Artspeak Glossary

Can’t figure out what you’re reading? Use our handy Artspeak glossary to get a handle on all those three-dollar terms used in the art world!

Abstract Expressionism: Americans turned to it’s own form of domestic emerging abstract art devoid of representational imagery. Socialist and Nazi re-institution of Realism confirmed modern abstraction as the preferred style of the democratic free world.

Atavism: the tendency to revert to an ancestral type. An evolutionary throwback, such as traits reappearing which had disappeared generations ago.

Automatism: junking of all traditional rules of art in favor of chance as the direct creative access to the unconscious.

Chiaroscuro (Italian for clear-dark) is a term for a contrast between light and dark. The term is usually applied to bold contrasts of light and dark affecting a whole composition and creating great volume. See the work of (Michelangelo Merisi da) Carravagio. See also “Tenebrism”.

Constructivism (1914-1920): abandonment of easel painting in favor of kinetic art and technical design.

Content: the component of the artwork not based on formal elements such as the idea or ideas, the narrative, meta-narrative, subtext, political agenda, etc.

Deconstruction: Our understanding of language is comprised or “constructed” of a complex interrelationship of spoken sounds, written marks, and a cultural system of signs where these signs obtain meaning through its relationship to other signs. For example, notice how the meaning shifts as new words are added:

Lost Love
Lost Love Found
Lost Love Found Dead
Lost Love Found Dead Serious

Now look at the definitions:
Deconstruction is a term in contemporary philosophy, literary criticism, and the social sciences, denoting a process by which the texts and languages of Western philosophy (in particular) appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in light of the assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves.

Deconstruction refers to an approach which rigorously pursues the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it is apparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable or, indeed, impossible.

If one breaks down or “Deconstructs” a word (sign) into it’s constituents then meaning also disintegrates. On the simplest level deconstructing the word “Cat” into it’s Phonemes or it’s smallest units “C”, “a” and “t” also disintegrates the meaning since there is nothing inherently feline in a c, an a or a t. This is a simplified deconstruction of one word. When applying deconstruction to sociology, human behavior and thought, the process is similar but the underlying unspoken assumptions that form the basis for thought and belief are much more complex.

Diachronic: Concerns with the changes of language over a period of time.

Dialectic: Debate, discourse.

Discourse: extended speech, the code of language used to express personal thought.

Formal Qualities: design elements such as: line, shape, texture, size, color etc.

Hegemony: leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others.

Hermeneutics: a method or theory of interpretation and understanding of texts.

Hyper-reality: exaggerated in comparison to reality; when the reproduced takes the place of reality.

Grisaille: A style of monochromatic painting in shades of gray, used especially for the representation of relief sculpture or initial layer of paint applied to a ground, which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint.

Indeterminacy: Uncertainty and its implication deriving from the nature of how definitions or meaning is constructed. (See deconstruction)

Interesting: You have nothing else to say because it’s anything but interesting.

International Style: Universally applicable “modern” style, reproducible anywhere, transcending all national cultures.

Intertextuality: is the shaping of a texts’ meaning by other texts. It can refer to an author’s borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another.

Kinetic Art: relating to or involving motion.

Machine Aesthetic: an optimistic belief in the role of abstraction in human life, and an emphasis on machine-like, undecorated flat surfaces.

Metonymy: naming an attribute or adjunct of the thing instead of the thing itself. “Crown” for Royalty.

Metalanguage: a technical language, such as structuralism, devised to describe the properties of ordinary language.

Metanarrative: or “Grand” narrative is characterized by a comprehensive explanation that is transcendent or contains universal truth. An example: The Enlightenment theorists believed that rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.

Modern: Latin Modo “Just now.” Distinguished by a singular drive through novel technological advances to achieve a utopian state. Ideas of individualism, the sublime, formal purity, aesthetics, perfection and hegemony were prevalent.

Moneme: word.

Naked: without clothes. (see Nude)

Nihilism: Total rejection of value statements or moral statements, absolute destructiveness toward the world at large and oneself.

Nude: idealized version of the naked human form.

Paradigmatic series: (also called selection or substitution) the relationship between elements in a sentence and other elements that are syntactically interchangeable.

Phoneme: is the smallest unit in the sound system that can indicate contrasts in meaning. “Cat” has three phonemes.

Positivism: is the philosophy that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge that is based on actual sense experience and can only come from affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.

Postmodern: Literally “after just now”. First an architectural term used to distinguish the eclectic use of many architectural styles within one structure from the Bauhaus style. Later, the term was used to describe work antithetical to Modernism. In the end, the term became weighted with a vitriolic disdain of modernism, especially characteristics associated with hegemony. Eclecticism, multiculturalism, disdain for aesthetics, deconstruction, simulacra were prevalent components.

Primitivist: A person who acquires and uses the expressive and generally non-naturalistic objects produced by tribal cultures. When Picasso appropriated African tribal masks as a source of imagery for his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon he was acting as a primitivist.

Relational Art. Relational Art is an emerging movement identified by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French philosopher, who recognized a growing number of contemporary artists used performative and interactive techniques that rely on the responses of others: pedestrians, shoppers, browsers—the casual observer-turned-participant. Over the course of writing editorials for the French magazine Documents sur l’Art, Bourriaud came to terms what he was seeing — or more accurately, experiencing — as a movement in Relational Art.

Semiology: (from the Greek Semeion) a mark, sign, trace or omen.

Semiotics: is the study of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems and it’s signification i.e. study of how meaning is constructed and understood.

Signification: the process which binds together signifier and signified to produce the sign.

Situationalism: recontextualizing the mundane in order to value the real. Events based upon experience rather than the object, but unlike postmodernism, the simulacra and meta-narrative are devalued.

Simulacrum: a vague representation; semblance; image; likeness.

Socialist Realism: 1930’s Stalinist propaganda style of heroic realism.

Sublime: of such excellence, beauty, perfection as to inspire awe. Often accompanied with a sense of mortality.

Suprematism: the Russian abstract art movement developed by Kazimir Malevich c. 1915, characterized by simple geometric shapes and associated with the idea of spiritual purity.

Synchronic: concerned with language at a given time without reference to historical antecedents.

Synecdoche: naming the part for the whole.

Syntagmatic series: (also called contiguity or combination) the linear relationships between linguistic elements in a sentence.

Tenebrism: from the Italian tenebroso (“murky”), is a style of painting using violent contrasts of light and dark. A heightened form of chiaroscuro, it creates the look of figures emerging from the dark. It is most often applied to Spanish painters of the 17th Century. Look at the work of Jusepe de Ribera (See “Chiaroscuro”)

Thin: possessing insufficient content.