Language games

José Jiménez



1. The art of our times

It is nothing new. Yet it is still quite common to see people, even those with quite solid intellectual and moral qualifications, show a deep distrust of the art of our times. The art that lives and stimulates since the artistic avant-gardes arrived on the scene at the end of the nineteenth century right up until our times. In fact, the trail followed by the avant-gardes from that nascent moment until their final exhaustion in about the 1960’s, is branded by a big paradox. As they all had the same core, a common denominator, the will to bring art closer to life, their experimentalism in the realm of expression, the intensely plural process of building new languages undertaken by the avant-gardes would lead to a distancing of their audience’s understanding. Thanks to them, art had become much more difficult.

For centuries, artistic representation had acted as a medium for the transmission of ideas and beliefs, supported by a figurative convention, based on geometric perspective which sought to produce the illusion of “reality”. The cultural and institutional acceptance of the figurative convention entailed the creation of a unitary, homogenous canon of artistic representation which maintained its currency over European and Western art for four centuries, precisely until that historical moment of the sudden emergence of the avant-gardes. The familiarity with the aforesaid manner of artistic representation was, and still is today, so strong that for centuries broad layers of the population who did not know how to read or write received the teachings of the Church, or the symbolic representations of power, through those artistic images.

Naturally, this does not imply denying the great wealth and complexity of the artistic tradition, which proves indisputable with regard to its most outstanding practitioners. Those great masters, whom we all recognize, have been, are, and will continue to live and dwell in our cultural memory. However, works of art invariably display a variety of different layers of “readings”, access and reinterpretation. And, in this sense, by having illusionistic figuration as the foundations of artistic representation, the pursuit of producing the appearance of realness in works of art, for centuries art conferred a direct channel of understanding on a strictly stylistic level. The figures and the frame of the representation reproduced the likeness of things and of experience.

The avant-gardes would change all that quite irreversibly. But one needs to understand the avant-gardes are not the "cause", but rather the outcome of a reorganization, of a process of rearrangement of the arts as a whole, in the face of the profound cultural, economic and social upheavals which would affect Europe throughout the nineteenth century – the development of technology, the formation of a socio-economic order based on the mass production of marketable products and the consequent concentration of large masses of the population in cities. All of these factors ended up by leading to the formation of the city-metropolis, a new setting for culture in all its guises, and for the masses and the crowds, with their anonymous and serial nature, to be the new target of cultural proposals. From a philosophical viewpoint of the historical processes, we are describing the debut of modernity, of a social and cultural configuration of human lifestyle profoundly different from the earlier period, with its old estates of the realm and its artisan production systems, its rural ways of life and reliance on the oral transmission of knowledge with the exception of very a small minority of the population.

If for centuries European art had played the part of reproducing the appearance of outer reality in its works, seeking to produce an illusion of likeness in the representation, the most convincing possible semblance of outer reality, then the avant-gardes were about to radically change all that. It is possible to genealogically trace this process of change occurring throughout the nineteenth century –and in particular with regard to the spread of Romanticism, the romantic sensibility– right across Europe in the first half of the century. As Octavio Paz has insightfully remarked on a number of occasions, the artistic avant-gardes are "the daughters of Romanticism". And in terms specifically of the plastic arts, I think that Francisco de Goya can be regarded as the first truly modern artist, the first who in his caprichos e invenciones placed his work with the image on an different level, independent and distinct from “outer reality”.

The world had profoundly changed. And, it follows that art had also changed quite radically. Instead of reconstructing the likeness of the “outer reality” from an aesthetic viewpoint, the avant-gardists fixed their artistic sights on the search for truth, for knowledge, in parallel to the changes that also affected philosophy and the sciences at this particular historical juncture. Instead of producing “illusion”, the task shifted to performing a visual analysis of experience, and art, in addition to striving to produce emotion, pleasure and delight, and it also acted in this manner as a vehicle of knowledge about human beings and the natural and artificial world.

