Writing is Visual Art

Remy Dean
Remy Dean
Jul 29, 2019 · 6 min read

Considering the boundaries and overlaps between art and writing.

Let’s start at the beginning, when drawing and writing were the same thing… At the dawn of history, this meant ‘cow’:

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a cow

We can still understand the visual code here as a simple portrait of a generic ‘head of cattle’, the broad curve of its horns above the tighter ‘U’ shape of its head. Originally devised as a means of accounting to keep track of cattle, which were used as currency, and to aid with the introduction of taxation. The glyph was scratched into soft clay, which could be re-wetted and wiped clean for re-use.

“How much does that cow cost?”
“One cow, please.”
“I already have a cow…”
“Well that’s one cow you owe me.”
“Hang on a minute…”

When there arose a need for more permanently accurate records, ones that were harder to tamper with, clay was replaced with stone. It was more difficult to etch curves into harder materials, so the cow glyph was simplified and adapted into straight lines only:

three cows

Imagine reading one of these stone tablets upside down… perhaps this was the reaction to that first ever tax bill: “A A A !”

The letter for ‘cow’ survives to this day as the first letter of the Alphabet — a testament of the central importance of cows to ancient western societies.

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A is for Cow (manipulated vintage illustration)

‘F’ is for Cow

It is the same story for the letter ‘F’ — adapted from Fehu, the first letter in the Viking Futhark, the ancient Germanic alphabet.

This glyph started out as a simplified pictograph of a bull or cow, seen from the side: a horizontal line representing the body of the animal with two upstrokes for horns. I see it as a cow fording a boundary river, as it is driven from the territory of one owner onto the land of its new owner.

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from Fehu to F

This rune came to represent wealth and prosperity, and became upright when it needed to be used in conjunction with other runes in a row of writing. Later its form was simplified to what we recognise as our letter ‘F’.

Words become pictures become words become pictures.

So, if writing grew from visual art, what is art, and what is writing?

Lines drawn with a pencil can be just simply that — nothing more than marks on paper — yet, through some subtle act of transformation, they can become art… and also, lines written on paper can be just simply that — nothing more than a bunch of words — though a collection of words can somehow become more that their collective meaning. Sometimes they may transcend their basic code.

A diagram is one thing, a work of art is another. A shopping list is all very practical, a piece of literature is something else. Same tools, same ingredients… different end results.

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an asemic poem from ‘Writing to Escape’ by Remy Dean (2015)

To confuse matters — a diagram can be elevated in status to become a work of art and a shopping list could become a poem… depending on the skill of the creator, the context in which it is experienced, the intended meanings and the perceived meanings. Something to do with, as Charles Bukowski put it, STYLE, or with what William Blake called the POETIC GENIUS. The style and poetic genius of the creator and the audience.

Artists are dealing with something beyond their means, wrestling or dancing with ideas that cannot be fully expressed by the physical tools at their disposal. They are hinting at something, exploring ideas that cannot, or should not, be fully expressed. A piece of art is on-going, never fully finished. After it leaves the domain of its maker, it continues its journey and begins to consolidate its meanings in the minds of the users — a conversation ensues between the work (and its intended meanings) and the viewer (and what is understood from it).

Art, therefore, is a PROCESS. The methods of recording and expressing that process are many and varied.

A butterfly, fluttering across a meadow of summer flowers, its colours flashing in the sunlight, stirs the senses in a way that a pinned specimen in a museum drawer cannot, and the memory of seeing it can be more beautiful than the experience. A few words can evoke that scene in a very similar way as a skilled sketch may do.

I just caught a butterfly in my mind and I gave it to you — is your butterfly the same as mine? I think mine was a comma, but its flight was so lively and joyous that I could not be sure.

The pinned specimen was different — a blue variety, and something I can also do is carefully blow the pale dust from its delicate, iridescent wings, unpin it from the display tray and hold it in the palm of my hand. Watch closely and… yes!

Its wings tentatively move again, part closing then opening like the pages of a book that will not lay flat. It is delicate and shimmering in the light from the open window, little legs grip the very tip of my finger for a moment before it takes flight, the blue of its wings flashing against the blue of the sky as it flies free and far… we smile, until the bird swoops and takes it. Are we now happy for the bird to have something to feed its nestlings? Or are we saddened that a specimen that had sat in a dark dusty draw for more than a century only got to enjoy its miraculous resurrection and new found freedom for mere moments?

Don’t worry, the bird wasn’t really there — I made that bit up — we watched as the butterfly flew away, a diminishing fleck in the vast dome of bright sky… and was gone.

‘The Visual Arts’ is an often used term of differentiation, but from the very simple butterflies example above, we can see that text and writing are within the visual arts.

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four poems from the ‘Writing to Escape’ sequence by Remy Dean (2015)

See what I mean?

Reading with your eyes, clearly has a visual element, yet in good writing that element vanishes and we see the evoked mind-images, instead of the letter-forms and words. Painting and drawing are much more ‘in your face’, yet often it is internal dialogues that have led to the creation of the piece and are then sparked off in the minds of the audience. Those images create words.

Many artists will argue that they express only emotion and the response in the viewer is purely emotional — and many writers will also claim this — though this is clearly not the case. Art deals with far more than emotions and, probably, if we could sum up everything a piece of art is or does, then it would be reduced to a document and no longer be art.

So, all visual arts are attempting to express something from the artist and elicit responses from the viewer. What differentiates each piece of work is the materials and languages used, and the codes conveyed. Writing began as the drawing of sounds, visually recording those sounds that make up words that are the codes of a language — and through the understanding, or at least an interpretation, of language a meaning is arrived at. Visual art also uses languages, such as theories of form and colour, there are codes, and through the interpretation of those codes a meaning is arrived at.

Different interpretations = different meanings.

“I can’t know what you mean,
Know what I mean?”
– Dave Graney


Originally published at https://remydean.blogspot.com

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Remy Dean

Written by

Remy Dean

This + That + Other + Author + Artist + Lecturer [art, film & folklore] + Creative Consultant in Education + Latest novel published by The Red Sparrow Press…

Signifier

Signifier

The Signifier : studies in ART & media

Remy Dean

Written by

Remy Dean

This + That + Other + Author + Artist + Lecturer [art, film & folklore] + Creative Consultant in Education + Latest novel published by The Red Sparrow Press…

Signifier

Signifier

The Signifier : studies in ART & media

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