Response Koen Kleijn

Here a response I received from Koen Kleijn to my essay Lost in Translation, that was published on the site of Open! last week. I decided to publish it here, since the format of the Open! site does not allow for responses (yet).


I’m a little startled to read in Merijn Oudenampsens excellent article (Lost in Translation: On the Intelligibility of Art Discourse) that he feels that in my article in de Groene Amsterdammer I wilfully misrepresented the arguments made by Ruyters and Van Velzen. I’m sure that’s not the case.

The misunderstanding here is that my point was not that art itself should be ‘intelligible’ or ‘accessible’ – in fact, I state that artists should feel free to do whatever they want, and if they can make a living doing so, I congratulate them. True: in my personal opinion some strands of contemporary art are likely to end up in the philosophy departments of universities, and lose their social, human, interactive qualities – but that does mean I impinge on the right of any artist to make what he or she wants to make, nor do I see compels the artist to ‘explain’ what he or she does.

My critique was aimed at the institutions that show art. I feel that these institutions – especially those funded by the public – have a duty of common courtesy to the interested visitors. If you’d like your neighbours to come and see what you have in store, try to address them in a way they’ll understand. If the works presented are complex or opaque, well fine, you are free to say so; if you feel (like Rudi Fuchs once felt) that works should be presented without any context, good luck to you. You should, however, never turn your back to the visitor and hide behind a moat of jargon.

Oudenampsen’s analysis of current and previous attitudes to art, using Bourdieu and Berger was quite enlightening. I add one final point if I may, on the point of ‘academics’. At the Rietveld Academie, theory is indeed a part of the curriculum, and there is a consistent urge to counter what Oudenampsen sees as the ‘strict separation between manual and mental labour’. In my experience, the ‘academic’, ‘theoretical’ or ‘mental’ aspects of the curriculum are actually seen as a way to enhance the overall standing of the institution, producing artists who are steeped in theoretical discourse as well as practical work. I have seen similar developments at KABK The Hague, Design Academy Eindhoven and at the Dutch Art Institute of Artez, where Master students in Fine Arts are expected to produce a text of 10.000 to 15.000 words. I’m far from sure, however, that these have the didactic aspect which Oudenampsen associates with ‘academic’. I fear that many of these students have become infected with that same virus that leads to ‘incomprehensible art discourse’, ‘unassailable jargon’ and ‘flowery language that makes no sense.’

Oudenampsen describes the experience of being submitted at the Rietveld Academie to a lecture on Guattari that was completely incomprehensible to the students it was supposed to engage with. This is something I have come across often. I teach a bit at that same school, and I make it a point to challenge these of blindfolded presentations whenever I can, but let me assure you, it’s a battle. Those moats are deep and wide.

The inaccessibility of such presentations or the opaqueness of artist’s texts may not be caused directly by the intellectual and academic colonisation of the arts, but this colonisation is indeed in full swing and it’s clear to see, in my opinion, that it obstructs the way artists, academies, journalists, critics and institutions communicate with the rest of the world about art.


Koen Kleijn

Art historian, writer, filmmaker. Critic at De Groene Amsterdammer; mentor at Design Academy Eindhoven (Masters, contextual design) and Gerrit Rietveld Academie (Bachelors, photography).

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