Codeswitching: Using Language as a Tool for Clearer Meaning in Art

By Eubanks, Paula | Art Education, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Codeswitching: Using Language as a Tool for Clearer Meaning in Art


Eubanks, Paula, Art Education


Dolly Parton's character in Steel Magnolias declares that what separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize. Dangerous as it is to differ in opinion from anyone's hair stylist, what actually separates people from the animals is their ability to represent-to use symbols, both visual and verbal. It is widely held that language, a system of symbols with agreed-upon meanings, separates people from the rest of the animal kingdom because it enables us to think about things not present, to think abstractly, to have ideas and share them. This view is widely, but not universally held. For example, Savage-Rumbaugh (1994) works with bonobos apes that use sign language. Though some species may have developed methods of communication, none rivals the power of the many languages of our species.

Visual symbols, such as drawings and other visual works of art, are also avenues of communication. As such, they can be viewed, at least in an extended sense, as nonverbal forms of language. A particular work of art may thus embody certain "meanings," expressed visually, which a critic attempts to capture verbally, or translate from a visual symbol system to a verbal symbol system. As generally used, "codeswitching" refers to a speaker's alternation between two dialects, or other systematic variations, of a given (verbal) language. I refer to this alternation between visual and verbal language as "artistic codeswitching,"or, for short, simply as "codeswitching." I will sketch a theoretic background for understanding how codeswitching can shape artistic processes and become a tool for creating or refining meaning in visual art. Codeswitching is likely to be of special interest to art teachers because they are proficient in both modes of communication as practicing artists using visual symbols in their own art and as teachers using verbal language as a primary tool in education.

Arnheim (1969) tells us that art is visual thinking using visual symbols rather than words. An artist friend provides an example of the search for visual structures that represent thinking and feelings. She spent 2 years making ceramic clothes that were a memorial to her sister who had recently died. The ceramic clothes lay empty as though the person who had worn them simply vanished from within them. The clothes, rendered in clay, had the permanence of vivid memory, but were brittle, fragile. When her other sister married and had a child, leaving her alone in the old family farmhouse where they had lived together, my friend produced ceramic wedding cakes with black crows on the top. She was able to say in clay what she could not say in words about personal losses.

Some artists and art educators hold the view that the production of art is intuitive, that the creative process involves the emergence of ideas and imagery from the unconscious mind or through inspiration. The analytic nature of codeswitching may initially seem at odds with an intuitive approach to art-making, but when examined from the perspective of creativity theory, codeswitching leads to verification, a widely held stage in the creative process (Wallas, 1976; Guilford, 1973). Verification refers to testing the validity of a creative idea and reducing it to a more precise form (Wallas, 1976). It is the last stage, following preparation, incubation, and illumination. Like preparation, verification is a fully conscious act. It may involve how the creative act is received within its field, but not necessarily. I propose that it can involve how the creative act, or work of art in this case, is seen or decoded by its maker who has taken the perspective of the art critic.

Eisner (1984) describes the need for this view: "In creating works of art, one must become both artist and critic. Qualitative judgments of great subtlety must be made about the on-going flow of forms with which one is working" (p. 262). In so doing, the artist/critic puts aside the artist/creator's intentions and looks at the work with fresh eyes. …

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