Friday, August 12, 2011

The British Word continued...

Though language in art is no longer monitored or dictated by an authority as in the past, it is nonetheless largely dominated by the museum and/or the critic. In his book Cultivating Picturacy, Heffernan, when referring to works that only deal with images, posits that images are not always “universally intelligible” and that they thus require the aid of words (16). This is partly why museums and art critics become “the verbal representative[s] of visual art,” for an “interpretive” language is used “[rhetorically]” to help tell viewers how and what to see (Heffernan, 44).

One observes – as in the work of David Hockney, Tracey Emin, R.B. Kitaj, Grayson Perry and Banksy– that British artists today have in part incorporated words into their artwork so that they can speak for themselves and can attempt to become “the verbal representative” of their own art. Whereas before artists rebelled against the language of the aristocracy, today artists battle with the language of the museum and the critic. Indeed, in discussing such language, Hockney describes it as largely estranging and inaccessible to the greater public, claiming that it likely sounds “a little like scholasticism…of no great relevance to [the public’s] own interest” (That’s the Way I See It, 150). Hockney withholds that in order to make art speak to the public (and not just a selective audience), one must at times reach out of the art world into a more plain language that describes art in a manner that “a person sees” (150).

Artists today, like Hogarth, frequently draw from popular culture and signage to both criticize it and to make their work relevant to the public. This is one of many instances where artists use plain, colloquial language in order to communicate more directly and honestly with their viewers – a trend traced back to artists and writers in the late eighteenth century.

Today, however, unlike in the past, the viewer, more often than not, has to struggle before making out the messages in the artworks. This is largely due to a trend to inscribe letters in a sketchy manner or in a style that suggests instantaneity. This way, the viewer has the impression that the words were not overwrought, that they flowed right off the artist’s hand in an honest, blunt and intimate manner. Alternatively, the words are deliberately constructed in a way that makes it difficult to read – the viewer understands it as a conscious effort, a deliberate obscuration. Or, as with Banksy, the words are sneakily blended into the environment. Thus, in all these cases, there is an initial moment of doubt; the viewer is not warned of the disturbing content that the words may withhold. Rather, the viewer must first pause and break through the works’ layers, a quality that again testifies to the semiotic nature of these artists’ work.

British art history reveals a common belief that the word helps bring accuracy and immediacy to narrative and self-expression. Whereas the word was first used in art as an authoritative tool, now it is used to speak against authority. Likewise, as the word became appropriated by the artist, it developed a satirical and increasingly accessible and personal character. Over time, the word has become more intertwined with the image so that the words themselves have become visual elements in the works; their aesthetics are just as powerful as their actual denotations. However, unlike in the past, the words today have a gutsy and informal visual quality, which in turn complements their content. The language of British art today, though in dialogue with the past, has taken on a distinctly more tortured and aggressive character.

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