Academic journal article The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)

All the F Words We Used to Know

Academic journal article The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)

All the F Words We Used to Know

Article excerpt

As a former high school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, I embraced the domain, the structure, craft, and aesthetic aspects of words. I love everything about words. I love teaching and learning about texts, as consumers and composers, as meaning-makers. ELA shares similarities with meaning-making processes in other arts, without being directly analogous. Using words-language itself-not just as the medium but also as both subject and object of art activates the complex, critical-creative, and transdisciplinary processes of meaning-making.

object + word + image = written text

The blending of text and art has a long history. In what may be the oldest written language, Egyptian artifacts from 3,300 BCE document the early use of hieroglyphics, a logographical language system that developed alphabetic features over its 3,600 years of active use. Approximately two centuries later, examples of recognizable Chinese logographic script appear, and then evolve, with pictograms assuming more abstracted shapes, developing more complexity in meaning and aesthetic refinement across its long history spanning into today's current written Chinese (Lo, 1996-2012). In 4th century Greece, scholar and poet Simias of Rhodes produced the first Western piece of text-based art: a poem about an axe written in the shape of an axe (Ross, 2014), or what we now call concrete poetry.

With the dawn of Islam in the 7th century, Arabic script becomes a medium for aesthetic expressions and representations of the divine and moral aspects of power and beauty. The Islamic discouragement and rejection of figurative representations of humans, or "aniconism," transformed Arabic calligraphy into a medium for integrating "artistry and scholarship" and spirituality, weaving form, content, and meaning into a transcendental whole (Reza, n.d.). In Western Europe by the medieval period of the Renaissance, texts combined with visual embellishments become increasingly popular and widespread. Starting with illuminated manuscripts of religious texts, the decorative and then informative practice eventually spread into academic and more popular texts and publication forms. An increasingly literate and liberated public appreciated accessible written content combined with aesthetically appealing and inspirational imagery.

from language to art

The study of English itself begins officially in the 16th century with the first grammar books written in English not Latin, proceeding to add the study of literature and writing over time. The deliberate inclusion and study of text in/as art has a more recent though relatively robust history, spurred into action partially by the field of semiotics. Linguist Charles S. Pierce (1998) theorized a three-part relationship between a word (sign), the object of the sign (signifier), and someone capable of recognizing and "understanding of the relation between signifier and signified" (interpretant) (Ogden, 2016, para. 6). Building on this, in the early decades of the 20th century, multiple individual artists and collectives began experimenting with language as a material for artmaking. In 1911, Georges Braque began stenciling letters and numbers into his paintings, quickly followed by Picasso (Galenson, 2008).

By 1915, dadaists were pulling language apart, reorganizing its components into deliberately disruptive and nonsensical arrangements. Then they began using text in their other works: paintings, collages, sculptures. The semiotic work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1915), with its arbitrary, inseparable link between a representation (signifier) and its referent/ meaning (signified), influenced artists including Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp to explore further the relation of text and art.

In Magritte's The Treachery of Images (1929), juxtaposing the visual image of a pipe with text announcing that it is not a pipe visually exposes a key conundrum of semiotics and communication: the irrational relationships between an object/concept and how we language, or thing-ify, that object (Jaworski, 2015). …

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