Arts  •  November 24, 2002

The Language Game of Fine Arts

Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigation, “to say ‘If it did not exist, it could have no name’ is to say as much and as little as: if this thing did not exist, we could not use it in our language-game.—What looks as if it had to exist, is part of the language.” There is a danger in assuming existence of anything that is exterior and/or anterior to language. This is what happens in religion where people dedicate their lives to defining what God is. Likewise, fine arts is a discipline concerned with defining what “Art” is. Both are byproducts of our language where the mere effects of language compel them to dedicate their lives to reducing the meaning of the words. Their involvement far exceeds intellectual inquiries; it consumes them utterly and entirely. What they seek is “transcendental signified”, but no such thing exists. They feel that if the name exists, it must exist. Instead of simply living, the words dictate their living.

If we were to define “Fine arts” by deferring, we have art history. This is a method of defining that most fine artists consciously utilize. For instance: Claude Monet - Marcel Duchamp - Andy Warhol. The meaning and the value of each artist are defined by deferring in time. A simplistic version of it would be something like: Monet, questioning the role of an artist as a mere copier of reality, proposed a way to represent artist’s impression of reality. Duchamp proposed that art is no more than the very gesture of calling something art. Andy Warhol took Duchamp’s idea further by rejecting and reversing every symbol of traditional art. Each defines himself and his art by deferring in time, by responding to what came before him.

Another method of defining is differing. This happens synchronically. The term “fine arts” exists as an opposing term to “commercial arts”. Most fine artists are not consciously engaged in this differing, but it nonetheless influences the way they make art. This dualism consists of two opposing forces playing tug-of-war. At the connotative level, fine arts is sublime and profound, whereas commercial arts is vulgar and mundane. To be a “fine artist” is to be a non-commercial artist. It is a conscious act of articulation of his position in this dualism.

Commercial artists, on the other hand, are not engaged in this particular language game. Few would define themselves to be “commercial artists”. The term is mainly used by fine artists as a means of differentiating themselves. Most commercial artists are engaged in their own language games where they go by “graphic designer”, “illustrator”, “cartoonist”, and so on. And, each term articulates (differs) various positions denotatively as well as connotatively. As with any words, these are results of arbitrary categorization. Words like “graphic designer” and “illustrator” happen to include articulation of “commercial” versus “fine”. There are words, such as “filmmaker” and “musician”, which do not make this articulation. Whether it does or not, is quite arbitrary. In other languages, this articulation is not necessarily made for the same terms. Most mainstream musicians do not face the same stigma that illustrators do about being “commercial” owing to the same effect of language working to their advantage (”musician” does not necessarily imply “commercial” or “fine”, whereas “illustrator” is explicitly “commercial”).

In fine arts, photographers often call themselves “fine art photographer”. This is an attempt at supplying the missing articulation in the word “photographer”. The only time anyone would specifically call himself “commercial photographer” is in the presence of other “fine arts photographers”, otherwise the articulation is superfluous. Behind the use of the term “fine art photographer”, there is a feeling of threat, desire to be distinguished, and leveraging of the value associated with the word “fine art”.

In our postmodern world, our identities work backwards from the labels. Labels are not applied to what we have become; we strive to become the label. If you are to successfully attain this, you must possess a talent for not only linguistic maneuvering such as above, but also semiological one. That is, it involves manipulating anything that can be used as a sign, visually, acoustically, and conceptually.

In order to define “fine arts” by differing, fine artists employ various trappings of fine arts. As the imageries of Hollywood films become increasingly dazzling and spectacular, video art in the world of fine arts becomes cruder and barer. Showing long video footage of a house where nothing moves and nothing happens, looks and feels like “fine arts” because it presents a stark contrast to the mesmerizing beauty of Hollywood special effects. Small cryptic text written on a large white wall looks “fine arts” because it provides contrast to the in-your-face messages of advertising. A painting with controversial or offensive symbols and messages, racially or politically, feels “fine arts” because of the whitewashed realities presented in corporate advertising. A page of magazine ad framed and hanged on a gallery wall looks “fine arts” because a piece of commercial art is taken out of its context, “appropriated” to be viewed critically. Commercial artists are unknowingly threatening fine artists, and influencing what they are creating. The threat is not for their talents, but for their identities. Fine arts in our postmodern era is not capable of existing on its own, precisely because it is a language game where there is nothing beyond differing and deferring.

Just as a small corporation seeks affiliation with larger corporations in order to leverage their brand values, fine artists benefit by associating themselves with the term “fine arts”. The language game of fine arts is more specifically a game of associative value. To be a successful “fine artist”, you cannot simply do whatever pleases you. After all, the game is not to do what you love, but to be “a fine artist”. The rules are not necessarily the same. If the end products look and feel like commercial photography, illustration, or cartoon, then you’ll face some difficulties associating your work with the symbolic value of the label “fine arts”. The trappings are your primary concerns in this regard. Unfortunately they change over time. What looked and smelt like “fine arts” 10 years ago doesn’t necessarily look and smell like “fine arts” today. Whatever looks farthest away from commercial arts will most likely draw most attentions.

Especially since Duchamp, fine arts unavoidably became a language game. There is no remedy for this. There is no “should” or “should not” that could set the right course, because there is no problem here other than the fact that fine arts is what it is; a language game.

A troubled corporation whose only value is its brand name, sustains itself by offering products that can be effectively sold under its brand. The brand becomes the drive, not the products. Likewise, “fine arts” is a label that offers products that can be effectively sold under that label. The label dictates the products, not the other way around. “Fine arts” is a dying corporation whose only value is its symbolic value associated with its label. In this sense, fine arts has become a parody of itself.