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Abstract artworks “speak” to fewer people and have less to “say” than figurative works

Kari Sullivan


This is the video of the talk that was given by Kari Sullivan on Monday, December 14, 2020

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1When an artwork interests you, the work metaphorically “speaks” to you. But what determines whether it “speaks” and what it “says”? In this talk, I’ll discuss two studies showing that artworks’ subject matter affects how they ‘speak’. Both studies look at corpora of artists’ statements, and analyse how artists metaphorically describe their artworks as speakingtelling storiesscreaming, or otherwise vocalising.

2Both studies point to differences between purely abstract works and figurative works (i.e. those that depict people, objects or landscapes). The first study finds that abstract artworks usually “speak” to their creators, whereas figurative works mostly “speak” to their viewing audience (Sullivan 2006, 2009). For instance, abstract artists often claim to engage in dialogue with their canvases. Figurative artists more often intend their work to communicate with the viewer.

3The second study finds that abstract artworks not only “speak” to fewer people, but are also less likely to “speak” in directly presented speech (Sullivan 2016). For example, a figurative painting might say, ‘Look at me!’ in directly presented speech, whereas an abstract work is more likely to scream for attention without any direct speech attributed to the artwork.


Kari Sullivan
Crédits : Kari Sullivan

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Kari Sullivan, « Abstract artworks “speak” to fewer people and have less to “say” than figurative works »CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2021, consulté le 04 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Kari Sullivan

The University of Queensland, Australia

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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