Conceptual art by Ross Alderson

On Software Nomenclature and Art Criticism

For a programmer exploiting nomenclature is both familiar and comfortable. For an art critic it is the key to unlock understanding.

Nomenclature is the system of terms (or the rules for forming them) and their definitions. This is a vital part of the way software development, and particularly open source software development happens.

The naming of functions and tools is not only a fun way for developers to express themselves –Git being a primary example but there are also countless examples of derivatives like Mustache and its offspring Handlebars where programmers extend technology and provide a witty semantic link.

You only need a cursory glance through Github or look at a connection map of available open source software projects and you will see how the universe of creativity explodes and iterates through naming and semantic structure.

The way software is created (using text) obviously lends itself to naming conventions and discipline around descriptions and the formations of new terms, however it is also why any participant in (open) software can quickly understand and then start to customise.

Artists on the other hand tend to centre creativity around the individual and their philosophy or visual style. The visual language is often created through sub-conscious and ‘automatic’ means so that there is rarely a visual or verbally articulated nomenclature. Consequently it is difficult for others (and often the artist! to extend and iterate).

It has not always been the case and occasionally when there is a common language that artists can rally around and revolt against, amazing things can happen. In the 50s and 60s with key critics like Greenberg, Rosenberg and Steinberg defining terms for the movements in the largely NY art scene it produced an explosion of good (and crap) art as well as a blooming of public interest.

Putting the moral issue about undue influence (Pollock and Greenberg) to one side, what the activity did was give a voice to visual language – a public nomenclature if you like – that not only informed the artists but also the viewers. It gave footholds on a sheer unfamiliar rock that suddenly became scalable thanks to those efforts.

In the past decade (maybe longer) we have witnessed the role of the art critic merge with that of the gallery (a promoter / apologist), the TV channel (neo-victorian patrician) and in the art world as an almost irrelevant provider of trixy texts and impenetrable but beautiful independently published books.

The day Matthew Collings started making TV about renaissance art and Michael Kimmelman transferred to Architecture criticism, the home team lost two important goal scorers.

The creation of the common language of art is not the responsibility of the artist. It is the critic’s. Without the critic, the artistic language of our time is largely borrowed from other fields and activities. We are using outdated language that is not appropriate to the context or work.

Without terms and the rules for the definition of terms people can’t talk about art in a productive way. And without a shared language, artistic collaboration and innovation is restricted.

In the past this has been more difficult because unlike contemporary software (via Github) there hasn’t been a reference source available to all. The art magazines of the 60s – particularly ArtForum and the culture section of the NY Times served as points of reference for criticism. But now? Diffusion and fragmentation in print publishing and online has forever fractured the possibility of a single source of critical language right?

Wrong. There is a universal reference platform that is open and quality checked, free and instantly available. Wikipedia.

This is where the language can sit, where argument by citation can take place and where when somebody hears a term and wants to find out more is guaranteed to be at the top of the page 1 Google results.

Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia, it is a collective, cultural repository and as such can be used by critics and artists alike as the fount for the names and description of terms that define our time.

The way the world works requires criticism to follow. New ideas, content accuracy and relevance is rewarded online. And fortunately that is what is required to kickstart creative collaboration. Think, define, name and publish.

If you don’t give names to new types of creativity then they can’t be talked about (online).

Or as a famous SEO guru once saidWhereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.


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