British art underwent a change during the Victorian period by turning to moral narratives, realism and a fear of introspection. According to Graham-Dixon, “the rise to eminence of the art critic” coincides with a time when people wanted “to have [artworks’] narratives explicated and their moral meaning teased out” (Graham-Dixon, 166). Victorian art criticism likewise developed “the argument of ‘ut picture poesis,’” where the art critic approached a picture by translating it into prose (295, Hewison). The image in itself, without poetical explication, was considered less valuable. Furthermore, it was not the actual pictorial detailing or the technique that was explored; rather, several critics “[concentrated] upon an explanation of [the] subject” (Althoz). Thus the word was considered a higher art for its poetical ability and a more direct art in its efficacy in delivering a subject. Though images are no longer disregarded as such, we shall later see that the language in art criticism and in museums is still in large part considered to dictate artworks.
During the same period, there arose an interest in structuralist semiotics, which paid attention to the organization of words. Ferdinand de Saussure, the great figure of this semiotic line of thought, introduced the notion of the “signifier” (the word) and the “signified” (the concept). He claimed that a word could only gain its concept or meaning when related to its context or to the other words that it modifies. Saussure realized that words’ meanings are an automatic, instinctual process, which he justified with the claim that “each [linguistic sign] is recognized over and over again to be the ‘same’ sign because it has the same set of relations to other signs” (Bredin, 68). What Saussure, and other semioticians, aimed to do was to slow down our instincts by breaking down linguistic signs. Words became interpretative forms, and with this came a consciousness of the weaving of words and what they are made to do.
Moving into the twentieth century to this day, modern semiotics further elaborates on the role of the reader in its analyses. It asks why we make the immediate associations that we do with certain words. It tends to answer such questions around the belief that “signs are related to their signifieds by social conventions which we learn” (Chandler). In inspecting these social conventions, semioticians emphasize the fabricated nature of linguistic signs. Their goal is to often “denaturalize signs, texts and codes [to] demonstrate that ‘reality’ can be challenged” (Chandler). Thus modern semiotics interrogates the contexts out of which words’ concepts arise, as opposed to simply acknowledging them.
Several British artists today incorporate language in their work with the same consciousness of a semiotician. In the Victorian period, words were valued for their ability to explicate moral messages. Today, artists similarly take advantage of the word’s directness; however, they explore further by giving importance to the process of the reading of an artwork, of how the words are visually organized. Like a semiotician, artists today have developed a layered reading to their work.
This concern for close reading, however, can be traced back to the very work of Hogarth, where one must delve into the prints to find the copious messages and ironic pairings of images and words before fully comprehending the criticism. Like Hogarth, these artists make it so that their words interact with, and are not necessarily superior to, other visual elements within the overall oeuvre. The artists’ words, the “signifiers,” develop a richer meaning once related to their neighboring visual elements, or their context, the “signified.”
In the contemporary artwork that will be discussed, some artists place words within contexts where they would usually belong so as to enrich and facilitate the viewer’s understanding of the language. Other artists, though, may challenge the way in which we are accustomed to reading by placing words within new or unusual contexts. They explore the social constructs of what is considered ‘allowed’ language and ‘not allowed’ language. The reader is forced to rearrange his/her visual and verbal associations. Several artists, particularly Grayson Perry and Banksy, further respond to a notion implied in the study of semiotics: “If signs do not merely reflect reality but are involved in its construction then those who control the sign systems control the construction of reality” (Chandler). These artists attempt to debunk such associations, attacking those who construct reality, which include the tabloids, media, government and art establishments.
Thus, as in the past, contemporary artists still make social commentary, particularly in regard to authorities and social oppression. Importantly, most of the artists’ criticism, though serious, maintains the satirical and humorous undertones that have been the historical trademarks in British art.