The Language of Art

This morning I talked with an Art Director about a piece of art she had done. She needed a little bit of advice in a few areas about photoshop usage (hence the conversation), and I was doing my best to help. The problem was our conversation was over the phone, which is a medium almost completely unsuited for talking about art.

You see I work as an artist (really an artisan) in a field full of artists. We, collectively, put together some pretty cool stuff at times, and it’s hecka fun. That is until we start talking about art. Then its rather boring.

Us artists types are visual people. We put things together so you can see them.  Think a picture and a thousand words. But when we talk about our art, it is done so in a very abstract way, and the conversation would be entirely meaningless if you could not see what we are talking about. If a part of an image needs to get brighter (as in closer to white) we might say, “make it hotter”, “brighter”, “whiter”, “open it up”, or even “more sunny”. All of these terms I have heard before, and they all roughly mean the same thing. Alas, when the topic gets more complex, then words tend to get confusing. That’s when we extend into metaphor. Make it like her face, or like that clock, or (referring to another poster) like Pearl Harbor.

Now if we were engineers, then we would have a very exact language, and could be extremely specific about what we want.  But artists don’t work like that. We’re not used to working with words, and if you listen to our conversations it shows. One of these days I’m going to record a conversation about a piece of art we’re working on, because out of that narrow context, the conversation has got to be somewhere between banal and silly.

So this morning, when I was talking to my friend, I had to really be careful about what I said. I could not see what she was seeing, and I could not show her what I meant visually, so we had to constantly double check our meaning by asking if we understood each other. She would say something, then I would repeat it, and then she would repeat it again. This happened over and over, but was necessary to ensure that our differing experiences about the art remained in sync. No doubt a linguist would have a term for this kind of verbal “fact checking”, which is retrospect is not all that different from the way a computer makes sure it has got all the pieces of a file correct, when you send something over a network.

I’m rather sensitive to this kind of communication because I do it a lot. I am constantly exposed to new Art Directors (new to working with me, that is, not necessarily new to the business)  and every time I work with one, I have to make sure what they say means the same thing as what I say. If we were engineers, for instance, then the language itself would be specific enough that it would not require much in the way of repetition. Some people use words in such a way as there really cannot be a second meaning to their sentences. Alas, with visual people, such specificity is tossed aside in exchange for speed. All one has to do it point to the artwork, and save those thousand words for something else, like what to order for lunch.

But such language usage goes beyond just the specific lingo of a given design shop, or Art Director.  Artists, I have noticed, tend to not use word play, or make jokes with puns, like others professionals I have worked with. Perhaps this is because they have set aside verbal acuity, in favor of visual acuity. If this is so, then they have made a good choice because most of the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with are damn good. With art, that is.

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