Art World Jargon


Every field of endeavor has its own language and jargon that mean something to those involved, maybe or maybe not much to outsiders. The legal profession, for instance, is filled with Latinisms (a fortiori – even more so; ab initio – from the beginning) and the sports world sometimes seems nothing but slang (juice – steroids; wheelhouse – comfort zone).

The art world has its own insider vocabulary where terms may seem a bit comical (houseable – the artwork fits in a normal-sized living room) and occasionally contradictory (objects in a museum may be on “permanent loan” – a loan no one has any intention of taking back – or donated as a “fractional gift,” which indicates that the institution owns an ever-increasing percentage of the piece until it reaches 100 percent).

Auction houses take “chandelier bids” (bids that no one actually made or were seemingly made by the ceiling-hung chandeliers in order to get the price higher) at major sales that increasingly are “curated” (organized in a way to increase prices). Let’s look a bit further.

Art Prints

Art galleries sell “original prints” (multiple versions of the same image) that are produced in “limited editions.” One might assume that the meaning of the term limited edition is self-evident, that a fixed number of copies have been made of one image: A limited edition of 20 means that only 20 of these prints exist. However, this is where customary use of language and art world practices diverge.

New York State’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Law does not prohibit publishers from printing up more copies of the same image, and publishers might even call these later printings limited editions if they print them at different sizes (for example, 4″ x 5″ and 8″ x 10″) or in different colors or on different types of paper, call one an American edition and the other a European edition, use different printing technology or give them different numbering – roman numeral as opposed to Arabic, for instance. Multiple limited editions isn’t an art world term, but it should be.

Then, there is the question of “proofs” – printers’ proofs, publishers’ proofs, presentation proofs, artists’ proofs, B.A.T.s (bon-a-tirer, or final working proofs) and hors de commerce (not-for-sale proofs, which sometimes are put up for sale anyway) – which may equal or exceed the number in the edition itself. Proofs often are prized, as they traditionally have been used as rough drafts of the final image, with notations (often written in by the artist on the proof) for adjustments in color or something else; theoretically, a proof gets one closer to the actual thinking of the artist. Nowadays, there’s no difference between the edition and the proofs (printers just run off extras) but, because of that long-lost mystique of uniqueness, sellers charge 20 percent more for proofs than for works in the regular edition.

Digital Photography

The realm of contemporary fine art photography has become more confusing over the past dozen or so years. It used to be that one could choose between black-and-white or color photographs, with the occasional platinum print available, but that’s when everyone had cameras that used actual film to record an image and traditional photographic paper to print it on. Nowadays, photographers may use digital cameras but print on photographic paper or produce a photographic negative but print on an inkjet printer, while others are digital all the way. Should there be new language to describe what we used to just call photographs?

There is, but it just isn’t a shared language. Fine art photographer Emmet Gowin, refers to some of his computer-enhanced work as “digital inkjet prints,” which tells what type of machine was used to produce the final work, while Judith Joy Ross describes her photographs as “archival pigment prints,” which means the same thing but informs prospective buyers that something about the paper and inks will make the artwork longer-lasting than what comes out of your office printer. Laurent Baheux creates what he calls “giclees” (pronounced ZHEE-clays, a French term coined in the 1980s by a Californian to describe inkjet prints), while Chuck Close has created “digital pigment” prints. Sounds as though it should be similar. Shoja Azari has created “digital C-prints,” which kind-of means the same thing as Alec Soth’s “digital chromogenic” prints and Edward Burtynsky’s “digital color coupler” prints.

The Plastic Bronze

Bronze, which is 95 percent composed of copper, has become very expensive, forcing artists who have to pay foundry costs upfront to search for ways to economize. Some do so by only casting only one sculpture at a time, rather than an entire edition, as they find buyers, but a growing number of artists are looking to other materials, such as Aqua-Resin, concrete, Fiberglas, gypsum- and polyurethane-based resins, plaster and terra cotta, which are less expensive and can be produced right in the studio, without the high labor costs of a foundry. Artists also are buying metal and mica powders that are poured into molds or applied as a patina to give a “faux finish” that resembles bronze or other metals. In fact, resin sculptures are often labeled as “cold cast bronze” or “bonded bronze,” which may lead some buyers to believe that a traditional bronze is what they are purchasing, whereas the actual sculpture is made from a polymer in which some bronze powder was poured in.

Buyers are supposed to beware, but it is the seller’s job to instill confidence into those who would purchase an item that the object is worth the money and that they won’t feel duped. When artists add vague language to the discussion of their art, they make their prospective buyers less confident and more wary about the artwork and the person who made it. Just saying.

By Daniel Grant

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