The Art of Visual Language

As much as I stress how the Art and Language perspectives/paradigms of viewing graphic communication are opposed to each other, I do think that they can be reconciled. Just to recap, I believe that a cultural force, what I call the “Art Perspective” suppresses the visual-graphic form of expression, which is closer to a “Language Perspective.” Some of the things that differ in these paradigms’ emphasizes are:

Art Perspective
• Individuality and Innovation
• Imitation is bad
• Iconicity = just perception
• Cross-cultural Universality
• Innate talent or skill
• Etc.

… Versus…

Language Perspective
• Communally used signs
• Imitation is central
• Patterned graphic regularities
• Diversity requiring fluency
• Innate potential for acquired system
• Etc.

What I’ve argued for mainly is that at the base understanding, the visual-graphic modality should not be thought of as “Art.” Rather, it should simply be considered a mode of conceptual expression, whereby “Art” is a socio-cultural designation that may or may not be applied to its usage.

So, given this perspective, the Art viewpoint can easily be applied to usage of this visual language at least on some levels.

Individuality and innovation can be applied to usage and not form. For instance, instead of emphasizing that people should all draw in unique and different ways, it would be easy for people to all use a common style whereby they create novel expressions with those signs. On this level, imitation could still be “bad” — while imitation to establish the skill set for drawing is necessary.

Take manga for instance. Many (certainly not all) manga are drawn in a conventionalized style in which authors have individualistic voices, yet largely share a common visual vocabulary. But, they can then have potential to create novel stories and expressions out of that conventionalized vocab. (This doesn’t mean that they do it per se, there is still quite a lot of derivative stories in manga).

The “Talent” issue can also come out here. Instead of judging people on how “good they are at drawing”, given an acknowledgment of graphic fluency, talent is recognized for what people do with their drawing ability, just like we recognize that good writers make use of their common vocab by using it in inspiring ways.

In all cases, the emphasis here is that the Art perspective is not necessarily applied to the image-making itself (or the development of that ability), but rather it’s about the usage of that capacity. The Language perspective holds true at the base level of identifying the capacity for (sequential) image-making, while the Art perspective is applied interpretively to its usage.


  • So basically visual artists need not apply for a visual medium? Oh sure you can be artistic, as long as it’s only in the way a written word artist is, it’s not as if your dealing with images instead of words! 😉

    This is why I can’t get behind the idea of a middle road, what’s the middle to one person is still an extreme to another, it’s simply all relative.

  • I think that you conflate the notion of creating images and using images. As I’ll put in a post soon, why don’t we have an equivalence in considering the graphic and verbal forms? Why the double standard of saying “in speech you need to use conventional signs in novel ways” but “in graphics you need to use novel signs in novel ways”?

    AND… as I’ve put in many posts, it seems that people largely are being conventional in their manner of drawing — there’s just a cultural force that’s admonishing them for it.

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