ConTEXT // Buzz Spector

01 Oct 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

There’s a popular misconception about the relationship of artworks and texts. Every so often I am engaged in conversation with someone holding the view that language and its components, paragraphs, sentences, words, and letters, are entirely separate entities from pictures or sculptures. The argument runs something like this: “When I look at a picture I recognize its subjects (or elements, or spaces behind, in front, and between things), but in the real world I never see words as things.” The variation of this line of thought, accommodating sculpture, would offer me: “Sculptures resemble things in the world, but sculptures of words only add a third dimension to something I prefer to read (on the apparently two-dimensional plane of a page, say).” In each of these cases the premise is that what we do when we look at artworks in two-, three-, or four-dimensions is scan them for things we recognize, as if naming those things was the purpose for our looking in the first place.

It’s worth reminding everyone that the history of art includes a long tradition of artworks incorporating language, including Pharaonic hieroglyphs, painted initials of illuminated manuscripts, sacred lettering in altarpieces, or inscriptions carved in stone. In Modern art history we encounter the scraps of newspaper in the earliest Cubist collages, the exploding letterforms in Futurist paintings, and the bits of signage in Pop. Of course, since the rise of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, we’re invited to view artworks whose medium is language itself.

The notion that artworks operate without language is itself a conceit of a modernist art theory that proposes the responsibility of all the arts is to aspire toward their essential and unique characteristics. Such proscriptions endorse a kind of categorizing as itself a condition for artistic quality, as if any art is in the world in order merely to clarify its difference from the cluttered overlapping experiences of daily life.

Think about two kinds of looking that we reserve for esthetic experience: scanning and reading. The look we bestow on surfaces is a scanning gaze; the rest of what we do is reading, which surrounds us as page, screen, signage, and inscription. The experience of reading text on an art work requires only a momentary shift of consciousness from our scanning of its other affects. We can be equally absorbed in a visually compelling artwork or a really good book, but the duration of this interest is apt to be strikingly different, since the absorption of reading arises within the duration of pages, whose successive turnings are slices of time through text.

Other sites of language, such as signage, invite varying degrees of consideration of the materiality within which we read a given sign’s necessary words. I say “necessary” here because signs are also warnings or alerts capable of effecting the direction of our movement through the day. “Coffee” in neon makes a statement about flavor; “RR XING” on painted metal calls attention to our general welfare. Still other artworks offer us words in books or booklike objects, adding the segmentation of pages to such work’s other material properties. The page is the basic module of reading, but it only rarely holds the entirety of a text. One page starts a narrative, another concludes it. In between, so many parcels of language, each interrupted by the bottom of the page.

What every book as art, whether as object or as pages, has as common property is the attachment of both scanning and reading to memory. Our memory of reading is invoked by the presence of language, just as our recognition of forms is an operation of memory. What can be profound here is how the situation of the book, its interplay of forms and materials, can momentarily interrupt both our habits of recognition and of reading. The strangeness of something not already known is, in this context, opportunity to experience an essence that is within all the arts; of another’s mind at work, another’s passions made sharable.


  • 23 Feb 2017 6:31 AM | Anya Sheldon
    As an art-lover who, until recently, had never considered the artistry of text, I am endlessly fascinated by the points you discuss here. The tendency to detach words from one's concept of art does indeed strike me as widespread--understandably, too, as the strong linkage between word and image in one particular vessel, the picture book, fades from the subconscious mind once so many people move on to often more daunting picture-less novels. Of course, the art is still evident in the multi-level sensory richness of engaging with these books as well as their related ability to "share another's passions" as you say, however I think a maturing person's desire to embrace the seriousness and efficiency they see in the adult world may all too much close their mind off from the beauty that still laces the pages of books. Perhaps this loss could be circumvented if this important transition in a young person's life was guided by the appreciation of books not only as vessels of information but also by their validity as works of art in so many ways.
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    • 19 Apr 2017 9:32 AM | Susan Viguers
      I am not the writer of the post, but I procured it from Buzz Spector upon reading his curatorial introduction to an exhibition at the Foundry Art Centre (MO). I am intrigued by your thoughts relating to picture books. Perhaps one problem is that children spend a huge amount of time reading the visual in a picture book, but they are also very much involved in the text (usually read to them). My sense (or bias) is that adults tend to focus on the visual (e.g., coffee table books, many artist books) OR the verbal. Something different happens with graphic novels; the verbal and the visual are read together. I’d be hugely interested in an analysis of how or why that occurs.
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