Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

The Bondo Between Word and Image
Donato Mancini

Simon Morley’s Writing on the Wall is styled as a major survey of modern art that “traces the growing bond between word and image.” As such, it is apparently supposed to help fill a visible gap in the general understanding of the role of text in modern art. Morley suggests, as Joseph Kosuth said, that language is the “most suitable means of interrogating hidden assumptions and ideologies lurking beneath apparently purely visual surfaces of art.” Morley’s own basic assumptions are that as Euro-American art became increasingly self-reflexive, it was natural, if not inevitable, that text would become a key component. He also assumes that as the urban environment became increasingly saturated with text, it was also natural that text should become a basic material for visual art, available as an aspect of image making. If these assumptions are correct, then the extensive use of text in visual art has to be appreciated as one of the most important formal developments in the art in the twentieth century. An extensive critical anthology of text-based, or text-dependent visual artworks, is therefore due. Not surprisingly, the author is an accomplished and respectable text artist himself. He has a particular interest in “the dynamics of seeing and reading, immediate sensual experience and memory.” Viewable on his personal website (, Morley’s major series so far are what he calls “book-paintings.” From a distance they look like small rectangular monochromes, but on closer inspection reveal text only a touch darker than the ground. This text is often comprised of title pages or frontispieces of books with particular cultural resonance, either because they are famous or indicative of some abiding cultural theme. Morley seems to have consciously chosen to serve this “tradition” of text-art that Writing on the Wall seeks to elucidate, and the intersections of literature with contemporary art are of particular interest to him, perhaps because they remain under-explored.

As a writer who extends his own practice through text-art, I too have a vested interest in the subject. While Writing on the Wall is in many ways impressively well-researched, and, up to a point, quite original in its cross-disciplinary perspective, it is mired by its uncertain sense of purpose. The book’s thesis, makes a fairly serious claim that demands thorough elucidation. But at some point in the process it seems editorial decisions were made that the book would have to serve as a textbook (first of all) for undergraduate art history courses, and (far worse) that it should be useable as a general-purpose twentieth century art textbook. These decisions compromised Morley’s ability to “[fill] ... in a gap in current scholarship on text in art” or to present its claim about the “growing bond of word and image” in an ultimately convincing way.

To start with, Morley has to pitch his argument pretty low, considering the intended audience. So he lapses at the start, and frequently after, into a “Dear Reader ...” tone, sounding almost apologetic for any complexities that arise. Trying to be “accessible” is forgivable, but Morley and/or his editors seem to have assumed their readers’ near-total ignorance. He is, therefore, forced to rehash various art history truisms that wither as soon as they leave the classroom. A lot more could be said about the specific role of language in the artist’s work when instead Morley is busy introducing the artist’s work generally, providing context available in innumerable other books. If Writing on the Wall had not been designed also as a general “modern art” textbook, Morley would have had room to either explore more deeply the canonic modern artworks he writes about or to investigate many lesser-known works and artists on the fringes of the major movements. Indeed this would have added up to a much richer account of modern text-art.

On that point, the chronological organization of the book (it is in the familiar aesthetic movement-by-movement format) is a major design weakness that should not have been necessary at all, whatever the book’s role. The schema risks making history into a “Greatest Hits” album. Would it not have been just as easy (and even more coherent) to use formal, contextual, and thematic markers? One hundred or so years is a small enough time frame that the benefit of a long-view would not have been lost. It would also have been possible for Morley to develop his more novel ways of thinking about text-art by extending the trains of thought across the century—following the patterns of creative coincidence and influence that he is so aware of. Instead the chronological format disrupts these continuities and makes some of his arguments appear flatly repetitive; arguments that in fact grow from each other. The textual elements in both Pop Art are, for example, located specifically as complicit responses to the textual over-saturation of the urban environment. He further states that Pop was the first avant-garde movement to “embrace” oversaturation. Yet he makes it clear that Impressionism, Cubism, much of Futurism, and Fluxus did as much to “embrace” the environment as Pop was. Morley’s undeniable knowledge of his subject suggests he could easily account for this glitch if asked, but the format of the book made it practically inevitable it would occur.

There is a drop in quality in fact, with the Pop chapter, where the thematic focus becomes more blurred. His literary interests mostly get the boot at that point. Up to Chapter 12 Morley makes room near the start of each chapter to set out the literary context of the place and time of the movement in question, usually with reference to specific literary works. This is useful, and appropriate, especially since Morley declares himself early on a strong believer in “fruitful interactions between writers and artists.” At Pop, however, that interest vanishes, except for mentions of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Marcel Broodthaers in Chapter 14. If there is the idea that poetry and art lost their connections in 1957, I cannot imagine that Morley subscribes to it, so I cannot imagine why he would perpetuate such an idea. From the very “Pop” New York School, through the explosion of cross-disciplinary collaborations in the 1970s, the conceptual Language poetry of the 1980s, up to recent publications like Dan Farrell’s Inkblot Record (2001) or Robert Fitterman’s ongoing Metropolis series, works continue to be produced that show significant influence across literary and artistic fields. There was no good reason to let go of that particular thread, which was in fact one of the more salient aspects of Writing on the Wall. This lapse so late in the book ruptures the patterns he has assigned and knocks his developing thesis out of focus. Rather than suggesting the “bond between word and image”—which indeed continues to grow—it makes his choices seem increasingly arbitrary, undermining the authority of his conclusions.

About the Author

Donato Mancini is author of numerous chapbooks (including 9-11/7-Eleven, published by Open Space) and the book Ligatures, published by New Star Books. He lives in Vancouver.

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