by Emma Louise Pratt
In this article I explore what art as text can mean. I also present a couple of examples that you might actually find interesting to explore with your students.
A couple of years ago, a wise friend gifted me the curiously named “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (Herzog, 2010). This beautifully made documentary is about some of the oldest surviving examples of visual art we have today – in the cave of Chauvet in France. The drawings are over 30,000 years old.
I’d never seen the cave and I was so transfixed by what were for me, images so fresh and so simultaneously direct and complex that I felt tears prickle at the corner of my eyes. I’m a mum, and easily moved to tears one could argue, but moved I was. Moved, not only as a painter and drawer, but also as a person. Our ancestors reached out to me over 30,000 years through these drawings that looked like they could have been made yesterday.
The arts are intricately woven through the fabric of our daily communication. Our world is enveloped in these visual, aural, kinesthetic, and performance based communications that are as old as speech itself. Visual communication in forms of artifacts and images have been found dating back 100,000 years.
The community in that cave would have watched as the images took shape around them. How many people participated in making them? What did it mean for them? Did they share stories about the animals they had drawn as the flames of the hearth cast dancing shadows up the walls and across the images, making them dance too? Whatever they talked about, those images surrounded them in their life, in that cave. They would have accompanied children as they lay down to sleep, slipping stealthily into their dreams.
30,000 years later, in a small New Zealand town…
One day, out of the blue, Grandma came to visit me at the museum where I worked organizing education and public programmes.
“Grandma come in. Look around!”
“No thanks love, I’ll wait for you at the door.”
She never came in. We had a chat outside and then she went off shopping.
In many cultures today, the “fine arts”, despite many attempts to break down perceptions, are often pigeon-holed and associated with a somewhat elitist world. My grandparents were never comfortable in a gallery. Museums were possibly a little more accessible. The arts in general baffled and intimidated them. They viewed them all with suspicion, with their revolutionary political views, or alliances with “society” and patrons. The arts were out to make them feel stupid. The arts were found inside uncomfortable places, places that were irrelevant to them. So they remained outside. Art School was the last place they wanted me to go.
Unlike my grandparents, I had another cultural experience of the arts.I was lucky enough to live some years in a community that was predominantly Māori. The arts were woven throughout daily life to such an extent, that one couldn’t see where one “art” ended and another began. The arts belonged to everyone and they were an important wider text for reading what was going on. The ability to decode them formed part of the multi-modal and multi-dimensional literacy required to meaningfully navigate that culture.
Tattoo as a multi-dimensional text
As an example of this multi-dimensional quality, I will use the case of the tattoo. In New Zealand, tattoo is a sacred art form. Recently, a member of the New Zealand parliament, the Labour MP for Hauraki-Waikato Nanaia Mahuta, took part in a traditional moko (tattooing) ceremony that paid tribute to both the former Māori queen and the current king. It was held at his marae (tribal meeting place), called Waahi Pā. She had a tattoo put on her chin, which is a traditional place for Maori women to wear a tattoo. The following story has been adapted from an article by Mihingarangi Forbes (2016), Māori Issues Correspondent for Radio New Zealand . I have added translations of Māori concepts:
Ms Mahuta is the niece of the late Māori queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangi Kaahu, and a close relation to the current Māori monarch, KingiTuheitia.
Over the weekend, she and fourteen other women had lines of lineage etched into their chins, called the “moko kauae”, by four well-respected tohunga (Tā Moko–tattoo experts).
Her reasons for doing it and what it represented for her were many: “…my walk in life and kind of the way I want to go forward and make a contribution. That’s the main thing for me.”
While having the moko etched into her chin, she thought of those who’d worn them before her.
“My tupuna [ancestor] – the one that comes to mind was Piupiu, my great-grandmother. She was a strong woman in her own right, a contemporary of Te Puea [Princess Te Puea Herangi, CBE (9 November 1883 – 12 October 1952) a Māori leader from New Zealand’s Waikato region]. So, on my Maniapoto [tribe] side I draw a lot of strength of character from there, and my Ngāpuhi [tribe] side, so she came to mind immediately.”
