A picture is worth a thousand words, but what happens if those thousand words are pictures too. It appears that we have gone back five thousand years — into the age of ancient Egypt with its hieroglyphs, a language that was written using pictures: eye, bird, snake, a stream etc.
After language, the greatest invention of mankind is perhaps the phonetic script where sounds are converted into elementary shapes. Structure of language is a system of abstraction. First, the objects are replaced by sounds, and then sounds are translated into straight, converging, twisting, and flowing marks, dots and other shapes. This is a magnificent achievement. The entire human experience is contained and communicated between12 letters of Rotokas tongue spoken in the Island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea to 74 letters of Khmer language used in Cambodia.
However, not anymore; because now we are substituting words with Emojis (created by a Japanese engineer Shigetaka Kurita in 1998 — initially a set of 176 icons).Today, we communicate with family and friends on text message, WhatsApp, and Facebook chat, often using visuals which convey our ideas and emotions. So, instead of writing the word cake, we prefer its icon, or in place of showing our gratitude in an adverb, we send a standard Emoji. A personal, private and unique feeling is conveyed through elements shared by a multitude across the globe.
In our communication, we pick images that represent not only things in a material world, like a cup of coffee, a jug of milk, a bottle, a pair of shoes etc. but icons that signify love, hate, praise, happiness, smile, grief etc. (Interestingly objects, vegetation and animals are drawn in a realistic manner, whereas human beings and their faces are stylized, thus applicable/adaptable to every individual. Similarly faces of pets and moon are also cartoon like, focusing on emotions rather than representational identity). In the short story ‘The God’s Script’ by Jorge Luis Borges, the Aztec priest Tzinacan, detained in a cell next to a tiger’s cage, discovers that the secret script of universe he had been searching for all his life is inscribed in the patches on the tiger’s coat; hence all our content is already formulated in the format of Emoji shapes.
This is perfectly normal as language changes, alters and evolves. So if presently we rely on verbal constructs, in 150 years’ time we may be solely conversing in Emojis. Imagine a novel written by the Nobel Laurate of 2168, using only Emojis (or something that has replaced it!). It would be a normal state for a writer, because script develops, language changes.
But for a maker of visual art, the situation demands some serious consideration.
Traditionally, it is believed that verbal mode of communication due to its territorial demarcation is limited whereas a pictorial expression is beyond geographical/linguistic confinements. So the makers of images enjoy a sense of superiority in terms of their creations being accessible to everyone compared to writers who need translators for their texts. But, lately, as the most widely accepted and popular medium of communication includes a major portion of Emojis (sufficing a vast option to declare personal and private sentiments), the artists may also ponder upon the future of their outputs. Most of them work with a vocabulary that is based upon local references: cultural identity, heritage, tradition and influences.
At an art exhibition we become aware of our own reality reflected through images produced by the artist; likewise in a book of a contemporary novelist we come to know and recognise ourselves in the words of Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif. They narrate, construct and question our existence through alphabets restricted to 26 letters but understood in many countries around the planet.
We are now invaded with a pictorial language that may replace verbal expression. In the coming years, there may be a newspaper article in the sequence of Emoji icons, as comprehensible as any script today. If we switch to Emojis, primarily we will become part of a global community which can interact without linguistic or territorial barriers. (Esperanto of a sort!) A Chinese tradesman would easily deal with a Chilean client.
Let’s imagine the pictorial matter of the artists in the next hundred and fifty years. Perhaps the artists too would be expounding on the vocabulary of Emojis, combining them like the letters and words of a language or shapes of geometry and representational imagery, in order to invoke profound concepts of art. If we see this merger between verbal and visual expressions (happening already in graphic novels), the future artworks in our museums would just be a reorganisation of standard expressions according to an individual artist’s imagination, emotions and ideas.
If the age of Emojis creates a common, accessible and acceptable artwork, the future discourse on art may not be written with conventional alphabets. A critic may simply pick a series of symbols: sword and knife, or rose and smile (as well as images which comprise complex and precise concepts/responses) and compose the whole critical analysis in a language which like the visual art is universal. Consequently, debates involving identity, tradition, heritage and other things too would become obsolete.
Thus the dilemma of an art critic — of having to talk about images in words — would be resolved. Everyone who can see visual arts would be able to ‘read’ the comments on those. Disparity between pictorial expression and written language would disappear. The only concern I have is about originality of thought, having to depend upon these ‘available’ forms of communication, till I realise that the phrases we choose today to state our original, innovative and exciting ideas were formed by others centuries ago; our personal expression is merely a temporary disruption or rearrangement of linguistic order existed before.
Words we write and speak are already made and collected in a dictionary, just like the range of numerous Emoji icons you scroll down on your computer screen and click to show your intimate sentiments to your loved ones.