Untitled: Art, Language and Communication

March 2, 2022
Untitled: Art, Language and Communication

Art, across its ever-expanding spectrum of forms, sub-forms and inter-forms, steps into express the otherwise less readily expressible. It is not as though art merely provides for a lack or affords a surplus, and that art is that extra something that can be periodically accommodated or rejected at will. Rather, my opening proposition is an invitation to probe where art's necessity as a language lies. In certain cases, the very non-specific and otherwise inexpressible nature of the experience is what lends itself to its expressibility in art. In others, it is the art-form that creates or re-fashions a new experience or perception by dint of its intrinsic expressiveness. Where the latter happens, the alterity is bestowed by the form instead of being innate to the matter.


Either way, the operative word here is "expression," even where such expression is seemingly mimetic and representational. My deliberations here are founded upon a subtle but necessary distinction between communication and expression. This might sound like a stretched point. After all, if expressions were not part of the system of communication that is language, then the world would truly have been a Babel of as many random but exclusive languages as there are human beings. For an imperfect analogy of the ensuing chaos, we might consider the barter system in economics. Currency is an abstract noun as applicable to the liquidity of language as of money.

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563 ©wiki commons

Yet this preposterous proposition only serves to underline the distinction I am positing. Most visible societies (I am not competent to talk about indigenous societies and ethnic groups) appear to have developed a certain kind of functional prose intended for communication, based on certain commonalities and standards of correlation.


This is despite the fact that a perfectly standardized, stable, universal verbal language remains a figment of not just sci-fi films like Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016), but a slew of ambitious but failed intellectual projects spanning centuries of European history. For a critical history of that history, one may turn to Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language (1993).


However arbitrary this correlation between word-sign and thing might be, postlapsarian verbal languages of approximation make for mutual comprehension in the day-to-day business of life within a linguistic community that can be local or trans-local. For in functional prose, with or without fixed declension and corresponding syntax, the register of correspondence between word and thing is largely a matter of accepted convention. That is not to say there are not comically absurd cases of Malapropism, but such cases are easily corrected. Take the case of a neighbour of mine who once went to a grocer's and asked for a kilogram of bhaat, when he should have said a kilo of chaal or rice. I believe he still managed to bring home the desired item. The perceived absurdity stemmed more from a cultural confusion than an intrinsically illogical one. And that probably saved the day. Any Bengali grocer would laugh at the mistake but immediately know that the sought item was a kilo of rice grains.


To remind ourselves of the convenience of functional, verbal prose is not to assume that mankind's journey with language has been simple and linear. Possibly, humanity always was developing not just multiple verbal languages, but multiple non-verbal language-systems parallelly, in recognition of the inadequacy or insufficiency of one or another as a language of easy communicability for experiences.


To return to the opening proposition, then, there are subjective experiences, unique if only in the perception of the subject-person themselves; and these seek a freer register of expression. Enter art with a language that is more elemental and fundamental. Since it does not stress the practicality of daily communication, the language of art can afford to be more emancipated from the compulsions of conformity while still requiring, for more layered comprehension, a different kind of initiation or habit of engagement. The purpose of art as such a language, non-verbal or verbal, musical or visual, then, is in bringing out certain experiences from within, instead of expressly directing them towards any target audience or readership or viewership. Expression is the objective, while communication is the outcome.


Jon Barwise's essay 'On the Circumstantial Relation between Meaning and Content' offers an astute unravelling of the problem of meaning and its reception in the non-functional, creative use of language. In his exposition, not only is meaning dependent on 'content' and other variables such as 'circumstances', 'constituents' and 'non-constituents', 'mental states' and conventional 'constraints', these parameters determining meaning-making in any text are mutually inflected, and hence variable.[1] Artistic expression can still end up communicating, but such communication cannot be definitively understood, attributed or intentionalised. It can still find an audience, but arbitrarily and on the basis of comprehension that can be quite awry or different from the intended expression. Such expression can be said to succeed as communication only if there is a continued consensus on the constituent system of signifiers and the signified. It can still succeed without that consensus, but only as some occult code that conveys multiple possibilities of meaning. From here stems the unreliability of art-forms as a mode of interpersonal communication.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929 ©wiki commons

