They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess what that is supposed to mean is that a picture has the ability to communicate a message directly to the viewer so effectively that it would take a thousand words to communicate that same message. This, however, to me seems to present a problem for artists whose work has to be explained. If the purpose of a painting is to serve as a means of communication, to convey a message, and if it has to take words, another means of communication, a thousand words, to convey that message, hasn’t then that painting failed in its purpose as a medium of visual communication?
At times, due to language barriers, words fail to communicate ideas. It is very interesting, however, that we use pictures when the message is important enough yet needs to be conveyed in another language, even multiple languages. Traffic signs, for example, utilize picture symbols to instantly convey important information. Indeed, many symbols in ancient languages even began as pictures. The words actually looked like the things they were trying to describe.
Perhaps though, some artists, rather than trying to convey a clear message, are trying to raise questions, to make the viewer think. Perhaps their visual language is from a different time period or culture so that their symbols need translation in order for certain viewers to understand. Or maybe the message is so sophisticated and intellectually above the viewer that the artist needs to use words in order to explain in simpler terms to those of us that just don’t get it. I’m usually intimidated this way when viewing abstract art. I will never ask: “what is that?” in order not to appear dumb.
Maybe there is no message at all though. Maybe the artist dribbled or splashed colors together randomly until he achieved something he liked. Maybe the real thrill for him is to stand back and listen to how others interpret what he has done, to hear them attribute genius and greatness to it, to read complicated messages that he never intended to convey into it, to identify and be moved with what he has done to the point of paying large sums of money for it. To hear all the words that the buyer would say to justify to their friends their purchase. I guess then, in that case, that picture would be worth a thousand words. Whatever words anyone wanted to attribute to it.