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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hijacking the Machinery of Communication

I've had an epiphany of sorts, or at any rate a crystallization of of certain ideas. My previous remarks made mention of the notion that Art doesn't necessarily "communicate" as such, but it hijacks the machinery of communication. It feels like communication, when it's working. We imagine that we're getting some message from the artist.

This goes hand in hand with several notions I've beaten more or less to death on these pages. The first is that if you put a lot of meaning in then your audience, if any, is more likely to get meaning out -- but not necessarily what you put in. Next up is the related notion that a good portrait does not actually reveal the inner personality of the sitter except by accident, but rather that it gives you the impression of doing so.

If we treat Art not as a medium by which messages are passed from artist to viewer, but rather as some sort of broken medium into which messages are placed, and out of which messages are read, but not always the same messages, things get interesting and potentially useful to us, the working artists.

On the one hand, as JG reminded me commenting on the previous remarks, Art is a medium of expression. We're putting things in when we make these things. We have intentions and ideas. On the other hand, if the work is evocative, if it has the right structure somehow, we'll get things out when we look at it. These two are related, but only loosely.

Consider the Voynich Manuscript. As far as I know the consensus is that it is an elaborate fake. Entering the sketchy areas of my memory: I think it has an identifiable vocabulary, that is, the use of "words" in the script is consistent and repeated, but that efforts of discern a grammar of any sort have come up empty. Where exactly the wheels fall off that particular wagon does not matter, which is why I haven't looked it up. The point here is that it has very much the structure of something filled with meaning, of a real book about something or other. As a result, you can without effort find endless crackpot theories about what the text actually is, and probably also lots of "translations" and whatnot.

What is the easiest way to construct such a thing? Well, the easiest way would be to invent a way to transliterate, say, Latin, into a different script. You could use a simply substitution of letters, or something more complicated. The result would be a book that actually does have meaning. It might all be scatological couplets when translated, of course, but it would have the structure of something with meaning because it is a thing with meaning.

In the Voynich case, it appears that the forger did not do this, but rather went to considerable effort to create something with the structure, but no actual meaning, which is probably more difficult (but ultimately more fun, I dare say.)

So this is, we think, a case in which no meaning was put in, but loads of meaning can be pulled out. Conversely, of course, most of us know full well that you can stuff in all sorts of meaning and nothing whatever comes out the other side.

Still, it illuminates a sort of path.

My thesis that "putting things in" makes it easier to "get things out" becomes clearer at this point.

It is possible for a work to have the structure of something that contains meaning, without that meaning being particularly clear, as the Voynich Manuscript makes clear. Furthermore, I maintain that is it self-evident that building something around a load of meaning more or less automatically grants that something a suitable structure. The easiest way, in fact, to make a book, a portfolio, a web site, whatever, with the structure of something that has meaning is to build it with meaning.

Since Art is more or less by design an encoding, a transliteration of sorts, the meaning itself may not be particularly clear. But building a thing with whatever meaning we have in mind more or less guarantees that the structure is there. Well, assuming we have a certain degree of literacy and coherence. There are certainly people capable of writing things which, while written with the intent of conveying meaning, utterly lack the structure of text-with-meaning, so I suppose the same could apply to, say, photography.

The sharper members of the peanut gallery are no doubt biting their tongues vigorously at this point, if not actually lunging for the comment button. Go ahead. <sigh>

And so Art may or may not be actual communication. It might merely behave for the "reader" as evocation, based on a structure that looks meaningful. It might merely behave as a medium of expression for the artist, a thing into which we place meaning. If the meaning we put in happens to come out more or less intact, then, lo, we are communicating. If it does not, if the meaning is lost but something else is recovered on the other side, well, we're not communicating.

But we're still doing something. We're expressing, and evoking. And perhaps, usually, there is some very basic substrate that survives the process, some underlying foundation. But perhaps not.

In order for Art to do its job, though, all that really needs to happen is the evocation. If Art is to enbiggen us, to stimulate us, to make use better, deeper, more interesting, more thoughtful, more alive, richer, than all it really needs to to is to evoke.

Even the Voynich Manuscript does that. I think you could argue that the artist here did imbue the thing with a great deal of "meaning", just not the textual sort. While it may not be much of an Herbal, but it's pretty successful Art.


  1. Stop Press: Voynich decoded. See TLS 5 Sept 2017:


  2. oh. this is interesting. evocation is sufficient. hmmmm....

    and the Voynich, omg, what joy, kalloo kallay or what have you.