Abstract Critical

The Language of Painting?

Written by Alan Gouk

Alan Gouk Isabelline Wheatear, 1989-93 oil on canvas, 96 x 285 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

Alan Gouk, Isabelline Wheatear, 1989-93, oil on canvas, 96 x 285 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

The first thing one learns about the origins of written languages is that pictographic signs play a very small part in their development and represent a very primitive stage. Then come cuneiform signs, hieroglyphs, logo-grams, logo-syllabic scripts, alphabetic scripts.

So the relationship of words, either spoken or written, to “things”, is a world away from that of visual sensation to its pictorial presentment. The pictographic representation of a tree has a morphological link to its object – this means that its significatory function is radically different from that of sign to “thing” in writing. In developed languages the link between signs and their objects has become arbitrary; not the case when it comes to painting. It is much closer to “reality” (however defined) than is the word.

Drawings on Mayan ceramic vessels are like a strip cartoon, with glyphs acting like bubbles above the figures; they have a marvellously fluid line-drawing style of great economy in deliminating figures.[1] From an aesthetic perspective, decipherment of the glyphs (partly logographic, partly phonetic apparently) adds little to our appreciation of this art, or even its “meaning”, though of course of great interest from an anthropological point of view. Its “meaning” as art is not circumscribed by its meaning as historic record, and is, of course, entirely non-verbal.

The pictorial world is a direct modification of visual sensation concentrated on the one plane, akin to the construction of perception-confusing rooms in experimental psychology. Think of Piero della Francisco’s Flagellation of Christ, or Vermeer’s The Love Letter.

How words came to stand for things is one of science and philosophy’s impenetrable mysteries, involving as it does incantation, song, rhythmic chant and the kind of poetic imagination hinted at in the following passage from Robert Caldwell on the origins of the Dravidian language (and the Indus script, as yet undeciphered):

“Who that has seen the phosphorescence flashing from every movement of the fish in tropical seas or lagoons at night, can doubt the appropriateness of denoting the fish that dart and sparkle through the water, as well as the stars that sparkle in the midnight sky, by one and the same word – a word signifying that which glows and sparkles.” [2]

This is more suggestive of the way language developed, an exclamation of wonder, naming, and its connection to poetic vision, than any of the more prosaic speculative accounts currently in circulation.


Painting is not “structured like a language”, nor does sculpture share a syntax with language, nor does music. Hans Keller in his last book Criticism, says that music is not a language since it is cannot be translated (and as yet no written language can be deciphered unless it has links to another known language). Therefore structuralist and post-structuralist linguistic theory and literary criticism are irrelevant to the analysis of painting. All figures of speech, and the metaphoric, metonymy, synecdoche, trope etc., – indeed meta-anything, should be banished from critical discourse as a gross misapplication of language if applied to visual art.

Alan Gouk Lava Gull, 1991 oil on canvas, 143 x 369 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

Alan Gouk, Lava Gull, 1991, oil on canvas, 143 x 369 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

And dreams are not “structured like a language”; only the interpretation of dreams. If they were, Finnegan’s Wake would be much more accessible than it is, and everyone their own self-engendered Joyce. Whereas, of course, only Joyce had the genius to run with the conceit that language could mirror the night-time journeying of everyman, an imaginative creation of his own vision of Irish archetypes in the phylogenetic origins of language, and the infinite malleability of “meaning”. The Wake is an extreme point of style and it has had no progeny.

The allure of subjectivity biased, obscurantist, pseudo-scientific French literary theory for nice-but-dim art theorists has wreaked untold damage to the tenor of art-critical discourse. Subjective obscurity in poetic literature is one thing, but it has no place at all in criticism. This is a clear case of the consequences of mis-applying one kind of discourse, however flawed, to another, in which it has no valid place – unless you want to resurrect the whole edifice of narrative symbolism that necessitated the forked-tongued double-voice with which even the greatest painters were obliged to address their patrons before the cleansing hand of “modernism”.

