Arts Diary: Taking artists seriously is difficult if they will insist on spouting jargon

I VERY nearly choked on my TV dinner on Monday night, as Reporting Scotland presenter Jackie Bird rounded off an item on Martin Boyce’s Turner Prize win with an unusual flourish.

Boyce, she said, “is known for reimagining items normally found in parks and public spaces and using them in atmospheric, modernist-inspired landscapes.” Then she paused for a second, gave a cheeky little grin and added “as you do”.

To be fair to her, I don’t think she was being at all dismissive of Boyce or his art – instead, I think she was poking fun at the mouthful of a sentence she had been given to read by her scriptwriters. And you can see her point – it’s not exactly the language of everyday conversation. “Any plans for the weekend Bob?” “Naa, nothing special. I thought I might, y’know, reimagine some items normally found in parks and public spaces and then maybe use them in atmospheric, modernist-inspired landscapes. Or I might just go to the pub and watch the football. How about you?”

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Then again, can you imagine how much fuss there would be if a BBC newsreader finished an item on education or the economy with an “as you do?” Or, worse, a crime story: “The accused was previously jailed in 1984 for beating his neighbour’s cat to death with a claw-hammer… as you do.”

No, newsreaders can only get away with deploying the “as you do” ending following stories that are considered to be either frivolous or bizarre – a bit of a joke, if you will. And that’s the trouble with some of the language used by the cognoscenti to discuss contemporary art: it might impress people within the field, but to everyone else it just sounds a bit silly.

True, doctors use lots of jargon, and on the whole people take doctors deathly seriously, but there are two crucial differences here. First, in the case of the medical profession, jargon acts as a sort of shorthand – a way of communicating complex ideas as quickly as possible. In the art world, by contrast, it sometimes feels as if the same process is working in reverse. Once you’ve unpacked the tortured language of an “explanatory” wall panel in a contemporary gallery, you often discover that the writer was actually trying to say something relatively straightforward. Believe me, compared to some art writing deemed fit for public consumption these days, the line Bird had to read out on Monday was actually pretty tame.

Second, while medical professionals talk MRSIs and MRSAs to each other all day long, they are expected to be able to explain these things clearly to their patients, in a way they will understand. In the art world there appears to be no equivalent expectation.

Net result? A Scottish artist winning a major art prize is treated as a bit of a joke on national television. Nice work, obfuscators. Way to get your discipline taken seriously.

The Borders battler

JUST when you thought the independence debate was starting to get a little repetitive, along comes kilted, helmeted music-maker Jesse Rae to liven things up. Legend has it that Rae wears his martial attire on stage as a political statement. Indeed, it is often reported that he has pledged never to remove his mighty war helm until Scotland becomes independent. When I speak to him on the phone, however, he explains that this is something of a myth. “That all got a bit jumbled up in the early days,” he says. “I want Scotland independent, but the helmet is just part of my persona.”

Rae, whose 1985 single Over The Sea was touted briefly as a possible replacement national anthem on the Tartan Army message board a few years back, is scheduled to play Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms on Sunday night in what he describes as “a live music video show”. Although he’ll be alone on stage, he’ll be joined on the big screen by former collaborators including Bernie Worrell, Michael Hampton and the late Rodger Troutman. He’s also got a retrospective album coming out in January, Best O’ Jesse Rae, with songs selected by Welsh record producer David Turner.

But back to politics. Although all the claymore-weilding he does in his videos might suggest otherwise, Rae talks a lot of sense. He thinks the “great big pompous building” currently housing the Scottish Parliament should never have been built, and that a pre-existing structure like the old Royal High School would have done the job. He’d also like to see devolution taken further, with the Borders independent of Scotland and Selkirk as its capital.

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He’s standing as an independent candidate for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire in 2015. If you vote in that neck of the woods, try looking past the helmet.