In the midst of the convulsive atmosphere of the avant-gardes, André Breton began to publish "Le Surréalisme et la Peinture" in the 4th issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, dated 15 July 1925, which would be followed by subsequent issues finally published together in book format in 1928. It may have been Breton who was the first to take note theoretically of the radical change the plastic arts had undergone, their shift from outside to inside, to the inner world. In "Surrealism and Painting " he points out: “If the plastic arts are to meet the need for a complete revision of real values, a need on which all minds today are agreed, they must therefore either seek a purely interior model or cease to exist.” (Breton, 1928, 4). Evidently, the demand for the interior model was directly handed down from the Romantic epithet about the complete expressive freedom of artists, something that meant the decline of academicism. But it also meant something else: in their work with the image, with visual representation, artists had to dive into themselves, into their minds, if they truly wished to transcend the merely subordinate role played by art in a world undergoing a process of turbulent transformation. For this reason too, Goya was in all likelihood the first truly modern artist, the first to seek for questions and answers about this harrowingly changing world inside himself.

Besides this, the need to look on the inside was also specifically determined by the massive proliferation of images brought about by the expansion of technology. Not only visual arts, but also arts as a whole, were undergoing a shift, a convulsive tremor. As Walter Benjamin (Benjamin 1935-1936) pointed out, the technical possibility proffered by photography of a limitless reproduction of images stripped art of the exclusiveness in the image production process that its prestige had been founded on for centuries, and it also removed the association of artists with legendary or semi-divine characters. However, alongside what Benjamin had observed, in the second half of the nineteenth century the path had been opened to a striking proliferation of images on all levels of life, above and beyond “the frontiers” of art. Art had lost the exclusiveness of images due to the development of design (in all its guises), advertising and the media, three enormously powerful channels of aesthetic experience, whose ends are eminently practical and do not coincide with those of art (Jiménez, 2002, 34, 155). When the invention of photography was technically set in motion, it would rapidly lead to film, and, in only a few decades, in the early 1930’s, sound in films led to the sudden emergence of the audio-visual image.

I regard this as the point in time at which the era of the global image began, an era characterized by a combined mental and sensory synthesis of all the processes of representation, communication and leisure. An era that developed and diversified, always through technology, with the worldwide spread of cinema as industry and commerce, radio, television, and lastly the digital networks of the times we live in today. This is our world, the world of the omnipresent and enveloping global image, affecting and connotating all our ways of life and experience.

From very early on, when the visual arts attempted to transcend representations with the appearance of “reality”, they also became receptive to a channel of synthesis, of integration of mental and sensory components and elements in the production of images. Goya took the first step in this direction. The publication on the 6 February 1799 of the Caprichos combined in the actual etchings both the visual representation and its title: the meaning of what we see needs to be completed by what is expressed by the language inscribed on them. As Juan Carrete Parrondo and Ricardo Centellas Salamero have observed (1999, 13): "It is obvious that the image, and as such the visual sphere, is the artist’s realm of expression. The etchings, with their implicit messages, are designed to be seen by the eyes. Seen, but also read. In the Caprichos suite there exists an undeniable textual component of enormous importance for the understanding of the visual messages."

It is not unreasonable therefore to trace an imaginary line –in this direction that expresses the need to accept channels of mental and sensory synthesis and integration in the artistic image– from Goya to the use of textual inscriptions in Cubism. Picasso, Braque, and Juan Gris live in a world of newspapers and advertising slogans: writing is inseparable from visual representation, it forms part of it. In parallel to this, in 1912 Marcel Duchamp would start to set his work as a painter in a realm of sensory dissociation of the visual and the linguistic. If the modern world has turned into a machine, whose operation we are not familiar with, art can no longer be content with simple representations of likenesses. La Mariée mise à nu par ses Célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even also known as The Large Glass], is a complex device, both visual and linguistic: unfathomable if one does not read all of the written materials that are part of the piece. A visual and linguistic device requires unravelling, beyond the appearance of the thing we see. The end had finally come for the long-lasting period of illusionistic figuration of "reality" in the visual arts. The new horizon of art opened up to more sensorily integrated cerebral areas in confrontation with the enveloping global image.

