Words, Language and Culture

We have already learned an incredible amount during the pilot phase of the Culture Kent Project purely from our early discussion about what we were hoping to achieve. One thing we have discovered is that before we even start finding out answers to some of the key questions, we need to be clear about what the questions are and, as importantly, how we ask them.

Before we even start thinking about data structure and information flow we have realised that we have to understand what “culture” means and how different people talk about it, or if they even do.

Early on in the process, the relatively straightforward task of thinking about what categories to use on the pilot website led to a quick review of how different websites and newspapers categorise their “culture” sections. What do they include, how do they describe it and what words do different people respond to: is it books or literature? Theatre or performing arts? Heritage or Museums? Both? Neither? Maybe it depends on which side of the gallery reception desk you are sitting?

There is an interesting article in the Guardian about “International Arts English”, based on a paper by Alex Rule and David Levine in the American art journal Triple Canopy looking at the language of gallery handouts, exhibition announcements and flyers describing artists and their work.

The article makes some interesting points about “Art English” – an often opaque language of insiders, ridiculed by the general public and sometimes a source of “feelings of bafflement, exhaustion or irritation” on the part of occasional gallery-goers and a potential source of power, status and one-upmanship for those “in the know.”

A very clear challenge that emerged from our discussion of language and categories was finding ways to describe culture that appeal to venues, practitioners, audiences, cutting edge contemporary artists, people who have arrived by accident and everyone else. The way people find cultural information, whether it is a website, app, smartphone enabled search engine or poster needs to appeal and at the very least not put people off, whatever their interest or background.

The first step is working out what’s already there, what already works and what doesn’t. That’s why we are taking time to explore the landscape. We’ll publish initial findings on this website soon and see what people think.

In the meantime: what is culture? What words do you use to describe it?

Tim le Lean, 29 January 2013

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