By Richard Shusterman
Hegel famously affirmed fine art as belonging to mind’s highest spiritual sphere along with religion and philosophy. He construed art as a lower, transitional stage to those two other, progressively higher, forms of what he identified as the realm of absolute knowledge and defined as that realm in which mind reflectively recognized itself through its cognitive activity. But he insisted that art shares with religion and philosophy the power of “bringing to utterance” the loftiest of our concepts, “the deepest interests of humanity and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.” In Hegel’s idealist philosophy, what particularly distinguishes (and subordinates) art in relation to religion and philosophy is its emphasis on sensuous, material media as the way of expressing its noble ideas: art’s “peculiar mode” is “that it represents even the highest ideas in their sensuous forms, thereby bringing them nearer to the character of natural phenomena, to the senses, and to feeling.”
Words, of course, are the most common and preferred way for philosophers to convey ideas. Indeed, with contemporary philosophy’s influential “linguistic turn,” many important theorists (such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty) insist that all meaningful ideas and experience are essentially linguistic. Though Hegel did not go so far, he did insist that words were a clearer expression of ideas because they were also a purer (i.e. more ideal) expression of mind; and he even ranked the arts in terms of their progression from thickly sensuous materiality to increasing ideality. This progression went from the physical solidity of architecture, to sculpture, to painting, to music, and finally culminated in the verbal art of poetry, which Hegel held to be essentially immaterial because purely verbal. Poetry is “the most spiritual” form of art, he argued, because it is the direct representation of the imagination and spirit itself, free from external sensuous material. Its key essence is ideas. “To express these it uses sound indeed, but only as a sign in itself without value or content. The sound, therefore, may just as well be a mere letter, since the audible, like the visible, has sunk into being a mere indication of spirit. Poetry is the universal art of the spirit which has become free in itself and which is not tied down for its realization to external sensuous material.”
Hegel belongs to a long and very dominant tradition of aesthetic theorists who dismiss the visual aspect of literature as a mere mechanical necessity (of reading and writing) that is essentially irrelevant to meaning and aesthetic value. While most theorists differ from Hegel by insisting that oral or auditory qualities are aesthetically and semantically essential to poetry, the role of the visual has almost always been regarded as aesthetically irrelevant to literature and language in general, as merely a technical means of recording, preserving, and presenting words. But is the visual dimension of words really devoid of aesthetic and semantic import?
Those who deny the aesthetics of verbal visuality usually appeal to the oral roots of literature in ancient cultures before the advent of printing. But historical scholarship has shown that even in pre-Gutenberg cultures, the visual aspects of a manuscript (e.g., calligraphic style and format) were considered so important that the first printing presses were designed to imitate as closely as possible the visual properties of the aesthetically finest and most admired manuscripts, rather than merely efficiently representing in printed form the same words.
Diverse twentieth-century developments have certainly emphasized the aesthetic and semantic functions of language’s visual dimension: from the poetry of Apollinaire (Calligrammes) and e. e. cummings to the subsequent movement of Concrete Poetry, but also in graphic and typographical design and varieties of conceptual, political, and mixed-media art that deploy verbal materials.
Terry Rosenberg’s Colors of War is art that likewise highlights the ways that the visual dimensions of words convey rich complexities of aesthetic and expressive meaning, far beyond their basic conceptual content or literal meaning. The great logician and philosopher of language Gottlob Frege not only showed that a word’s literal meaning goes beyond the word’s object of reference (which is why the phrases “the morning star” and “the evening star” have different literal meanings even when it was discovered that they refer to the very same star); he equally argued that words have evocative connotations that go beyond their conceptual or literal meaning. While “deceased” and “dead” are not different in literal meaning (because interchanging them will not affect the truth of sentences in which they appear), these words clearly differ in their expressive meaning or tone, which Frege called “coloring” (Färbung) to distinguish this meaning both from a word’s reference and its conceptual, literal or denotative meeting (which he called “sense” or Sinn). Word color, for philosophy of language, is thus more than a mere visible matter of hue, saturation, and brightness. It signifies all the rich associated meanings that a word evokes.