From here also stems the success of art-forms as universal expression. Art is universal because its reception is unpredictable. This would be just as true of abstract, expressionist art-texts as of mimetic realist art; for a seemingly infantile Paul Klee painting or a tortuously complex Braque might resonate just as primally as the realism of Rembrandt or the photographic exactitude of Gainsborough. The unspecificity of the representation and the represented in this case makes art the locus of the universal, just like Barthes' Eiffel Tower.[2]


Yet unspecificity is also an instrument of equivocation. Not coincidentally, art has traditionally been equated with artifice and subtlety and hence its deeply fraught relationship with religion. Perhaps one of the reasons for fear of art and architecture associated with particular political dispensations and regimes testifies to the affective, suasive, and hence tactical and manipulative power art has. That would account for the ruthlessness with which artifacts, architecture, icons, logos, posters, writings on the wall have often been defaced in history.


The movers and shakers of the European and English Reformation, for instance, zealously discredited Roman Catholics' purported idolatry, much like Israelites in the Old Testament using Canaanites' purported image-worship as the pretext for warring against them. The sparser, starker style of ecclesiastical architecture was a project of the Protestant Revolution in Europe and England that defined itself against the putative excesses of Roman Catholic excess. However, even as Roman Catholic churches were razed or plundered, the need for churches could not be obliterated. So, what had been a move of erasure quickly turned into the inevitability of wholesale or subtle replacement of material, design, motifs and meanings. In a bid to counter a certain form, school, age or practice of art, an alternative practice is begotten that resists or rejects it using the very same resources or art-forms. What is not erased in the process, however, is art itself, and its very nature as powerful figuration of humanity's most fundamental impulses, loves, hatreds, desires, aspirations, be these progressive or regressive.


In a larger civilizational sense, therefore, art is a psychological powerhouse and hence political threat. Wars serve to perpetuate that same power by instrumentalizing it. Conversely, art thrives on the competitive, gaming trait in humanity that has kept wars alive. No straightforward binary obtains between war and art. War uses the arts, as any other sphere of human knowledge and application. This vortex of mutual dependence is not widely acknowledged. No one can deny the inherently atavistic attraction that war hold for the human imagination and the resources, mental, physical and technological, that this attraction inevitably draws upon for its gratification. Art is one such resource. In its own Darwinian struggle for self-preservation, art, in turn, draws upon the psychology of violence and coercion. Art, therefore, cannot be exonerated from the charge of complicity in the damages wrought by the war of any kind, including symbolic wars or abstract conflict. It is doubtful that poets and artists are necessarily better or more altruistic human beings purely by virtue of their engagement in art. Humanism, which is a philosophical and philological engagement with the condition of being human, does not automatically translate into humanitarianism.


Locating and implicating art in the history and philosophy of strife and conflict brings us to their adjunct, violence. There is a kind of energy in art bordering on the violent, and this visceral violence has nothing to do with the outward subject. Luridly violent paintings like Goya's Saturn Devouring his Son (c. 1819-23) and The Third of May, 1808 (1814)[3] are not necessarily appealing.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1823 ©wiki commons
Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814 ©wiki commons

The violence that can be infused into art or tapped out of it, whichever way one looks at it, is capable of an impact commensurate with the kind of physical dismemberment of the human body that one often encounters in works by Salvador Dali; although his excesses fall far short of the chill generated by some, though not all of Frida Kahlo's exercises in vicarious self-mutilation.

Salvador Dali, Le Sommeil (Sleep), 1937 ©wiki commons

Art is feared because its coerciveness operates internally and can in that subvert, counter or surpass external coercive mechanisms. While this energy lends itself to productive use as a register of protest and resistance against oppression, in the absence of such contexts, the darker energies of art might well be said to turn upon peace and itself. The arts of peacetime are not necessarily more placid and genial. The disturbing art of Aubrey Beardsley is a case in point.

Aubrey Beardsley, Self-Portrait, 1892 ©wiki commons

Dispassionately speaking, art, art appreciation, and cultural history are doubtless enriched by art's primal immediacy and duality. There remains, however, the question of the affect of such art and the less predictable ways in which the human mind processes the relationship between such visual projections and reality afterwards. The human mind is as fragile as it is resilient. It cannot itself bear the pain it inflicts. The ensuing paradox looks like this: art draws upon the affect and translates that into an experience that is effective as art only when it affects.


We have explored three aspects of art as a language so far. It is a subjective language the codes of use and terms of reception of which resist standardization, it is, therefore, liable to equivocation, and finally that its relationship with the human mind and affect is neither simple nor invariably predictable. This is where the viability of art as a language of communication, as opposed to a form of expression may be contested.


