Why Use Words Anyway?

Marcel Duchamp’s artwork “Fountain” is frequently described as one of the most important and influential art works of the 20th Century. However, it is basically a urinal placed on its back. “Fountain” became increasingly influential during the 20th century in large part because of the explanation Duchamp gave for creating this work.

Duchamp’s urinal is a good example of an artwork that relies on words to explain its importance. Urinals are not in themselves art, but thanks to Duchamp’s questioning approach to the way we think about art, there is an argument that a urinal can be art. Explaining visual art using words adds context.

  • Words can add additional meaning to an artwork.
  • Words can restrict meaning when viewing an artwork.
  • Words direct the viewer to a particular or suggested interpretation.
  • Duchamp’s descriptions of his work help us to understand the final piece but (perhaps more importantly) his words also allow us to access his thinking, and specifically what he hoped the viewer would experience or understand when viewing his work.
  • We can apply words to objects to change the way we interpret an artwork. Duchamp signed his urinal ‘R.Mutt 1917’. Using a signature in this case adds a further level of discussion or debate as to how the artwork can be understood.
  • We can be playful and creative in our use of words. Duchamp in fact gave several interpretations of the rationale for the ‘R.Mutt 1917’ signature. Many artists use creative styles of writing, poetry, stories etc., to present alongside their artworks

Without words, anyone who experiences your visual work and research will not know how to look at it, and what significance it has.

A very useful introductory text about language and art and design is Michael Clarke’s Verbalising the Visual: Translating Art and Design into Words. Commonplace’s Jargon Buster and Writing PAD’s Glossary are also useful guides to the words you may come across in the context of GSA. Artists Talking showcases a number of artists writing about their work and practice.