? See: Post-Feminism.

Fiction ‘Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessels are the written mythologies of memory and desire.’ J.G. Ballard.

Food Art Delicious! Rirkrit Tiravanija etc.

Foreign ‘All of life is a foreign country.’ Jack Kerouac.

Formalism Coming back. Not necessarily a good thing.


Gallery Not a very fashionable word these days. See: Project space; Off-site space; Kunsthalle; Kunstverein; Galerie; Artist-run space etc.

Gender Men and/or women. Sounds simple but it’s not.

Genius Extinct.

Gentrification The colonization of once predominantly working-class or industrial neighbourhoods by upwardly-mobile creative and middle classes. It is rarely mentioned that some artists and writers secretly like it as it means they can finally get a good coffee and a nice lunch around here.

Gesture To paraphrase Giorgio Agamben: sometime back there we lost our gestures.

Globalism Hello the 1990s!

Google From Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978): ‘And are you not,’ said Fook to the second-greatest computer in the world, ‘a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?’


Hang An old-fashioned word we like. As in: ‘That show had a really great hang!’

Hangovers On any given day, at least 85 percent of those working in the art world are suffering from one.

Hegemony Popularized by Antonio Gramsci’s usage, denoting the soft-power imperialism of the ruling political system. In cultural terms it is the feeling that at every art fair you go to you bump into work by Murakami/Koons/Katz.

Hermeneutics The theory and practice of interpretation. Vladimir Nabokov described it thus: ‘We live in a stocking which is in the process of being turned inside out, without our ever knowing for sure to what phase of the process our moment of consciousness corresponds.’

History We know this is oft-quoted but no-one summed it up better than F. Scott Fitzgerald in the last line of The Great Gatsby (1925): ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Identity Politics All politics is identity politics.

Ideology Generally used pejoratively to denote Jedi-like mind control. e.g. ‘I like burgers, I think they’re delicious ... No I don’t, it’s those capitalist pigs telling me I want one! Damn this prevailing ideology!’

Images Also known as pictures. Impenetrable See: Fashion; Philosophy; Press Releases.

Industry Apparently art is one. Possibly the most unregulated one in the history of the world. Apart from art criticism and the drug trade.

Insider Everyone is an insider. The problem is, there are so many insides it’s hard to work out where outside is.

Installation Objects in a room they were made for.

Institutional Critique ‘Like complaining when everyone throws you a party.’ Trisha Donnelly.

Instrumentalization Rarely used in relation to the objects musicians need to make music with.

Intention See: Art.

Internet See: Circulation; Facebook; Melancholy; Research; YouTube.

iPhone, iPod, iCloud etc. i can’t bear the grammatical mess that Apple Inc. is making of the world.

-isms Too many to mention. Our favourite one is acosmism, which denies the reality of the universe, seeing it as ultimately illusory.


Jargon ‘The jargon of sculptors is beyond me. I do not know precisely why I admire a green granite female, apparently pregnant monster with one eye going around a square corner.’ Ezra Pound.

Journalism Art writers are not journalists. They are cowards in war zones and hopeless at phone tapping.


Kitsch ‘No matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.’ Milan Kundera.


Left All artists are equal, but some are more equal than others. After all, it’s easy to bang on about capitalist hegemony when your work is flying off the walls of a blue-chip gallery booth at an art fair.

Liberal Confusing term. Used by the right as a synonym for the left, and by the left to describe capitalist economics.

Literature ‘The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Love Surprisingly ubiquitous.


Markets Worshipped by some, like a deity who must be offered sacrificial items. Reviled by others, who speak of it in terms usually reserved for political dictators or child molesters. Either way, it’s a source of fascination for all. See: Bad; Melancholy; MFA; Money; Organic; Professionalization; Youth.

Marxism Bossy. Once declared dead, it now seems like a rather attractive option – again. See: Ideology.

Mash-up Now sounds about as cutting-edge as describing something as ‘cyber’.