Again, this is where the power of choice or the lack thereof becomes operative, if not crucial. The digital age has been increasingly divesting individuals of that power while conversely expanding and multiplying the routes through which the purposive use of art may continue. As Tolstoy writes at the end of War and Peace, history, wars, revolutions are mostly an unstoppable and self-propelling surge of mass and energy; cultural and technological ones no less. Nevertheless, the dialectic of art as expression and communication in the age of mass reproducibility and instant, lateral transmission across multiple digital handles and platforms demands serious engagement.


Art, as we have been discussing, is another language for experiences that do not lend themselves to the certitude and positivist thrust of purposeful or declarative or imperative verbal communication. It attempts to fill in the blanks and, in doing so, creates alternative realities and truths that expand the spectrum of interpretations of any single event or occurrence. This engenders and fosters an incremental array of histories or what is supposed to be or are actually facts or actions and stories or the fiction they are constituted of. These categories intersect in extremely complex ways so as to destabilize the whole notion of truth, fact and facticity. This contradiction between art's suitability for the rich nuances of story-telling, as opposed to the flat rigour of fact-telling, is what takes up John Berger's attention in Understanding a Photograph (1967):


"Supposing one tries to arrange a number of photographs, chosen from the billions which exist, so that the arrangement speaks of experience. Experience as contained within a life or lives. … The discontinuities within the arrangement will be far more evident than those in a verbal story. … On the face of it there will be no story. And yet in storytelling, … it is precisely an agreement about discontinuities which allows the listener to 'enter the narration' and become part of the reflecting subject. … The spectator (listener) becomes more active because the assumptions behind the discontinuities (the unspoken which bridges them) are far more far-reaching. The teller becomes less present, less insistent, for he no longer employs words of his own; he speaks through quotations, through his choice and placing of the photographs.


In itself the photograph cannot lie, but, by the same token, it cannot tell the truth; or rather, the truth it does tell, the truth it can by itself defend, is a limited one. …


When photographs are used in a control system, their evidence is more or less limited to establishing identity and presence. But as soon as photograph is used as a means of communication, the nature of lived experience is involved, and then the truth becomes more complex."[4]


Berger's analysis resonates all the more in view of the apparent concreteness of visual texts. One would ordinarily expect the visual, especially the photographic, to be more tangible, verifiable and hence truthful than any other art. Photographs and images no doubt show, express, and communicate. The question remains, what do they communicate; or, do they communicate right?


In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco analyses the seventeenth century's dalliance with Egyptian hieroglyphics and ideograms and concludes that the assumption that the visual language can aspire to the status of the lost lingua is fallacious:


"We believe that visual media such as paintings, sequences in films, etc. are 'texts' which convey emotions and feelings that could not be expressed verbally: we cannot represent by mere words Mona Lisa to a blind person. The meanings that such texts can express are multiple, because there is no universal code: the rules of representation (and of recognizability) for an Egyptian mural, an Arab miniature, a painting by Turner or a comic strip are simply not the same in each case.


Any language of images is based on the alleged fact that images exhibit some properties of the represented things. Yet in any representable thing there will always be a multitude of properties, and there are infinite points of view under which an image can be judged similar to something else. Moreover, 'that a picture looks like nature often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted'. (Goodman 1968: 39).


The ability of a visual language to express more than one meaning at once is also, therefore, its limitation. Goodman has noted (1968: 23) that there is a difference between a man-picture and a picture of a man. The picture of a human being can be devised to represent (1) any member of the human race, (2) an individual person so-and-so, (3) a given person on the verge of doing something, dressed in a certain way, and so on. Naturally the title can help to disambiguate the intention of the artist, bur once again images are fatally 'anchored' to words."[5]


Application of the language of art in regular communication gets implicated in issues around agency, intentionality and motivation. What is supposed to operate as an easy, swift conveyance of information not only defers but derails communication. This happens, thanks partly to the equivocation innate to the medium and partly to human ingenuity in harnessing equivocation. The problem of intentionality and reception is accretional, for even if we assume that on one occasion the meaning generated is unintended, on another occasion, it might well be intended and motivated. At the receiver or perceiver's end, with no other access to the fact of the matter, the intentional meaning-making might miss the target, while the unintended one assumes meaningfulness.