Noam Chomsky, a rationalist committed to a scientific exploration in structural linguistics, and somewhat of an expert in the field, concludes that the surface-structure solipsism of Saussurean semiotics is “totally inadequate” to deal with even the most elementary of the challenges to understanding thrown up by more recent and more sophisticated research in structural linguistics, grammar and syntax; let alone semantics. And he is skeptical as to the value of linguistics in shedding light on the perennial problems in philosophy, the concepts of the mind, thinking, the relationship of thought to experience. The way in which language “mirrors” the world is as daunting as ever, and how it originated, evolved, a surpassing mystery still.

Chomsky’s position is that instead of trying to make language conform to some devised system of logic, structural linguistics should study the hidden logic revealed by analysis of grammar as it occurs in enduring language use. Behind this surface-structure, there lies a deep structure which conforms to the logic of the mind as it tries to order experience, and to which all human languages conform. It has become innate over many centuries, such that a child, exposed to a very partial and fragmentary encounter with language use is more-or-less able to create new and meaningful sentences; i.e. learning not by rote, but by internalising the principles of grammatically correct speech, principles that are already potential at birth – just as birds are able to migrate long distances without being taught to do so.

And that words like “sign” or “symbol” do not come near to capturing how words actually do work, both in the formation of sentences, concepts, or in referring to aspects of “the world”, or experience. In writing what may have begun as a pictographic sign is quickly modified by the act of writing itself, the flow of the implement used etc., into a kind of short-hand in which the original sign is transformed until its pictorial element is lost. Not so in art, painting or drawing; here the short-hand – dots and dashes of paint or line retain their direct visual role and are continually brought back into a correspondence with the “facts” of visual sensation (even in abstraction).


Chomsky does not even mention the likes of Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, Lyotard and co., for the obvious reason that they operate in the utterly unscientific, disreputable genre of literary theory and cultural criticism which has its own hidden animuses and ideological agendas. Post-structuralism is as disreputable in relation to structural linguistics as post-modernism in relation to “scientific” or “rationalist” modernism; i.e. Cubism, Mondrian, de Stijl, though both rationalist and irrationalist are in operation – architecture and vertigo apply not only to Picasso’s analytical cubism, but to all great painting.

Yet in the shallows of art-theory the post-structuralist and post-modernist confusion still holds sway. I read recently in one such tract the announcement that “children paint symbols, not what or how they see”. The glib assurance of this mangling of fact and fiction is only made possible by an amateur dabbling in recent popularising dilutions of the arcane world of linguistics. What the author meant, I suppose, is that there is a conceptual element to every act of drawing, however innocent, but this act of simplification does not make it a symbol, or even a sign (in the terminology of linguistic theory at least) – it is a vision, a memory trace of the immediate coup d’oeil of sensation – “the humble transcription in terms of paint, of sensation itself”, reduced to its simplest cognitive terms – unconscious memory – and concentrated on the plane surface.

Alan Gouk Hermit Crab Torso, 2010 oil on canvas, 56 x 112 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

Alan Gouk, Hermit Crab Torso, 2010, oil on canvas, 56 x 112 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

When Picasso said that it had taken him a life-time to learn to paint like a child (or un-learn), he paid tribute to the essential paradox of cognition versus impulse which lies at the heart of the modernist enterprise.

And when it comes to painting, the sheer delight in applying, or dabbing down blobs of brightly coloured pigment occludes signification, and thus brings us back to David Webb’s toy elephant. Is it possible to speak of a pre-significatory stage in child-art, and if so, how would we know, since the moment we ask a child “what it is”, we have tainted the process Heisenberg-style beyond hope of discovery? The last person I would consult about the stages of development in child art would be a linguist, just as the last person I would consult on the analysis of “expression” in music would be a semiologist.

My grand-children paint or draw houses, birds, mummy and daddy, snowflakes… as and how they “see” them, with wonder, as the fish in the lagoon and the stars in the midnight sky were seen – and named – with syncretistic vision (modified by millennia of phylogeny a la Chomsky).

But as already discussed, naming is not the same as drawing. A drawn sign for a tree, a flower, a bird, does not stand in relation to its object in the same way as the words do to theirs. And as Croce would have it, perception involves an intuition, irreducible to words, which can only be experienced in the “expression” of it – i.e. through an artistic transformation. It is essentially an aesthetic act. That is one way of putting it – there may be others as persuasive. So even cognition, perception involves the intuition of gestalts. To extend that experience over something as complex as a sequence of “effects of sensations apprehended in their relations” (Roger Fry) is what painting is all about. In the abstract picture, this “gestalt” will be relational, and spatial, and involves a plastic purpose.

