Disclaimer: You are reading one of my early blog posts for a class and will have no context for what I’m about to say. For that, I apologize
I’ve been really digging graffiti lately. I spent a lot of time over the break looking at pictures, downloading graffiti fonts (hmm…the irony could be a whole other blog post), and trying to get the hang of it. I got a book that’s sort of a “how-to” guide to graffiti, and in it the author talks about how some shapes of letters just don’t go with other shapes. “X” and “Y” for example, don’t fit together well. The arms of the letters vie for position and try to take up the same space. I’ll come back to this idea–allow me a digression.
After looking at the Medieval manuscripts and the old, Arabic texts, it got me thinking even more about where art and writing meet and wondering how a picture is really any different than a letter. For instance, the letter “X” is a symbol in many ways. Pictorially, it’s “Bad!” or “Dig here for treasure!” Phonetically, it’s a symbol for a “eks” sound. When paired with other letters, it has a fluid symbolism designated by its neighbors–a symbolism that simply acts as signpost, as Prof. Trease was saying. That is its most widely understood purpose, and its main one in the era of the novel. But letters also, when set up against other letters, have a visual potential. They act as shapes that take up space and push or pull against their neighbors. They’re like a piece of a puzzle, and a skillful artist can figure out exactly which letters belong where in relation to each other.
You see consciousness of that function of letters in those old manuscripts. I don’t necessarily think that all authors since the invention of the printing press are making a big mistake for ignoring the ability of letters to function artistically. I like the text standing on its own, too–Plus, undue attention to visual appeal would be distracting or weird in a lot of books. But I am surprised the artistic function of the letter went away as entirely as it did. I was very happy to see the fun and experimental Humument in class, and I hope the lines between art and literature continue to blur. I think the Medieval folks were on to something, and that we’ve been missing an exciting potential use of letters.