Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
A distinctive feature of visual art in the twentieth century is its use of language. Words had appeared in paintings and sculptures since classical times, but their use was generally restricted to a few specific functions. From an early date, inscriptions served religious purposes, identifying the protagonists in a biblical scene or referring to a relevant biblical text. Artists' signatures identified the person responsible for a work, and dates were often included to specify when a work was completed. And artists sometimes included the title of a painting within the work's image. In the early twentieth century, however, some artists began using language in their works for very different reasons. Over time this practice spread, as words and even sentences became more conspicuous in a number of artists' work. Eventually, in some cases language became more important than images, and for some artists words replaced images altogether.
The introduction of language into art for new purposes is a symptom of the increasingly conceptual nature of visual art during the twentieth century. The increasing acceptance of the use of language equally became an independent factor fueling the conceptual orientation of art, for the possibility of using language appealed to many young artists with conceptual goals: the example of important visual artists whose work featured language helped make visual art an attractive activity for many conceptually oriented artists, and provided them with points of departure for new conceptual innovations.