Picture 5

Alan Gouk, Mare Fecunditatis, 2007-8, oil on canvas, 203 x 481 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

We can always ask, “What is the significance of that signification?” If a child asks, “Why is the sky blue?”,  our answer will rub up against the limits of scientific knowledge, if we have any. But if in a painting, the child asks “Why is the sky blue?” we will give quite a different answer. And more interestingly, if the question is “Why is the sky red?” – in, say, a painting by Altdorfer (Rome is burning, the sky is lit up by flames) – we will be forced to give an answer which involves not “What does it mean?”, but “What is the artist trying to do?” (Or if we are very clever we will ask the child back, “Why do you think it is red?)

When a child keeps on asking “Why?” they are asking for a more extended version of the connection between words and experiences, not just an account of how words or concepts interconnect, i.e. not just an exercise in semantics, grammar or syntax – though it may seem like that when one answers them. Underlying their questioning is an attempt to understand the world, and connect language to other parts of their experience – their emotions, fantasies, play, reverie, dream.


A symbol has a historically determined and culturally accepted “meaning” or complex of meanings (standing for different concepts in different contexts), whereas in modernist art it is precisely the novelty of the context in which pictographic signs find themselves that frees them from conventional “meanings”. The artist “personalises” them, renders them malleable to his or her pictorial world (even if quoting from some past references, or using them ironically), so their exegesis should primarily concern their autonomous function in the life history of the artist and in his or her dialogue with other artists; for example, the role played by apples in the private iconography of Cézanne and its “referencing” by Matisse later, in works like Bowl of Apples on a Table (Chrysler Museum, Virginia) or Apples (both 1916). What do these latter “symbolise”? – They symbolise an affectionate tribute to Cézanne, and to the health giving power which comes from great art. 

Children’s art, apart from “signifying” people and things, is driven by emotions, fears, anxieties, and these are conveyed directly through the seismographic effect of welding an implement. The child’s emotion is telegraphed directly through the concentratesd effort of psychic energy released onto the page by the implement in hand. And it is this semi-conscious expression that is the envy of the mature artist.


[1] Such as those reproduced in Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts, Thames and Hudson, 2009, pg 139

[2] Caldwell is quoted in Robinson, Lost Languages

  1. Peter Stott said…

    The computer graphic revolution, digitization and the developing technology of computer vision offer a different context with which to begin to assess abstraction, not seeing it as a collection of language-like signs but as raw data. The principle remit of computer vision research is to see how visual language can be illusionistic of the perceived external world i.e. how it accurately represents architectonic form and space. Because the 2D has the ubiquitous geometric facility to represent 3D, the possibility exists that all abstract art is an accurate illusionistic representation of architectonic form and space, however one can’t access this because it is outside of one’s ordinary cognitive faculty, this perceptual world is squashed flat, as 2D data. Theoretically Pollock’s Lavender Mist (to reference John Holland) could be augmented with additional surface and spatial depth/orientation cues, so that it could be perceived as an accurate representation of form and space, but what form and space? Something immaterial, virtual, mysterious, spiritual even. Maybe the structure of consciousness or the mind of God. Whatever it might be, there seems to be ‘something’ to abstraction, some innate knowledge of something yet to be understood. If there wasn’t then we (us abstract artists) wouldn’t be so captivated by the experience of making and looking.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Here’s an interesting mathematical analogue to what you are saying. Any four sided shape, 3-D, say four wires joined at their ends – ANY such shape, remembering that the sides can have any length and the shape can be twisted in any way you like, can be projected onto a plane to make ANY possible four sided 2D shape. It depends on the selection of the point of projection and the angle of the plane. This suggests that the possible number of real objects that can be implied by any drawing is huge. In what space can they be made to pop back up? In our imaginations I suppose.

