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Art and Text: A Cursory Overview

In contrast to the Enlightenment, during which ideas were coalescing and crystallizing into relative clarity fuelled in part by humanist self-belief and confidence in natural science, the relationship between text and image today is far from final. The two are dissected, differentiated, wrenched apart and yet continue to cling inseparably to each other. It is established that humans created images before the written word, which only followed organized civilization and numerical counting as necessitated by business. Some of the earliest scripts including cuneiform, hieroglyphs and Chinese letters evolved from pictograms and ideograms with varying degrees of abstraction, thus deriving meaning from previously held visual associations.
Thus, humankind transcribed the world and expressed itself using visual perceptual data as a primary reference. One wonders then, if appearances preempt thought, whether the very nature of thought is visual or textual. Acknowledging that such a clean dichotomist divide is tricky, we can generalize the question by asking instead if we think in terms of reality or in terms of signs that denote reality. Does language contain not only the limit of expression but also of experience? And what happens when this language manifests itself in visual and material forms: while reading do we pay heed to the script, the running form of text, or do we sit in oblivion of its physical appearance and let it conjure phantasmal images from imagination, memory and conjecture? Writers are often burdened with describing “scenes” vividly and while readers claim that mental images accompany words, these pictures are perhaps never fully furnished. Even when particularly attached to a fictional character or setting, it is impossible to picture them in totality. Moreover, apart from the meaning of the words, the form of the text itself contributes to meaning. Typographic and formatting choices construct the conception of the literature in subtle but impactful ways. Thus graphic images, whether material or mental, are often co-dependent on verbal and textual articulation, and the physical form of this articulation, essentially amounting to an additional visual again, in turn influences the construction of meaning.
Perhaps it would be more specific to think of thought as meaning-making. A cursory foray into semiotics familiarizes us with the nature of language as a complex networks of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure, a 20th century linguist, proposes a two-part mechanism of a sign, composed of:
a signifier, that is the form of the sign;
and, a signified, that is the idea that the sign refers to.
Although Saussure maintained the signifier was the psychological sound-pattern of a word, later trajectories contend with equating it to the written word whereas the conception of an object/abstraction that the particular formation of letters refers to is the signified. Thus the arrangement “bag” would be the signifier, whereas the notion of the carrier would be the signified.
Almost around the same time, the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce proposed a three-part system of signage, composed of:
a representamen, that is the form which the sign takes;
an interpretant, that is the sense made of the sign;
and an object which the sign encodes.
The first two components of Peirce’s theory are similar to Saussure’s, aligning with “signifier” and “signified” respectively. Additionally, the “interpretant” itself is a sign in the mind of an interpreter, which stems from the “representamen” and then leads to an “object”. Thus according to Pierce, a “Push” label on a door may be divided into the form of the displayed text (representamen), the idea in the mind of the public that the door will open with sufficient applied force (interpretant), and the fact that someone will push the door (object).
According to such theories, text and image seem interlocked in a system of relay. Although there remains the possibility of dangling signifiers and isolated representamen that do not amount to consensual meanings but can mould into whatever the interpreter intends, the prospect of meaninglessness at the moment remains suspended if such individual enterprise is sanctioned. Text and image thus continue to be present in cultural fabrics, engaged in varying degrees of a dialectic struggle. Each tries to claim for itself, a territory to which it has “natural” access. The stakes in this struggle are as high as “truth”, “reality”, “nature” and “perception”. Despite such claims, borders of both remain porous, allowing migration of one over to the other. In fact, linguistic and visual art theory since the rise of empiricism and disciplinary divisions is immensely concerned about the subversion of their protagonists: it is possible that in the depth of each, the other quietly resides. Jaques Derrida’s famous proclamation that there is “nothing outside of text” proposes that everything is open to interpretation, including interpretation itself: a visual cannot prop itself without an accompaniment of “text” at the heart of it. On the other hand, much to the ire of behaviourist psychologists, Freud was very influential in propagating the idea that the subconscious is laden with images, not textual ideas. His method of psychoanalysis scrutinized these images but his interpretation generated more images from images.
It is important to also consider the implications of the polemics between word and text. Why do they seem not different but contrasting creatures? Does one serve to foil the other, or can they collide in non-fatal, even complimentary ways? The imagined difference between the two perhaps boils down to that of nature and nurture. An image is a “natural” reflection of the word, a sign that pretends to not be a sign whereas text introduces man-made ideas of time and self-reflection. While this differentiation may be the basis of the struggle, it fails on many occasions when translated into practice. Humans are creatures who create images as well as text. A picture might “resemble” a sight perceived by the eye but another might shed this burden altogether, thus necessitating a textual idea, even if this idea is affective such as the case with expressionist works. Similarly, the etymology of a particular word may reveal it to be derived from a natural linkage to its meaning, thus equating it with an image of the idea. Or, a word may simply be an arbitrary signifier. The physical form, or the script of a word may be based on pictorial likenesses to its meaning, or again, it may have developed through unrelated chance occurrences.
