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Fine Art Theories and Histories: Text

What is text?
The term ‘Text’ has many complex and intricate meanings. Philosophers have labeled it a non-definable
concept. Its original use refers simply to a body of writing. The classical concept of text concerns only the
written and linguistic domains, where text is regarded as “an autonomous stable, coherent object with a
determinate identity”1, involving two components: The signifier, i.e. words which carry the meaning; and
the signified, i.e. the fixed meaning communicated by the text.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a semiotican who discerned that the combination of the signifier and the
signified constitute a ‘sign’, but their relationship is arbitrary. He clarifies that “‘arbitrary’ should not imply
that the choice of the signifier is left entirely to the speaker ... it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it
actually has no natural connection with the signified”2. He gives the example of the letters R, E, and D,
which form a word indicating a colour, but the word ‘red’ actually has nothing to do with redness. John
Berger comments, “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that
world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.”3 Language is not
representational, and words are just labels imposed on objects which exist ‘out there’ in the world.
Saussure and the Structuralists believed that we use language to name, label and compartmentalize the
world, imposing form on nature and structuring the way we perceive the world: “It is only through
functional structures that we are in any sense aware of reality”.4 This notion of the arbitrary nature of all
language and language-like systems has had a profound effect on art, and many of the concerns of
postmodernism have arisen from it.

Text can be anything which conveys meaning through the use of signs. This revelation means that the
realm of text can be extended from the form of written discourse to that of any object, regardless of
whether it is aesthetic, written or spoken. ‘Text’ refers to anything which is capable of being read or

Texts are the products of cultural codes, a coherent complex of signs from one or many sign systems,
therefore a ballet or play is a text. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, texts are the realities of thought and
experience, and the subject from which the disciplines of the human sciences arise; therefore where
there is no text there is no object of study, or even of thought. Theorists such as Derrida proposed that
the world itself can be viewed as a text.

In the 1960s the semiotican Roland Barthes investigated the role of semiotics in visual culture, and
attempted to analyze the mechanisms which generate meaning in visual images. He distinguished
between a "work," which he characterized as a finite body with an authorial intent and determinate
meaning which is ‘consumed’ by the reader, and a "text," which was indeterminate, open-ended, and
continually subject to reinterpretation as audiences changed.

In a contemporary context, the term is closer to its origins in the Latin ‘texere’ - to weave. In Barthes’ work
’The Pleasure of the Text’ he states that “Text means tissue…the generative idea that the text is made, is
worked out in a perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue - this texture - the subject unmakes himself, like

Kelly, M. ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, London: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 371
Saussure, F. ‘Properties of the Sign’ London: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 68-69
John Berger, Sven Bloomberg, Chris fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis, ‘Ways of seeing’. London: Penguin Books, 1977, p. 7

Kelly, M. ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, London: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 372

a spider, dissolving in the constitutive secretion of its web.”5 Barthes discusses interpreting the text not as
giving it a meaning, rather “to appreciate that plural which constitutes it… the networks are many and
interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers...
(...constellation...) we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can authoritatively be
declared to be the main one”. 6 This concept of polysemy asserts that a single text is comprised of many
references, consisting of several texts or elements of texts, gestures, images, or threads, woven into new
structures and patterns. ‘Intertextuality’ is the term proposed by Julia Kristeva (1969) to define this

‘Text’ in relation to historical uses in fine art and other disciplines

Art is text because it can be read and interpreted. This
drawing is defined by Barthes as “a text: a place of
multiple processes, reference, … and memories …
shaped and ordered unintentionally as well as
purposively by individual named Vincent Van Gogh.“7

The ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ in fine art

Text has been referred to as “composed of

discontinuous or continuous signs … the former, as

exemplified by painting, dance, sculpture, television,
film, dominates in contemporary culture.”8

Magritte parodies the habit of identifying signifier with signified. ‘The

Interpretation of Dreams’ confronts us with images of familiar objects
together with verbal labels. However, the words
The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh, 1889 and images are mismatched, and in fact the
labels do not correspond to any of the images.
The relation between the image of an object and
the verbal label attached to it is therefore presented as arbitrary.

James Monaco suggests that 'in film, the signifier and the signified are almost
identical... The power of language systems is
that there is a very great difference between Magritte, ‘The Interpretation
the signifier and the signified; the power of film is of Dreams’
that there is not.'9

The historical framework of art is rich and complex, and over the centuries a
substantial system of symbols and stereotypes has accumulated. The language of art refers to other art
texts and traditions. In this example Helen Chadwick appropriates the image of vanity. Meaning resides
Barthes, R. ‘The Pleasure of the Text’, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, p. 09
Barthes, R. ‘The Pleasure of the Text’, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, p.51
Pollock, G, ‘Beholding Art History: Vision, Place, Power, Vision and Textuality’, London: Macmillan Press, 1995 p.49-50
Semiotics Studies, ‘Signifiers’ http://www.arts.ouc/semiotics - consulted Nov 15th 04
Monaco, James, ‘How to Read a Film’, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 47

in the way in which this text is positioned within art history, which is a good demonstration of the
intertextuality of fine art.