      • Peter Stott said…

        …Some sort of cognitive form and space if only one could access the visions, visions ordinarily hidden from view by the very data they’re made up of. Until now,that is. The CGI revolution offers up for the first time in the history of mankind, the possibility of modeling all these forms in virtual space and articulating them so that we might see them. Any such development would be the biggest thing in the history of art. From my research into computer vision I’m of the opinion that scientists are a very long way off, from achieving this goal. Nevertheless, I think it’s a valid context for abstract art. I make and look at ‘abstract’ art with such technology in mind.

  2. Richard van der Aa said…

    Thank you for the very interesting article.
    As a painter who makes work to be seen and understood in series – I have long thought of my work as analagous to written language. The individual pieces take on meaning in relation to each other just as the letter, morpheme or word takes on meaning when presented in a certain order or grouping. Of course the meaning of my abstract forms in not precise but each gives the other a reason for being. In that sense I would say that visual art still functions as a form of language.

  3. Alan Fowler said…

    In questioning the idea of art as language, John Holland appears to suggest that there are no equivalents in painting of verbs, tenses and word definitions.
    What about lines, squares, circles, individual colours, and mathematical proportions, ratios, series and and sequences ? And in music, notes, intervals, time signatures and keys ?
    Isn’t it by the assemblage or combination of these basic elements that painting and music achieve their visual and aural meanings ? And in that sense, isn’t there at least a parallel between “word-based” language and other forms of communication which draw on their own vocabularies of images and sounds ?

    • John Holland said…

      There’s no real equivalence between a circle, or yellow, and any component of language. What does a circle mean? Does it mean the same in the halo in an early Renaissance painting as it does in a Ben Nicholson relief? Does the colour yellow mean the same in a Turner as a Mondrian? The word ‘that’, say, or ‘neck’, means the same in a Shakespeare sonnet as it does in a dubstep rap, and we can define pretty precisely what that is- because it actually is part of a language.
      If anyone who claims that art is in any meaningful way a language could translate (not describe, or subjectively interpret, but translate) Pollock’s Lavender Mist, then I’d be some way to being convinced.
      I did enjoy Steve Butler’s suggestion that an oscilloscope reading could be a meaningful translation (as opposed to a selective measurement) of a piece of music, though.

      • Alan Fowler said…

        John – I wasn’t suggesting that a painting (or elements of it) can be “translated” into words. Painting and music are different forms of communication, but my point is that in their composition or creation they draw on “vocabularies” specific to their visual and aural “languages”. To that extent syntactically, there is a parallel with what I termed “word-based” language. But if you ask what a work like Lavender Mist “means”. just look at it – that’s what it says !

  4. jenny meehan said…

    ooops, RESONANT!

  5. Irwin Shure said…

    Given the great wash of verbiage in support of post-modernist, post-structuralist etc painting one has to say “show, don’t tell”. Without the explanation we would not know what to make of it. So I’m glad to see Alan Gouk making a thrust of it, even if his exposition strays beyond his expertise in places. Given the seriousness of the situation this amounts to a mere quibble. Of course there’s a sub-text to his thesis, a career to be made, a psychological neccesity to be played out. So what. It is amusing though to think of Roland Barthes’ “Pleasure of the Text” where he advances the cause of “jouissance” (play) in language. Joyce is at the summit of this achievement and Gouk merrily references him, literary or not, in his influences and titles. The case is far from simple. Gouk drew my attention to Webb’s “Toy Elephant”. We could quite simply cut to the chase. The image is banal. Gouk obviously lives in the world, this bunch has its head buried in the shifting sands of academe. One is thankful for any glimmer of light showing through the post-modernist fog.

