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Research: The philosophy of language in art – part 1

My plan to integrate language into my outcome led me to investigate some key philosophers and other thinkers to help guide the process. A comment made by Tom Hackett started me on this investigation of language. His statement below illustrates the void between language and meaning. What excites me is the fun to be had in twisting language, leaving it open ended and igniting novelty for a viewer.

“Language is a crude equivalent”

Tom Hackett

The odd state of language is perfectly visualised by the surrealist Magritte in The Treachery of Images. This painting is an example of a meta message, in that the word is not the thing. The word pipe is the object in reality, not the object on paper and Magritte shows us that his art is nothing to do with reality, it is just a convention. We can see that Magritte sought to challenge linguistic and visual conventions and his life-long quest was to show that images could be equivalent to words in the expression of consciousness.

This is getting interesting, as once we understand that the painting is not a pipe, we tempt the viewer to find a new definition for the pipe – their own definition. It is this aspect of generating new narrative from my work that really fascinates me, and I will explore further in the research that follows.

Kant and Barthes have been studied here (in a later post I will look at Paul-Michel Foucault, Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler but spacing out this heavy academic head-scratching seemed sensible).

Immanuel Kant – Critique of Judgment

Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804

Kant is a central figure in modern philosophy and his work continues to influence modern thinking about ethics, aesthetics, epistemology and other fields. We will focus on the last of his three Critiques (that together explored the limits and conditions of knowledge) the Critique of Judgment (1790). My perception is that this is of most relevance in my work as it is concerned with judgments that ascribe beauty to something – this is often the work we ask of the viewer when exposing them to our work. Whilst not directly related to language, Kant did put poetry at the top of the list above music as the most beautiful art form and this was a man living in the time of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and Bach.

Kant argues that there are four possible aesthetic reflective judgments rattling around in our heads as we assess beauty in something:

  • the agreeable – this is an entirely subjective judgment based on inclination, for example, this view is amazing,
  • the good – this is a judgment that something is ethical and conforms to moral law, in many ways it is the opposite of the agreeable as it is completely objective (Kant argues that something is either moral or it is not),
  • the beautiful and the sublime – both these are subjective universal judgments, which sounds like an oxymoron, but when we make these judgments we aren’t using any determinate basis but we assume that all others will agree with our judgment (even though we have no basis for this assumption).
Alnwick Castle by J.M.W. Turner, 1829

So what are we doing when we judge whether a Turner painting is beautiful? Kant talks about the “free play” between imagination and understanding, so we call it beautiful because its form fits our cognitive powers and through “free play” we designate it beautiful and have a pleasurable experience in doing so. Surely it is igniting this pleasure in the viewer that the artist must play with? We must tap into the feelings of our viewer, not their cognitive powers, as the process is not based on argument but on and emotive gut reaction.

I now scratch my head and think about how I can achieve this sweet spot in my work. Kant does talk about the relation between the beauty of art and that of nature, claiming that fine art must “look to us like nature” in that it must seem free and unstudied. He also talks about the genius of the artist, in that an artist endowed with genius has a natural capacity to produce objects which are judged as beautiful, and this capacity does not require the artist to consciously follow rules for the production of objects.

Do I just need to let go of the rules? I do feel fairly unhindered by methods and materials as my experiments flit between many options before an outcome appears that is often unexpected. I feel fairly resilient in this approach as I’ve got confidence that the outcome will be the result of careful evaluation. The area for more thinking is whether my work looks free and unstudied. I often follow a gut feeling and I wonder if that will create a gut feeling reaction from my viewers, hence create the “free play” experience? Creating work that looks unstudied is more challenging. I take this to mean more impromptu work and possibly more open to interpretation. There certainly is a sweet spot to be found here – impromptu is one step away from chaos but I will enjoy taking up this challenge.

Roland Barthes – From Work to Text

With the literary critic Roland Barthes I’m focusing on his essay ‘From Work to Text’ as this delves into the meaning of text and hence language.

Barthes’ essay states that a work (e.g. a book) is physical where as the text is language and non-physical. He states that text cannot be put into categories and genres where as a work can. The text defies classification and work can be seen but the text demonstrates. Barthes suggested seven propositions for text: Method, Genre, Signs, Plurality, Filiation, Reading and Pleasure. I’ve explored below only those where I see a direct connection with my interest in language in my art.

The Method is interesting as it states that the text is held only in language and exists in the movement of discourse. So my understanding here is that language and text are transient, they comes along, are transcoded by a viewer into a representation in the human mind, but then they are gone.

Under Signs it’s interesting how he states that text represents a dilation of meaning, it is radically symbolic and characterised by metonymic logic. He follows on to say that text and hence language is decentred and has no closure. This inference continues under Plurality where he states that text is composed of a web of signification. This references back to Tom’s quote about the crudeness of language – the metonymic logic of language gives the viewer a puzzle to link the symbolism of text to something in their current world, in their memory or something completely abstract. In essence, text introduces the opportunity of giving each viewer a completely unique and personal experience.

The most relevant statement under Filiation is how the text can be broken and read with no consideration of the author. Individual words are independent, lack ownership and are less meaningful (or have a more general meaning) when they stand alone.

Under Reading Barthes states that as long as the reader is able to produce the text, they will be satisfied. Reading is the consumption of the work, not that of the text. It is that space where no language has hold over any other; this is where language circulates.

What Barthes is telling us is that a reader converts a work into text which then creates multiple and possibly infinite meanings in the viewer’s mind. He expanded the notion of what text is – it can be absolutely anything through which communication is involved, i.e. television, advertisement, road sign, spoken language, theatre, music, etc.

Barthes frees us from taking any notice of the intention of the artist – we don’t have to be bound up from their assumed intention. We are given permission to make our own meaning and a piece of art can change meaning over time as society changes and across different societies.


So how can I integrate the ideas of Kant and Barthes into my work? What commonalities exist between their thinking? There is a clear link between the free play of Kant and the freedom to create our own meanings suggested by Barthes. If a work encourages free play then it invites a viewer interrogate it, play with the ideas it throws at them, and construct their meaning. Surely this is the most satisfying experience a viewer could possibly have? Whether this makes the art beautiful is the next consideration but on a personal level, when I look at an art work and engage in free play that experience of being lost in the moment can be sublime and I’ll tentatively say beautiful.

Relating this study back to the use of language in my work, the key thing I’ve learnt is the importance of creating a separation between the text and its meaning to open the door to free play and hopefully beauty. The considerations are how to splice language and drop it into a piece to give this opportunity for play and how to juxtapose it with other media to create achievable associations. The potential is huge and exciting and finding that balance will be challenging but rapid experimentation will be the best way forwards.


Critique of Judgment, 2020. . Wikipedia. Ginsborg, H., 2019. Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology, in: Zalta, E.N. (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Immanuel Kant – The Critique of Judgment [WWW Document], n.d. . Encyclopedia Britannica. URL (accessed 11.11.20). Lanir, L., 2020.

Roland Barthes: From Work to Text — Explained [WWW Document]. Medium. URL (accessed 11.11.20). Stanska, Z., 2016.

Painting Of The Week – René Magritte, The Treachery of Images [WWW Document]. – Art History Stories. URL (accessed 11.11.20).

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