Thursday, December 06, 2007


Once lines have been hardened into the shapes of letters of the alphabet, their only function is to form words and sentences. They march in straight rows, following the commands of their master, punctuation.

But ah, before that stage, when a line is still free and retains all of its original primordial wildness, it can do a thousand things and communicate in a thousand ways.

Excerpt from a drawing by Saul Steinberg

The designer Milton Glaser emphasized the potential of a simple pencil line:
There is no instrument more direct than a pencil and paper for the expression of ideas. Everything else that interferes with that direct relationship with the eyes, the mind, the arm and the hand causes a loss of fidelity.... I like the idea that this ultimate reductive simplicity is the way to elicit the most extraordinary functions of the brain.
The domain of the created line began with the first bubbling urschleim, before your words had consonants...

Prehistoric cave art from Queensland, Australia

... and extends to the most exalted and sublime heights where the air is too rareified for mere words.

Detail from the great astronomical ceiling of the ancient Egyptian tomb of Senenmut, c. 1500 BC. Note the parade of gods at the bottom, with sun disks on their heads beneath the four lunar cycles.

The domain of the line still extends just as far today-- unregulated by civilization, unfettered by geographic borders or language limitations, and potentially infinitesimal in its granularity.

Rembrandt, Three Women Looking Out a Door

Lines that have been civilized into letters and words can never return to the pagan state. Language is rule defined, so it becomes unintelligible as it approaches chaos. But the lovely, wild line of art is still at home in chaos. And as Nietzsche said, "One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star."



Mats Halldin said...

Lovely post as always.
I'm especially amazed by that Australian aboriginal image. I could have told anyone overlapping was not used before Antiquity.

/ Mats

David Apatoff said...

Mats, I'm not aware of any deliberate overlapping before then. In cave art you sometimes get the appearance of overlapping because a second artist has come along (sometimes 5,000 or 10,000 years after the first artist) and painted over or defaced the work of the original artist. I have been in caves where we believe the second artist painted over the work of the first artist in order to defuse the magic power of the original image.

Mats Halldin said...

You are right of course, its like when graffiti artists are adding tags to a wall to decapitate other graffiti artists. I guess the two-dimensionality of the work is sort of telling the story.

/ Mats

Anonymous said...

My dear renegade David,
is this post your christmas present to me? How nice!!!
Chaos as a necessary condition for art!!!
I'm overwhelmed!!!
Happy X-mas,
your savage Tania

Anonymous said...

David, wonderful post as always. Thus, it is most regrettable that I must once again play devil's advocate in pointing out that the picture of the Egyptian tombs is an example of neither words nor art. Rather, the hieroglyphics represent one of the intermediate stages between the two. It was used equally as an art form and a language which, to me at least, is a more romantic notion than either of the two extremes from which it stems.

Also, if you really think that letters serve only to be combined into words and made into static symbols, I suggest Eisner and any of the Dada artists, though I'm sure you've seen such things before. ;-)

As always, best regards,

David Apatoff said...

Brad, it is true that hieroglyphs are a marriage of words and pictures-- each one designed beautifully enough to stand alone as a picture. But there are only a few hieroglyphs in this picture. The stars above, the lunar cycles and the parade of gods along the bottom are not hieroglyphs but drawings (or diagrams, which-- my point is-- are a form of drawing).

Anonymous said...

So I see, upon second examination!

Well defended. :-)

David Apatoff said...

Savage Tania, I am so happy that you have finally come around to my point of view! What a wonderful Xmas gift!

Our good brother Nietzsche is of course the leading champion of rigor, discipline and "self-conquest." He was critical of people who advocate chaos simply because they lack the discipline or attention span to master rules and conventions. In fact, he believed that we can only understand the full terror and possibilities of chaos, and the existential void that yawns beneath us all, when we have gone through self-control and come out the other side.

Nietzsche would surely be amused by artists who disavow technical skills and traditional values that they were never capable of mastering to begin with: "I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they have no claws."

I am delighted to read of your conversion, and I look forward to many contributions from you in the future praising the virtues of skill, standards and discipline!

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Austin Kleon said...

Hi David,

Great blog! I'm really digging going back through your posts...

Funny you should use Saul Steinberg as your first example: he was IN LOVE with words. He called himself a "writer who draws" -- a novelist using the language of cartooning. He loved acronyms ("two or three letter words are beautiful") and speech bubbles ("when people speak I see the words coming out of their mouths") The ILLUMINATIONS book is chock full of this stuff.

Anyways, thanks for the great posts! Happy New Year!

illustrationISM.... said...

did you write that david, "why pictures are better than words?" Honestly, that's great writing! I copied what you wrote and will post and ponder!
i love the section "the wild line of art is still at home in chaos" ties in with me about certain circles saying "there's order - even in chaos"! another grand paradox of life and i'm part of it! being a saul steinberg fan, a pen & inker, mesmerized by searle's lines...on & on. . . . like a line!

mark @
ism &

Catherine A. Moore said...

Thanks for the Glaser quote.