In his 1975 book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe wrote of his current moment in art history that “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” While our contemporary art climate is no longer defined by the kind of overarching theories and movements that ruled the post-war period, it evinces a similar wedding of art to the words devised to explain it. Either that, or the opposite: in a backlash against text, many artists have retreated into realms of abstraction that they claim—often textually—are inaccessible to critical analysis, art-historical reference, or any other form of expression having the vaguest thing to do with words.
Can’t art and text just get along? If, for Wolfe, “the painted word” implied that art was being made to illustrate text, what if we reversed the phrase’s direction of flow and conceived of painting itself, of art itself, as a kind of visual text, asking to be read? And not read in the manner of a newspaper, with the goal of obtaining facts, but in the manner of a novel, where personal engagement, input, and interpretation are what transform words into pictures. What if we replaced “illustrate” and its hierarchical implications with “illuminate,” a word which connotes knowledge as much as it connotes aesthetics? In an increasingly image-centric culture where text, simply, is not always sufficient, art might help shine a light on contemporary issues and concerns. At the same time, text—art criticism—might help to brighten the work it describes, might make it more resplendent by offering the viewer a place to start reading without claiming to tell the whole story.