  6. Steve Butler said…

    1) ‘Deliminating’ is, as far as I can tell, not a real word. =Delineating?
    2)’Music is not a language because it cannot be translated’. This seems to me to imply a wholly inadequate definition of language – and in any case it’s not true. If to ‘translate’ means ‘to find analogous signs, sounds or signifiers with which to attempt to impart or find an equivalence for the original sense’, then music can be translated: for example, into visual animations which render sound textures and rhythms as colours, shapes etc. (see Disney’s Fantasia). It can also be translated by verbal description, though perhaps not well, and of course translated from heard sounds into written signs. The success or adequacy of these as translations is irrelevant; translations are, however, what they are. The use of an oscilloscope would directly translate of music to light. In any case, languages are not defined by their translatability (if that too is a word) but by their components, structures and functions.
    To argue that painting cannot be discussed or analysed using structuralist or post-structuralist theory because these are somehow ‘literary’ and therefore inadequate because painting is ‘not a language’ is patent nonsense. All art imparts meaning however vague,’misapprehended’ or intuited, non-verbal, ‘felt’; it is also given meaning by context (gallery, book, museum, auction house, rubbish-tip). Art is therefore, broadly, discursive. It is ‘read’ in many ways. Structuralist and post-structuralist theory, amongst other things, are therefore of as much use in examining both works of art and art as a (poly-)cultural and historical phenomenon.

    • Steve Butler said…

      Sorry: corrections!
      “The use of an oscilloscope would directly translate music into light”
      “Structuralist and post-structuralist theories, amongst other things, are of much use in examining… etc.”

  7. Robert Linsley said…

    Sam, I’m being ironic to make a point. As the writer says: “Behind this surface-structure, there lies a deep structure which conforms to the logic of the mind as it tries to order experience…etc.” Is there no such deep structure in art? Does it have to be communication to have such a structure? At the beginning of his article he also says: “…pictographic signs play a very small part in [the development of language] and represent a very primitive stage…” If at the very beginning of the human mind words and pictures were one, that’s a pretty strong argument that art is a language. But then all of this is speculation. I don’t know the deep structure of the mind – who does? It’s all a big muddle, probably because it comes down finally to a purpose. Isn’t a picture more than the purposes of its maker? I should hope so. There is a difference between a purpose and a meaning, but that seems a little muddled too. If art has a meaning then it must be a language, especially if that meaning has been planted by the artist. I would say bad pictures are obviously like language, and are full of meaning, but all good pictures are more than the artist’s intended purposes and meanings, and so likely do have a deep structure which then also MAY be like a language. The existing literary tropes might be inadequate but they are all we have at the moment. Synechdoche means part standing for whole. Isn’t every representation of the world a part that stands for a whole? Or, to pick up on the Dravidians, couldn’t analogy also be called a trope?

    • Sam said…

      Ok, yes, with you. This is in part what I was getting at with my comment that the gloss matters as much as the truth or otherwise of what Alan has written. Not so much style over substance, though that as well, but range and type of reference over substance. It seems to be more telling that he evokes stars and fish over a lagoon than how much of a coherent example said stars, fish and lagoon is of the point (or points) he is making about the actual way in which the brain, language etc functions.

    • John Holland said…

      Though it will deeply pain Mr. Gouk, I agree that art is not a language, except in the most metaphorical way. It’s not true to say that, “If art has a meaning, then it must be a language”; language is a particular conception, and all real languages share certain necessary features,such as modular units that must be arranged according to quite strict syntactical rules if they are to make sense. What are the equivalents in painting of tenses, verbs, word definitions? Any metaphorical application of the word ‘language’ to art (or music) is too vague to be useful. Maths, maybe, is the only thing that might meaningfully be called a non-verbal language.

      As Gouk suggests, a work like Finnigan’s Wake pushes the rules about as far as they will go before sense breaks down- which is why, by and large, literature has had to ‘retreat’ since then to more conservative forms. There’s no equivalent in Modernist painting.
      Art has meaning, but it lies largely outside language- this is why it fails when it tries to operate in essentially verbally structured contexts like political discourse.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I’m in agreement that the claim “art is a language” is itself a metaphor. So I guess we can’t banish tropes. Tropes are the “basic structures” of the human mind – analogy, resemblance, substitution of all kinds.
        What I don’t like about “meaning” is the implied moralism.
        Art has meanings beyond language? A quibble. Beyond language and theory lies the whole universe, more than you can ever encompass in a “meaning.”

      • jenny meehan said…

        John, I find your comments very helpful. Interesting regarding Maths idea! Definitions of language vary a lot but you have clarified for me the difference between language and communication. Painting is a communication, and this reflects better the heart(and point)of this wonderful piece of writing, which I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with. Thank you Alan for the investment of your time in writing the article.