Masses Don’t forget that, in the eyes of those in power, you’re just as much a part of the masses as the rest of us.

Media (Multi-/Mass-) Multimedia usually refers to artists who require lots of plugs, leads, TV monitors and speakers for their art work. Mass media is a rather quaint term to describe the power of the broadcast and publishing industries.

Melancholy ‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour / But heaven knows I’m miserable now.’ Morrissey.

MFA Expensive. Although having a studio space and famous artists coming to look at your work might seem like a nice way to spend a couple of years, you’re going to have to enter the real world at some point, so you might as well get it over and done with now. Art is not rocket science. Literally.

Minimalism Outside its strict art-historical or musical definition, the word in its adjectival form has become used to describe an approach to forms of design characterized by simplicity, emptiness, lack of adornment, decoration or bright colours – a style that is commonly and sometimes erroneously assumed to signify sophistication or good taste.

Modern If philosopher Bruno Latour is correct in arguing that ‘we have never been modern’, then there are a lot of museums out there with a serious branding problem on their hands. Money No one ever got rich by being an art critic.

Music Would you rather be Pablo Picasso or one of The Beatles? Andy Warhol or R. Kelly? Marina Abramovic´ or Prince? Frida Kahlo or Keith Moon? Louise Bourgeois or Nina Simone? Donald Judd or Justin Bieber? Matthew Barney or Beyoncé? Jack Vettriano or Cliff Richard?

Myth ‘Once a year in a Masonic Temple buried one mile beneath Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota, Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst decide who will become a successful artist,’ is an example of a myth.


Narrative Turn Once upon a time …

Nationalism Something believed in by idiots.

Nature According to Alan Weisman, in his 2007 book, The World Without Us, the forms of art that would survive the longest, should human beings disappear from the planet and nature be left to take its course, would be those made of bronze or ceramic. Makes you think.

Negativity Try writing a negative review of someone’s show and still maintain that ‘no one cares about art criticism any more’ when they corner you at the bar.

Network Describes a group of individuals linked by a number of common affinities, relationships or interests. Not to be confused with ‘networking’ or ‘going to as many private views and gallery dinners as you can, whether you’re invited or not’.

Nostalgia Things were better back then. No, they really were.

Noir Think: dames, private dicks, cops, Los Angeles, everyone smoking and drinking hard liquor, guns, crooks, speakeasies, creatures of the night. You know, Raymond Chandler and all that.


Old-Fashioned Bourbon, scotch or rye whiskey, ice, one sugar cube, a dash of bitters and a splash of water or club soda. Garnish with slice of lemon or orange.

Ordinary Of course you’re ordinary! Honestly, you’re so down to earth. What’s that you say? Your daddy’s a banker?

Organic In food, expensive, aspirational and apparently good for the planet. In art criticism, it is commonly used to describe a work of art that looks as if actual human hands were involved in its creation.

Original Of course you’re special! Honestly, you’re so talented. Really, I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years!

Outsider Outside what?


Painting Alive and well. Involves paint on a surface. Surprisingly straightforward, really.

Panel Discussions Interesting subjects turned into interminably long-winded conversations, commonly found in museums, biennials and art fairs. Statements by audience members – disguised as questions – optional.

Pedagogical Turn Sounds like a bad medical condition, but is used to describe education as a form of art. Why no one can just admit they want to be a teacher is a mystery.

Performative Do say: ‘That reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains’ (Judith Butler). Don’t say: James Franco.

Periphery The edge, but of what and where? A place, a state of mind, a prejudice in a constant state of flux.

Philosophy Trained philosophers have spent entire lifetimes trying to understand the work of Immanuel Kant, and you’re quoting him in a press release about your new show?

Photography The first photograph was produced in 1826. In 2009 Tate advertised the following job for the first time: Curator (Photography and International Art). Discuss.

Pictures Something to look at and think about.

Platform In art, rarely referred to in relation to trains.