2. Forms of life

The extraordinary quality and consistency of the Helga de Alvear Collection allows us to draw a map of the art of our times, from those original cores: Goya (specially invited for this occasion), Picasso, Duchamp… and right up until the present day. The quality and consistency bubble up from that personal passion to be found in all collectors, that generally irrepressible urge to get hold of a piece that only fully makes sense in the series, in the collection, it will be part of. On this occasion, moreover, knowledge –an understanding of the plural fate of the new art scenes whose genealogy I have endeavoured to sum up briefly in the earlier part of this text¬– plays a decisive role. Accordingly, pieces by Goya, Picasso and Duchamp are joined, therefore, by Kazuo Katase’s portrait of Helga de Alvear in the Prologue of what this exhibition sets out to do. Naturally, the portrait in question is executed in a conceptual and poetic sense, and is quite unlike the illusionistic figuration that attempts to reproduce physical features and the character of the sitter, as is typical of the traditional portrait genre.

That portrait is a game, one that plays with forms. But this game conveys a meaning. It does depict Helga de Alvear because the meaning of forms in the art of our times no longer depends on appearance. Admittedly, the two fans in the piece –one black and the other white– express the duality of the sitter, both German and Spanish. But this meaning could just as easily be derived from any other type of image, object or linguistic expression, with independence from its form or its appearance, above and beyond any merely descriptive logic.

It is also worth pointing out there are no longer any "excluding" nor defining genres for an art work, as was the case with the classic tradition – drawing, painting, sculpture, and so on. The genres, mediums and techniques of the visual arts of our times are varied and mixed, they are multimedia: with the same features as the audio-visual integration that is the hallmark of the global image. Devoid of a homogenous, unitary code of representation, at full liberty to use forms to express meanings, the art of our times is therefore a plural, open and complex territory.

But let us go one step further – the distinction between what is art and what is not, something that is set at all times within a concrete cultural and institutional framework (Jiménez, 1986, 316), may no longer be based on formal criteria, nor take into account the sensory techniques or supports used. From a formal point of view, works of art are not “superior” any more to the highly dense universe of images which envelops and conditions our lives beyond the frontiers of art. In our times, in terms of the expressive procedures employed, the arts are part and parcel of the global image.

And, yet, despite being part and parcel of the global image, artistic representation stands against it, sets itself apart from it, not now in terms of expressive procedures, but rather of intentionality. In the universe of the global image, therefore, we may discern two large continents: the continent of the communicative image, characterized by the functional and pragmatic uses of the image, and the artistic image, characterized by an intention totally divorced from any pragmatic concerns and by a form divorced from the representation of a concrete objective. Those two levels of intentional difference of the artistic image are clearly related to two factors of a judgement of taste as formulated by Immanuel Kant in the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” part of his Critique of the Power of Judgement (1789), namely, pure aesthetic judgement without interest and purposiveness without purpose. If these two factors allow us to distinguish between communicative intention and artistic intention, we still need to attempt to determine how? – to know in what ways the artistic image fulfils this differential intention in the universe of the global image?

In my opinion the best way of knowing this is to resort to the category of language game [Sprachspiele], one of the central themes of the late works of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, as contained in his posthumous work Philosophical Investigations filosóficas [Philosophische Untersuchungen] (1953), and for this reason I have chosen it as the title of the exhibition.

We employ the term language to refer to the way in which humans speak and express their feelings, emotions and knowledge, and in this manner relate to one another. However, although this is the immediate meaning of the term, it will be necessary in what follows to bear in mind the differentiation between natural languages and artificial languages, which are also built by humans by means of different techniques. And we can even speak about animal languages, though in this case it will simply be in an analogous fashion. Accordingly, we can see that the term language expresses and articulates, as a unitary category of thought, a intensely plural set of languages, of enormously diverse systems of expression and processes of signification.

