"For more things affect our eyes than our ears."
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Essay on the Origin of Languages”

Gesture, or a visual communication using physical material, can be an autonomous language, a supplement to various other languages or a medium.  The word "gesture" derives from the Latin words gestura, meaning "bearing," "way of carrying" or "mode of action," and gerere, the infinitive form, which means "to carry, to behave, to take on oneself, to take charge of, to perform or to accomplish." [1] According to The Oxford English Dictionary , gesture, as a noun, signifies "the manner of carrying the body," "grace of manner," "the employment of bodily movement," "position," "posture" or "attitude" and as a verb, "to order the attitudes of movements of (the body, oneself)." [2]
Gestures using the body are reflexive.  One gestures to the other but one uses the self or carries the self to produce the gesture.  Yet gestures can be produced with other materials besides the human body and objects can gesture without human agency.  The term gesture also often signifies non-physical movements such as expressions in sounds or thoughts.

The physical gesture could be a variety of different actions; it may be composed of a small wave of the hand, large movements incorporating the entire body or simply be a state of being, a posture or a stance.  Although gesture is generally a nonverbal form of communication, it is often incorporated with speech or other media of expression, such as music or song. Gestures in dance, martial arts, sports, ceremonial occasions, religious events, dramatic arts, the symphony and even at the stock market are part of complex systems of regulated movements.  Yet such habitual activities as eating, drinking, working and greeting one another can be considered gestures too. The word "gesture" does not refer to subconscious or involuntary actions like expressions or mannerisms.  Gestures are generally regarded as intentional movements. [3]   A gesture need not be a physical manifestation of the human body but can be exhibited in other media as well.

It is believed that gesture is the oldest form of language and that it evolved before or perhaps simultaneously with speech.  Studies of the movements and gestures of primates, such as chimpanzees, indicate a complex use of gesture for communication.  Philip Lieberman theorizes that spoken language in humans developed from these non-verbal communications that are seen today in primates. [4] Use of gesture today derives from man's pre-linguistic state. [5]

One group of anthropologists asks, "If language began as gesture, why did it not stay that way?" and then answers the question by stating that gesture remains in language. [6]  Speech itself can be regarded as a form of gesture and the spoken word and the gesture are so tightly interwoven that very often they cannot be isolated. In ancient times, gesture was a fundamental aspect of speech.  In Cicero's De Oratore and Quintilian Institutiones Oratoriae the use of gesture is described as one of the most important elements of convincing rhetoric.  Richard Brilliant's study of the art of the Roman Empire demonstrates how gesture was conceived of as a sign of education, character and social standing of the individual. [7]

For centuries treatises and manuals have been written to instruct man on how to implement gestures effectively as a form of language.  The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione is one such example because its aim was to teach the sixteenth-century European courtier how to use sprezzatura or an air of grace and ease in all of his actions.  In the seventeenth-century several treatises on gesture were published such as, John Bulwer's Chirologia, or the Natural Language of the Hand whereunto is added Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric (1620).  This English physician explained that gesture is the only speech "natural" and "universal" to man. [8]

The many variations of "sign language" that have developed over the past centuries incorporate gesture alone in its "natural" form without the spoken word to form an elaborate visual language that enables deaf persons to communicate face to face.  Gestures are necessary, especially in the form of deixis, to communicate when traveling to other countries where the spoken language is unknown. Travel books, gestural phrase books, as well as films and television aid in demonstrating how to speak with one's hands and bodies around the world and at the same time illustrate the multicultural nature of gesture. [9]

Gestures speak or express independently within religion and dance as well.  For example, genuflexion is a ritualized gesture of prayer, worship and humility in Catholicism and is performed without speech or any other form of language.  Similarly, the various positions of the body practiced in yoga are spiritual communications that are meant to provoke sensation and spiritual harmony. In dance, each movement can communicate literally (as in sign language) or symbolically some certain idea or emotion.  Dance can be performed without other media.  Physical gestures in dance, like those in tap dance, produce sound as well. Labanotation or dance notation allows choreographers, dancers or anthropologists to record the somewhat ephemeral movements of the body in dance so that they can be illustrated and thus remembered in a written script. 