Identity of a text
There are multifarious views as to where the meaning or identity of a text originates from. The New
Critics (1930s) believe that the aesthetic qualities and meaning originate from the text and not its author.
Conversely, for others such as Stanley Fish (1980), the identity of a text is not inherent but is conferred
by the interpreter or reader. This means that authorial intention, or ‘intentional fallacy’, does not
determine the meaning of a text and different readers will provide differing interpretations. Nelson
Goodman (1976) claims that identity is intrinsic to the syntax and language of text, so that for a literary
text, translation would yield a new meaning.

All these Anglo-American theories uphold that text possesses some type of essence or identity, whereas
continental views argue that the essence of text is constantly developing and being reinterpreted by new
audiences. Umberto Eco provides a compromise between these two extremes. He looks at the
‘labyrinthine structures’ of texts and observes that they do not communicate a fixed meaning or content.
But rather they stimulate reactions and transform the reader. Text “is ‘a lazy machinery’ that asks
someone to do part of its job.”10

In the specific case of fine art, it is difficult to identify where exactly the essence or meaning of the text
exists. A visual text is open to wider interpretation than a written or verbal one, mainly because it uses
symbols and images instead of words. Gunter Grass said that “words nail down meanings, whereas
pictures only provide an approximate description.”11 A word introduced into an artwork refers to specific
and finite connotations, whereas an image or sign signifier is read much more freely. This denotes that
the reader will bestow meaning on the artwork, drawing from their own knowledge; their own life
experiences; their own text. This indicates a potentially unique interpretation from every viewer.

Janet Wolff has commented that ”works of art are not closed self-contained and transcendent entities, but
are the product of specific historical practices on the part of identifiable social groups in given conditions
and therefore bear the imprint of those groups and their representatives in particular artists.”12 The artist
may use signifiers to bestow meaning on an art-text, or the identity of a text could be a reflection of
external cultural factors, and will therefore be in a perpetual state of change.

Death of the author, dematerialization of the artist

In the 1930s the New Criticism first asserted that the aesthetic qualities
and the meaning of a text originate from the text itself and not its author.
However, the long-established and insidious myth of art and literature
focuses us on the ‘specialness of the artist’: a personality type which is
born not made. To know about the author’s life, tastes and passions
was to know about the artwork.

This fetishism of artist, author and art is no longer a current way of

thinking, although artists today such as Tracy Emin still play on the
notion. Barthes’ essay entitled ‘Death of the Author’ (1977) changed the
way we think about authorship and texts. He described their
intertextuality as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of
writings, none of them original, blend and clash…a tissue of quotations
'What Do You Know About Love', drawn from innumerable centres of culture”13 therefore the author can
Tracey Emin 2000
Kelly, M. ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’. London: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 372
Alan Fletcher, ‘The art of looking sideways’. London: Phaidon Press, 2003, p. 390
Janet Wolff, ‘The Social Production of Art’. New York University Press, 1993, p.14
Barthes, R. ‘The Death of the Author’, ‘Image, Music, Text’’. London: Fontana, 1977, p. 372

never be original. This multiplicity can only be focused in the reader, not the author. “The birth of the
reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”14

The significance of the artist is diminished. Deferred authorship has been seen before in the use of
chance by Dadaists and automatism by Surrealists, aimed to generate spontaneous and collective
creative activity. The dematerialization of the artist is instantiated in Duchamp’s readymades and
Warhol’s factory crew, the art itself is what matters, not who produced it.

An interesting parallel can be drawn between Barthes' ideal of ‘liberating writing from the author’ and the
concept of hypertext, which presents possibilities of collective authorship and diminishes the idea of
writing as originating from a single fixed source: Each reader can add to, alter, or edit a hypertext, and
use it to move through a text in a non-linear fashion. The interpreter chooses his own path through the
text, and therefore writes it anew, placing different emphasis which may subtly inflect the meaning.

We know that texts cannot simply be read as a single message communicated by the author.
Deconstructive analysis uncovers ‘binary oppositions’ within a text, (for instance, maleness and
femaleness). The two contrasting concepts are ‘fluid’ and opposites are in fact so closely related that they
are impossible to separate fully as without one there would not be the other (without up, what is down?)
Therefore it could be said that categories do not exist, and text has no determinate, definitive reading.
According to post-structuralist philosopher Derrida it collapses because of internal contradiction, and in
this moment the text is said to deconstruct itself.

Feminism draws on ideas steming from this notion of deconstruction. Maleness is seen as the result of
one kind of relation to the phallus, and femininity of another kind to it. This makes the phallus the
signifier, but with two signified genders.

Text in Culture

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has

described social formations as texts
which can be interpreted in ways
similar to the interpretation of
literature. The Tartu school model
shown here illustrates how everything
which can be understood within a
culture is seen as a text, valued,
ordered and meaningful, and
everything outside culture is chaotic
and incomprehensible. "Text" is simply
anything going in and out of "culture". Texts cannot exist outside of culture. Non-texts are excluded, but
can be transformed by the mechanism of inclusion. This model is used to understand the relationship
between Russia and the West, during the time of Peter the Great and the slavophiles, for whom the part
of culture is played by the West and Russia, respectively.

