Abstract Critical

Art as Language or Art as Trope

Written by Robert Linsley

A recent discussion on abstract critical prompts me to go on a bit about abstraction and the uses of literary theory, for the pleasure of it anyway. Some things need to be clarified, so I hope the readers of this site will do me the service of listening while I think out loud, and perhaps even comment.

Alan Gouk asserts that art is not like a language at all, and this assertion has the merit of being strongly stated and unprovable. In response I assert that it may be, but doesn’t have to. After all, why should we put limits on what art can be? An artist can make art on the model of a language if they like, and it could be very great. I for one don’t like to police possibilities. But the question is whether there is some “deep structure” in art and language both, a discoverable identity. If so, we would all be working within unconscious and unbreakable limits, and the only way to step outside those limits would be some kind of work on the limits themselves, probably requiring that we become conceptual artists of one kind or another. I can understand Gouk’s distaste for this possibility, which I share. But there’s another way to think about it.

 Let’s try a thought experiment. A brilliant young philosopher finds a new way to turn her mind back on itself and discovers the deep structure of consciousness. She writes about her discovery, naturally to great acclaim. But then there must be another, as yet unrecognized deeper structure that allowed her to do that. A competing philosopher discovers THAT structure, and then of course we all have to recognize that the search for deep structures is infinitely regressive. It’s been many years since British philosopher Colin McGinn elegantly “solved” the mind-body problem by arguing that it is unsolvable, and I don’t see why we can’t stop somewhere around there. All speculation about deep structures is just that, speculation, so I’ve got a speculation as good as any – the deep structure of the mind, and hence of art, is on the surface. It’s a capacity to invent, construct, discover (no need to distinguish between these) likenesses, resemblances, similarities, correspondences, identities and analogies. The mind is a troping machine. Instead of claiming that art is structured like a language, why don’t we say that the mind is structured like art?

I have no brief with Gouk’s rejection of language as model, but my back got up when he said we should banish all talk about tropes. As John Holland then pointed out, to say that art is like a language is itself metaphorical talk – it’s that “is like” which is unavoidable. I challenge anyone to talk about art without an “is like,” even if only implicit. Meanwhile, railing against the theory of tropes, Alan Gouk wants us to accept that his patches of colour on a flat surface correspond to his personality, feelings, subjectivity, although he tropes all of those things as “pictorial purpose.” Here it might be appropriate to point out that figures of speech, or tropes, are devices of rhetoric, and it is rhetorically stronger to drop the “is like” and simply substitute one image for another. We might easily be persuaded that there actually is such a thing as “pictorial purpose” and forget that it is Alan Gouk’s own purposes that are being metaphorically presented as objective aspects of art. This is my second objection to his piece. He tropes like mad – as he must, as we all do – but then wants to put the game to an end at Gouk. The correspondence, analogy, resemblance between fish darting in the water and stars sparkling in the sky is breathtaking, and I would like to stay with it for a while (as it happens, I find a similar experience important for Jackson Pollock in a new piece soon to be published on Ab Crit), but to my disappointment the only star in Gouk’s night sky is the artist himself. Art is beautiful when it takes us from one resemblance to another – away from ourselves. Then it has the beauty of nature, the source of all poetry, whether in words or coloured shapes.

Some would say that art can become more abstract by preventing all possibility of an “is like.” Those pesky tropes keep art less abstract than we want. An heroic position, and worth the effort, but it’s going to require some distance on both purposes and meanings, both of which require tropes to get moving. How can a piece of art “mean” anything without an analogy drawn, a correspondence noted, a similarity seen or a substitution made? A meaning is itself a substitution for the thing and a reduction of its reality to conceptual dimensions.

It is legitimate to claim that the literary tropes are not a good match for art, but there is nothing to stop us from looking for others. John Holland mentioned mathematics as a possible non-literary language and it may well be, but I doubt that it is free from tropes. I’ve had some conversations about this with scientists who use mathematics, and have some (likely naive) thoughts.

Math works like this: one starts with a posited identity such as

(complicated expression x) = (complicated expression y)

and then performs a number of conventional operations to reduce the formula to one already proven or accepted, such as E=mc2 say. Then the newly proven formula might be taken by a scientist as equivalent to something in the world. Speculations about the universe, which always take the form of an identity or equivalence, are proven by reduction to other equivalents or identities through the use of a mathematical game of analogies. No one says that the world is a formula, but the formulae describe the world, with all of the necessary limitations of any representation, well known to artists. But then all math must reduce to the first and most fundamental identity: 1=1. When I mention this to my scientist friends they chuckle, and agree, but then observe that the equals sign (=) does not exactly mean identity, though they are not sure how to define the difference. So to say that x = y is not to say that they are exactly the same thing, any more than love is exactly a rose. Why couldn’t we take the equals sign as another trope, a device for constructing similarities and resemblances as open, as free, as ultimately improvable as any poetry? In fact this is exactly how the scientists I know treat math, as a poetic language. I wish I could do it myself, I’d certainly be richer.

So are tropes another limitation on art? One hardly dwells on such matters every day, or with much concentrated attention, but if I was pressed I would probably admit to a predilection for the sublime. Language, existing meanings, social purposes and habits and a just plain stubborn tendency to think too much keep us all shut off from the enormous world around us, and the equally vast possibilities of art. Art, for me, must be a way to break out of all that – temporary, fugitive, and mostly failed, but still a chance. Gouk and I are likely not that far apart on what we really want, because I refuse to take art as a language if I’m going to be restricted to repeating whatever others have already said, what is already well known. But now I’m contemplating another, very different idea, that the whole realm beyond language, beyond cognition, beyond the mind is not just sitting out there waiting to be found, but that we make it ourselves. It gets bigger all the time as we continue to make art. The non-conceptual is the invention of abstraction. If so then our efforts to make the dissimilar, the unique, the non-resemblance, is a truly heroic attempt to bootstrap ourselves out of our own limitations. Theoretically it’s not possible, but as artists we know it can be done, and abstraction is the proof. It’s a trick that can be mastered with practice. But if in this way abstraction adds something to nature, it’s never long before criticism brings it all back into the realm of “is like.” There is no method, style or manner that will always work.

Robert Linsley, Kitchener 2013




  1. Peter Stott said…

    You seem to be saying that because there is always more to know then why bother with research, as if it were an exercise in futility. Nothing wrong with a bit of alchemy according to one’s own epoch of time, like the Doc happily living as a Blacksmith in the 1800s in Back to The Future 3.