Plinth Old-fashioned, newly hip. Difficult to pronounce without sounding foppish.

Pluralism Inclusive. Generous. Endless.

Poetic What poem?

Politics At a recent gallery dinner during the Venice Biennale, a Republican fundraiser declared that what she loves about art is that it isn’t political. We asked her if she had seen the US Pavilion. She said no, not yet.

Popularity Chances are you know at least one artist who craves it for themselves, but criticizes it in others. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance.

Post-Feminism ‘If the contemporary portrayal of womankind were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat, and a man – probably in that order. […] How has it come to this?’ Nina Power

Postmodernism Oh God, now you’re asking. Jeez. Yup, that’s a biggie … Well now … Hmm … Let’s see. Extreme relativism, a culture dominated by pastiche and revivalism? You’re probably best off reading Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1990). I’m off to look at David Salle’s paintings at the Centre Pompidou.

Post-punk If your favourite late 1970s/early ’80s punk band references existentialism or nouvelle vague films, they’re post-punk. If they shout a lot about being angry and bored, they’re your common-or-garden punk band. The exception to the rule is The Fall, who are pre-punk, punk and post-punk all rolled into one 35-year career of booze-soaked genius.

Practice ‘Artists don’t make works any longer. They maintain practices. Like dentists, only less honourably. Or like musicians trying to get to Carnegie Hall. When do you stop practicing something and do it?’ Peter Schjeldahl.

Precariat Economic class reliant on short-term jobs, with little financial stability or statutory or union protection. Also known as art critics.

Press Releases If even a fraction of the idiotic, hyperbolic claims that are made on a daily basis in press releases were true then the planet would have undergone a colossal global revolution in consciousness followed by a major collective nervous breakdown.

Pretentiousness Contemporary art is often accused of it; in part this is a reaction to ‘de-skilled’ or ‘dematerialized’ forms of art making that do not display technical skill in a traditional sense, or work whose meaning is considered opaque. Accusations of pretentiousness have also been identified by historians and sociologists, such as Martha Vicinus and Beverley Skeggs, as a means of class control, a way of warning a particular social group not to act above its station.

Print Have you noticed how the more the publishing industry laments the demise of printed books, the more the art world seems to produce ever-growing mountains of them?

Problematic What isn’t?

Professionalization ‘“The freedom of the artist and intellectual,” wrote Theodor Adorno, “lies in the possibility of not having to separate work from pleasure as all those caught up in the system of division of labour do.” This is our chance for a good life. But this is also why things tend to get messy.’ Jan Verwoert.

Progressive It’s what the art world assumes it is. But is it really? Discuss.

Projects/Project spaces In the US, a ‘project’ is the name given to public housing, which puts a whole new spin on the idea.

Prosumer Having fun making videos with clips found on YouTube and stuff you’ve photographed with your phone. See: Appropriation. Also: Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010).

Psychological To quote Funkadelic: ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow.’


Quality The phrase, ‘Feel the quality on that, mate,’ is seldom heard in galleries.

Queer Critical theory that emerged from the fields of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender studies. The term was coined by Teresa de Lauretis at a conference on lesbian and gay sexualities that was held at the University of California Santa Cruz, in February 1990. See: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) and David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1989).


Race ‘When sexism and racism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?’ Guerilla Girls.

Radical There is an assumption that contemporary art is, a priori, radical. The language of radicalism and sedition can be found in museum and gallery press releases across the world, in the rhetoric of ‘breaking down boundaries’, ‘challenging preconceptions’: artists, curators, critics and dealers have all been complicit in stripping the terminology of radicalism of its force.

Reactionary Tracey Emin voting Conservative.

The Real Did it return? Did it leave again? It certainly didn’t say goodbye if it did. Was it something we said?

Recuperation The absorption of dissident or oppositional ideas into the mainstream or established circuits of power. Think: John Lydon doing advertisements for Anchor Butter.