Rather than searching for a metaphysical, substantialist grounding for this relation language and languages, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953, § 65, 87) poses the question in this way: “Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all 'language'.” To explain the apparent unity of diverse languages Wittgenstein uses the idea of “family resemblance”, and he therefore concludes that “'games' form a family.” (Wittgenstein, 1953, § 67, 89).

In effect, the core of family resemblance between the various languages is derived from them all having to do with actions. From the statement about “one of those games by means of which children learn their native language”, Wittgenstein (1953, § 7, 25) had written earlier that “I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the 'language-game'.” The diversity of the language game constituting the framework of that which we call language would therefore be necessarily tied to the diverse areas of human activity, in which a group or a community share signification criteria.

One should not understand, however, these actions to which languages refer in a direct pragmatic sense, but rather in the much broader sense of a form of life. To speak a language, to play one of these diverse games, in the extent to which they are connected with actions, would be part and parcel of a form of life: “The term 'language-game' is meant to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” Immediately after this statement, Wittgenstein (1953, § 23, 39) asks us to: “Review the multiplicity of language games.” If we take this approach to the specific terrain of the arts in our times, whose dynamic is inseparable from the intense transformation of the forms of life in the modern world, we would be in the best circumstances to answer the question we asked earlier: how do artistic images differ from communicative images in the universe of the global image, to which both belong? Both one and the other are diverse language games: in the former, codes and criteria of independent representation and meaning are sought, ones that question reality and representation based on appearance; in the latter, representations and meaning are subordinated to pragmatic concerns and purposes, they are heteronymous not independent.

Furthermore, with regard to plastic arts, the breakdown of the homogenous system of representation based on illusionistic figuration brought about an expansion and enrichment, as well as an increased complexity. This breakdown made way for what we could call the plurality of representation, a key trait of the art of our times, and one that implies various ways of establishing signification and of building meaning exist, with a fully open quality, in the realm of plastic representation. It has similarities to what happened with regard to languages which, as we saw earlier, are multiple and diverse. Both languages and artistic representations are language games and forms of life: codes of human immersion and action in their relations with each other, with nature and the cosmos.

The parallel between language and representation is something that Wittgenstein expressly formulated (1953, § 6, 23): “Uttering a word is like playing a note on the keyboard of imagination [or representation: Vorstellung].” In other words, the leap from the homogenous code of illusionistic figuration to the plurality of representation also implies accepting, on the level of signification, the intense and complex diversity of forms of life that are the hallmark of the unfurling of modernity. The expressive plurality of the art of our times is determined by the need to imagine and represent these new forms of life. As Wittgenstein remarks (1953, § 19, 31), “to imagine [or represent: vorstellen] a language means to imagine a form of life.”

In fact, the great change affecting the forms of representation and the language games of the art of our times arises from the need to accept the mandate of life, which is the major determiner of artistic forms. In the same period as this great change, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke insightfully remarked in a text dated 26 December 1908, although not published until after his death (1929, 99): “Art, too, is only a way of living, and no matter how one lives one can prepare oneself for it unwittingly”. Barely two months previously, in November 1908, in his “Requiem for a Poet” Rilke had written an intense and heartfelt reproach to the poet suicide Wolf von Kalckreuth –whom he did not know personally and who had ended to his life at the tender age of nineteen on the 9 October 1906– in which he said that, instead of woefulness, poets needed to be

“transmuting into words those selves of theirs,
as imperturbable cathedral carvers
transposed themselves into the constant stone.”

[statt hart sich in die Worte zu verwandeln
wie sich der Steinmetz einer Kathedrale
verbissen umsetz in des Steines Gleichmut].

Written while under the impression made on him by the major exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, which ratified the importance of the artist Paul Cézanne, until then virtually unknown, Rilke’s "Requiem" proposes that the poet must accept his fate as giving his life to words, turning himself into them, in the same way that painters turn themselves into images:

“That would have been salvation. Had you once perceived how fate may pass into a verse and not come back, how, once in, it turns image, nothing but image, but an ancestor, who sometimes, when you watch him in his frame, seems to be like you and again not like you: - you would have persevered.”

