“Tweet” Pieces: Semiotic Validation #TypographyAsArt

by Stavros Pavlides

December 2012

If the Miami Art week is to serve as a barometer by which one assesses the art world’s climate, then undeniably there has been a glacial thawing of fonts, type and disembodied statements into the tide of visual arts this year. Naturally, all forms of fine art made their appearance, from traditional drawings to sexualized chandeliers, but the preponderance of typography as fine art was undeniable and overbearing. This, I believe, is in many respects a consequence or even extension of our quick and clipped, statement and headline methods of digital communication.

The agents involved ran from such legendary pop artists as Lichtenstein, Warhol and Ed Ruscha, to the more contemporary Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, to their increasingly less important present day imitators. “Greedy Schmuck,” reads one such belligerently monumental Kruger piece. “Teach us to outgrow our madness,” beseeches Alfredo Jaar in neon type, and, as Tracy Emin has told us in the past in equally neon affectations, “I kiss you.” What is notable about this first tier of “typography artists” is that although their oeuvres include so much more than just mounted statements, it is this aesthetic that has been extracted from their respective careers. The choice of the “typography aesthetic” and even the fact that neon text is a repeated form, prove a point: Such art has a growing audience.

Of course, text in art thoroughly predates the digital age. Kurt Schwitters was using type as a graphic element in the 1920s, succeeded by Magritte and others, before the pop artists further subverted industrial and commercial design for their own parodic, culturally wry purposes. Their aforementioned successors (Kruger, Holzer, Joseph Kosuth, etc.) largely came from design backgrounds in the printing industry and self-identify as conceptual artists first and foremost. We can therefore surmise that typographical work falls under the rubric of conceptual art.

This is an important distinction to make, as it separates this manner of work from graphic design proper. In graphic design, the arrangements and forms are subservient to a primarily visual, aesthetic agenda and not a semiotic one (unless the signified be a very specific aesthetic itself, like an “old west” theme for example, or something more abstract like design that is “fresh” or “inviting”). In conceptual art like Kruger’s Untitled (Greedy Schmuck) or Kosuth’s tautological, neon pleasure, the content is of the utmost semantic importance. A statement is being made and while the presentation of that statement is very important, it is preceded by the content of the words themselves, whether the message is obvious or oblique.

This semiotic power of the written word in general goes a long way in explaining the communicative advantage typographical art has over representational forms of art. A phrase, being made of words, has a far more specific and universally understandable denotata than a still life painting that could signify anything from the artist’s emotions, to the fruit on display, to the socioeconomic associations of the objects on canvas. Simply put, words are better at communicating specific meaning than visual depictions. In the end this only means that a neon-letter Emin piece is more direct and does not affect the quality or acceptance of the work’s message.

If anything, taken out of context, typographical art is more easily rejected on the premise that words are not “craft” and their meaning limited by the specificity of their letters. And yet this form of art continues to proliferate and for every established artist mentioned above there are ten more creating the same kind of work with diminishing returns. Without the benefit of its explanation, work of this kind becomes “punchline art,” easily communicated, quickly digested and promptly responded to. Words shed their critical dimensions and become declarations, instant manifestos. They are posted on t-shirts and quoted in status messages.

Twitter, the famous micro-blogging app/website has mastered the art of fast, summary communication. It is the inheritor of everything from ICQ, AOL and the Facebook status, to the blog, fine-tuned to a more concise form. Alternately used for news, updates or merely unbridled narcissism, Twitter has enhanced a form of interaction that thrives on the loaded statement and often on the punchline. The similarities therefore become obvious and while the value of typographical art can be debated endlessly, the growth of our acceptance and familiarity with it alongside these avenues of quick, typed and printed communication, cannot. In this sense then, social media platforms are a validation of the formal power of such art and its effectiveness would suggest that, try as they may, these particular works by Bruce Nauman and Tracey Emin are more pop than conceptual art.

Nevertheless, to conclude that these artists influenced social media would be erroneous. The impact of both Kruger and Twitter is owing to the semiotic strength of language itself, as discussed above. All the same, as these two iterations of the reproducible word continue to overlap, expect a great deal more typographical art in the future.