Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Language and Art

It is often said that photography, or art, has a language. This is definitely not true, although there's a related thing that is. Language, it turns out, is a pretty well defined concept. The "language" of art has no structure, no grammar, no syntax. The "words" of Art's "language" are not particularly abstract in, for example, the sense that "dog" is an arbitrary noise which refers to the same category of objects as the equally arbitrary noise "chien" does. What Art has is, maybe, a vocabulary. Essentially, the artist throws symbols down, symbols which are anything but arbitrary, in more or less a jumble and leaves it to the Art Consumer to sort it all out.

In Art and Revolution Berger writes:

A subject is revealed in art only when it has forced the artist to adapt his procedure, to admit in terms of his formal means its special case.

As a side note, it is worth remarking that the antecedent of "its" at the end there is not grammatically clear. You have to work from context that the antecedent is "subject" not "procedure/formal means." The cynic in me wonders if modern Art Writers have trouble working this sort of thing out, and have therefore decided unconsciously that it simply doesn't matter. This might explain why so many of their pronouns appear to be untroubled by any antecedent at all.

Back to business.

Having dismissed the analogy to language, I am now going to lean in to it. Isn't this fun? Language evolves, according to pretty well described mechanics. When snowboards were invented, a whole world of vocabulary was invented to describe the boards themselves, the things people did with them, the culture surrounding them, and so on. A lot of borrowing, some neologisms, etcetera and so forth. The point is that here was a subject which literally had not existed, and language was hurriedly developed to "admit its special case." Art, likewise, is trying to say new things, about new pieces of the human experience or whatever. Berger was pretty big on the idea that Art continues to evolve and grow because the (human) world continues to evolve, so there are always new things to be said.

I am going to make up an entirely arbitrary distinction, and assign arbitrary terms: I will refer to art-like things which are made relying on existing tropes and vocabulary as "media" and I will refer to art-like things which develop new tropes, new vocabulary, as "art." Obviously there is a spectrum here, as well as a relativism. If you have never heard of cubism, you might re-invent it to solve some contemporary artistic problem you have. This would make it, um, "art" for you, but "media" for everyone else? Also, of course, there is no distinct line between a "new trope" and an "old trope." Let us briskly sweep all this messiness under the carpet, on the assumption that you are clever enough to follow along, make allowances, and perhaps find something useful in what follows. In spite of it all.

The hard problem in art is to shape material to meaning. A working artist, a working maker-of-media, generally has a toolbox of method. The temptation is always to simply reach into the box and draw out the tool that seems least unsuited to the task at hand, and then to have at it. The result of this rarely satisfies, although photographers often seem to draw satisfaction from perfecting the use of the tool itself rather than the shaping of material which the tool enables. Language, and by analogy, media can say infinitely many things, but it is nevertheless constrained by itself. You cannot write effectively about snowboards using the vocabulary of skiing. You can write, but the result is clumsy and unpleasant to read.

In the same way, you cannot solve a new artistic problem in a satisfying way using purely the methods devised to solve other problems. When confronted with a new world, as we in some sense are every day, a new world about which new things can be said, we ought to constantly revise our tools. We ought to constantly devise new vocabulary. As with the vocabulary of snowboards, our new vocabulary will likely contain borrowings and neologisms. Because we know, instinctively it seems, how language evolves, we can understand these neologisms when snowboards appear on the scene. In the same way, we should understand the "neologisms" that appear in new art not because they are well-known elements of vocabulary, but because we understand how new vocabulary is formed. We can at any rate puzzle out what this new thing is supposed to be, if we apply ourselves. In theory.

All of this is, of course, very squishy. What is a "new" trope, and what is merely a "recycled" trope, anyway? There is no clear line between the two. And yet, the lack of a clear delineation does not prove the absence of categories entirely. We can recognize the possibility of a new trope, we can recognize an old trope, and at the same time acknowledge that there's probably a pretty large and subjective grey area. The point is that we strive for the one side of the spectrum. We strive to shape our formal means to the special case of our current subject.

This is not to suggest that you must first define your intended meaning, then proceed to develop a new method or set of methods, and finally, and only then, begin painting. One could, I suppose, but it doesn't sound like a lot of fun. In reality we simply begin. Meaning may never truly become clear, although surely something or other will emerge before we are done (otherwise, perhaps we ought to stop and do something else, no?) As we work, though, the material of our work, that mess of subject, meaning, medium, may propose a method. We should be open to that proposition.