[Dies war die Rettung. Hättest du nur ein Mal gesehn, wie Schicksal in die Verse eingeht und nicht zurückkommt, wie es drinnen Bild wird und nichts als Bild, nicht anders als ein Ahnherr, der dir im Rahmen, wenn du manchmal aufsiehst, zu gleichen scheint und wieder nicht zu gleichen -: du hattest ausgeharrt.]

That is the crux of the matter: the artist’s task is to accept the turning inside him of life into image and nothing more than image. And that turning into, that metamorphosis, is the leap that differentiates artistic image –self-referential– from the communicative image –expansive and pragmatic. To make this creative leap, poets, artists and musicians design language games that contrast with those other merely communicative immediate ones. And thus, in their intense diversity, the games of artistic representation of our times prove just as open as those games played by children to learn a language. In those games, for instance, the children use a chest as a house: “Here is a game played by children: they say that a chest, for example, is a house; and thereupon it is interpreted as a house in every detail. A piece of fancy is worked into it”. (Wittgenstein. 1953, 473). In other words the children play with the image of a house, in this case a material object which stands in for, or represents, or means in the context of this game, a house. This quality, which is fully open with regard to the potential signification of signs, objects and forms, is the quality that characterizes the language games, the representations of segments or parts of diverse forms of life, of the art of out times. But why is it so difficult to understand and accept in the realm of artistic representation things we understand and accept without the least problem when it comes to children’s games…?

As it is in the arts, in life too language games transmit experiences by means of a change, of a substitution. On the subject of how they refer words to sensations, how the learning process of the names of sensations occurs, for example with regard to the word “pain”, Wittgenstein writes (1953, § 244, 219): “A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour.” This implies that the word “pain” is not a description, on the contrary it serves to substitute the cry with the verbal expression of pain. Within the framework of the diversity of language games, forms of life and varied signification, linked by resemblances, the arts of our time propose substitutions of experiences which, in every case, require being interpreted and unravelled. We could conclude, in effect, that to represent artistically is to substitute human experiences for conventional codes of signification, which in this manner may be communicated and shared.

The art of our times follows a course, a direction that begins with the emancipation of looking and representing from the convention of figurative illusion. In the complex world of large cities and machines, in the universe of increasingly developed technology and of the global image, the arts had to relocate themselves in the realm of inscription in the language. Articulate themselves as processes or signification games, in superimposed realms, and not just as the construction of forms (figurative or not) aimed directly at the eye. In an increasingly powerful manner, the new supports and systems of communication that organize the context of our experience in the present-day world –billboards, design, the media, digital networks, and so on– induce new forms of life, and therefore new language games.

To reach the art of our times one must accept the complexity of the language games that the art must necessarily build in light of the inherent complexity of the language games that transmit the experience of life in the world today. Wittgenstein proves, once again, most interesting on this point (1953, § 57, 79): “"Something red can be destroyed, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of the word 'red' is independent of the existence of a red thing.” In other words, when dealing with our experiences of colours we participate in a language game in which we assume the terms we use have meaning: “But what we really want is simply to take "Red exists" as the statement: the word "red" has a meaning.” (Wittgenstein, 1953, § 58, 79). In addition to this, the meanings of colours depend on the contexts of the language games, they are neither univocal nor homogenous. Wittgenstein (1953, § 64, 85) proposes we: “imagine a language game altered so that names signify not monochrome squares but rectangles each consisting of two such squares. Let such a rectangle, which is half red half green, be called "U"; a half green half white one, "V"; and so on. Could we not imagine people who had names for such combinations of colour, but not for the individual colours? Think of the cases where we say: "This arrangement of colours (say the French tricolor) has a quite special character."”

