35,000 years ago, an anonymous artist drew the first painting on a cave wall in Indonesia. For the next 25,000 years, art was our primary means of storytelling. Then, along came writing, sublimating art and replacing it as our primary storytelling device.

Or trying to, anyway.

Art maintained a firm grip on our minds and how we expressed our ideas. Its signs and symbols were easy to interpret and could cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. You don’t need to be literate to appreciate a painting or statue. You can weave your own story around the images you see. The Annunciation, Rodin’s The Kiss, or Krishna dancing with his gopis along the Yamuna all tell their own stories and leave you to fill in the blanks.

Krishna dancing with gopis along Yamuna river
The Hindu god Krishna dances with his gopis along the Yamuna River in India

When illiteracy was high, art served as a powerful educational tool. Medieval Europeans learned the story of Christ’s passion from stained glass windows in churches. Ancient Hindus learned the story of the Ramayana from the statues in their temples.

The more embedded we are in a culture, the deeper our understanding of artistic symbols. To a cultural outsider, a trishul in Shiva’s hand is just a trident. But, to a cultural insider, it’s a symbol filled with its own stories about how he acquired it, how he used it, and how we understand its relationship to him and the universe.

Art remains the easiest access point to cultural knowledge and storytelling. Writing requires another layer of symbolic meaning. Not everyone can write or read. Even those who can read one language might not be able to read another. I can read and write English, but I cannot read Sanskrit. Therefore, the Vedas will be inaccessible to me. I can read translations, but those translations represent another layer of meaning. By rendering the Mahabharata into English, a writer loses the sound of the original text, thus losing connections to meanings embedded in the Sanskrit. If you’ve ever read a verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita as I have, you will understand the limitations of English translations where rhymes are forced and meanings lost.

Despite this bifurcation of art and writing as cultural artifacts, they occasionally converge as they did a few weeks ago at the debut of Light and Language, an art exhibit at Park Towne Place Premier Apartments curated by InLiquid.

This video shows Lyn Godley’s Light Tubes before the official opening.

This exhibit was the first to use all three gallery spaces. Attendees moved from north to west to south towers over the course of the night. The experience was interactive and integrative in its storytelling.

The exhibit includes objects that use light, those that use language, and those that use both to communicate feelings and ideas. Neon signs, with their mixture of light and language, are the focal point. You can see the north gallery display from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. At night, the neon signs light my way home. Unfortunately, the timing of the opening event before sunset meant that the outdoor lighting interfered with the neon’s vibrancy.

As I walked through the exhibit, two things struck me. First were the stories embedded within the signs themselves. The ice cream cone representing the ice cream parlor, the skater representing the skate shop, and the parrot on the Key West sign. All communicate a feeling to the potential customer and tell a story about that shop. Second were the ways in which language was used. In some cases, the story relied entirely on an image without text, such as the ice cream cone. In others, such as the Keller Record Shop sign, the sign relied entirely on text. Most, however, blended the two as the skate shop image did.

Zipperhead skate shop neon sign
Zipperhead skate shop, neon sign, 1980s. A skater dressed in blue and wearing red knee pads and yellow helmet rides a green skateboard while doing a trick. He points to the sign “skate shop” in purple to his right.

Some would argue that writing is more powerful than the visual arts for storytelling. Ask any kid who’s seen the Harry Potter movies, and they will tell you how much the movie left out. Even children recognize the limitations of visual storytelling.

Yet, as a writer, I rely on visuals to inspire my own storytelling. A photograph, a painting, a sculpture, or a mosaic can all inspire my own stories. My flash fiction story A Place Called Home was inspired by a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

What I love about art is the way it helps change my perspective on a problem. Take the piece by Robert Solomon titled Mea Culpa. The Latin phrase means “my fault.” Within the Mass, the phrase is “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” The updated English translation is rendered as “through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.” For Catholics, this phrase connects to our religious experience. For non-Catholics, however, the phrase loses that sacred meaning but retains its original intent. Consequently, this object takes on a satirical, somewhat humorous meaning.

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On another visit to the gallery, I photographed not the illuminated words, but their reflection against the white display. Language disintegrated into light, moving from concrete verbal signs into abstraction.

Mea Culpa, Robert Solomon, Argon, glass, pewter, vitreous paint
An extreme close-up of Mea Culpa by Robert Solomon. The letters in purple are unreadable.
The Light and Language exhibit runs through August at Park Towne Place, located near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A recent Pew research study found that YouTube is the number one social platform among teenagers. Much of their knowledge base now comes from tubes, rather than books. Some scholars argue that we are in a post-literate age where we rely less on visual language and more on other types of knowledge transfer.

I recently listened to a 45-hour audiobook version of the Mahabharata as retold by Krishna Dharma. At twice as long as the Illiad and the Odyssey combined, that story is the longest known epic in the world. Like most epics, the Mahabharata began as an oral tradition. Eventually, it took written form. Its primary transmission moved from oral to written, yet a strong oral component remained where the story was passed down through families. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the story was produced for Indian television. I decided to ask Twitter how they first learned the story. Right now, the TV series is in the lead.

In our post-literate world, who will have the last word?

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