Semantics, lexicology and art… a personal rant

Linguistics fascinate me – definitions and terminology, it’s effect on our thoughts, how it sculpts our values and perceptions. I am intrigued with the idea that there are some concepts that can only be expressed in certain languages – that our thoughts seem to be moulded around what we are able to articulate (which is possibly a reflection on what our culture feels is necessary to express). The old cliché about eskimos and snow (and no, I’m not referring to Frank Zappa) is a simple example of the limitations of language. Are we defined by our lexicology, or can we be the masters and able to express anything by manipulating parameters and context?

Recently I was pondering what it was that I defined as art. Art is a very personal thing, and there are many definitions drifting in the ether. Here is a link to a great series of thoughts in response to the question: ‘What is art?’

So… here is my response to this question…

I believe visual art is an attempt recreate and expand on our visual vocabulary and alter perceptions. The artist attempts to redefine the defined. A poet or musician can take the sum of their experiences and present it in an unexpected manner and alter our understanding of a concept –

‘Frank… hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead’ (Tom Waits)


There are fascists

there are
to be

on a health kick
eating only vegetarians
(Roger McGough)

Likewise, a visual artist will take our knowledge of traditional visual strategies and experience and twist and manipulate it to tell a story in their unique way. Some say that to be a true artist, a certain level of technical expertise is required. I don’t completely agree. I believe sharing an original viewpoint of the world is the deal breaker. I feel that there are exceptional technicians out there, who’s mastery of the brush is extraordinary, however they leave me cold as the thoughts and ideas they express lack originality, passion or insight. They do not realign my thought process, they do not stimulate my mind and they don’t change my knowledge of the world. They simply reinforce my current knowledge, and I walk away from their work none the wiser. An exciting artwork makes my stomach flip over and I feel I have entered a new phase of comprehension. Brancusi’s Bird in Space at the Australian National Gallery does that to me every time I see it. Something about the form, it’s immaculate balance and the contrast of volume between the peak, the centre and the base as it grasps for the sky gets my head and stomach spinning. Likewise, Rupert Bathurst, and David Lynch’s works make my mind go into a frenzy of exploration. I want to know what these people are thinking – I want to know why, where, how. I want to know what makes them tick and about the contradictions in their expression. In David Lynch’s case, from total control over a doodle on a tiny matchbox book or cinematic moments like the opening sequence to ‘Blue Velvet’ through to a spontaneous outpouring of violent cynicism on a enormous tangled print. Andy Warhol’s obsessive repetition of soup tins – why, why, why? If you can make me ask why, you have my attention. Attention seeking is not the be all and end all, but it means you’ve got me questioning my values, my perceptions and my universe. That’s got to be a good thing (and yes, I realise lots of you won’t agree with me at all – but no harm in putting it out there!)

But I digress. I was initially pondering linguistics and cultural parameters. The point I’m making is that linguistics, words or perceptions need not limit us – that there is a vocabulary available to us beyond our verbal language. That thoughts and ideas are not constrained to what our native tongue allows us, that as artists, we are able to step sideways into this secret visual land and increase everyone’s vocabulary. By representing the inexpressible, we are enriching experiences and knowledge. I think, that is my definition of art (for this week – it will no doubt change next week!).