Micky Donnelly Ghost 2011 Oil on Fabric on Wood
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s methods of investigation and his various thought experiments about ‘family resemblance’, perception, picturing, and the use of colour have been an inspiration to many artists. His views on language are considered to be some of the most salient features of his work.
He claims that ordinary everyday language is, or should be, sufficient to our needs. It is not fixed but comes alive in the living stream of common usage. Whatever new utterances are called into everyday use become de facto part of our world, and have to be treated as such, so unique first-time statements and events may (or may not) become meaningful over time. “Language-games” take many guises, some more durable than others, but, generally, “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a life-form,” and therefore subject to change and manipulation.
He makes the case that language can be distorted by abstract theorizing, within which the underlying structures of the language-game tend to be displaced, so that the natural range of meanings contained within statements becomes unclear. One implication of this seems to be that a fair degree of philosophy, especially of the metaphysical kind, is not very useful, and probably serves only to push language beyond its functional limits. In other words, it might give the impression of profundity but a lot of it tends towards obfuscation and pretension, interesting only to people who enjoy that particular type of language-game. This could also be readily applied to most art theory and much art criticism. Easy targets, maybe.
But let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that exactly the same claims can be made about the 'language' of painting itself. New painterly images or combinations of images, no matter how strange or unusual, have a right to be noted and considered by the very fact of their production. If they then become accepted as relevant within their own community of discourse (i.e. the art world), their assimilation can somehow shift the values of all preceding painterly images by, as it were, subtly diverting the stream of usage, and by causing the rules of the various picture-games to be modified. Genuine innovation is welcomed and the discipline evolves, just as it should.
However, to continue the analogy, a lot of contemporary painting up until recently, like a lot of contemporary philosophy, seemed to endorse its own redundancy by moving in never-ending circles of self-definition. It somehow supposed itself to be resolving ‘issues’ within its own discipline, but was, in fact, treating minor concerns as major themes solely for the gratification of fellow travellers. In the process, it tended to become drained of emotional content and to lose any sense of connection with everyday experience.
Under pressure from repeated claims of extinction, painting has somehow survived and now seems to be thriving. Many new types of painting have appeared that are ambitious but do not necessarily take themselves too seriously. There is a renewed sense of playfulness, invention and independence. Many painters now avoid assimilation into camps, do not rely on signature styles, and diffuse the possibility of pretension by staying connected in some way to shades of reality, that is, by referring, however tenuously, to everyday feelings and perceptions in all their diversity.