Relational Aesthetics Has caused more arguments than you’d find on a Saturday night down the Cedar Tavern with Clement Greenberg and the lads. Coined by Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1998 book Esthetique relationnelle, it was originally used to describe how the work of a small group of artists, including Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parenno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, was concerned with human relations and their social contexts as much as with the production of discrete objects or images. After the book’s translation into English in 2002, the term gained a broader popularity in the art world, often shortened to ‘relational’ and used to describe any art work that involved some form of social exchange or participation.

Religion Curiously absent from the contemporary art world.

Repetition According to Mark E. Smith of The Fall: ‘The three “R”s are “repetition, repetition, repetition”.’

Research ‘I see a lot of student shows now that look like they were put together by librarians.’ Mark Leckey.

Resolution In art, rarely used in the way the United Nations use it. We mean it in relation to the quality of a digitally generated image eg. ‘high’ or ‘low’ resolution. Artist Hito Steyerl’s 2009 essay for e-flux journal, ‘In Defence of the Poor Image’, is highly recommended.

Retro Generally used in relation to pop music and fashion, ‘retro’ can be defined as a fascination with and recycling of pop’s immediate past. The speed of retro-revivalism – for instance, bands reforming, albums being reissued, obsolete music genres or fashions coming back into style – has accelerated over the past decade, in part due to the access to once-obscure images and sounds enabled by the Internet. According to music writer Simon Reynolds: ‘The axis of time has flipped, culturally speaking. The structural position occupied by the future in pop is now occupied by the past. The way people see what they’re doing now is not like it was in the ’60s, or in ’90s electronic music; the quest for the unknown, beyond the horizon. Now people formulate their impulses through archaeology and the quest for the lost. This is where the romance of things is generated; not for the future, but for the past.’

Revolution Thomas Frank, in his book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (1997) writes that: ‘Revolution was probably the most overused word of the 1960s. There was a Creative Revolution in advertising as well as the Peacock Revolution in menswear, a sexual revolution, a revolution in rock music and agriculture and filmmaking and furniture design and fiction writing.’ Oh, and yes, you will be the first against the wall when it comes. Right-Wing A loose term that can cover anyone from Adolf Hitler to David Cameron, not to mention those lurking behind the bushes in the art world too.

Romantic Conceptualism Conceptual art that’s a bit sad, humorous, nostalgic or wistful, rather than all buttoned-up and dry. May also refer to artists who like the idea of a nice candlelit dinner with their significant other, but are too busy in the studio.

Roundtable It is widely thought that King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable were the earliest pioneers of this format. For the first (and only) issue of the satirical journal November, a roundtable was convened on the subject of ‘round tables’ (participants: Rosamund Kauffmann, Chip Chapman, Lukács G.C. Hechnoh and Jean-Luc Salive). See: Panel Discussions.

Ruins Last fashionable amongst 18th-century aristocrats, ruins – especially modern, industrial ones – have become a popular subject matter for artists over the past decade. Photograph a disused factory, give it a title pinched from a W.G. Sebald novel, and hey presto! Instant art!


Science You think art deals with big subjects? Try telling that to the scientists working at NASA or on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Seduction ‘If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em!’ John Waters.

Sex Most art about sex is unsexy.

Sexism Do a quick head-count of how many women compared to men are represented by your favourite galleries and then work out how many women have been given big shows in major institutions in the last 20 years. Discuss.

Site-Specificity ‘Let’s do the show here!’

Slow How we feel on a Friday afternoon, just after lunch. Oh, and just before we nod off, we should mention that it also relates to the Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy in 1989, which is, according to its website, ‘a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.’ The idea of emphasizing ‘slowness’ in the face of relentless change, pressure and speed in contemporary society has since expanded beyond the production and consumption of food to encompass other areas of life, such as urban planning, gardening and travel.

Social Media Synonymous with procrastination.

Society Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ Look where that got us.

