Ideogram of King Narmer: Pondering Upon the Conflict of Art Predates Language

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Palette of King Narmer (c. 3000 BCE)
This artwork is one of the earliest example of an ideogram; which refers to the representation of an idea through a symbol. The present context has created watertight demarcation between language and art. However, what such distinction fails to understand is the foundation of both of these modes of communication – the need of a living being to externalise an idea or thought by the phenomena of information.
In this clay tablet we see the King Narmer preparing to punish a deviant with a stone dagger. The relevance of this artwork in this context is not defined by the story it depicts but by the top-most panel which has a small inscription that tells us a lot about Egyptian language. The inscription is a pictorial/symbolic representation of a fish and a chisel. Fish translates as Nar and chisel translates as Mer in ancient Egyptian language, thus, giving us the name of this King Narmer. This practice blurs the distinction between art as representation and art as language. Even the artistic analysis of the tablet shows the King adorning symbols of both North and South Egypt showing a possible unification of the region. The fact that a single artwork can use representation as both art and language is extremely fascinating for those who like to question the structuralism and linearity of language and formalism of art.
However, the question that can be asked here is whether such hieroglyphic inscription is an example of something called ‘art’? There are responses in both favour and against of this hypothesis. Those in favour might argue that the entire inscription cannot be reduced to an example of language only for the symbols depicted in it do not merely work as language tools to make a certain word but also have meanings in themselves. For instance, the Scorpion Mace-head at the upper end of the tablet is not used as a phonetic alphabet to depict something else but is used as a symbol that represents Egyptian kings. On the other hand, those who argue against it bring up the very purpose or nature of an artwork that is to create some sense of emotional response to a piece which is not expected towards the normal activities of life. For instance, the depictions of fish and chisel are just the use of phonetics that make these depictions merely tools of a language and not representational art symbols in themselves.
Joaquin Torres Garcia in his ideogrammatic theory says that in ideograms, art becomes the metaphysics of the purity of classical symbols. It is metaphysical because it is made to testify the truth of timeless, unlocalisable and spaceless essence of universal pictorial depiction of humanity. He called this process Constructive Universalism for every depiction is an effort by a man to do abstraction of phenomena around him. Hence, he becomes an Abstract Man. To the contrary, J Marshall Unger in his Myth of Disembodied Meanings, where he responds to the Chinese pictogram language, he argues that no symbol or sign can express meaning independent of language because which cannot be communicated in a language is not a meaning – for it won’t create any communicative map between the sender and receiver of symbols.
Whatever side we take, it is impossible to deny the purpose that either language or art serve through this tablet – information communication. Every mental object or thought is broken down into conceptual chunks. These chunks are then externalised, that is put out in space beyond our own body, in forms of signals. These signals are in the forms of sounds, actions and sometimes even both. Therefore, both art and language become parts of this representational system of information. It is thus quite fascinating to see how a human urge to express itself is so profound that it not only breaks barriers of representational systems such as language but also keep on discovering new ones, such as art. This is precisely the reason why both language and art have witnessed this commonality that refers to their non-static and ever evolving nature.
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