The Trouble With Language in Art

IN the beginning the word was "Journal." It was Paris, 1912, and the Cubists were telling the world that the modern age would be a fractured time and space. What better metaphor to use in their art than the newspaper, a vehicle that brought the whole world crashing into the moment for anyone with two eyes and a coin in his pocket.

It was Pablo Picasso's hunger for life in art that led him to rip up and glue down anything he could. Collage became the perfect invention for Cubism, and torn-up newspapers meant words, and why not? With advertising, packaging, and the press, words were everywhere; they were part of what people saw.

But the incorporation of language into art represented a problem for artists and a bigger one for the public. There are as many reasons why as there are letters in the alphabet:

A. Art is a visual expression that allegedly conveys what words cannot.

B. Words are intellectual tools wielded by rational beings who supposedly use the wrong half of their brain to be visually creative.

C. People turn to art to experience a freedom of eye movement and emotional response unfettered by language or numbers.

D. Nobody likes being lectured to, or the threat of being lectured to, especially when they don't expect it.

As a result, the public has been naturally wary. Whoever said that the pen was mightier than the sword failed to go on and point out that this was true no matter whose hand the pen was in. It has the power to enlighten, persuade, manipulate, and control. It is there for revolutionary and oppressor alike. Today, despite what everyone says about television, the written word continues to make an indelible impression. Its power is still unmeasured.

Perhaps for some of these reasons Picasso abandoned words in his paintings following Cubism, after which few artists risked their reputations and careers to wrestle with such a controversial and powerful force. For the time being, the word was out.

Two notable exceptions were the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, and the American Modernist Stuart Davis. Schwitters believed that "everything an artist spit was art," so of course words were a part of that. He built collages and assemblages with anything he could find and pioneered "found" art.

Davis, on the other hand, was the only artist in the first half of the century who committed himself to the "painted word." He recognized the power of the word not only as sign, which was the way he used it in his paintings, but also as sound. In addition to its reference to popular culture, he took advantage of the way words evoke sounds from the viewer. He was highly influenced by jazz, and words were a perfect companion to color and shape to parallel the dynamics of the new music, jarring the viewer w ith the tension and cacophony of the 20th century.

Not until the 1950s and '60s did words find their way back into painting. American artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Robert Indiana, and Edward Ruscha found different ways not only to exploit their power to act as signs and symbols, but also to convey meaning and by association to locate places inside the viewer that only words and images could do together.

Humor became part of this. After all, cartoons like Krazy Kat, by George Herriman, had long since tapped into the unique and surreal power of this alliance to mirror another modernist theme, the absurd. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein took a double poke at popular culture by stealing his images directly from romance comics. Unfortunately, the public suspected more than ever that art was having fun at its expense.

In the 1970s, Conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner freed the word from image altogether. In the early 1980s, the Graffitists took the written word back to the level of sign. It was word as image; they left their mark by storming trains, buildings, and finally, the art world. Artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger turned to language to deliver sociopolitical messages with a vengeance. Holzer works entirely with phrases and quasi-aphorisms; Kruger follows her personal slogans with images to capita lize on their power of association.

Words in images are becoming more accepted, but they still have an edge. They are still uncomfortable, distrusted, and provocative. Ironically, as long as words are rejected, they offer artists a challenge and even a cause. Maybe it is better that their presence remain taboo. That way we can always look forward to plenty of talk when it comes to that rocky marriage of word and image.

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