The design, which is unique to her, also replicates patterns from the wharenui [meeting house], called Tane-i-te-pupuke-at, the marae [official meeting place of a tribe], where the ceremony took place.
And it was someone very close to Ms Mahuta who inspired her to take part.
“Actually my daughter was the one that put the challenge out there so I embraced the challenge and she saw it and said ‘Mama, I love your moko [tattoo], I love your moko'”.
As you can see, this tattoo isn’t just a text on her chin, an art work separated from other things to be read. Time and timing, space and place, carving, building, tribal ground, community, kinship, connection, ceremony, meditation, honour, recognition, duty, humility. These concepts, seen and decoded in a Maori context, make the tattoo, her moko kauae, a text that reaches out and joins into much more than itself. You need to be literate in all the parts of that ecosystem to understand that tattoo.
There has been a lot of debate over the years of cultural appropriation. That is when someone, more commonly from a colonizer state, takes the cultural artifact of another group and makes use of it for themselves. Think of how the Mexican flower skull, used for ancient celebrations during El Día de los Muertos, has become a fashionable Halloween costume. As a New Zealander, I see “tribal tattoos” frequently on the arms and legs and backs of people here in Europe. They are found on unknown arms, all mixed up and decontextualized. A Maori tattoo artist would say that this type of “Maori Tribal Tattoo” is no longer a tribal tattoo of theirs. It is profaned. Appropriated. A meaningless set of squiggles.
The questions to ask are:
- Is a Maori tattoo still tribal art if it hasn’t been done by a Maori artist?
- What about a non-Maori artist respectfully following the protocols. Is it a Maori tattoo? Is it “traditional”? Does this mean an art form can only be done by someone who has the genetics of the people who traditionally perform or make it?
- What if the design is changed and no longer reads “correctly”? Does it matter?
- Or if a traditional men’s leg tattoo from the Pacific, considered a sacred thing, is printed onto some Nike lycra leggings for women?
Yes, lots of tough questions. But this is what the arts create. Provocation and questions. It is a text that flickers shadows from its hearth in the cave, making everything seem suddenly different.
Art as Text?
I can see art theorists waggling their fingers in the air and bursting their buttons to argue against my calling art a text. So, yes, I’ve called art a text, and we’ve looked at how art in some cultures forms part of a wider literacy about the world around them and is used in certain fixed ways to convey messages and meaning. I’ve also raised questions about appropriation of culture and arts practice. So yes, alright, now it’s your turn art theorists.“What about the place of interpretation?”, they ask.“Why can’t someone take what they see and give it a new interpretation?”
Artists, and conceptual artists in particular, in the 20th and 21st Century, though there are examples from earlier, have worked to overturn standard canons and to explore possibilities of tension and struggle between a cultural practice and experiment with making new meaning. This brings us to the arguments between images and written or aural/oral text. What makes a text a text?
Text. It’s become a very popular word since the 1950s according to Google definitions. The word in our world of English teaching has come from the branch of linguistics known as Text Linguistics,and, as a concept, has evolved from just considering sentence and word to also considering a text’s setting, i.e. the way in which it is situated in an interactional, communicative context as well as cultural context.
But the issue with art is that it loves to evade being pinned down as soon as we’ve pinned it. It will often take an existing “text” and invent something new with it. And here’s a big question for you: Should art “say” anything at all? Should it “speak”? When the lights go out in the gallery, does it continue to speak? Or does its existence in front of you mean that it is you who makes it speak? Enough. We’re heading perilously into the depths here. The arts don’t always “speak” to us as verbal language does, it doesn’t explain or talk, but instead offers other possibilities.
“Images, like texts, have a rhetoric of arrangements which signify, but there is no syntax that articulates their parts and binds them into a whole.” (Dillon, 1999)
“All images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader [is] able to choose some and ignore others.”-Roland Barthes. (as cited in Dillon, 1999)
Polysemous means to have many meanings. Signifieds are the concepts expressed by a sign. The Spanish philosopher Emilio Lledó (2000) argues that the written text is an echo. We lose part of its meaning the author intended with time and space. But it’s a good echo for the most part. The power of the arts is that it loves its ambiguity. It takes its “floating chains” of signifieds and plays.