Recent deployment of ‘text’ in fine art

David Salle is an American painter, most influential during the 1980s and early 1990s. His paintings,
analogous to the concept of intertextuality, use the device of pastiche to combine images of diverse
Barthes, R. ‘The Death of the Author’, ‘Image, Music, Text’’. London: Fontana, 1977, p. 372

styles based on found sources. He interweaves images, or signifiers, from sources as diverse as 18th-20th
century French and American painting to advertising from the fifties into the tissue of his texts.

In many of Salle's paintings, the idea and images behind the work are
literary as well as visual. He suggests “it is often a good idea to have
another painting inside of a painting, as a reiteration”15, which again
emulates intertextuality. Images in his texts, such as ‘the cat in the
bag’ he explains as “a linguistic image, it is a figure... to let the cat out
of the bag, it is also an image of how people would drown cats that
were unwanted … the images that I use are all images which you can
see through. They have a transparency.” However his combinations of
high art and low art images have come into criticism, due to his
cynical style, and lack of self-criticism. His work has been said to have
lost its vibrancy and his ‘postmodern eclecticism’ relabeled as ‘clever’
David Salle, ‘Bears Interiors’ 1998 irony. Perhaps he has taken the concept of intertextuality too literally?
If all art is a text then it is unnecessary to deliberately illustrate this
already inherent property.

Death of the gallery

The preoccupation of the world of fine art with semantics and deconstruction, in some opinions “has often
rendered art literally insubstantial, with many works depending on supplementary text for credibility”16.
The concepts of beauty and self-evident appeal have been demoted and the prevailing tendency toward
vague abstraction and ambiguous referencing, dictates that “catalogue notes can now easily occupy the
mind far longer than the objects being described”17. Surely the art has failed? It depends on quotation and
requotation, sampling and collage. This demonstration of intertextuality, perhaps suggests a crisis of
originality? Adrian Searle bemoans that “The death of the author, with its attendant eschatological
theorising, has been a blessing to people with no ideas to call their own.”18

The text of art history

The writer James Elkins has taken an interesting perspective on examining art history itself as a text: "Art
historical writing is strange, and interesting partly because of that strangeness: it is infused with curious
qualities, with stifled confessional eloquence, a sometimes fevered desire to capture art objects in words,
and an unrequited love for science and dryness....Who are we who spend our lives looking at pictures
and producing dry monographs in response?"19 He sees art historical writing as an expressive medium,
the "half-consciousness" of the art historians, who only have partial control over their work, is not a fault
but significant of the fact that art history, like other disciplines, is fundamentally a kind of writing; a text. It
is capable of emotion and reflection, "an object is always also a mirror of what I want to see and of how I
understand myself.”20 This autobiographical element to the writing implies a rhetorical attribute of
artwriting, which raises questions about the reliability of interpretation.

Elkins states that art history under analysis is transformed, “the glare of logic’ ‘bleaches the carefully
modulated colours of art history and makes whole stretches of it appear blank”.21 He draws on analyses
of texts by Derrida, as well as illustrations of artworks from various cultures. He compares the structure of
historical texts to the spiders web – the geometrical orb, he compares to modern theory; and the

Lacanian ink, ‘interview with David Salle’ - consulted Nov 04
Guardian uk, ‘Searle I have seen the future, and it sucks’ - consulted 25 Oct 2004
Guardian uk, ‘Searle I have seen the future, and it sucks’ - consulted 25 Oct 2004
Guardian uk, ‘Searle I have seen the future, and it sucks’ - consulted 25 Oct 2004
James Elkins, ‘Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing’, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 297
James Elkins, ‘Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing’, London: Routledge, 2000: p. 297
James Elkins, ‘Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing’, London: Routledge, 2000: p. 225

disorderly cobweb, to the more conventional ‘normal’ art historical form of writing. “Our texts appear as
history, as facts, as discoveries, as stories, even sometimes as truths and they function in all of those
capacities; but they are also our way of recording who we are. We need to begin to think about how our
quizzical, convoluted, dry, and distant writing tells the story of our lives”.22

Conclusion: The implications of text

So we see that the term text has very convoluted and conflicting implications. It is an abstract concept
which has changed the means of interpreting subjects as diverse as art, literature, hypertext, culture,
language and the human sciences, and indeed the way in which we perceive the world.

When reading the world’s text, different individuals relate and refer to different quotations and focuses of
culture, thus implying that everyone has a different reading. Do we all perceive world uniquely? The
Saussurean view that language structures and delimits the world, using the notion of signifiers and
signifieds, perhaps suggests that the extent of linguistic and cultural knowledge one has dictates how
much knowledge we can gain or interpret from the world.

Therefore an interpretation of a text can tell you more about the reader than the author or artist, both in
terms of what their knowledge and therefore interpretation of the text is, and also (as covered by James
Elkins), because the text becomes a mirror for the self.

James Elkins, ‘Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing’, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 296 -297