What does the word ‘culture’ really mean? Or ‘society’? Or ‘race’? Raymond Williams’s seminal 1976 book Keywords set out to find out. Now, curator Gavin Delahunty explains, it is the inspiration for Tate Liverpool’s show

Keywords at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2014

Keywords at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2014

Photo: Roger Sinek
© Tate

The idea to develop an exhibition based on Raymond Williams’s 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society came in part from the René Magritte exhibition held at Tate Liverpool in 2011. Magritte’s work stressed the arbitrary nature of the relationship between words and the objects they name. In his most famous painting, The Treachery of Images 1929, a meticulously painted image of a pipe is placed above the inscription ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe).

The painting calls to mind a teaching-aid or children’s book, in which an image or careful rendering of an object is presented above a caption with its name, an idea strengthened by the classroom-style handwriting that Magritte imitated for the caption. The success of the painting lies upon the strangeness and unease it creates in the viewer through its playful manipulation of the cognitive process.

Williams, like Magritte, draws our attention to the malleability and mutability of language. Examining the history and meaning of 130 words including ‘culture’, ‘equality’, ‘family’, ‘media’, ‘popular’ and ‘society’, Williams observed how words were being adopted in new and unusual ways, being positioned in new sentence structures far from their dictionary definitions. Their meaning was being confused, instrumentalised and complicated.

Keyword web banner for Tate Liverpool exhibition

The book strikes a cautionary tone: a concern with the loose way in which certain words were being used that ultimately could lead to uncertainty, bewilderment and misunderstanding. While the modification or misuse of words is as old as the illuminated manuscript, Williams’s book resonated then as it continues to do today. It encourages us to think about language, its usage and relevance to the thing it is describing, endorsing or marketing.

Decoding vocabulary then might help us to figure out our immediate world. Nowadays this might include key words used in general discussion such as ‘Britain’, ‘economy’, ‘government’, ‘people’ or ‘race’. In these examples the problems of meaning seems to be tied up with the subject for which it is being used to discuss.

The basic premise of Keywords the exhibition is to think about the language we use when trying to interact with objects. The exhibition has been designed in such a way to highlight certain words, repeatedly used in relation to particular artworks, while on the other hand stressing the need for the invention of new vocabulary so that we can continue to open up conversation with objects, allowing new ideas and meaning to come.

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain is on display at Tate Liverpool until 11 May 2014