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Artists are controlled by words

By Paul Watson on .

A smeuse in a hedge (although being in central Brighton, it’s more likely to have been made by people than the regular passage of a small animal)

Politicians try to control debate with phrases and concepts - you know they’re at it when you suddenly start hearing all the members of one party laboriously forcing a particular set phrase into their press interviews. They are trying to permanently change the perception of the electorate by conjuring up a new reality in the form of a new word, concept, or phrase by repetition: gaining votes by rote.

It’s how people who don’t have a job were first enchanted from being passively “unemployed” into aspirational “job seekers”, before later being transmogrified into “benefits claimants” (in opposition to—and therefore an implied threat to—that other political set phrase “hard-working families”). And so now we have the strange situation where many “hard-working families” mutter hatefully about those “benefits claimants” while they themselves claim benefits such as child benefit, tax credits, etc. It’s a powerful trick to get people to righteously hate themselves without even knowing it.

Orwell highlighted this political thought-control with his concept of Newspeak in 1984: If you control the language, you control the argument.

The purpose of Newspeak was … to make all other modes of thought impossible… This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.

The theory of linguistic determinism goes further: if you control the language, you control thought itself.

A couple of things led me to this train of thought. One was from Robert Macfarlane's new book Landmarks, which I’m currently reading:

Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.

Macfarlane’s book collects a glossary of lost or nearly-lost words for parts of the British landscape. The concept of the book is that with a greater and more precise vocabulary for something you gain a stronger relationship with it because you see more: what was once seen as an undifferentiated field becomes something much more precisely described, and therefore more valued.

Coinciding with my reading of Landmarks, a few days ago I noticed that the writer Warren Ellis had recently posted something along the same lines:

Recent research suggests that some cultures didn’t have a word for the colour blue until surprisingly late in their development… In those early cultures, there simply wasn’t a word for ‘blue.’ And so, in a way, blue didn’t exist… We can’t see something until it has a true name that we can invoke.

New words can conjure things into existence that were not there before because our perception and recollection is constrained by our language. Neologists are powerful sorcerers who can permanently alter people’s perception and minds.

If an artist draws/paints from observation in what we call a “realistic” style, then will they draw the smeuse in a hedge, or will they draw an undifferentiated hedge? Does the knowledge of smeuse being differentiated from hedge alter their drawing?

They’ll probably draw the small gap in the hedge, whether they see “hedge with a smeuse” or just the undifferentiated hedge, but does the knowledge of the concept of smeuse alter their composition, focus, or framing?

It becomes clearer if we use photography as an example instead of drawing. If you were asked to take a photograph of that hedge over there then you’d find a good angle that gives a nice composition, point, and click. But if you were asked to take a photograph of that hedge over there with the smeuse then, after asking what the hell a smeuse was, your choice of the angle and composition of your photograph would be altered. The smeuse would probably end up being a focal point in the photograph because in your perception it’s now a differentiated feature of the hedge, but your photograph would still be a photograph of the same hedge.

Artistic decisions are based on perception, and perception is based on language.

If you’ve ever been taught to draw in a “realistic” observational style then much of the teaching tries to make you stop perceiving named things and instead see just lines and tones. Tricks like “drawing the negative space” help do this.

It’s difficult because children start drawing named symbols - a circle for a head, a spikey stick symbol for a hand, etc. And so drawing symbols is more instinctive to us. When you hear someone repeat the familiar refrain of I can’t draw hands it usually means that they can’t yet override the mental primacy of their perception of “hands” from the patterns of line and shadow in front of them that they’re trying to reproduce.

But it’s all a double-bluff. You can’t learn to fully unsee hands if perception is controlled by language. You can learn to fool your perception enough so that, for a few fleeting moments, you see lines & shadow, and can copy those patterns onto paper then refocus your perception to see a realistic representation of a pair of hands, but your awareness of hands as a concept still affects the drawing from the point of view of composition, framing, and points of focus.

Having a word for a thing makes you draw it differently, because perception is both altered and constrained by language.