The question is not whether language has “gotten the jump on visuality” (for it has), but rather what kind of language sits so heavily upon our experience of the visual. Since the late 1960s and escalating in the 1980s, the evolution of contemporary art has been nourished and transformed by the introduction of theory into the academy. Although the word “theory” has been with us for centuries, the discipline of theory is something fairly new and historically specific. We might even call it an invention. For some, this has been a very good thing; for others it represents the nadir of intellectual life. Whatever the case, the proliferation of terms and ideas introduced by academia is a fact we live with.
Although visual art is always seen and felt first, language is what we use to manifest its effect—how we talk to one another, how we present it to others, how we write and read about it. So language can’t really be the issue. Rather, the problem is summed up by the word “prolix,” which refers to language that is excessively verbose and unnecessarily wordy, even ungainly, as in that clunky jargon-dependent writing that strings out technical words without shaping them. (The philosopher Deleuze is especially subject to this abuse. His work is thrilling and ineffably complex but when a phrase such as “the body without organs” has come to stand in for so many things, I find myself rebelling. In this example, it isn’t Deleuze’s fault but the fault of the writer who drops this phrase in with no explication.) Theory circulates like a lame duck, ever so misunderstood as an excuse for programmatic language, when the great theorists are those who write and choose their words with heart and lyricism: Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, or the Avital Ronell of Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (1993).
Somewhere along the line, art fell in love with academia. This was not necessarily for the best, although there are many reasons why it happened. The overwhelming influx of graduate programs, from the nearly required M.F.A. to the about-to-be required Ph.D., to the programs in curatorial studies that do not care about language but about buzzwords, has a lot to do with our current dilemma. Because I teach, I am part of this problem. But my commitment is to teach artists and writers to read and love words—to read literature and film for theory and theory as literature, so they do not feel language or theory is an alien attack on the visual. And when they use a theoretical term or manner of phrasing, I ask them to use it judiciously. This way, when they become the writers who write the wall texts or become the artists entangled in language, words give them access to magic rather than instrumental thought.
In reality, this expansion of our vocabulary by theoretical writing is a necessary and integral part of how we view art today. Many words circulate into our discussions and have become commonplace, such as the word “visuality” itself. (Hal Foster introduced the term “visuality” in 1988 in his book Vision and Visuality, although it harks back to the Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle. See Nicholas Mirzoeff, “On Visuality.”) Foster introduced the word to distinguish (not oppose) visuality as a “social fact” from the visual as a “physical operation.” He was doing this, in fact producing the very notion, within the rise of visual culture, visual studies, and visual literacy. Today, even if one is not a member of any of those tribes, the artist, the viewer, the art worker, or professional of any kind, is touched by the language of these disciplines. Used in this issue of the Brooklyn Rail, “visuality” signifies the current condition of art as a social fact as well as raw phenomenal experience. The language is part of an accepted way of talking about art. Some may see this process of even using a word like “visuality” as part of the problem. I do not. It is an example of how art has changed and been affected by language.
Perhaps art’s inundation with and by language will pass. And for some, language will always be a burden or irrelevant to the experience of the visual. But if we have “no ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams said, what better thing do we have than that supple thing that is language itself.