Part three in a  four part series by Wesley Hurd MFA, Ph.D


The Languages of Art


We must remember that all art is allusive or indirect—that is, by its nature, art “points to” or presents its subject in ways that call on us to engage in deciphering its meaning and message. The message or idea(s) in some art, especially traditional representational (mimetic) art, is more immediately accessible to a viewer. A landscape, a vase-and-flowers still life, or a portrait, for example, are what they appear to be; and the content or idea in the art is connected to those recognizable objects. These images are more likely to convey their subject or topic in a fairly obvious way.


“Marylin Diptych”, by Andy Warhol, 1962, acrylic on canvas, 80.88 in × 114.00 in, Collection of the Tate Museum

Alternatively, highly expressionistic or abstract paintings and instrumental music convey their “messages” in much more allusive and indirect modes. We all know, however, that these less direct art forms can relay real content and psychological or emotional realities in very powerful ways. For example, the dark beauty of Picasso’s Guernica and Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych evoke in us a profound empathy and understanding of our often tragic human condition. Earth-shattering melancholy and feelings of loss grip us as we hear Górecki’s Third Symphony.


In either representational or abstract modes, the artist uses the “language” of art (marks, sounds, movements, space, objects, etc.) to communicate ideas, feelings, and visions of life.


Art carries messages in ways similar to that of metaphor. A metaphor juxtaposes one mental picture with a second that is often unexpected or surprising, and the metaphor’s power results from the interplay between the two elements. For example, in Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene, Romeo says “Juliet is the sun.” Juxtaposing Juliet with an image of the sun associates her person, character, and human attributes with the sun’s attributes and creates a new, vibrant image of what Juliet means to Romeo. Thus the metaphor not only describes (in this example, Juliet, a pretty young woman), but it also creates a new picture—an imaginative integration that (1) describes in a new way, (2) carries idea/content through which one can gain fresh understanding, and (3) evokes intense emotional involvement while not excluding cognitive, propositional truth.2


Art operates in an analogous way. It “pictures” one or more images, objects, sounds, movements—the combination or character of which registers an impression, sensibility, or concept. The bundle of ordered thought and feelings found in metaphor and art is not irrational, yet it is irreducible to adequate description in words. All art operates in this way to carry its messages and content.


Next: Art and It Powers Part 4 – The Process of Making Art