Letters from Esperantoland—Dr. Ho Ping SpecGram Vol CLXXXV, No 4 Contents Quipley’s Don’t Believe It! ... Or Do?

How Does Art Mean?
Parsing the Grammar of Fine Art

Morris McConaughey
Professor of Fluxus in Linguistics
The Δίς Λεγόμενον Centre for Endeepened Ideation

It is impossible to observe Michaelangelo’s David without the realisation that it represents the apotheosis of the Hallidayan grammar’s attempt to schematise meaning-making. From a trinocular perspective, the thighs are, of course, emblematic of the basic system, while the arms receive their metaphoric semiosis as concurrently the metafunction and meaning potential of the whole. Extending the application of linguistics to other artworks is the beating heart of this essay.

Art, of course, must make a play of challenging the border of signifier and signified, thus alluding to both the driving force and essentially problematic nature of Saussurean semiotics. Indeed, living as it does in the liminal spaces in and between this boundary, art puts the seam and seem into semiotics. This does not imply the disavowal of the meaning space but reconfigures it transversally along the sociosemiotic axis.

Text linguists, such as de Beaugrande and Dressler, may have made a programmatic project of the classification of linguistic entities, but art shows them to be inchoate yet coherent, malleable yet brittle. Notice how, at once, the œuvre of the impressionists challenges contemporary morphology by showing, in their differentiation between the near and far observer, that there is no such entity as the bound morpheme. Strokes that appear to be linked to those apart become disentangled and free upon closer inspection. Is there any better illustration that -s and -ed have independent existence without the stems to which we see them adjoined?

Semantics finds its way into even the most abstract art. Duchamp’s display of urinals deftly discusses the process of generating theory without data. Similarly, John Cage’s 4′33″ is an ironic riposte to opponents of the null morpheme. There is therefore only a sole conclusion.

Art signs.

Semantics, semiotics and sociolinguistics teach us that it is impossible not to mean. As Picasso’s paintings duel with expectations of realism, so semiotics is lashed to the mast of experience while the sirens sing of the possibility of knowing and being known. There are no journeys of the mind without destinations and no utterance without interpretation.

The name of the rose may be arbitrary but the Montagues and Capulets of signifiers and signifieds are bound together not by past enmity but future recognition. Art is the grey-haired theorist at the conference, debating the function of marking definiteness. Linguistics is the tragic painter, awaiting the arrival of fame.

The lights go on and off in the gallery and unmade beds win prizes not despite the meaning-generation enterprise but because of it. Hermeneutics unites linguistics and art in holy matrimony inasmuch as the text and the painting acknowledge their mutual dedication. The celebrant is the theorist as comfortable in the gallery as the field, the frame as much as the book.

If conclusions function as convenient yet arbitrary framing devices that present les filles des épices in their movement from dualism to monism, then the marriage of linguistics and art wraps around the body like a dress made of flag. It appeals to the intellect and the senses, the hunger for sameness and the desire for difference. Parodic allusions to Atlas are shrugged off as the world rolls along.

Letters from EsperantolandDr. Ho Ping
Quipley’s Don’t Believe It! ... Or Do?
SpecGram Vol CLXXXV, No 4 Contents