Sociology The study of human social behaviour. Despite Émile Durkheim having established the first academic department of sociology in 1895, the discipline does not make an appearance in Sam Cooke’s 1958 song ‘Wonderful World’, in which he lists all the areas of scholarship of which he feels he has little understanding, for instance: ‘Don’t know much about history / Don’t know much biology / Don’t know much about a science book / Don’t know much about the French I took.’ However, given Cooke’s subsequent assertion in the chorus that he knows he loves you, and that he knows if you loved him too, what a wonderful world this would be, it could be argued that he knows a great deal about sociology.

Soft Journalism News stories that are sensationalist or entertainment- and personality-orientated. According to a report released by the Harvard Kennedy School in 2001, the rise in soft news may be eroding audiences for news concerned with public and international affairs, and weakening democracy as a result. Hacking people’s telephones in the UK and running a powerful US news network, fronted by conservative wing-nuts, doesn’t help either.

Solipsism ‘So when I say that I know me, how can I know that? / What kind of spider understands arachnophobia? / I have my senses and my sense of having senses / Do I guide them? Or they me?’ Robert Wyatt.

Spectator Hardly any better than ‘viewer’ – it sounds more like someone going to the races or to a football match, than to an art gallery. See: Masses; Viewer.

Stage We feel that Noel Coward’s advice to Mrs Worthington, ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage’, is equally applicable to careers in contemporary art, unless your daughter really, really wants to do it.

Standards Often assumed to be falling.

Strategy Military term applied to art, e.g. ‘conceptual strategy’ or ‘strategies of painting’. Admittedly, the difference between the ambitions of Napoleon and those of some people in the art world are hard to distinguish.

Streaming As in: ‘This live stream of an artist’s lecture I want to watch is taking bloody ages to load. It keeps stopping and starting … terrible picture quality … can’t hear a word they’re saying.’ Etc. As Dr. Egon Spengler in Ivan Reitman’s 1984 cinematic masterpiece Ghostbusters advised, ‘Don’t cross the streams.’

Style Not as big a problem as some people would have you think.

Structural A word often associated with the sinking feeling one gets when sitting down to watch a programme of 1970s artists’ films and finding out how long it’s going to be. Whilst some wonderful and important artists’ films have been made under the rubric of structuralism, there have been some really boring ones too.

Subjective Anyone who argues their art or criticism is ‘objective’ is lying. But that’s just our opinion.

Super-hybridity According to frieze co-editor Jörg Heiser: ‘In recent years, a number of artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers have dramatically increased the number of cultural contexts they tap into when producing work as well as the pace at which they do so – the younger, the faster, it seems. This phenomenon could be termed “super-hybridity” and is obviously to do with the dynamics of globalization, digital technology, the Internet and capitalism.’


Taste Cultural preference, choice and how it’s displayed. It’s often understood to be conditioned by issues of education and class, and is a very unfashionable word to use, even though it’s the reason we all got involved in art in the first place.

Terrorism It’s not helping anyone. And anyone who describes themselves as an ‘art terrorist’ is a cretin.

Text If we come across one more person who describes what they do as a ‘text-based practice’ we will punch them. What’s wrong with just saying you write?

Theatre How many artists, curators or critics do you know who visit the theatre regularly? Now ask yourself how many artists, curators or critics you know who say they are ‘interested in the idea of theatre’. Discuss.

Theory Art students can be roughly divided into those who start by making things then read some theory, and those who read some theory, then make things.

Tradition To quote Jonathan Richman: ‘I want to keep my place in the old world / Keep my place in the arcane / ’Cause I still love my parents / And I still love the old world.’

Travel The availability of cheap air fares and a globalized network of artists, large-scale exhibitions and venues has meant that travel has become common in the art world. Whilst this has forged stronger social and economic bonds between far-flung art communities, some have argued that the rise of the ‘poverty jet-set’ has been at the expense of local perspectives, not to mention the environmental impact of air travel. You’re complaining because this month you have to do a show in Mexico City, then fly to Athens for a biennial, then go to Tobago for a conference and then visit a collector in New York? You poor lamb! Yes, life must be so hard for you!

