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We live in a literate society that accepts the power of the word. An endless babble from radio and TV floats in the air around us; the printed word fights for our attention from posters and notices, from newspapers and magazines, from books and leaflets.
It seems taken for granted that anything can be expressed in words, that words can explain everything. Our whole education system is geared to the dogma. Compulsory education tries to ensure that all Her Majestyís subjects are literate, making periodic checks on progress through examinations, and the regular award of certificates to the proficient. To emerge illiterate in the face of this onslaught of words is to be a failure, to incur a social stigma.
The word is god.
To doubt that, to assert that there are non-verbal areas of life and living where words are inadequate or useless, is almost a heresy. So, when I resort to my claim to be an inarticulate artist, my friends smile knowingly and into their eyes comes that distant look which tries to hide the thought: ďHeís putting on that boring dumb artist act again.Ē
When I say that Iím an inarticulate artist, I donít mean that I canít talk about art and artists and their work; I can and do, frequently. One has to be able to talk about art, particularly oneís own art, in these days of accepted self-promotion in the media, informed but non-painting critics, of grants and exhibition facilities controlled by nominees at the Arts Council and other such authorities. And most of what is said on such occasions is an astute stringing together of accepted labels and jargon, empty but resounding phrases picked up from the verbiage written on the meaning of art by people who donít produce art; words that have acquired sufficient familiarity and veneer of significance to maintain the polite fiction that two-way communication is established.
How does one verbalise a non-verbal experience? Allegory, metaphor, analogy, are literary devices that hover round the fringes of meaning, processes of thought as ultimately self-defeating as the cyclic enclosed search for the meaning of a word in the dictionary. Pictures with literary associations get by in this literate-based society: pictures that tell a story, pictures that are simple descriptions of appearances, landscapes, still-lifes, portraits. Once an artist ventures to create abstractions, non-representational work, the result is chaos for the literate but visually untrained, and there is a wail of: ďBut what does it mean?Ē
The trouble is that too many of us take our literacy for granted, forget the hard work entailed in its acquisition learning the alphabet, the rules of spelling and grammar, the many years spent mastering the language sufficiently to express ourselves. Perhaps most of us are exhausted with the effort and do not wish to start all over again in order to master the non-verbal visual world. Because that is what needs to be done if we are to explore the visual side of things with understanding. Words are of marginal help only: visual ideas can often be complex but expressed simply and directly, put over with more impact and speed than using words, rousing feelings and high emotion without a word being said.
To be able to handle colour expressively, to manipulate shapes and patterns, to establish visual relationships is something that has to be learnt, just as we learn to handle words as tools of thought. It seems a pity that our society is not concerned with liquidating "visual illiteracy".
I know why I like this picture. Give me a pen and a piece of paper to scribble on and I may be able make you see what attracts me to it, if it is not immediately obvious to you.
But donít expect me to explain in words... ■
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