Art and Words (Part 1)

Updated: Feb 26

Some artists love to talk, but others are uncomfortable speaking about their art, or about art in general. This may be because they are artists and not writers, and they choose to play to their strengths; or it may be because they are trying to cultivate a sense of mystique; or it may be because the only way artists are supposed to talk about art is in 'International Art English,' i.e. pretentious nonsense. All of this is fair enough. Alternatively, however, it may be because they believe—rightly, in all probability—that no words are capable of doing justice to the full significance of their work. But that is not a good reason to remain completely silent.

Whole books about art have been written by people who apparently deny the usefulness of such writing. An example I recently encountered is Christopher Neve's Unquiet Landscapes, which states that "the critic is a vandal" and is full of qualifications and apologies for its own existence. I don't think this is disingenuous; it's cognitive dissonance. Writers like Neve don't seem to realise—not consistently, at least—that there is a difference between writing about a painting and attempting to reduce it utterly to words.

This is an example of a widespread but paradoxical tendency to give words both too much and too little credit. Too much—as if it were possible to somehow talk away the magic of a painting or a piece of music, or sully its purity; too little—as if words had nothing valuable to contribute to the creation, appreciation and comprehension of works of art.

No amount of talking will undermine the significance of a good piece of art, unless we allow it to overpower the impression of the art itself. This is admittedly a real danger, but it is the fault of the viewer, not the artist or the critic, if words get in the way of art; it shows we are too accustomed to thinking of language as the highest, perhaps even the only, instrument of understanding and communication. By choosing not to privilege language in this way, we actually grant it a much broader scope as a partner of the other artistic mediums.

We should think of all forms of art as being equal to plain language in their capacity to express meaning, but also recognize that different forms of art and language have different strengths and weaknesses in this capacity. Many things can only be conveyed in plain language, but there are other thoughts and feelings that are far more efficiently conveyed by poetic language, paintings, music and other forms of art. An appropriate combination of arts and words can multiply the strengths and minimize the weaknesses. (Of course, they must be combined appropriately; a fragile veneer of meaningfulness may do as well as the real thing for some nefarious purposes, like advertising or entertainment, but goes no way towards the understanding and communication of really important feelings and ideas.)

One of the most powerful artistic uses of words is also the most common. Most artworks are open to multiple 'interpretations,' and this is especially true of abstract arts. What this means is: the effect on the audience is unpredictable. Some regard this as a great virtue, but, except insofar as artists exploit it deliberately to convey ambiguity or indeterminacy, it is clearly a barrier to the communicative function of art. Where the artist has a specific communicative intent, therefore, a few words—perhaps only an evocative title—are often the most effective way of orienting the viewer, reader or listener towards the intended meaning.

For example, as the composer Alkan wrote of his Grande Sonate, in which he included explicit verbal references to different stages of life as well as the literary-mythological characters Faust and Prometheus: "Each of the four movements [of the sonata] corresponds in my mind with a given moment of existence, to a particular mode of thought or imagination. Why not make this clear? The musical content remains unaffected while the performer, without forfeiting his own individuality, is stimulated by the same ideas as the composer; a fact which must surely deepen his understanding of the work."*

Had he omitted these references, Alkan's sonata might have been just as pleasant or unpleasant to listen to, but it would not have been able to fulfil his communicative intention—which was to say something meaningful about the course of life. Had he, conversely, omitted the music and only presented the public with his words, he would also have failed to communicate, because his words were only ever signposts directing his performers and listeners towards the desired interpretation of his music.

By attaching verbal descriptions to his composition, in sum, Alkan was able to convey what he wanted to convey far more effectively than he would have with music or words alone. Unless we wrongly allow the words to draw our attention away from the music itself, the composition loses none of its intrinsic aesthetic appeal"the musical content remains unaffected"—but the communicative potential of the artwork is greatly enhanced.

The same role can be played by titles, descriptions or explanations appended to paintings. Should we regard this as an imposition of language onto the artistic domain of the painting? Not at all; we would do better to regard it as an expansion of this domain beyond the confines of the canvas. Considered as a unit of communication, an expression of thoughts and feelings, the artwork is now a combination of paint and words, and is all the more effective for it. And for anyone who, perversely enough, is not interested in the communicative function of art, the canvas contents remain unaffected.

*Quoted in Jonathan Kregor, Program Music, page 193.