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Empowering Language

by Lindsey Anderson


Dialogue 6 took place yesterday and prompted discussion and reflection on “the canon of diversity,” as well as the ways that diversity manifests itself in other areas, like language. Lindsey Anderson, Associate Editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, considers ways in which language and grammar have expanded to become inclusive.

on pronouns

“Wolfie E. Rawk is a visual artist who has shown their work throughout the United States.”

Does the above sentence contain a typo?

Answer: Yes and no.

Most editors—myself included—love the certainty and structure of grammar. We nerd out about split infinitives and misplaced modifiers, and we have strong opinions about serial commas. We like to think that there's a perfect name for every object and a perfect way to describe every situation.

Most artists—on the other hand—are risk takers, rule breakers. They want to push boundaries and defy conventions, even the conventions of the English language.

Unsurprisingly, the MCA editorial team often struggles to use specific, rule-oriented language and grammar to describe many of the genre-defying, rule-breaking artists we work with. In April of 2014, for instance, the MCA invited Chicago-based artist Wolfie E. Rawk to speak at the museum. Rawk, whose work explores ideas of cuteness and monstrosity as they relate to transgender bodies and identities, has chosen to reject gendered pronouns. Instead, the artist prefers to be referred to as “they.”

This preference is certainly justified. It is also, however, tricky to effectively honor without confusing readers or upsetting grammarians. While attempting to describe Rawk’s body of work, we wondered whether we ought to explain why we were using the pronoun “they” to refer to a single artist, or whether we ought to assume that our readers would understand that Rawk preferred the pronoun “they” because it was not associated with a specific gender, or with the idea of gender at all.

We ran into another, similar issue while editing object labels for the David Bowie Is exhibition. David Bowie famously created personas that explored ideas of gender binary and androgyny through music and performance.

His Ziggy Stardust character, for example, seems to be an otherworldly being who is neither male nor female. And yet, each label that refers to Ziggy Stardust uses the pronoun “he.”

This seemingly minor pronoun problem raised a series of major questions. How can we clearly and concisely describe a work of art created to defy description? How can we help others understand an artist’s work when the artist does not want the work’s creative power to be diminished with labels or descriptors?

There are no easy answers for these questions. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe, as writers and editors, it is our duty to continuously look for new ways to explain the unexplainable, to describe what defies description, to seek—without every hoping to really find—a perfect name for each object and a perfect way to describe every situation.

In this sense, art and language are not so dissimilar. Both are creative processes, and both are in a constant state of evolution. Noam Chomsky, the acclaimed linguist, once wrote that “language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied.” The same is true of art.