The art history and art theory of the 20th century was dominated by a methodology that equates the pictorial with the linguistic. In the most extreme manifestations, the idea of the world-as-text was unproblematically applied to reading all art works as bearers of meaning in the same way as a printed text, i.e., written language, is read.
Simplistically, pictures can therefore be read as statements or propositions, carrying sense within them, analyzable into constituent parts and signifying meaning. Some people today would argue the opposite of course: that pictures — and this means, in the most general sense (although as we shall see, this general sense no longer holds) — are not bearers of meaning in any way; that art is simply a pre-linguistic or extra-linguistic experience. We can call this kind of experience by a variety of traditional names such as embodied meaning or phenomenological experience. But positions that locate the relevance or function of art entirely outside the realm of language miss the point: the linguistic model is ultimately allegorical or speculative, and merely attempts to apply the insights of the great discoveries of 19th century linguistics to the fields of art, psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology and literature in a way that preserves the mystery of art while offering a glimpse into their particular structures, ambitions and aporias.
Not all language, after all, is as transparent as that in a pamphlet or an advertisement. We have only to look at literary language, a concrete poem or the work of a modernist writer like James Joyce to admit the point that a model of language that allows us to interpret both Ulysses and (rather more tentatively) the structure of the unconscious (in the case of Lacan) is hardly reductionist — whatever else its shortcomings.
Today we are hardly surprised to see in a gallery or museum entire bodies of work based on text, produced or reproduced by the artist. As a ‘technique,’ if one may be permitted to use such an inadequate term for this phenomenon, we can associate the emergence of text-based art with the 1960s and 1970s, and particularly with the forms of Conceptual Art that moved towards invisibility and a dissolution of form in favour of content or meaning — what Lucy Lippard famously called the ‘dematerialization of the art object.’ Of course, the history of the relationship of text and image in painting is hardly limited to this period, and classical art is filled with innumerable portraits of important personages next to or holding significant texts, manuscripts or books. But these texts or mottoes are invariably in service of the real content of the painting, i.e., the naturalistically depicted human figure, and serve merely to add a ‘message’ or moral to the otherwise mimetic study of form, colour, and light that was the true task of the painter.
Even in 20th century modern art we see the recurrent image of text portrayed as an object, especially in the form of depictions of newspapers, a favourite theme of painters such as Picasso. Here language intrudes more roughly into the painted image than before, since modern painting, freed from the burden of naturalism, can start to voraciously incorporate the ‘real’ world, a tendency that is most evident in the magpie collections of objects or collages in which Picasso would include fragmented views of pages from journals of the time. Nevertheless, the text here remained a painted object and, through the magic of the painter’s brush, turned to allegory and came to stand.
It is in the paintings of Jasper Johns that we can see a clear break from the classical and modernist use of language as physical/external reality, and a turn towards an understanding of painting as a kind of language in itself. Even while Johns paints over newspapers and print as support for the image, or as in the case of sculpture such as the painted bronze cast of two beer cans (where he repeats the cubist technique of blurring print into painterly form) he plays against a more important sense in which his work represents nothing external to itself and only signifies. For example, the famous target or flag paintings are not paintings of targets or flags, but are in fact just painted targets and flags. This erasure of the gap between reality and representation is of course the dream or promise of language, and is at the heart of the modern Euro-American artistic project, as traditionally conceived. In these works Johns comes close to achieving the dream of great modern poets such as Paul Celan who aimed to create a literature that would be ‘pure’ language, relating to reality in the same way as a gesture in space or a succession of musical notes. In the words of the poet Archibald MacLeish, “A poem should not mean / But be.”
However, as I have said above, it was really the conceptual artists that ruthlessly moved towards the removal of ‘support’ for the artwork, and this notion of support meant not just the canvas or paper or material of the work, but ideally all materiality, in favour of a liberated imagination, untethered to the instance or presence of an object. The particularity of material stands in the way of the universality of thought as best expressed in language. There was more than a measure of anti-capitalist resistance to commodification in this approach (no aim to sell), exemplified by works such as Fluxus’ instructions for actions — a concept that Yoko Ono continues to deploy to this day through newer, even less tangible media such as Twitter.
But over and above this, radical conceptualism clung to a dream of language-as-art, to challenge the narrow cultural boundaries that are created by the conventional notion of art as a historically and geographically located ‘cultural practice,’ tied to the destiny of a Europeanism that in the time and the wake of the Cold War seemed hopelessly provincial and stuck in nationalisms that had more to do with the 19th century world around Hegel and Schelling than with the fragile globalities of what we are coming to recognize in some complicated sense as ‘contemporary’ time. In this scheme, language infiltrates or takes over art to offer a new kind of universalism; no longer is it important to understand or acquire ‘taste’ that complicated instrument of refinement, by which we distinguish the connoisseur from the philistine and the educated from the illiterate. The conceptual or language-based work transcends taste and training and speaks straight to a (presumed or projected) universal human imagination. The ideal work of art then can be perfectly translated into any language and still retain its value even if it loses its author-ity, its originality.
