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Musings on Visual Art vs Literature

Updated: 4 days ago

(First published 30.07.20 in Berliner Oracle - image c. Rachel Haynie)


From the first rudimentary geometric lines scratched into a piece of ochre some 70,000 years ago, the human race has been expressing itself through imagery. Though nobody can put an exact date on the earliest human paintings, it is generally accepted that somewhere between 70,000 and 40,000 BC there was a 'creative explosion', wherein these early manifestations of homo sapiens symbolic thought proliferated. It is also generally accepted that written language developed much later, sometime around 4,000 BC, when the complicated nature of trade and administration required the recording of information outside of the human brain. Though these embryonic examples of representation and book-keeping might seem a world away from Caravaggio and Camus, these distant origins, of visual art and literature respectively, do perhaps hint at something important about the nature of each medium, and the different ways in which they convey and communicate ideas.


It has been argued that the visual arts are more universally accessible than literature. This certainly seems to hold true if we consider the barriers to understanding implicit in each form. For literature, one not only needs the ability to read, but moreover a knowledge of a specific language. The most exquisite poem written in Spanish is rendered meaningless if one has no knowledge of the language. Yet there is something about a painting which transcends language and culture (presuming one has the ability to see). Presenting Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son to an indigenous tribe in the amazon, or a group of nomadic herders in Mongolia, would surely garner more of a response than the pages of Luke 15:11–32 in the original Greek which describe the same event.


Yet putting language aside and assuming that a reader understands, even the talk of a 'response' to a painting suggests another distinctive quality of visual art; emotion. Visual arts are more immediate, as one sees the totality of the work at one glance. That is not to say there is not a great deal of detail in a painting, or that its meaning can been fathomed instantly, but indeed rather that there is an element of the visual arts which is not necessarily concerned with meaning at all. In actually seeing a representation of human behaviour, of faces and gestures and expressions, visual arts can convey emotion in a way which literature can’t. That is not to say that literature cannot do so entirely, merely that the way in which it does so is different, as literature relies much more heavily on the imagination to act as an intermediary between a work and its audience.


Upon the relative strengths of literature, we might return to our Rembrandt to consider the appropriacy of each medium. Upon seeing the painting for the first time, a viewer’s curiosity might be sparked; who is this shoeless man prostrate before a greying figure? Why is this figure embracing him? What is their relation, and who are the other three observing from the shadows? One thing is for sure; to satisfy this curiosity, one won’t go seeking out other paintings as a means of explanation. One would rather turn to some literature to provide this information, such as the excerpt from Luke’s gospel (or more likely the corresponding Wikipedia article which I have open in my other browser). This highlights now something that the visual arts cannot do; provide detailed explanations.


The origins of visual art and literature delineated in the opening paragraph might now come into sharper focus. The fact is that each medium is more suitable to conveying different things, and the seeds of this were already present in their inception. A painting is best at capturing an occurrence or a symbolic representation of an object, and along with it has the potential to tap into human emotions in a unique way, whereas once detailed explanation or analytical thought comes into the picture (or not, as the case may be) then literature holds a distinct advantage, and the very birth of writing came out of the aforementioned complexity in a rapidly developing society.


It is said that a picture paints a thousand words. It must be said that this is not all that many words in the grand scheme of things, but more to the point, we must consider just which kinds of words a picture could paint. A kind of adjectival description of an occurrence, yes, but arguments, or detailed examinations, this is the proper realm of literature. Perhaps the best way to express this is by considering this very essay itself; there is a reason why my editor asked me to write 1000 words to convey this argument. He perhaps wouldn’t have been best impressed if I’d handed in a doodle to express the relative merits of one side of an argument over the other, or if I’d tried to chisel my way to a coherent and logical conclusion through a piece of marble.


None of this is meant to suggest that the visual arts are simpler than literature, merely that each is more suited to conveying and communicating different things. Indeed, when we shift our focus from realistic painting to more modern, abstract forms of visual art, it does complicate the argument somewhat. But when we consider that the title of this essay concerns the conveyance of ideas, we must conclude that literature, based as it is on language rather than imagery, is best suited as a vehicle for the complexity of human thought, with literature imitating thought, and visual art imitating life.

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