Rene Magritte- The Palace of Curtains, III

Titles made of words make sense for art made of words. They are little bits of writing that are used either to describe the essence of a piece or to give an initial platform from which the reader is meant to approach the piece.  But why are they also associated with every other form of art? Music, film, theater, and visual art all buy into this lexical convention.

Titles function as handles or file names. They are compact, portable signs for the signified piece of art. People want to discuss and write about art. Critics and agents need to point other people toward or away from the art. All these signals are expressed in the medium of words. As such, any piece of art will somehow be shoe-horned into a system of words. The artist needs to make a preemptive strike and make sure that the words used are the right ones- ones that either convey what's intended or conspicuously avoid conveying anything.

First Movement

Classical composers typically resist imposing an interpretive or affective framework on the listener by giving formulaic, utilitarian titles like "Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor." Sometimes, though, these official titles get replaced by more memorable nicknames: in this case, "Moonlight Sonata." On the other hand, post-rock bands are notorious for over-relying on titles to support their pieces. The Red Sparowes album Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun has a collection of comically long song titles which together tell the story of the Great Leap Forward in Maoist China:
  1. "The Great Leap Forward Poured Down Upon Us One Day Like a Mighty Storm, Suddenly and Furiously Blinding Our Senses." 
  2. "We Stood Transfixed in Blank Devotion as Our Leader Spoke to Us, Looking Down on Our Mute Faces with a Great, Raging, and Unseeing Eye." 
  3. "Like the Howling Glory of the Darkest Winds, This Voice Was Thunderous and the Words Holy, Tangling Their Way Around Our Hearts and Clutching Our Innocent Awe."
  4. "A Message of Avarice Rained Down and Carried Us Away into False Dreams of Endless Riches."
  5. "'Annihilate the Sparrow, That Stealer of Seed, and Our Harvests Will Abound; We Will Watch Our Wealth Flood In.'"
  6. "And by Our Own Hand Did Every Last Bird Lie Silent in Their Puddles, the Air Barren of Song as the Clouds Drifted Away. For Killing Their Greatest Enemy, the Locusts Noisily Thanked Us and Turned Their Jaws Toward Our Crops, Swallowing Our Greed Whole."
  7. "Millions Starved and We Became Skinnier and Skinnier, While Our Leaders Became Fatter and Fatter."
  8. "Finally, as That Blazing Sun Shone Down Upon Us, Did We Know That True Enemy Was the Voice of Blind Idolatry; and Only Then Did We Begin to Think for Ourselves."
Is this a case of poetry pairing with music, the excessive capitalization reflecting the names of Ridiculous Communist Reform Programs like The Great Leap Forward? Or is it just insecure musical artists with a case of word envy?*

What would a truly musical title sound like? In the case of popular music, we already use essential musical bits to communicate. You may not know what song I'm talking about if I say "Careless Whisper," but you'll almost certainly know the song if I hum that unforgettable saxophone riff. Everyone knows the main line in the Ode to Joy, or the beginning of the Carmina Burana, or The Flight of the Valkyries, even if they don't know the names. People automatically absorb and reuse these motifs as if they were titles. Ideally, the most musical form of title would actually be audio, so if you were say, buying a song off iTunes, you would scroll through a bunch of tiny sound files with little clips. A compromise would be to write titles using musical notation. Everyone would have to learn how to read it fluently, but that's already true for titles made of words.

Composers with complicated pieces might rightfully complain that it's impossible to reduce all of the themes and variations of a piece down to a single line of melody, or to a single bunch of chords. Then again, writers have been doing it since the beginning of writing, and they manage to get by unscathed- or at least with only a few more scars than they already had from the rest of the writing process.

Second Act

In theater (as in musical performance), the relationship of titles and words to the art itself can get complicated. Performances are titled based on the script that they are derived from, but this is misleading. The script is only a starting place- every production is different. But that too is trite- every production draws on and references the history of performances of the same play that have come before it, either in the minds of the artists producing or in the minds of audience members who have seen the play or read the script before. This is one of the things that keeps Shakespeare's plays interesting despite how often they are produced. Each performance acts in dialogue with its previous incarnations.

A couple of years ago I acted in a production called My Uncle. It was based on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, but it was set in an insane asylum, the conceit being that we were patients performing Uncle Vanya as part of a psychodrama therapy session. Almost all of the words we spoke were from the original play (or rather, a blend of several English translations of the original play), but we used Jaques Tati's film Mon Oncle as inspiration for the set design and staging the scenes. We ended up using that film as the source for the title. It worked despite the fact that the initial connection between the two pieces was almost entirely linguistic. Was the performance really distinct enough that it merited a different title? I don't know. But choosing one way or the other can become a powerful statement of genealogical commitment. It's telling that on my acting resume, where I attempt to sell myself based on the work I've done in the past, I list the production as Uncle Vanya. The production wanted to distance itself from the script's legacy; I wanted to bring myself closer to it.


