The Writing of Art, The Art of Writing

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The heated comment thread on HTMLGIANT that came up when Michael Jacobson’s new book, The Giant’s Fence, was mentioned, raises a great point about how we approach language. Jacobson advocates a form of writing that he calls “asemic writing”—that is, writing with no semantic content.

No one stares at a canvas of abstract art expecting to “read” a message. But when a book of asemic writing is presented, some people gripe and blow it off as a gimmick because there is nothing to read. Looking at examples by other asemic authors, I’m reminded of the artists Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel—featured in MoMA’s 2009 retrospective, Tangled Alphabets—whose lettering work is mostly illegible. I’m also reminded of petroglyphs from the American Southwest, John Cage’s illustrated musical scores, graffiti, and even T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets—all of which revere movement within a form and remind us that meaning and messages are not always obvious, or intended.

Trained to see and process the world in very specific ways when it comes to textual and visual communication, we recognize hints of the familiar and assume that it is familiar, assume that we indeed recognize the form and understand it. This relates to one of my other endeavors – Madonna of the Toast, an ongoing exploration of the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons.

In the Tangled Alphabets catalog, no one ever talks about either of the artist’s “writing messages”; their works that deal with language are drawings and paintings. Schendel said of her work, “I wouldn’t know how to theoretically distinguish an aesthetic object from a utilitarian one, because a utilitarian object can also be aesthetic.”

Graffiti totally supports Schendel’s statement and serves as the perfect link between this writing vs. art tension that some clearly bothers some people. The earliest tags were little more than a name and number (which represented the street that the writer called home). The markings were not particularly stylized at first but then folks like STAYHIGH 149 embellished their tags, paving the way for the elaborate burners that covered the trains and remain popular today. The folks that got up all over New York City starting in the 1970s did so to assert their individual presence. Other writers learned to read one another’s tags, but whether or not those out of the loop could read the tags was a non-issue. Graffiti is now part of the art world establishment, but the originators were not concerned with how those outside of the community saw the work.

Because The Giant’s Fence is presented as a book, the expectation is that it can be read in the traditional sense. It can’t, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. In fact, its essence seems to be the fact that it cannot be read.

In the Tangled Alphabets catalog, Andrea Giunta writes of Ferrari’s work: “Accumulations, rhythms, and repetitions suggest a code, a language. Arrayed in rows, forms repeat abstractly, linked together in a simulation of writing, but Ferarri’s code condenses their meanings so that they become more than words. Indeed, his work constitutes a persistent, continuous investigation into the limits and powers of language.”

Today, graffiti hangs in museums and galleries, but its creators are still known as “writers.” In this sense, there is nothing wrong or inaccurate about calling those interested in asemic writing “authors.” Such naming might challenge our preconceptions about language, but at the end of the day, all language really does is remind us of its shortcomings.