In the foggy world of fudged or suggested meanings, obfuscations, equivalences and substitutions, unfolds a theatre of tantalization. Even the most positive of artistic communications is a simulacrum. Even where there is a trace of comprehensibility, a whiff of comprehension, what is communicated is an expression. The universality of expression begets the universality of more expression. Is this communication, or a mere performance of communication? Take the case of Paul Klee's Angelus Novus and its profound impact on Walter Benjamin's 'Theses of the Philosophy of History' (1940). Communication in art is an endless series of tangled citations.


There is a further layer of complication. What if the unintended meaning appears genuinely unintended to the author/ creator/ transmitter/ broadcaster because the intentionality is subconscious and yet appear stark and unmistakable once conveyed because certain non-verbal registers are better suited to the conveyance of such suppressed or undiscovered motivations? What if the subconscious starts to conjure stories out of a combination of immediate external stimuli and internally imbibed material? One ends up with an exasperatingly intricate interweaving of stories and texts that require extremely strenuous and not particularly fruitful 'contact-tracing'. Here is Eco again:


"You seem to distinguish between uttered expressions, as something existing in the external world and materially testable, and my interpretations, which take place inside me. But my outside and my inside coincide. My outside is made of the same stuff as my inside: expressions. You seem to discriminate between expressions, which are materially testable, which you can touch, and interpretations, which you call mental representations. I don't follow you. I substitute expressions with expressions, symbols with symbols, signs with signs. You can touch with interpretants. They are made of the same stuff as your words. You provide me with an image and I give you back a word, you provide me with a word and I give you back an image. Any expression can become, in its turns, interpretandum of an interpretant, and vice versa. …."[6]


Art as communication takes on newer dimensions and dynamic in the age of digital media, thanks to the fluidity of identity formation and transformation it affords almost on a moment to moment, hour to hour basis. While there is unlimited scope for self-fashioning, especially in visual terms on the digital platforms, there is proportionately very little compulsion to take ownership of one's self-fashionings and self-expressions; nor can ownership and responsibility be ascertained or attributed from the outside. However, the outside is rarely the only sphere of human existence.


The advent of social media has progressively privileged the visual shortcut over more conventional modes of ordinary communication to the extent that such parallel modes of communication take on a dangerous degree of urgency. Leveraging visual literacy might well be aimed at retaining agency and claim while evading issues of agency in reception and reciprocation. The imbalance thus engendered is the very opposite of inter-personal and inter-human communication, even in terms of its civilizational telos.


The equivocality of art stems from the blurring of the boundary between art as mass transmission and art as interpersonal communication. I have already asserted that the appeal of art stems from its ability to communicate across the barriers posed by other forms of language. The communicative agency as well as immunity of the artist lies precisely in their plea of universal address, dissemination and reception, and this is how modes and channels of broadcast and promotional notification become serviceable.


Art cannot and may not be sanitized completely of tangential personal referencing. There will remain a strong semblance of equivocality and the scope for over-determination and misreading. No doubt the beauty and power of art has its fount in the profundity of personal experiences. Art is universal because it is personal. For that very reason, no doubt again, disentangling the expressive from the communicative becomes an impossible challenge, a never-ending game of reading and interpretation, an artistic Bleak House of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. In short, there is nothing simple about the 'act' of art. Art can create its own Babels of misprision, mistrust, discord, and, eventually, ultimately, a breakdown of communication.




I have, over the past months, received several online notifications from Emami Art about art exhibitions featuring untitled artworks. I found the title, Untitled, a useful point of entry into the semantics and semiotics of art as communication. Hence my title.

[1] See Umberto Eco, Marco Santambrogio and Patricia Violi, eds. Meaning and Mental Representations (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1988), 23-39

[2] See Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, transl. Richard Howard (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 3-17.

[4] John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, Ed. Geoff Dyer (London: Penguin, 2013), 102, 103, 70, 71

[5] Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language. Transl. James Fentress. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 169 & 174.

[6] Umberto Eco, ‘On Truth: A Fiction’ in Eco et alMeaning and Mental Representations, 38.

Ananya Dutta Gupta teaches at Visva-Bharati, and writes critical non-fiction, travel essays and poetry in her leisure. This essay is born of her long-standing critical interest in the intersections of literature and the visual arts and, lately, of her amateur dabbling in experimental amalgamations of word, image and music. She may be reached at ananya_duttagupta@yahoo.co.uk

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