Book Review: When Writing Met Art by Denise Schmandt-Besserat (
Austin: Press, 2007. $45.00.) University of Texas
We accept it as given that a painting tells a story. It was not always so. Before the invention of writing, representational art was not spatially oriented. Moreover, we expect that writing conveys speech. That, too, was a secondary development. The civilizations of
Mesopotamia 8000 to 2500 BCE slowly evolved literacy from numeracy: counting – actually, accounting – was the impetus for writing. From tallying debts, writing eventually appeared on statues to announce the subject or object of devotion. The neat lines of cuneiform served as a model for painting. The unordered presentation of activities such as hunting, became the left-to-right, top-to-bottom mapping we now expect specifically because this is how temple records presented the quantities of wheat and counts of animals owed to them.
“Schmandt-Besserat then demonstrates art's reciprocal impact on the development of writing. She shows how, beginning in 2700-2600 BC, the inclusion of inscriptions on funerary and votive art objects emancipated writing from its original accounting function. To fulfill its new role, writing evolved to replicate speech; this in turn made it possible to compile, organize, and synthesize unlimited amounts of information; and to preserve and disseminate information across time and space.” UT Press here.