Can artists do the same things with images in their paintings that we all can do with words?

In Linguistic Theory, pragmatic acts are what we do with words rather then what we say with words, e.g., ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’. They comprise two elements: a situational set up and an uptake response, and are directed at others expected by the initiator to behave in a certain way as a result.

Pragmatic acts need not happen in face-to-face encounters. They are planned. They associate images, texts and situational objects that are unusual or contradictory. The semantic mismatch is an interpretation trigger that can fail. If and when that happens, pragmatic acts allow the initiators to withdraw or deny any hidden implications or inferences therein.

Can all of the above characteristics exist in a single painting?

Consider David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. As the story goes, Caravaggio painted it in exile. He had previously committed a murder and, nearing his own death, desperately wanted to redeem himself and receive a pardon from the Pope. The painting is his double self-portrait intended as an act of contrition. Caravaggio presents himself as both a sinful youth David and as Goliath whose head is cut-off. Therein comes an implication: As there was a reward offered for Caravaggio’s head by the State, in the painting Caravaggio is, so to speak, ‘handing himself in’. As Simon Schama points out, there are other visual, implicit messages there, too, such as the reference to sexuality (which may have been at the root of Caravaggio’s misdemeanour) or the interplay between life and death.

Caravaggio never knew whether his pragmatic act succeeded or failed as he died before the Cardinal Borghese, the intended recipient of the painting, had a chance to set his eyes on the offering. What has stayed alive from there on for all its spectators, and will do so for those who are yet to come, is Caravaggio’s pragmatic act itself, if indeed it is one. He is silently ‘handing himself in’ to each one of us. Each time we look at the painting, we can pardon, forgive and absolve him of his crime. Such could be (or is?) the might and the beauty of a pragmatic act in great, immortal art.

Fuller deliberations on this subject can be found in B. Gorayska, 2009, Pragmatic Acts in Fine Art: A Question. In: Bruce Fraser and Ken Turner, eds., Language in Life, and a Life in Language: Jacob Mey – a Festschrift, 111-121. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.