Artistic traditions are awash with explorations of this gap and overlap between text and image. The lack of fixed coordinates makes the subject rife ground for the multivalence of art. Most obviously, calligraphic practices, although varied around the globe, are embedded with the acknowledgement of this tension. Calligraphy in the Islamic world is closely associated with the text of the Quran although it is not limited to religious inscriptions. The enterprise may have started as an attempt to record and transmit the verses but it later evolved into elaborate aesthetic codes that attempt to communicate meaning through a visual format. Notably, the tradition may have been established as a result of borrowed iconoclasm, which limited (and yet in one way, expanded) the scope of the visual. Spiritual significance and talismanic powers are associated with the form of the text and it often escapes the bounds of a two-dimensional surface to envelop objects and even architecture thus transforming into an experiential rather than cerebral process. While Islamic traditions of calligraphy focus on the form of the script as already laden with divine force, Chinese calligraphy on the other hand, not being based on any alphabetical or phonetic system, devises characters that are visually but abstractly representative of an idea or object. This expressionistic quality is closely linked to the brush as an instrument and the status of a calligrapher as an elevated artist.
Modern citing of text within the boundaries of visual arts can be traced to surrealist attempts at effacing the appearances of images to reveal subliminal and sometimes contradictory associations. While many painters such as Joan Miro were automating their gesture, attempting to tease the mind into toppling textual thought in favour of the visual subconscious, some others such as Rene Magritte were dissecting this textual thought itself in a way that posits a challenge to the “waking” reality of objects, words and images.
The post-war rise of consumerism and the availability of mass-produced graphic text used on packaging and advertisement enabled pop artists to critique this culture by using its very tools. Text was not just a docile found material but it made room for the subtle wit or declarative spirit of artists as diverse as Robert Rauschenberg and Barbara Kruger. Later with the rise of conceptual art in 1960s and a disillusionment with modernism’s emphasis on the art object, artists began to engage with ideas directly without the intercession of conventional art material. The notion that the mind is a better eye than the eye, previously proposed by Duchamp, now took a firm foothold in light of the fact that even the sacrosanct photograph, previously an objective representation of the world now began to be exposed as just as dependent on text, interpretation or ideology as any other pictorial image. As the nature of art itself came under scrutiny, text as idea as well as a field of inquiry itself, was manifested in works by artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari and others.
An important aspect of the use of text in visual art is the recognition of its complicity with power and ideology. At a time when loyalty to state and normalizing social behaviour polices the way an artist is supposed to think and work, text opens the way by introducing irony. By playing mysteriously between connotation and denotation and the difference between what is said and what is meant, artists in multiple periods across history are able to turn the language of the masters upon them. It is not surprising that innovations in the use of text were led by homosexual artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who sought to question the idea of objective universals. Johns often used numbers, flags and other emblems, all of which are conventionally understood to be impersonal symbols in a mock animated, gestural way that critiqued both the notions masculinity entrenched in abstract expressionism and the blanket claim made by such text to singular meaning. This strategy shifted the responsibility of interpretation to a “readerly” rather than a “writerly” agency, thus absolving artists of its consequences. Subsequently, feminist thought sought to upturn the need to camouflage a subversive opinion by investing it with double meaning. Due to concurrent social and political changes, feminist struggle was making itself heard through direct unabashed addressing of its contentions. Guerilla Girls, a group formed in 1985, brought sexism within art institutions to light with posters that made use of direct text and visual, using advertisement vocabulary.
In the Pakistani context, the appearance of text in visual art is not contained within a chronological or genre-specific category. By mid-twentieth century, art emerging from this region often had close ties with literature and illustration. Artists such as Sadequain attempted to imagine word and visual as simultaneous and equal acts on the same surfaces, with varying degrees of success. Subsequently, dominant Western art history trends, due to their accessibility and ideological propagation have been a natural though often re-examined influence. Access to university education also encouraged engagement with linguistic philosophy, semiotics and the nature of image, giving rise a few conceptual works that focused on immateriality, temporality, dis-ownership and precarious notions of reality. Text thus appears in service of these ideas as visual, metaphor, irony and other in the works of Quddus Mirza, Rashid Rana and Ayaz Jokhio. On the other hand, Mohammad Ali Talpur attempts to “make art without content” using minimalist vocabulary constructed with truncated and manipulated calligraphy. Some artists such as Fazal Rizvi and Rabbya Naseer favor the meaning of the text for which the format of the presentation is not exclusively important. This approach takes a holistic view of perception that is simultaneously visual and literary.
In present times, text features in visual art in a myriad of ways, both in physical form, meaning and significance. Moreover, technological advancements enable its proliferation, easy dissemination across time and space, and appearance on a variety of visual interfaces that may be as intangible as instantaneous social media. The word “text” despite carrying weighty theoretical connotations, is most often used to mean a mobile phone message, which in itself is hardly textual when punctured so creatively with visual emoticons. However, when problems of art become those of ideas, linguistics and philosophy, it necessary that the debate develops nuances that continues to excite mystery by furthering ontological demarcations. As it is, the use of text in art as challenge to the discipline runs the risk of repeating the same question till it is internalized and assimilated by the same organism it threatens.
Madyha Leghari is a visual artist, writer and a graduate in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts. She lives in Lahore.

One Response to Art and Text: A Cursory Overview

  1. I want to to thank you for this good read!! I absolutely loved every
    bit of it. I’ve got you saved as a favorite to look at new stuff you post…

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