Art as Language

August 12, 2003

Whatever else may be said about art, one assertion seems indisputable: a work of art means something. To somebody. Even if the only person to whom it means anything is the artist.

To "mean something" is to make sense, to fit into some kind of orderly way of seeing the world thereby making it more complete and easier to understand. The aesthetic pleasure we take in viewing art is rooted in recognition and appreciation of a new and surprising order (meaning) within an old familiar one or perhaps where we did not see any at all.

Meaning something to someone does not, by itself, qualify an image as art, just as a statement does not qualify as poetry just because it is meaningful. On the other hand, to qualify as art an image must be meaningful to someone . If no meaning or conscious intent or purpose or any comprehensible order whatever can be discerned in a given image, the logical conclusion would be that it is a product of a "perfectly" random process, a meaningless, chaotic mess. (Whether pure accidents and perfectly random processes are possible is another question which we won't go into here). Of course, one can always take such a "meaningless mess" and put it into some particular context that imparts a meaning to it. Sometimes all it takes is a frame (i.e. a consciously chosen point of view).

An image (and I use the word in the broadest sense possible) may have a meaning to someone even if it means nothing to the artist, like the rag used to wipe paint brushes which someone may consider to be an admirable piece of "accidental" art. Indeed, there need not be an artist involved at all, as in the case of images created by natural processes like weather, or rock and mineral formation, or evolution of plants and animals, and even by death and decay. People often find such "artless" images deeply meaningful and aesthetically satisfying (i.e. "beautiful").

As a carrier of meaning, art is, by definition, a language. However, it is not, as some starry eyed idealists would have it, a universal language. In so far as some symbols are widely understood (e.g. the "smiley face"), it is possible to concoct images with "universal" meanings (though only within a particular culture and at a particular time - times and meanings change). But for many artists the vocabulary of the generally understood symbols of their time is too limited. They need to convey meanings which are deeper, more complex and more specific than those that can be represented by conventional symbollism. Often they must resort to less well known or even rare and exotic symbols or invent entirely new ones.

The truly great artists find effective ways to tap into the human psyche so that their symbols, even when new and unfamiliar, tend to evoke similar kinds of memories, ideas or feelings in great many (though by no means all) viewers of different generations and backgrounds. Some mystery and ambiguity forever remains, leaving room for personal interpretation and wonder. This is as universal as art gets, 

The fact is that each artist works in his or her own language which may or may not be familiar to a particular viewer. Some artists are more "accessible" than others, their language being symbollically more conventional and/or more perceptively attuned to universal human sensibilities. Some use a language foreign to all but a few. For example, many "conceptual" artists use "art-historical" references familiar only to those specializing in art history and meaningless to an average citizen. And some artists are only talking to themselves, using a private language, leaving the rest of us guessing.

Whether it is worth the trouble to learn an artist's idiosyncratic language depends on how the difficulty of learning it compares with the value (to the viewer) of the revealed meanings of the artist's work. It would be nice if we could turn to the art critics for guidance. Unfortunately, few of them can express themselves meaningfully without resorting to a specialist's argot. In the end, to an unschooled viewer, far from being a universal language, art is a Tower of Babel. Still, the wealth of the world's art is such that anyone can find a bountiful supply of art that speaks his or her language. As for the rest, be assured: your failure to understand is not necessarily a reflection on your capacity to enjoy art. More likely, it is a reflection of the artist's inability to communicate with you.

Paul Wyszkowski