The language of art

Abstract art by Ivor Tymchak

After completing a painting, the excited artist had someone come view it. The viewer admired it for a few moments then asked the artist what it meant. The bemused artist replied that if she could verbalise what she was trying to express, she would have written a book instead.

Recently, I was visiting a large municipal art gallery and I entered an exhibition room. At least I think it was an exhibition, as it had a bored attendant guarding the room. Apart from myself, he was the only person in the room. The room itself was filled with flat pack furniture that had carelessly been half assembled by ten year old children with attention deficit syndrome. At least that is what it looked like. My first thought was, ‘what does this mean?’ My next reaction was to look for a sign that explained it all for me.

So, was I being stupid or had the artist failed to communicate? I think the answer is more like this.

Art is a language like any other. To communicate, everyone has to understand the language and so basic words, concepts, structures et-cetera are agreed to mean something. And so it is with art, with representational art being the basic language. As people become specialised in certain fields however, they begin to develop a more advance language with new words, subtle nuances, specific ideas, acronyms et-cetera. People outside of this sphere will find any conversation difficult to follow because they are not familiar with the extended language.

Eventually you can get a field of study that is so specialised and insular, that only those working within the field can understand what is going on at all. The extreme result of this process is where only the author of a particular text or speech can understand what is being said (and so, by definition, there is now no communication).

This is what happened in the exhibition room. I had no doubt that the artist had a train of thought which eventually led him to the pieces he had produced, but I couldn’t understand the language because it was too far removed from my familiar territory. Maybe some art critics could understand the language, otherwise, why would they have given him some space in the gallery?

The great trick, of course, is to make any art work on many levels. As in literature, you can tell a simple story which everyone can understand at one basic level, but the more perceptive practitioners of the language may see allegory and symbolism in the text or images. For them it works on several levels and thus becomes a profound story.

A piece of art either takes you to another place metaphysically, or it doesn’t, in which case it is then just a pile of material. An explanation may help but it would be analogous to having to explain a joke to someone. Ultimately, the piece has to stand alone.

This is why I advocate that all labels are removed from works of art in galleries and only numbers are assigned. The labels are a distraction from the true visceral moment of reflection when considering the artwork. If someone really wants to find out more about a work then they have to make a note of the number and consult a book at the exit of the gallery. That way, it becomes an intellectual exercise after the event.

2 Responses to “The language of art”

  1. Stockton says:

    How several societal websites do we genuinely require? You can find like 10k interpersonal websites lol

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