Creatively orchestrating the diverse colors and shapes that the visuality of the printed word allows, Rosenberg’s Colors of War dramatically evokes the complex, controversial networks of meanings that connect the common yet contested buzzwords that pervade contemporary politics and popular culture. In this art, the words are not mere ornament in the service of pictorial values, but instead provide through their meanings the work’s primary focus. The words depicted are colorfully highlighted, typographically reshaped, reversed, or otherwise distorted from their conventional form. By thus accentuating (hence making more visible) the colorful visuality of these words, Rosenberg productively stirs up their expressive meanings and provocative connotations for the viewer – the color of these words in the Fregean sense. In Rosenberg’s textual art, the words are not strung together in sophisticated sentences or even in catchy short slogans but simply placed (usually in isolated, contrasting pairs) in stark juxtaposition essentially devoid of sentential syntax. Freed from serving any particular sentential meaning so that they can reverberate in their colorful associations, the words paradoxically mean more not less.
Colors of War is comprised of one hundred pictorial panels created digitally through Photoshop 6.0. Its title makes clear from the outset that the depicted words or concepts of its art belong not to the sublimely transcendent realm of idealist spiritual harmony but to our contemporary moment that is so globally pervaded with conflict in both politics and culture, that it almost seems defined as a continuing state of war. The words in Colors of War refer to a significant sample of such conflicts, ranging from military battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Gaza, and Israel to the threats of nuclear war from Iran and North Korea and finally to the cultural clashes that divide our own United States. Rosenberg explains that this series of verbal images emerged from his “ongoing shock from news stories of greed, cruelty, corporate and government corruption, fascination with luxury and celebrity that have become fairly standard in society today.”
The pictorial play of word colors, shapes, and positions within the frame of each digital panel not only calls up the connotative meanings of the individual words but also evokes the troubled relations between them. Most of the digital panels are structured on two contrasting terms: you/me; us/them; she/he; me/we; never/always; spirituality/sexuality; patriots/traitors; instinct/reason; black/white; master/slave; genius/hack; masculine/feminine; persistence/resignation; empowered/enslaved; Democrats/Republicans. Many of the oppositional pairs also suggest violent conflict -- negotiator/annihilator; abuser/abused; molester/molested; Russians/Chechnyians; Nazis/Jews; Japanese/Chinese; rapist/raped; Iraq/Iran; Israelis/Palistinians; Indians/Pakistanis; Fatah/Hamas; Cowboys/Indians; Armenians/Turks, Hutus/Tutsis. The conflicting entities range from very broad and historically long-established religious categories (Catholics/Protestants) to contemporary local groups (the warring LA gangs of Crips and Bloods) and from the most abstract perennial notions such as time (is/was) and existence (life/death) to the most trivial and transitory media battles of American pop culture figures (Donald/Rosie; Don Imus/Kia Vaughn).
The visual rendition of the framed words often exemplifies their connotative relations, as when “US” (ambiguously designating both the objective case of “we” and the abbreviation of “United States”) not only dwarfs “them” in size but pushes it to the margin. Likewise, “sexuality” is blatantly visible, eclipsing “spirituality” that is initially less detectable in its background. Occasionally the framed words do not present a contrasting pair but a unified compound concept, such as “We the people” or “World Bank.” Yet, through Colors’ predominant background of divisive concepts, the viewer’s mind is anyway prompted to see conflicts projected even here, subtly suggesting a division between a selfish “we the” privileged on top and the rest of the masses of “people” beneath, or the idea that the institution of international banking is less for world savings than for harmful profit-making in world exploitation. Likewise, the single term UN slyly suggests that this international agency for world peace and unity is characterized by the negative nature of the prefix “un” it wears, showing it is UNable to quell the violent disputes it was established to resolve. Though each panel individually evokes a wealth of important meanings, further meanings arise from viewing them together. Thus we can move from the US/them image to the US/MX image, where the identity of us as the US is reinforced and separated from the Mexicans (one group of “them”) by a firm yet porous white borderline. And the borderline dividing political entities and populations is itself a motif that connects several panels of Colors of War: one on North and South Vietnam, another on East and West Berlin, and a panel noting four physical dividing walls ranging from ancient China to contemporary Israel.
Because the words Rosenberg chooses are so readily recognizable and rich in associations, and because his play of shapes and colors is so intuitively suggestive, Colors of War can stimulate the viewer’s cultural imagination and political understanding without requiring any sophisticated artworld knowledge. It thus can appeal to a demographically wide-ranging audience and so provide an aesthetically engaging and democratic tool for exploring the conflicted issues that are signified by its words. Not surprisingly, it has been selected by public libraries as a promising medium for political discussion and education.
