31 Jan


“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind”

George Orwell, Why I Write

Orwell was giving some background on the concepts and thinking behind his most famous works, most obviously the deployment of language by the ruling classes as a weapon to divide and exploit workers in Animal Farm, and the totalitarian Newspeak engineered by the Big Brother state of 1984. The application to literary and art criticism should also be obvious, however, especially if you’ve read some of my other demolitions of artbollocks on this site. For the especially dense, though- the writers of this press release, this curator’s gloss and this artist’s statement, for example- I’ll try rephrasing it: art world language is designed to make artists sound authentic and stupidity intelligent, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Orwell also gives some useful practical advice that artists (or anybody writing about artists) would benefit from heeding. Orwell’s “rules” are so frequently quoted and referred to that they’re almost clichés in their own right. Unfortunately there’s no shortage of people who still don’t grasp them. That goes double for people in the arts whose former educators have done them the grave disservice of not teaching them how to express themselves (and therefore to think) coherently.

Note that #6 is the built-in escape hatch. Uncle Eric knows he will need to violate his own rules sometimes; he does so in the first paragraph of Why I Write, even. I break them, every good writer breaks them sometimes. To a genuinely creative, intelligent person, rules are not restrictions in any meaningful sense because when we see a rule we immediately start working out how we can turn it inside out, subvert, bend and flout it. All a dullard sees when they look at rules is… well, rules. To a dullard rules are square and therefore not arty, and there’s nothing that dullards want more in the 21st century than to be arty. Not necessarily artists, just arty. “Rules” like Orwell’s are a diagnostic tool, not a prescription. Clearly the majority of artists and art writers never think of using this simple and sensible tool, and so instead they end up just sounding like tools of another kind.

“1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

George Orwell, Why I Write


3 Responses to ““OUTRIGHT BARBAROUS””

  1. Alistair 31/01/2012 at 4:43 PM #

    I already have götterdämmerung as a tag for the absolute nadir, beyond which things can’t get worse ( https://careersuicideblog.wordpress.com/tag/gotterdammerung-2/ ) but I think “outright barbarous” will be my new tag for things that are actively, aggressively annoying and unnecessary rather than merely inept: zero-content press releases written entirely in gobbledygook, for example, or art exhibitions consisting of things stacked against other things accompanied by highfalutin justifications about what it all supposedly means.


  1. Knowing You’re A Writer From An Early Age | The Collaborative Writer - 16/03/2012

    […] “Outright Barbarous” (careersuicideblog.wordpress.com) […]


    […] Reference to philosopher Nina Power’s view of what she calls “Nu-Language” to create illusory gravitas, complexity and engagement with ideas where none of these things truly exist; very much along the lines of my own views on that subject, and of George Orwell’s (discussed on this blog a while ago.) […]

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