The problems with this ambition, identified as distinct to a time or movement — even if the above characterization of an entire era is broad enough to verge on caricature — are easily visible with the sharpness of hindsight. The purging of pictorial representation in favour of objects themselves and text itself, speaks less of a subtle understanding of the language of representation than of a brash impatience with the institutionalization of art and its associated disciplines through a musty apparatus that included the academy, the gallery and the museum. The idea that purification or simplification in any direction represents progress also speaks of an anxiety that lies at the core of a brand of teleological modernity: history careering at breakneck speed towards an inevitable destiny. As Paul Virilio argues, the break from representation towards a distilled (propositional or linguistic) essence of art, the universally transmittable ‘meaning’ of art, can be seen as a mistaken perception of art history following the trajectory of technological development and scientific progress. As science tends towards simplification in an understanding of the universe – theoretical physics and the aim of finding a unified theory of everything – artists might perceive their role as erasing the particularities and obscurities that make art culturally or regionally specific, i.e., eliminating actual language, dialect, accent and inflection in favour of the universally understood, and so create a future-proof product of a global imagination.
There is no compelling reason to think that such a narrative exists for art – or rather that such a narrative must exist for an entity such as art to exist in the world – is more self-evident than a point for debate. One can argue the need for a historical direction or narrative, as one might argue the need for a religious story of creation, but in both cases the argument is emotive rather than philosophical: arguing from a desire to see things a certain way. In this situation, Virilio argues, one can reverse or swing away from the bankrupt manoeuvres of globalized art (the post-conceptual legacy), the crisis he locates around the time cinema adopted sound (language), and in doing so abandoned the realm of what was proper to art. Paradoxically, non-representative art has become burdened by meaning, and has ceased to ‘be’ in the vital sense urged by the modernist poets.
It strikes me that there is no easy way to argue against an anti-teleological argument, but neither am I convinced that a ‘return to representation’ or just reimmersion in concerns with colour, pictorial space, etc presents the most interesting alternative to the preponderance of glib biennial art that seeks to convey meaning in the form of punch lines or easily digestible ‘concepts.’ In any case, it seems to me that the ideal of universalism and anti-historicism that is embodied in a certain radical conceptual art of language is worth examining in detail, if only because it is attractive, and perhaps worth reviving as an act of resistance to the dumb and ultimately anti-intellectual tendencies of neo-conceptualism since roughly the end of the 20th century (often typified by the YBAs and their immediate legacy).
For if art tends towards the meaningful, the language derived, and plays in the realm of signifiers and signified – that is, the realm of thought, imagination and philosophy – then the least we can ask of it is that it is good philosophy. This failure or circumscribing of intellectual ambition to a passing comment was initially typical of some contemporary miniature practices in Pakistan, which orchestrate their effect through the manipulation of signs and symbols in a cheeky pastiche, which in turn limits the function of the art work to conveying a previously conceived commentary or observation, thereby immediately bridging the gap between the newspaper cartoon and the artwork in all matters except value and perhaps labour. But recent digital and new media practices on the other end of the labour-value spectrum can suffer from the same profound dullness that accompanies the desire to say something meaningful through art, rather than doing something meaningful with art.
Nevertheless, there is possibly still much to be discovered and experimented with in the revisiting of relationships to language, writing and narration in artistic modernities that developed outside the conventional Euro-centric narrative I have just described (a story that we have now been grafted on to, everywhere). In particular, the standard distinction between image (profane) and text (sacred) in Islamic societies, needs to be understood more subtly than it has been thus far; what is the place of the ‘thought-image’ (a term used by Walter Benjamin, the scholar whose reflections on the Judaic proscription on image making might be the most relevant to our own cultural history)or the picture as it existed before the Renaissance obsession with pictorial space, in the confluence of readability and representation that is peculiar to a culture’s deeper art history? What kinds of image making might represent resistance to or allegiance with one philosophy or another, rather than baldly stating a political intention? These questions remain to be researched or confronted, both in Pakistani art practice and in the archives.
Adnan Madani is a visual artist and writer from Pakistan. He is currently doing a PhD in Visual Cultures at Goldsmith, University of London. His research interests include contemporary art systems, museum studies, theories of globalisation (especially in relation to the Islamic world and South Asia) and universalism. He has contributed to various publications and participated in several exhibitions both in Pakistan and abroad.