University of Texas at Austin

Friday, November 21, 2008

When Writing Met Art

Bibliophiles may spend a lot of time thinking about writing, but that generally means the writing we see as we flip the pages of a book, not going back to the clay tablets and artifacts found in the ancient Near East.

To understand those beginning forms of written communication, there is no better source than Denise Schmandt-Besserat, professor emerita in the Departments of Art and Art History and Middle Eastern Studies.

Schmandt-Besserat is credited with discovering the origins of writing. Her most recent book, “When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story” (University of Texas Press, 2007) looks at what happened when writing and art began to interact and shape each other.

The book won the $10,000 grand prize at the university’s prestigious Hamilton Book Awards this year.

“Art was age-old when writing began,” writes Schmandt-Besserat. Writing didn’t arrive until more than three millennia after art, and when it did, it was an accounting device used to keep track of goods such as measures of grains. When art and writing start to interface, both forms evolved.

Full of photos and illustrations, “When Writing Met Art” traces how writing was transformed from accounting device to a means of visual communication, opening up the possibility of sharing law, narrative, and history.

It was awhile before we’d be turning the pages of “War and Peace,” but we were on our way.

Hamilton Book Award runners-up for 2008 include:
- Carlton Erickson for “The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment;”
- James Loehlin for “Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard;”
- John Markert for “Physics for Engineers and Scientists, 3rd edition;”
- Kurt Weyland for “Bounded Rationality and Policy Diffusion: Social Sector Reform in Latin America.”

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