Mining the Visual World
American artist Fred Wilson broke ground when he presented his exhibition“Mining the Museum: An Installation” (Return of the whipping post: Mining the museum, 2013) in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1992 . The exhibition took place in an historical museum where the artist explored and presented the collections according to very different criteria to what had been used before. The new juxtaposition of one object to another purposefully created tensions. There was very little written interpretation, but what there was added a new tension between written text and image. His aim was to reshuffle our assumptions. Calling it “Mining the Museum” was play on words in itself, as it was also inferring that he wanted “to make the museum mine”. Unlike my grandmother, who never went past the reception desk, Wilson went in and owned the place. What was successful about what he did was in the way he interpreted and presented the collections of the museum was that it was suggestive and provocative, but wasn’t fixed or moralizing. Image can do that. Its polysemous nature means it can show but not always“tell”.
Consider this visual “text” below.
Consider its context. A typical history museum in Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society
- How do Museums typically categorize objects?
- Who collected these objects and put them in a museum?
- What is the history of the area where this Museum is?
- Who typically makes decisions about what is displayed in a Museum? Whose point of view might it embody?
- Consider who the artist is: Fred Wilson is an American artist. He describes himself as of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” descent.
- How does the artist’s identity inform what and how you see this exhibition?
Now read the Museum “Label” for this exhibit: “Metalwork 1793-1880.”
What information is normally on a museum label? How is the artist playing with the idea of “Labels”? The written text and visual “text” create a powerful tension and work because of their simplicity. What do the dates refer to?
Here’s one more image taken of this exhibition. Look carefully at what you see and consider both the traditional categorizations and the artist’s new one:
Museum label: “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960”
This is what makes the arts complex and endlessly thought provoking. As I have described, in many cultural contexts, the arts form an intrinsic part of language ecosystems. Back in the Chauvet cave, visual art wasn’t separated from everyday life. It reflected it, and informed it. However, thousands of years later, my grandmother couldn’t have felt more separated from it. We’ve seen how muddy things get when artists take cultural norms of communication and invert, challenge, or appropriate them, bringing outside ideas in, and being informed by different times and circumstances. They challenge us to consider the fixed state of things by unfixing them. It’s an uncomfortable state at times, I’ll admit, but we’re dealing with a world of texts that flicker and move, some more consciously than others. We are multi-modal and multi-dimensional in our communication. We have been so for more than 100,000 years.
The new problem facing us is the quantity of visual material we digest daily is like nothing seen in human history. My children, had they been born in the Chauvet cave, would have contemplated those images as they formed and were added to over time. The images they looked on would have reflected the world directly outside the cave, speaking to them of what they knew. And they would have been some of the few images they ever saw.
Today, we hardly have time to register what we’re seeing before it’s gone. And even if we do give time to really “see”, how can we meaningfully interpret anything, given the little time invested in learning to negotiate these “floating chains” of meaning? To be continued….
- Dillon, G. (1999, July). Art and the Semiotics of Images: Three Questions About Visual Meaning.[online][accessed on 1/2/2017]. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/dillon/rhethtml/signifiers/sigsave.html
- Forbes, M.(2016, August 9). Mahuta in MP tattoo first.[online][accessed on 2/2/2017]. Retrieved from http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/310409/mahuta-in-mp-tattoo-first
- Lledó, E. (2000). El Surco del Tiempo. Barcelona: Critica.
- Herzog, W. (Director & writer). (2010). Cave of Forgotten Dreams [Documentary].USA: IFC Films.
- Return of the whipping post: Mining the museum. (2013, October 10). Retrieved from http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2013/10/10/return-of-the-whipping-post-mining-the-museum/
Involved in all aspects of ELT since 1999, Emma began her teaching career working in museum community education projects. Emma is currently Director at Frameworks Education Group and founded ELTcampus in 2014, an online learning platform for teacher development. The TEFL Preparation Course was shortlisted for an ELTon in Innovation in Teacher Resources. She edits, designs and writes for the ELT Today newsletter and its monthly podcast.
She works in teacher development for CLIL, has an interest in the application of teaching artistry in LT, is a practising visual artist and member of the Visual Arts Circle for Language Learning.