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After the 4th c text experiments by Simmias of Rhodes and before the form took root as actual art in the 20th century, not much happened by way of artistic development.

The most notable exceptions are of course Illuminated Manuscripts and the art of William Blake.

The manuscript is completely beautiful. The craft is outrageous and the presentation beyond reproach. However, per my 8 Rules of Text-based Art, this ain’t text-based art. However gorgeous, the text is in service of the art, or decoration. The text is the purpose of the piece, of the book, but it’s not text-based art in the way it will come to be understood in our lifetime.

William Blake, ok, let’s not kid ourselves, the man was savant-genius. I got to see his original work at a show at the Public Library in New York about 15 years ago. It was like being in the presence of the immortal.

However, per the Illuminated Manuscript above, it’s not text-based art. It’s art that features narrative in the service of both image and God. Beautiful, chilling, but it’s primary function (in the history of text-based art) is to illuminate the idea of a handwritten artform as Blake’s text is less gothic, less biblical and more so the writing of a man simply trying to write clearly in his art. Revolutionary? It probably was.

Of which, Blake’s modern equivalent is probably the Reverend Howard Finster who also told stories of Heaven and Hell, mixing both text and art.

Howard Finster Heaven and Hell

Howard spread the Word of God in many forms: as preacher, crafter of clocks, oil on canvas, screenprints, covering cars, bottles, anything that would take paint. He also invented Paradise Garden which the state of Georgia has finally given $ to restore and maintain. If you’re ever in Summerville it’s worth checking out. I saw it before the money arrived and it nearly broke my heart.


  1. Hi! I noticed that the link to your “8 rules for text based art” leads to a protected blog requiring password to access. I’m interested in your studies and commentary because I’m currently designing an independent study project to submit for approval at university, and I’m leaning in the direction of something like “text-based art in contemporary eastern Europe”.
    thanks! – Kathryn

    • The link to 8 Rules no longer exists, but the ‘text-art definition’ found on the blog is a distillation of the original 8 rules.

      I was attempting to lay out a kind of text formula that would serve as an ars poetica for the lineage I was about to trace. In short:

      Text has to be the dominant theme of the work.
      Text cannot be in secondary service to an image.
      Text cannot be used to sell a product.
      Text must be legible, readable and viable.

      Granted, that’s now 4 rules, but as with all work things narrow down to the essence of time. Charles Dickens? Wrote books. You get the point.

  2. from William Blake to the 20C is quite a gap, there’s Apollinaire’s Calligrammes
    and a line of research I am following
    the inscription “Et In Arcadia Ego” in Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds (both 628 and 1640) versions which demonstrably applies a dialectic to the image

    • Good call! I’d forgotten about Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. I’ve seen them but don’t recall the genesis. I’ll check that out. First impression is that I’d include them in the Simmias posting then refer to them again perhaps in a much more modern posting, but again I’ll do a bit of reading and go from there. Thanks!

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