In the Renaissance art was read by most people. The visual language artists employed was comprehensible to most. Literacy was limited and usually the written word served those who ruled – primarily the Church and the armed warriors of the aristocracy who protected and fed off the wealth the Church stole from the people. Imagery put artists in a position where their work communicated with more people directly than the written word prior to the 17th century.
Whilst some artists were used to propagate the word of the church to the illiterate peoples, others became more subversive and were persecuted by both the Church and the powerful to which knowledge was a threat. Look at how much effort went into keeping an English language bible from the hands of common folk to see how spreading knowledge could be subversive. Look at the persecution of those whose art was not acceptable to the church, such as Caravaggio.
A composer friend of mine said how lucky I was to be a visual artist as so much of music had become corrupted in the service of today’s powerful through advertising jingles etc.. This comment came from someone whose own understanding of visual language enabled him to be blind to the way that commerce exploits the visual arts as much as the musical arts.
Today much visual language is also debased not just by its corruption in the hands of commerce but also by those artists who are derivative and whose command of visual language is impoverished. This results in work that is lacking in skill of any kind, and where the ideas within the work are derivative.
It is true that today it is harder than ever to avoid reworking ideas expressed before. In the same way that a new play or poem re-uses language so art re-uses the visual work of others, extending knowledge through pushing ideas further than they have been pushed before. Thus Hockney continues to develop an understanding of the visual world through the use of cameras and drawing that enriches our understanding of the world around us. The language he uses is that same but his interpretation pushes it further in broadening our understanding of the world around us.
I’m no Hockney and don’t seek to compare myself with the greats, but I do share their passion for the language of art. In my own way I too am struggling to express my own understanding of the visual world through the language of art. That this comes from within, from the soul perhaps, can be seen in the way the underlying ideas remain after 50 years of work.
The grid is a traditional part of visual language, a device used in the renaissance to enable accurate recording, a device used for enlarging drawings onto canvas, a part of the grammar of art practice that I try to pull to the surface so that structure, rather than being hidden underneath paint is revealed as a part of the painting.
As yet I struggle to get to the painting, but I feel the drawing process is starting to open up my understanding, and this week’s drawings, reworking some of what has gone before, surely seem to make a step forward. I hope you think so too.