Gestures are frozen in space within the fine arts of painting, sculpture, photography and architecture.  Art historian Moshe Barash explains that gesture in art has not been systematically studied adequately and that it is difficult to distinguish between gesture and representation in art. [10] For example, do the hands of God and Adam in the central scene of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling portray gestures or do they act as a representation?  The gestures of God and Adam, in fact, represent the creation of man.  This simple gesture depicted by Michelangelo in the chapel has in turn been codified into an icon.

Can a work of art gesture itself?  Or does the artist always produce the gesture within the art?  Human figures in art can gesture, yet perhaps even a non-representational work can gesture as well and can act as an expressive body of its own.  A mobile by Calder gestures through its movement through space.  A stationary abstract work, such as a Rothko painting, gestures to the observer as well for it silently performs a certain position or state of being.   According to Michael Fried, in order for an object to constitute a work of art, it must imitate the "efficacy of gesture" or express meaning through its anthropomorphic qualities. [11]   Minimalist art sought to rid itself of gesture, perhaps an impossible endeavor.

Gestures are temporal. They come and go in time and are often fleeting.  While sometimes a gesture remains in space forever, like in painting, photography or film, its meaning changes.  In the introduction to his text, Studies in Iconology, Erwin Panofsky shows two possible ways of perceiving an example of a man greeting another man with the gesture of lifting the hat.  One meaning of this gesture is "elementary" or factual: the man greets the other man.  The other meaning of this gesture is "expressional" or rooted with "psychological nuances" that can only be understood through an understanding of "the more-than-practical world of customs and cultural traditions peculiar to a certain civilization." [12] While Panofsky's example of a greeting appears dated today, his explanation of the complexity of a certain gesture is unchanged.  He uses this example to demonstrate that the iconology of a work of art is readable in the same way as a gesture between two people on the street. [13]

In the various media of the arts, color, brushstroke, composition, and style are gestures as well.  They too are elements of visual expression.  The particular material used in the construction of a building can be an example of a gesture used by the architect.  Today the rusticated stone of the old Chicago watertower expresses its durability and signifies a time in Chicago before the great fire.

Gesture is also fundamental to the work of the artist. An artist like Vermeer clearly used miniscule gestures or brushstrokes in order to depict nature on canvas in great detail.  Jackson Pollock, however, made sweeping movements and painted with his entire body in order to produce his drip paintings.  It is in the white of the canvas or between the paint splatters, that Pollock's gestures and the gesture of the work itself are made evident.

Perhaps what makes a gesture so powerful is not the gesture itself but the moment before the gesture or between the gestures.  Walter Benjamin explains that in theater a pause between gestures is essential because spacing the gestures apart from one another makes them "quotable" or perhaps memorable. [14]   These spaces between the gestures allow the viewer to reflect on what is being seen and experienced. The anticipation that one feels at the moment before a flag is raised for a race, the brief second before a kiss or even before Ebert gives a film a "thumbs up" is more impressive than visualizing the actual gesture itself.

Yet gesture is not always visible, not always physical.  Sound gestures; for example, the sound of the trumpet rouses the military to service, a certain phrase in the music can be a gesture to commence a dance and a car horn is certainly an audible gesture.  Other non-visual gestures include ideas that manifest themselves or become known.  The thought of giving a gift to someone could be regarded as a "nice gesture." [15]

It is as if the gesture transcends the written word for it is an action that occurs at a specific time and space.  Another aspect that truly differentiates gesture from other languages or media is that is sensorial.  It is not only the viewer of the gesture that receives the message or experiences a new idea or sensation but the gesturer herself as well.  How does the person making the gesture feel? It is not only an expression of the mind like that in spoken or written language (although we do make gestures with the mouth or with the hand in those instances) but an expression of the body and perhaps the soul.  Barash evokes Leon Battista Alberti's words in On Painting (1435) to demonstrate that gestures are perceived as emotional signifiers: "These movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body. [16]   Gesture within its multiple forms is the most primal and yet one of the most complex media for communicating ideas and emotions to others and the self.

Lia Markey
Winter 2002