        There is a very BIG question mark (I see it hangs happily next to the title “The Language of Painting?” which hangs in my own thinking about how appropriate and effective words are in relation to the visual, and it’s really helpful to be able to read and be prompted to think in more depth. Especially helpful to have the examples of literary works too. (The rusty remnants of my own literary studies partly resurrected in the references. rrrrr!)

        I am glad to benefit from Alan’s insights, which are timely and much needed at the current time. As a lover of words and of paint, I think using literary terms for painting is both interesting and problematic. I don’t think they should be banned, but the use of them is unhelpful if they communicate the idea that painting is a identical form of communication, because it isn’t.

        In relation to Robert’s comment, I don’t find any implied moralism in the term “meaning”. Meaning to my thinking probably means (!!!) more like significance without a specific, individual signifier of the language variety! However, I will stop writing now as I sense myself entering the realms of both literary theory/linguistics in a way that as a painter, I am not much interested in!

        I’ve titled a recent exhibition I curated “Order and KAOS”(Chaos) partly I think because I was interested in the way the process of ordering is manifest in the paintings I selected, and how more expansive and limitless, more expressive and resonate, this is than anything an ordering of words might result in. But I may be being unfair to the logic of language. It too can orchestrate images in the mind, of course. Just not such tactile ones! Not giving the same experience. Less close. They should be the servant of painting, not the master though.

  8. John Holland said…

    Well at least you managed to squeeze in one of your obligatory insulting and willful misunderstandings of something I’ve said, so well done.
    Maybe time to move on now, though? It’s starting to look almost like a twisted erotic obsession or something, Alan.

  9. Robert Linsley said…

    “All figures of speech, and the metaphoric, metonymy, synecdoche, trope etc….should be banished from critical discourse”

    Interesting. I must suppose that you are a literalist, something like Judd. If a picture is (means, signifies, whatever you choose) something other than what it is, then it’s figurative, and one or more of the tropes applies. Granted, the literary tropes are arbitrarily invented – maybe we can come up with better ones. Is an artwork something other than what it is? Or maybe a picture is just colored stuff. But then you say “the abstract picture…involves a plastic purpose.” A poor expedient. When one can’t carry the argument through, just fall back on “intention,” as if that explains anything.

    I’m sympathetic to your effort, but we’re not any further ahead in defending the non-conceptual and non-linguistic in art if you end up with that.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      I think from reading the rest of the piece (I’m not sure if this implies contradiction or not) that Alan is not a literalist. A conflicted formalist, perhaps? It seems fairly clear that he is saying that a work of art is a direct response to the world and to experience, that is not mediated by, or at least not subservient to language. The references to incantation, song, dream, reverie, the directness of child art, surely differentiate him from Judd; unless you mean that these are simply gloss on an otherwise similar core? As I have no real way of judging the intellectual references in the piece, I couldn’t say whether or not that is true. And, though this might annoy Alan, I think that this gloss – there is probably a less loaded term – is as, or perhaps more important, in thinking about his aesthetic attitudes as the truth or otherwise of the theories of language etc., he writes about (or attacks) here.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I think, Robert, you are the literalist, as per your definition of unity (everything and anything) and your quest to divorce abstract art from meaning (as per your ‘Abstraction’ article). Why you would want to make meaningless art, I cannot imagine. For myself, I think Gouk pretty much makes good the case that visual art cannot be dealt with as if it were a language, and that it’s full and legitimate meaning is intrinsic.

      Nor is he in any sense a conflicted formalist (or even a non-conflicted formalist) Sam, as you should know. You are back to your metaphysical/formalist dichotomy again.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        And, Robert, if you don’t get ‘a plastic purpose’, then no wonder you don’t get this essay.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I seem to remember a very funny comment by Robin Greenwood to the effect that there is no god. Not to worry, meaning will save the day!

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I think, Robert, you and I possibly agree about more than we think we do. As I recall, this comment was associated with the statement that abstract art has no subject matter. This I hold true, but that doesn’t at all negate meaning. Is that what you are proposing when you “define abstraction as the negation of meaning”?

        Words, eh!