4.1 The use of language in works of art
Let us now look at some of the key ways in which language can be used in works of art.
Have a look at the following three works and consider the different ways in which language is being used in them. What functions does it have in these pictures, and how does the relationship between text and visual image differ between the three of them?
Figure 2 is an image of an engraving of the men responsible for the Gunpowder Plot – the failed attempt by a group of English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. It was made by the Dutch artist Crispijn van de Passe the Elder soon after the actual event, and is the only known contemporary representation of the conspirators. Guy Fawkes (the most famous member of the group) can be seen third from the right and next to him the group’s leader Robert Catesby. We know this because each member is identified by name. Text in this picture, then, is being used to enhance the visual image – it adds a further layer of meaning which the visual mode itself could not adequately provide.
Figure 3 is quite different. Here text acts as the main element of the composition. The work is by the Californian artist John Baldessari, who has been one of the leading figures in the development of conceptual art since the mid 1960s. The painting consists entirely of the one sentence, ‘I will not make any more boring art’, written out in cursive handwriting, down the length of a piece of paper. The design clearly mimics a school punishment – the repetitive writing out of a commitment not to engage in a particular act of bad behaviour in the future – and in his notes about the origin of the work, Baldessari explicitly refers to it as a ‘punishment piece’ (Curator Chrissie Iles on John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 2010). The genre of the written text is thus very familiar. However, the fact that it is on display in a gallery, plus the way the content of the statement references the act of creating works of art (rather than, for example, failing to hand one’s homework in on time), combine to produce its creative effect. Here, then, in terms of both the content of what is written and, crucially, the form in which it is written (the cursive handwriting, the repetition, etc.), text is being used as the primary resource for the work of art.
As a side note, the appropriation and recontextualisation (the uprooting of a sign or text from its original context and placing it in a new context) of a familiar genre of text, such as school lines, is an oft-used technique in art. Figure 4, for example, shows a work by the street artist Banksy which uses a similar conceit. Here, again, it is the juxtaposition of form, content and context that creates the effect. This work alludes to the opening sequence of the US animated series The Simpsons, in which the character Bart is found copying out a different sentence at the beginning of each episode. Banksy, here, uses the same composition and colour scheme as The Simpsons, simply replacing the cartoon-like image of Bart with a slightly more realistic representation of a child; and, just as Baldessari’s work acts as a commentary on the nature of contemporary art (especially within the context of the emergence of conceptual art in the 1960s), so Banksy’s piece is an ironic commentary on the influence of pop culture on street art, as well as the way in which ‘copying’ can itself be a creative act. In passing we might note that the contextual lens is of foremost value here in our interpretation of the effects of these works.
Figure 5 is different again in terms of the way in which language is used. Language is a feature of this painting in two specific ways. On the one hand, the picture includes a limited amount of text on the scroll draped over the woman’s arm. On the other hand, though, language – or at least a particular element of language – is also the subject of the painting, as the scene it depicts is an allegorical representation of the personification of grammar.
Along with logic and rhetoric, grammar was one of the three subjects that formed the basis of a medieval university education; their centrality for teaching and learning led to a tradition of allegorical representations of them. The three subjects were often depicted as women, in keeping with the feminine gender of the Latin nouns dialectica, rhetorica and grammatica. In this picture, painted around 1650 by the French artist Laurent de La Hyre, grammar is portrayed as a young woman tending a garden and cultivating the young blooms in her care. The idea here is of grammar as nurturer; an alternative tradition that was also popular had grammar as disciplinarian, wielding a rod or switch to help regulate her charges.
As noted, as well as an aspect of language comprising the subject of the painting, there is also a small use of text within the composition itself. Draped over the arm of the woman is a scroll which reads ‘Vox litterata et articulata debito modo pronunciata’ (‘A literate and articulate voice, pronounced in a correct manner’). This acts as a motto for the allegorical figure, defining the meaning of grammar as it is understood in this tradition. In other words, the text supplies additional meaning to the painting, though in a slightly different way from the names in Figure 2.
Adam Jaworski (2014), drawing on the work of Roland Barthes (1977), identifies two particular ways in which written text is often used in works of art. These are the concepts of ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’, and they correspond well to the contrasting use of text in the two pictures in question. Anchorage is a process by which the meaning of the visual image is pinned down by the text: ‘the written text [is] used to “fix” the relatively indeterminate and polysemous meaning of the visual image’ (Jaworksi, 2014, p. 136). In Figure 2, the different members of the group are named and, as a result, each figure’s identity is tied down by the verbal caption. Relay, on the other hand, involves the text extending or elaborating on the meaning of the image. Thus, the scroll in The Allegorical Figure of Grammar offers a further gloss on the role that the figure plays – complementing, and also extending, the meaning depicted in the scene itself.
The three works of art you have looked at come from different eras and traditions, and in each of them language and text are used in slightly different ways. However, in all of these examples text is included within the frame of the composition itself. The art historian John Dixon Hunt categorises works of this sort as using language explicitly – that is, they are instances of pictures where ‘words, decipherable and meaningful by their own account outside the graphic medium, are included in or on the visual artwork’ (Hunt, 2010, p. 17).