Truthiness Popularized by American comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005, it describes any appeal to veracity based on emotion or intuition, rather than fact. Often used to characterize the factually loose rhetorical strategies of the US right wing, ‘truthiness’ was voted ‘Word of the Year’ by the American Dialect Society in 2005, and in 2006, by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Many press releases are written with truthiness.

Twitter In recent years, the role of instant messaging micro-blogging sites such as Twitter, in political protest and discourse has been an issue of intense specula… Wait, I just need to let 16,582 people know what I think about the episode of The Apprentice I’m watching right now.


Uncanny Freudian concept meaning ‘familiar but strange’; interestingly, a feeling often experienced both at private views and in nightmares.


Vague Next time you encounter an art work or exhibition described as ‘open-ended’, ask your self whether what that really means is ‘vague’.

Value Is there any area of culture, other than art, in which the concept of ‘value for money’ might mean paying as much as you possibly can for something, rather than as little as you can?

Video If you’re into fetishizing obsolete technology, then you’ll know that VHS tapes are the new 16mm film in moving-image work. That is, unless you’ve got one of those new Canon HD cameras, in which case your artist’s video will look exactly like everyone else’s.

Viewer Often presumed to have preconceptions that need shattering. See: Masses.

Violence ‘The art world is a great place to meet retired arms dealers.’ Jeremy Deller.

Virtual Does anyone remember that film The Lawnmower Man (1992)? No, thought not.


Wealth The editors of frieze have identified a specific shade of blue shirt worn exclusively by wealthy male art collectors. We call it ‘rich-guy blue’ (RGB). You’ll know it when you see it.

Welfare Are you OK? Seriously, just call us if you need anything.

Western Actually, we quite liked the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010). Didn’t Douglas Gordon make some piece of work using The Searchers (1956). Ever seen that Western that Piotr Uklanski made? And Shezad Dawood? Etc.

Work It’s easy to quote the famous Situationist slogan, ‘Ne travaillez jamais’ (Never work) when you’ve got a trust fund to fall back on.

www. What old people say when beginning to tell someone a website address.


Xenophobia Doesn’t appear to be going away, unfortunately.


Yachts Used by the super-rich for obscene displays of power, privilege and wealth at the Venice Biennale.

yBas Once upon a time, Britain was a sleepy backwater in contemporary art, where everyone smoked pipes and argued about Art & Language or Tony Cragg sculptures. Then, along came some young artists from Goldsmiths College, who didn’t like Tony Cragg sculptures but liked Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George. These artists started putting on their own exhibitions, a bit like the kids from Fame. One of these was called ‘Freeze’ and everyone said it was very important. Soon, they become fabulously rich and famous and got drunk with members of Britpop bands in expensive central London private members clubs, appeared in newspapers, developed terrible cocaine habits and voted New Labour. In 1997 they were in an exhibition called ‘Sensation’, which made them even more fabulously famous. Then along came some even younger artists and everyone stopped liking Tony Blair and Britpop and forgot the yBas apart from the British newspapers, many of which still think the year is 1997. Now finding themselves terribly unfashionable, some yBas retired from public view to live in vast spaceships or secret tropical island paradises, whilst others were forgotten and left to fend for themselves. But one day, some young artists even younger than the youngest artist alive right now will come along and tell the world how much they liked what the yBas did, and so the story will begin all over again.

Youth In the words of Jerry Seinfeld: ‘They’re here to replace us’. Which is one possible explanation why the art world is so obsessed with youth. See also: Emerging; Markets; Money.

YouTube The rise of social media has had a profound impact upon … Wait, have you seen this? It’s SO CUTE!!


Zeitgeist Mythological supernatural force critics and curators are obsessed with trying to capture.

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.