The idea to develop an exhibition based on the book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Welsh socialist writer Raymond Williams was in equal parts informed by the educational ‘Keywords Lecture Series’ evaluating keywords in art, culture and society held at Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts), London since November 2010 and the Tate Liverpool exhibition ‘René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle’ 24 June – 16 October 2011.
Magritte, informed by the writings of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, stressed the arbitrary nature of the relationship between words and the objects they name. This statement was vividly reinforced when stood in front of the single most famous painting ever produced by Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929 in which a meticulously painted image of a pipe is placed above the inscription ‘Ceci n’est pas une pìpe’ (this is not a pipe).
The painting calls to mind a teaching-aid or children’s book, in which an image or careful rendering of an object is presented above a caption with its name, an idea strengthened by the classroom-style handwriting that Magritte imitated for the caption. The success of the painting lies upon the strangeness and unease it creates in the viewer through its playful manipulation of the cognitive process.
In his 1976 book Keywords Williams, like Magritte, draws our attention to the malleability and mutability of language. Interpreting the etymology of one hundred and thirty words including ‘culture’, ‘equality’, ‘family’, ‘media’, ‘popular’ and ‘society’ Williams observed how words were being adopted in new and unusual instances of expression—their positioning in new sentence structures far from their dictionary definitions. Their meaning therefore was being confused, instrumentalized and complicated. Overall the book strikes a cautionary tone; a concern with the loose way in which certain words were being used that ultimately could lead to uncertainty, bewilderment and misunderstanding. While the modification or misuse of words is as old as the illuminated manuscript Williams’s textbook resonated then as it continues to do today.
It encourages us to think about language, its usage and relevance to the thing it is describing, endorsing or marketing. Decoding vocabulary then might help us to figure out our immediate world. Nowadays this might include key words used in general discussion such as ‘Britain’, ‘economy’ ‘government’, ‘people’ or ‘race’. In these examples the problems of meaning seems to be inextricably tied up with the subject for which it is being used to discuss.
The exhibition ‘Keywords’ is not an exploration into the field of text-based art practices. It does include artworks from the period 1976 – 1996 with a strong focus upon the 1980s that combine recondite vocabulary, myriad historical references, and convoluted metaphorical language. Informed by ideas about learning, experiencing and appreciating the basic premise of the show is to think about the language we use when trying to interact with objects. The exhibition has been designed in such a way to highlight certain words, repeatedly used in relation to particular artworks, while on the other hand stressing the need for the invention of new vocabulary so that we can continue to open up conversation with objects allowing new ideas and meaning to come.
Gavin Delahunty, Head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Liverpool.
The ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain’ exhibition is running at Tate Liverpool until the 11th May.