I remember distinctly the first time I went to a modern art museum. It was shortly after the opening of the new building for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. My dad brought me and we wound through room after room of visually fascinating things that I hadn't seen anything like before: installation sculptures of magnificent burnt driftwood hanging from the ceiling and boxes of mirrors inside mirrors reflecting light onto each other and into an infinite blackness. I was thrilled to see what was in the next room and the next room and the next room. I turned the corner to look at what I thought was the next exhibit but was stopped in my tracks when I turned into a room that was just a window overlooking the Boston harbor. I was astonished. The world looked completely new. I had been given license, somewhat by surprise, to reinterpret the entire visual experience of the external world as though it were in a museum. Line, color, form and symbol emerged out of an ordinary view of seagulls perching on decaying piers and orange floats- ordinary, that is, until I obtained this new sight. In a sense, I became this person:

Photo by Erik Johansson

Visual art can give us the capacity to perceive the world in an entirely visual framework. But even the world of visual art is notoriously overtaken by words. Every contemporary exhibit needs placards detailing and describing each piece. There is now always a several paragraph description printed on the wall at the beginning of the exhibit, describing what you need to know to get the right experience (or, at least, what the curator believes is the right experience). People spend almost as much time reading information as looking at the actual art work.

There's a good reason for this. Art derives its strength as part of a movement, as a response to everything in its artistic heritage. It is often meant by the creator to be perceived in a particular framework. The average viewer doesn't know where this stuff came from. But is text the right way to convey the message? Rene Magritte famously opened the world of art to the use of words in dialogue with images (see the painting at the beginning of this post), but maybe it's time to take back visual art in an aggressive way before it succumbs entirely to pieces like this one by Mauricio Nannucci:

You get three chances to guess the title.
Imagine a corresponding exhibit that has a similar structure, but is entirely visual. Instead of a placard, you have one "subpainting" that is maybe just a couple of lines or one block of color: it contains the single most essential element of the piece. Then there is a container with tiny samples of the materials used- a scrap of canvas, a paintbrush, a tiny palette with drips of oil paint in all the different colors used. Then a portrait of the artist in lieu of a name. Think of it as a word-deprivation chamber, a kind of place that is harder and harder to find in an increasingly labeled world.

Words, Words, Words

Neuroscientist Bevil Conway describes learning to read as culturally-enforced synesthesia: you learn to automatically hear certain sounds on seeing particular shapes. But there's another level of synesthesia that happens the more you learn language- you start to hear or see words automatically when you look at or think about things. Keith Johnstone gives an interesting exercise to combat this in his book Impro: look at objects around you and start saying the wrong name for everything. If you see a table, say "book," etc. If you are anything like me, this will be hard, but it will pay off by forcing a shift in your perception of your environment.

Sarah Perry calls this variety of synesthesia "word pollution"- the reduction of aesthetic beauty when words get in the way of direct experience. Or perhaps not direct experience, since the mind cannot create unmediated representations of reality, just different experience. The issue is not so much that dividing the world up lexically is wrong, but that it becomes the dominant system. We are pushed towards a scholastic-industrial form of consciousness. If I were feeling devilishly sociological, I might call this dominant system the lexarchy. Smash the lexarchy!** The common lament that modern internet users focus too much on images and video should be flipped on its head- the reason that text has until this point held primacy as the means for communicating ideas has been technological restriction. Our technology wasn't up to the task of communicating complex ideas en masse using other forms. Educated people then came to the incorrect conclusion that plain text is the only way to convey any sufficiently sophisticated idea. They view the restoration of a more natural equilibrium between text and other forms as an affront to the edifice of which they have become a part.

Language is not used because it has a greater capacity for expressiveness; it's used because it is more portable. Words are nice and easy to package. They're easy to distribute and easy to parse with computers. Their meaning tends to be robust against changes in representation- if you inverted italics and non-italics in this essay you would be left with basically the same meaning, in a way that would not be true if you inverted colors in an image. This ease of use is partly due to language itself and partly due to the textual institutions around which our society is based. Reading and writing are considered the most basic aims of public education, and any explanatory material is expected to be made of words. Words are now the gold standard for unambiguous communication- as in the movement to make sexual consent explicitly verbal.***

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott talks about how centralized governments forced a common language on groups with incompatible dialects by making everyone use the same language on any interactions with the state.
In the first efforts made to insist on the use of French, it is clear that the state's objective was the legibility of local practice. Officials insisted that every legal document- whether a will, document of sale, loan instrument, contract, annuity, or property deed- be drawn up in French... One can hardly imagine a more effective formula for immediately devaluing local knowledge and privileging all those who had mastered the official linguistic code... The implicit logic of the move was to define a hierarchy of cultures, relegating local languages and their regional cultures to, at best, a quaint provincialism
This process extends past unprivileged verbal languages to non-verbal languages. In the same way you can't write legal documents in African American Vernacular English, you also can't "write" them as paintings or musical pieces.

I can't finish this essay without acknowledging the obvious self-reflection. This essay is made of words. In launching an attack against words with words themselves, I have only bought into and strengthened linguistic hegemony. If I did my job well and you remember the ideas in this essay, they will now be represented in your mind using words, and you will convey them to others by pointing to these words. Another notch is ratcheted forward on the great machine of language, constraining our available thoughts to its structures.

* "Word envy" is an analogy to "physics envy"- the tendency of scientific fields to oversimplify because they want theories as elegant and universal as those in physics. I think words takes a cultural place at the top of the artistic/expressive hierarchy in the same way physics takes a place at the top of the scientific hierarchy- regardless of whether that dominance is justified for any given problem.
** I dislike the "-archy" formulation (patriarchy, kyriarchy, etc.) for many reasons. But a complete unpacking of the distinction between local and global models will have to wait for another day (mostly because I haven't worked it out for myself yet).
*** To be perfectly clear, I agree with this movement.