Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me

As much as elders tell young children to dismiss name-calling or bad words, words possess a stronger meaning than most people care to admit. A photograph may be worth 1,000 words, but can a word not also invite 1,000 ideas or influence 1,000 images?

Art is subjective to the viewer’s personal history, and language is supposed to be agreed upon by the general audience, with dictionaries giving precise definitions to every word. But neither Merriam nor Webster can anticipate the insurgence of connotative meaning that can ultimately redefine a word in a specific culture.

The importance of language and its relationship to art is currently being examined at the Tate Liverpool, in an exhibition centered on Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, an exploration of the evolutionary nature of language in face of an ever-changing society. Strong words such as ‘sex’, ‘materialism’, or ‘liberation’ are all juxtaposed by a work of art intended to reflect those keywords.

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress, 1981. Mixed media, 186.5 x 283 x 157 cm. Tate Collection, London. Can you guess what the Keyword associated with these objects is? Identity? Integration? Modernization?)
Bill Woodrow, Car Door, ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress, 1981.
Mixed media, 186.5 x 283 x 157 cm.
Tate Collection, London.
Can you guess what the Keyword associated with these objects is? Identity? Integration? Modernization?)
Harry Holland, Lovers, 1982. Lithograph on paper, 13.6 x 11.5 cm. Tate Collection, London.
Harry Holland, Lovers, 1982.
Lithograph on paper, 13.6 x 11.5 cm.
Tate Collection, London.

Words will never physically assault a person (unless you hurl a dictionary at someone), but language is still a powerful force, too subjective and too transient to be defined.

What is in a word?
What is in a word?

-D.R.

To see more of the collaboration between art and language, visit the Tate Liverpool’s ongoing exhibition Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain, running until 11 May 2014. While many distinguish art and words, some artists, like those featured at the Tate, marry the two to create new images. For an in-depth example of an artist who adeptly featured words in his art, you can peruse a copy of Parkstone International’s Mucha, which illustrates some of Mucha’s typography works.