From Exhibition to Site-Specific: 20 art anglicisms we can avoid or replace

Prime Minister Mario Draghi has pointed the finger at anglicisms such as smart working or baby sitting. But there are plenty of them in the art world as well: we have taken 20 that we could avoid or replace.

It’s not just English words like the abused smart working (which, by the way, the British don’t use) or the equally terrible baby sitting, or the two anglicisms that Prime Minister Mario Draghi spoke out against last Friday during his speech for the anti-Covid vaccine campaign. Anglicisms have now entered every field of work, and the art world is no exception. And to think that Italy has given so many terms to the English language, just think of those that have to do with techniques: tempera, quadratura, pastiglia, cangiante, graffiti, impasto, which in the Queen’s language are identical to Italian. Or terms that English has slightly modified such as “fresco” to mean “fresco,” or “imprimatura” to “imprimitura.”

Although some terms originated in English-speaking countries to designate specific forms of art (e.g., Land Art, or Action Paiting, or even Street Art, although there is an excellent counterpart of the latter in Italian: “Arte Urbana”) and are therefore difficult to replace, the language of the art world (or world, as perhaps some will say) is chock-full of anglicisms that can be safely avoided because there are perfect and more elegant translations into Italian, or that could be replaced.

What are the most abused anglicisms among those in the art world, whether we are talking about ancient art or contemporary art? We have selected 20 of them. Here are what they are.

1. Exhibition. It happens now more and more often to see it used instead of the very Italian “exhibition.” If you really need to find synonyms, there are equally good terms such as “exhibition” or “review,” why should you have to stop at English?

2. Opening. “We invite you to the opening of the exhibition.” Fortunately, we have not yet come across such exaggerations, but the expression “opening of the exhibition” is very common. Just say “opening.” Or, if we really want to use a foreign language, a more refined vernissage will do just fine.

3. Happening. Unless we are talking about the form of artistic expression that originated with Kaprow in the U.S. in the 1950s, “happening” to mean “event” is something you can’t really hear.

4. Workshop. You can safely say “seminar.” If the term evokes you of cassocks and priests, “workshop,” “master class,” “study group” will also do just fine--in short, anything but “workshop.”

5. Site-Specific. The term has now entered so much into common usage that many are unaware that the French, Spanish, and Germans do not use it to refer to a work or installation that is created for a specific site. In Germany they use a patriotic Ortsspezifisch. In Spanish, French and Portuguese they use the Latin in situ. Yes, in Italian it has a slightly different nuance, but why not also use the expression for Site-Specific works?

6. Still. It will have happened to many to see “still from video” in the caption of a Video Art (or “Video Art”) work. One can serenely render it with “frame.”

7. Palette. Which by the way is French, but so many perceive it as English because we began to use it insistently after it came into common use in the London language. Be that as it may, there is no good reason to prefer it to the Italian “palette.”

8. Underdrawing. A term that is becoming increasingly popular in essays on ancient art, and it is not clear why some people prefer it to the better understood “drawing,” “preparatory drawing.”

9. Backstage. The expression “backstage,” also substantiated, allows us to better understand where we are.

10. Abstract. Still in the realm of scientific and academic nonfiction--why not translate it with terms like “summary,” “summary,” or vast array of equivalent synonyms?

11. Paper / Call for paper. Other terms drawn from academia. “Paper” can be rendered as “study,” “research,” and the like. And “call for paper” can be made into a more elegant “call for contributions” or equivalent expressions.

12. Advertising. Why can’t we simply say “advertising” anymore?

13. Courtesy. It now appears everywhere in captions to say that an image has been granted by its owner. It can be translated as “Courtesy of,” “Behind the courtesy of,” “Courtesy of,” or even more mundanely “Courtesy” if we really want to render the concept with one word.

14. Old Masters. A term to which the auction world has accustomed us and which indicates the “Great Masters” of ancient art.

15. Buyer’s Premium. Another typical expression in auction sales, it could be translated as “buyer’s commission” or similar.

16. Expertise. In this case there are perfect equivalents such as “expertise,” “estimate,” “appraisal.”

17. Viewing room. A term that began to spread widely during the lockdown (here, speaking of anglicisms: why not do as the French do who use “confinement”?) of 2020 to refer to a certain kind of virtual exhibition, usually temporary, where one sees the works proposed by a gallery. There is no real equivalent yet, but why can’t we render it with “virtual hall” or something like that?

18. Installation view / Exhibition view. Fortunately, there are those who have begun to translate it as “Installation view,” “Exhibition view.”

19. Press preview / Press tour. Let’s end with pearls from the world of journalism. Some people evidently do not like to use the very Italian, very valid and more elegant “Press preview” or “Press tour.”

20. Light lunch / Finger food / Cocktail party. And finally, here is the real glue of the art world, the element that brings everyone together, the coveted prize at the end of a long opening or a long-suffering press preview, the reason why so many journalists and insiders attend happenings: food. With all a flourish of light lunches or cocktail parties where finger foods are eaten. “Appetizers” may be a bit démodé, but at least it doesn’t evoke fingers to eat. And if you prefer light lunch to “quick lunch” so you don’t get the idea that you’re in a hurry, you can at least use the patriotic “aperitif” instead of the ridiculous “Cocktail” to designate the event (which will instead do just fine to indicate what you’re going to assured, no one will urge you to use the futuristic but even worse “polybibbit”) or the even more nefarious “Cocktail party.”

Photo: miart 2018

From Exhibition to Site-Specific: 20 art anglicisms we can avoid or replace
From Exhibition to Site-Specific: 20 art anglicisms we can avoid or replace

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