There are, essentially, two risks here, one on each side of the path as it were.

On the one hand, it is tempting to stick with the methods we know and trust, methods which have served us well in the past. We've said things before with these tools, surely they will work for us again. Indeed, they will, but they may prove incapable of saying the things we need to say. This is to reject the proposals offered by the material of the work, which we ought not to do. Photographers do this a lot, grinding out endless repetitions of successful pictures from their past, and claiming it as "my style."

Let us take a moment to return to my earlier definition of "media." If it is your intention to produce media, perhaps you are reporting news, then by all means you should use the tools in the box, the vocabulary you trust. Media is not about wrestling with new ways to express new things, it is entirely about using tried-and-true vocabulary to express as best we can whatever it is we're trying to say. Nobody thinks that this riot would be best expressed with wet plate, whereas that riot was really best captured in digital color. From the point of view of media, a riot is a riot, and they're all the same, and should be photographed the same. Chuck in a skyline shot so people know what city it was in.

Back to the other risk, on the other side of the path:

On the other hand, it is tempting to try out variations and methods new to us, for their own sake. We hope that something or other will emerge, despite the fact that the material of the work is making no such proposition. Our efforts on this side are effectively random, not being driven by the work itself, by the meaning that is struggling to make itself known. Photographers, different ones, also do this, a sort of random hopeless dicking around with process, buying lenses or learning to do wet plates, or taking up Brenizer's method for no discernible reason.

It is not so easy to distinguish between "meaning trying to make itself known" and a mere rationalization of a photographer's desire to dick around with something new. There may not even be a clear dividing line. It is at this point that some sort of notion of meaning is probably useful. If you don't have any notion of where you're going, any method is equally pointless. When the urge to try wet plate photography steals up on you, it might not be amiss to ask yourself what problem, exactly, this is supposed to solve.

I recently went to a little bit of trouble to make a pinhole for my camera, thinking it might solve an artistic problem. The jury is still out on this, but at the moment it's looking like "no."

There is no doubt that the pinhole does something, I can see and articulate what that something is ("dreamlike" or whatever,) but what I cannot quite persuade myself of is that it's solving the underlying problem I have set myself. I'll keep the pinhole, but it probably isn't the method here.


  1. "If you don't have any notion of where you're going, any method is equally pointless. When the urge to try wet plate photography steals up on you, it might not be amiss to ask yourself what problem, exactly, this is supposed to solve."

    Solving problems? Hmm, nobody would ever guess you were "trained" as a mathematician... As another mathematician once put it:

    "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
    "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
    "I don't much care where—" said Alice.
    "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
    "—so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
    "Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

    Call me a poorly-trained humanities dreamer, but my feeling is that the point of "art" is precisely to follow such urges, as they seem to come from a part of your brain that knows you better than you do. If it says "hey, you, try pinhole!" then it does no harm to listen, give it a go, and see which "somewhere" it takes you to.

    BTW, pinholes are an excellent way of getting dust on your sensor. If you make or acquire one you like, consider glueing a clear filter over it.


    1. Well, yes. Shhhh.

      That said, when I say "problem" I don't necessarily mean "how shall I express the complex interaction of immigration and climate change with epoxy and bottlecaps" mostly I mean a sort of vague itch that might or might not be focused, slightly, on some object or idea.

      What I see quite a lot of is people who have identified themselves as artists, who utterly lack any kind of itch, who then thresh about with processes and methods, trying to produce an itch which they can then scratch.

  2. Given your opening assertion, you may find this worth reading: A Visual Language.

    (see my review of the first edition here.)

    1. To be fair, the art/design community seems to use "language" interchangeably with "vocabulary" and I am being a nitpicking jerk who's read the first half of an introductory linguistics textbook by insisting on the difference.

      Still, "A Visual Language" looks quite interesting, and perhaps I will examine it! Thank you!

  3. You may have started something (OTOH this is blindingly obvious: "It's kind of amazing how bad academic writing is. There can be a treasure trove of ideas, and it's hidden in this utterly hideous" -- https://twitter.com/jmcolberg/status/1458196313879678976?s=20

    1. Eh, I doubt that has anything to do with me. I'd never describe this crud as a treasure trove of ideas. Photographic Thinkers are almost mind-bogglingly free of ideas.