Colours and colour combinations, and additionally the differences implied by the support and the context of the colour: the colour of a dress is not the same as the colour of a flag, regardless of whether the fabric and the dyes used are similar. The important thing is the meaning of the colour in each separate case, and that depends on the codes of meaning of the language game it is part of. It is the same situation we find in the diverse and plural language games built by artists, and which on all occasions must be unravelled in a context of meaning quite unlike the one those same materials and forms of representation would have in the realm of the communicative image.

These are the main lines explaining the objectives and the structure of this exhibition –Language Games– that has been devised as a path for understanding the diverse and plural codes of signification with which the art of our time acts and operates. The exhibition has been arranged as a prologue and five sections, designed as a path allowing visitors to see that the artistic proposals of our times, in their diversity, possess meaning – an ensemble of significations waiting to be unravelled. The arrangement of each of these sections seeks to reveal the intense plurality of the mediums and games employed by the artists to artistically express senses and significations.

The section titles are open clues, metaphors to facilitate the understanding of these art games. The World is a Text (I) plays with the wide range of ways to incorporate the word in the image. However, the word-image dialectics is a two-way street, and this opens another road –reversible– for artistic play: The Text is an Image (II). Evidently, in the artistic realm of representation, colours, which as we have seen earlier are not only physical, but also players in a game of meanings and significations: The Languages of Colours (III). The following section whose title is borrowed from René Magritte, The Betrayal of Images (IV), focuses on the open quality of images: nothing is just as it seems, the signification is open, everything means more, transcends the mere act, the factual event. Lastly, The Mirrors of Babel (V) alludes not only to the diversity of tongues that cannot translate into each other (Babel), but also to the reflections and redundancies contained in the unknown and the dispersed (mirrors), qualities possessed by modernity and by the experience of loss and uncertainty we feel today.

I will end by referring to Wittgenstein again (1953, § 96, 117): “Thought, language,” –he writes- “now appear to us as the unique correlate, picture [Bild], of the world. These concepts: proposition, language, thought, world, stand in line one behind the other, each equivalent to each.” Language and thought are, in effect, iconic constructs: we think in images. Yet, therefore, in the opposite or reversible sense, arts, as an expression of forms of life, as language games, are paths to achieving, at its highest degree of intensity, expression through images, the life force of representation (Jiménez, 1986, 309-321). Humans live, engage in their actions, their forms of life, in the symbolic games of representation and the image. The arts are mirrors that do not merely reflect our appearance, they question and subvert it too. We are experience in the image.


- Walter Benjamin (1935-1936): "La obra de arte en la época de su reproductibilidad técnica" [“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”], in:
* Discursos interrumpidos I. Spanish translation by J. Aguirre; Taurus, Madrid, 1973, pp. 15-57.
* Or in: Obras. Libro I, Vol. 2. Spanish translation by Alfredo Brotóns; Abada, Madrid, 2008.
- André Breton (1928): Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, nouvelle édition revue et corrigée: 1928-1965; Gallimard, Paris.
- Juan Carrete Parrondo and Ricardo Centellas Salamero (1999): Mirar y leer. Los Caprichos de Goya. Catalogue of the exhibition of Goya’s Caprichos held at Palacio de Sástago, Saragossa, 15 December 1999 - 6 February 2000 and at Museo de Pontevedra, 18 February - 12 March 2000; Saragossa, Madrid and Pontevedra, 1999.
- José Jiménez (1986): Imágenes del hombre. Fundamentos de Estética; Tecnos (Coll. "Metrópolis"), Madrid.
- José Jiménez (2002): Teoría del arte; Tecnos (Coll. "neo-Metrópolis"), Madrid.
- Rainer Maria Rilke (1929): Briefe an einen jungen Dichter; Insel Verlag, Leipzig. Spanish translation by José Mª Valverde: Cartas a un joven poeta [Letters to a Young Poet]; Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1980.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953): Investigaciones filosóficas [Philosophische Untersuchungen]. Bilingual edition. Spanish translation by Alfonso García Suárez and Ulises Moulines; Editorial Crítica, Barcelona, 1988 [Philosophical Investigations. English translation by G. E. M. Anscombe; Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1953].


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