The Grammar of Installation Art


This blog post is a result of ruminations resulting from my visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and how much my experience there differed from visiting museums and installations of art before this experience. Installation art is a completely new and different creative endeavour, and I wanted to explore the relationship between philosophical trajectories, art, and grammar based on my study of linguistics into a single, (hopefully) coherent writeup.


As users of language(s) in our day to day lives, we have come to agree that there exist a set of guidelines by which we communicate our thoughts in order for them to be intelligible. Should language be used as a medium of communication or expression of thought, there is some consistency to be expected in how those thoughts are presented, and the implications that arise from the deviation from these guidelines. Famously, there are two camps of grammarians: prescriptivists and descriptivists.

  • For prescriptivists, language as a phenomena is to be built around the scaffolding of a grammatical framwork. Deviations from this scaffolding, from the norms that preserve the structure and function of meaningful units in a language is deemed ungrammatical.
  • For descriptivists, language is living and provides a plethora of patterns if studied from the lenses of phenomenological context. These patterns present how thoughts can be expressed so as to be understood by other users of the language, and deviations from these patterns provides insight into the relationship between patterned structure and meaning.

Both views on grammar have their place in the history of language, not that the divide between prescriptivism and descriptivism is specific to the field of linguistics.

With that wordy introduction, the rest of this post does not use the term grammar as a concept in linguistics, rather as a stand-in for the duality of structur and emergent patterns. Elements of the grammar of impressionism, for example, would (non-exhaustively, of course) include subject(s), light, and perspective. The composition of these elements in a manner that presents an observer’s impression of a scene (or the artist’s if you are not a postmodernist and have not killed the artist) is what define an impressionist work of art, much like the composition of nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions etc. makes a sentence grammatical in English.

Note here that the grammar takes a few intersting concepts for granted. It does not specify a medium of interaction. For example, the elements that make an impressionist painting do not ascribe the medium through which the work of art is presented, i.e. watercolour on paper, oil on canvas, charcoal, tile, etc. This, similar to how grammar does not necessarily dictate whether the language it draws patterns from are novels, social media threads, or telephone conversations (albeit the actual use of language is radically different based on the context).

It is in the conception of modern and postmodern art that the notion of grammar becomes interesting.

What is Art Meant to Do?

In my opinion, art is meant to evoke emotion. The grammar of art, therefore, is a study of the patterns that emerge from the effort of evoking emotion. Within “traditional art”, i.e. paintings and sculptures (to a degree), the grammar is bounded by the medium used to present the aesthetic experience.

For example, when I as on observer look at A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, I know that whatever my evoked emotional experience, it is bounded by the borders of the painting. My experience is not so rightly altered by the fact that the painting is oil-on-canvas, and not, say, watercolour. Of course, one might argue that the combination of ambient light and the presentation of brushstrokes in oil-on-canvas significantly alter the intended emotion of the painting, but I am skeptical of such a claim. The elements I am meant to be looking at include the subjects, the gradient of light and shadow, and the perspective of the artist, and thus of me observing the barmaid speak to a patron just out of frame. The composition evokes the sense of wanton familiarity after a work day at a posh bar by combining these abstract structural elements.

And such a rudimentary analysis can be done for almost every “traditional” work of art, from frescos to Van Gogh.

It is here that installation art comes and baffles my sensibilities to a large degree. What is the grammar of installation art? What are the focal elements, which when composed, provide an aesthetic experience or evoke emotion? During my visit to SF MoMA, I found myself far more interested in the plaques that described the works of art that the art itself. Suddenly, the elements of art that never really struck me as important, crucial, or even relevant for focus on, such as the materials used, the way the work warps the space around it, the space the work occupies outside of itself, the way the work changes through time, these were the relevant aspects meant to evoke emotion.

What is more, each work demands that a new set of elements be considered in order to evoke the emotion intended by the creator, and each creator’s unique style involved a reconstruction of the patterns that mattered to them. If this is the case, how is one to construct the grammar of installation art? What are the elements that are necessary to look at, and what is meant to be discarded? Is art so subjective that any internally consistent grammar provides a similar enough richness of experience as intended by the creator?

The prescriptivist in me kept trying to assess individual pieces on the merit of their composition of rudimentary abstract elements and constantly failing, thereby evoking the emotions of curious confusion. The descriptivist in me kept trying to identify patterns between installations and failing to identify which elements these patterns existed in. It was as if a sentence had been spoken which didn’t have nouns or verbs, or even references and objects, but I was to be convinced it was a sentence in English. I was baffled.

Each installation at MoMA was unique in that regard. The elements I was meant to look at and appreciate changed from piece to piece, and for the artworks that lacked any discernable explanation of what the work implied, I was stumped, not knowing what to look at, not knowing how the work was to be framed in my mind, befuddled at the abstractions I was meant to be drawing and how the composition was meant to evoke the emotion the creator intended.

To the part of my mind that tries to compare this to idiolects, I claim that an idiolect is, by definition, personal. Is the study of installation art meant to be studied as an idiolect?

An Edit, A Conclusion, and Some Afterthought

After showing this piece of writing to a few thinkers in the space of art and art history as well as just gather general opinions on it from a larger audience of modern, contemporary, and ``traditional’’ art, I have come to learn the following.

What art is meant to do is evoke emotion, and so installation art has a mechanism of doing so that remains fundamentally consistent within discourse of that field. However, to extrapolate its grammar is to study the use of space as a structuralist, for a mechanism of expression that is inherently post-structuralist. The examination of this dichotomy reveals that the study of grammar as a way to study evocation assumes a tacit connection between the two which has not been defined by the art (or the schools of thought it represents). The questions “how do I know what to look at when I see this?” and “how should this make me feel?” are inherently disjointed, as is one of the missions of this art.

Grammarians enjoy touting “form is function” and to that, I both agree and politely ask that the function of art be defined in a manner where form plays a role. Form does not evoke emotion, form is just a mechanism to convey evocation of emotion and intensity. Perhaps the form that installation art takes requires a deeper understanding of the subjective function each piece occupies.