The Unessay is the Artist’s Playground

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(photo from the Museum of Modern Art).

The unessay, which is described Daniel Paul O’Donnell, challenges the writer to abandon formal conventions of essay writing in favor of non-linear and mixed medium presentations of content, concept and ideas. Once free of the conventions of conventional grammar, format, and citation, The unessay allows the writer to interact with the subject in unprecedented ways, which provides the promise of greater creativity, insight and understanding.

The Unessay’s attempt to free communication from the formalism of the written essay parallels attempts by artists to use text as an element in painting, installations and video art. In a strict sense, letters, numbers and other symbols function as the building blocks of words. These words then act as symbols for objects, ideas or concepts. When combined with other words, communication becomes possible, including the communication of rich visual images constructed in the mind of the reader.

Although the technology of text has changed radically over time—from the clay tablet, to papyrus, to the printing press, to the LCD screen—text itself usually has a one to one relationship with a phonetic sound, object or concept. Although typefaces (and associated concepts such as kerning, line spacing, and page layout) are used to make text more readable or consistent with the gravity or levity of the message, these features of text are not usually intended to convey significant secondary meaning. Of course, the juxtaposition of a typeface such as comic sans with a serious message could provide an artistic statement, but this is usually not the case.

This blog explores the use of text as an element in art. In artistic mediums, the shape, size, color, movement, and positioning of letters, numbers and other textual symbols can be manipulated to communicate significant ideas beyond the mere textual symbols. Additionally, in an artistic context, text might be penciled on paper, inked on parchment, painted, on canvas, or sculpted out of marble. These interacting levels of manipulation allow the reader/viewer to extract deeper meaning from text than intended by its conventional function.

In the painting above titled What is Painting:

John Baldessari had someone else stretch the canvas and hired a professional sign- painter to hand letter the words, which Baldessari took from a book about art appreciation. Baldessari simply had the idea for What Is Painting, while others realized it. The use of a definition of art and painting within a work of art brings to light what Baldessari sees as the irony in narrowly defining something that is so open to interpretation: “I’ve always been attracted to anyone that can blatantly say what art is. I just like that kind of audacity, or ignorance, one or the other.”

Museum Of Modern Art; John Baldessari; 1968. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

In this painting, Baldessari encourages the viewer to examine the distinction between text and art. In a conventional painting, the elements of the painting must work together to create meaning or effect. Likewise, letters and numbers only work when combined in meaningful ways. A random series of paint strokes don’t usually constitute art. Likewise, a random collection of letters and numbers might make a good password, but doesn’t provide information to the reader. Baldessari suggests the difference between “art” and “writing” is difficult to discern. Art depends on words for meaning, and words can become art. Although the text in Baldessari painting appears to be conventionally printed, it was in fact painted on a canvas. It is a simulation of printing and a simple written message, which arises to the level of art through the interaction of the words and the medium.

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