There are, of course, dangers in this method. The technique of isolating politically evocative and emotionally charged words from their complex contexts of use, and then multiplying their reverberations through starkly clashing contrasts and electrifying graphics is also a common method of sensationalist advertising and political propaganda. Such coercive persuaders seek to manipulate their audience to choose the one right brand or the right party by ignoring that there may be other alternatives to explore beyond the simplistic, typically binary choice of alternatives presented.
Rosenberg’s aims are obviously different – not to force a choice but to prompt us to explore the alternatives by making them so visible to our eyes and thereby helping us to recognize that a simple choice between binaries may not be possible and that those powers who try to make us choose in terms of such crude dualisms may be doing so to enslave rather than empower us (yet another binary he presents). While deploying the coercive logic of binarism, Rosenberg’s Colors demystifies and undermines it in different ways.
First, the visual forms and placements of the words sometimes suggest similarities or continuities rather than stark differences: thus the clashing oppositions of Iraq/Iran; traitors/patriots; me/we; life/death, Democrats/Republicans, and even democracy/terrorism all appear as mirror reflections in which each polarity of the dualism significantly defines the meaning of its contrasting other. Second, sometimes the visual import challenges the rigid dualism evoked, as in the Black/White panel whose appropriately colored words are both placed on a background involving other colors, thus suggesting that important political issues are always more complex and nuanced than a simple contrast of black and white. Third, several of the pictorial panels challenge the universal presumption of binary thinking by containing more than two essential terms. Thus we have the triads of Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha; of Sunnis/Shiites/and Kurds; of Bosnians/Croatians/Serbians; and of the simple, comparative, and superlative forms for the adjective pair of “sick” and “rich.” There is also a panel with four varieties of politically dividing walls a panel with the long list of African nations so that we don’t just lump them all together as the obscure masses of the so-called “dark continent.” Finally, we face the disturbingly long list of 42 “Terrorist Groups” (not all of them Islamic!).
Here, instead of Colors’ usual minimalist word pairs or word clusters that can be counted on one hand, the relentless naming and numbering and acronymic abbreviation of these terrorist groups suggests the relentless force and increasing numbers with which they disturb world peace. We will be better equipped to understand terrorism’s threat to democracy (another panel), if we realize that terrorism is not a monolithic mass but includes diverse groups with different ideologies and different aims. By deploying and making visible the basic logical insight that a concept gets its meaning through its contrasts to other concepts (a principle that Hegel identified as Differenz and Saussure effectively applied in linguistics), Colors of War not only shows the awesome power that dualistic divisions based on this principle wields upon us, but also suggests the limits and dangers of such binary thinking.
Littera scripta manet (“the written word remains”), Horace famously affirmed to praise the advantages of writing’s power of permanence in contrast to the dynamic yet ephemeral nature of oral speech, which certainly can move us most intensely through the vigor, cadence, and passion of the human voice but which, as a temporal auditory event, also moves on and disappears, unless it is recorded. If the stable permanence of the tied-down text might suggest a static sluggishness of written words is clearly not the case with the verbal visuality of Colors of War. Rosenberg, who for many years has been absorbed in painting figures in swift movement, has apparently internalized the dynamic energetic movement of the dancers and athletes he has been painting. In many of his verbal panels, the words seem to vibrate with energy, dance across the panel, push at the limits of the frame, leap out at the viewer, or dive (as in the Life II panel) into a vanishing point that suggests moving even beneath the surface of the pictorial plane.
There is also an important sense of motion as we move from one pictorial word panel to another, tracing multiple paths back and forth among the hundred panels we are given. The movement extends mentally in the dance of associations that their concepts, forms, and colors arouse in our thought and feelings. (Emotion is a motion, as its verbal form suggests.) The movement of Colors of War is meant to be carried still further by its viewing public – emerging into an open-minded, open-ended discussion of the concepts portrayed, the complex political concerns and cultural ideologies they represent, and the wide-ranging and conflicting emotions they arouse. Colors of War most succeeds when used as a work in progress, one that demands our own further efforts in bringing to greater consciousness, visibility, and vocal expression the problematic networks of meanings expressed through its colored words.
G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 9.