Metaphor(m): Engaging a Theory of Central Trope in Art
Mark Staff Brandl
Tropi, Agon et Quo
Theories are constructed
objects. ... They assembled a theory.
--George Lakoff (The Conceptual Metaphor Home Page)
A Personal Beginning
In the early 1980s, the artworld was in an uproar. It was
increasingly clear that Modernism had, surprisingly, indeed been a "period,"
not the ultimate state of culture, and furthermore that it was slowly coming
to a close. Postmodernism seemed a little insipid, even unappealing at first
as diverse anti- or retro-styles vied for the pole position. French literary
theory of a Deconstructivist bent slowly became hegemonic, a situation still
now in place. Yet, for most artists and authors, Post-Modernism (still
capitalized and hyphenated at that time) seemed an opportunity to seek new
theoretical inspiration, to free oneself of the previously prevailing
Formalism, also termed the New Criticism in literature, while hopefully also
offering a way to avoid the trap of what threatened to be a cynical mise
en abyme of sophistry under the first influences of Poststructuralism.
In heated discussions in New York and elsewhere, artists sought out new
interpretations of the inevitably intertwined dialectic of form and content.
Art was clearly not all about form, it was plain to see that creators had
something to say, to discover. Equally, art was not all about the inability
to say anything,
George Lakoff, et al.,
Conceptual Metaphor Home Page (University of California at Berkeley
website, http://cogsci.berkeley.edu/lakoff/), page: http://cogsci.berkeley.edu/lakoff/metaphors/
about illustrating the
unreliability of form as sole content. There was a widespread recognition
that, indeed, form was a tool for discovery and yet also the discovery
itself. Through that fissure, the great beast, long considered dead,
re-arose in a new and splendid form: ludic trope. At first the source of
inspiration for many artists, including myself, was Jacques Derrida and the
Yale Deconstructivists such as Paul de Man.
Jacques Derrida was a French literary philosopher and the founder of what is
called Deconstruction. He argues that much of philosophy rests on arbitrary
dichotomous categories, sees language as writing, uses the metaphor of
"text" for all experience, and suggests that there is no possibility of
intentional meaning. Deconstruction can and has been disparaged as
nihilistic, solipsistic, and a-political, but has also contributed greatly
to the contemporary critical analysis of art and society, attacking
seemingly fixed notions of gender, race, and privilege. I found
Derrida's notions most interestingly presented in Writing and Difference,(2)
and Margins of Philosophy,(3) although Of Grammatology(4)
is his most popular book. Many of the theorists affiliated with Yale
University in the late 1970s, including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J.
Hillis Miller, and Harold Bloom, are especially influential in literary
criticism and, influenced by Derrida, are called the "Yale Deconstructivists."
One of De Man's key texts in my opinion is The Resistance to Theory.(5)
in this vein remains the most powerful force in literature and art
departments in universities around the US and indeed the western world. As a
rather trendy art gallery owner once commented to me in 2003, "Aren't ALL
contemporary artists Derridaian and poststructuralist now?"(5) While this
may appear to be true, many of the artists, authors and students who
identify themselves with poststructuralist thought do not fully understand
it, not truly applying their own preferred theory. They are generally citing
it as an influence for fashionable reasons, verbally espousing many of its
tenets, such as the impossibility of fixed
Jacques Derrida, Writing and
Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London & New York: Routledge, 1978).
(3) Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago &
London: Chicago University Press, 1982).
(4) Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
(Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
(5) Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1986).
(6) Susanna Kulli, personal communication, St.Gallen, Switzerland, 2003.
interpretation, the death of the author, and others. Denis Dutton describes
this situation in his article of 1992, "Delusions of Postmodernism" from the
Literature and Aesthetics:
contemporary artists are as eager as ever for attention as unique
individuals is demonstrated by the fact that they tend to treat their work
as an expression of individual subjectivity in discussion and
documentation. That the privileged position of the author/artist is not
entirely dead in the minds of artists is also indicated by the unceasing
tendency of artists everywhere--including those who style themselves
"postmodern"--angrily to dispute hostile critical interpretations of their
work which "fail to comprehend" their intentions, which "miss the point"
of their work. For many artists, complete freedom of interpretation is
fine as a general philosophical theory applied to other people's work, but
not to their own. (7)
began as a situation promising a possibility for more free artistic play,
has unfortunately now become the dominant master of the academy. Renowned
art historian, psychologist and art critic Donald Kuspit has asserted in an
email that, "In the artworld, followers of Derrida are not against hegemony;
they now possess almost complete hegemony." (8)
was in this context that my study of literary theory arose -- perhaps a bit
defensively, yet also out of enthusiasm. In fact, it was more of a return to
previous pursuits than a new interest. Throughout my university studies and
in my free time I have been actively involved in aesthetics, the analytical
philosophy of art. This passion operates in concert with my ardor for and
interaction with the possibilities of an "extended" interpretation of the
(supposedly dead) medium of painting, of installation art, of comics as an
artform, and of display sign-painting. Indeed, I even began my doctoral
studies in the department of English Language and Literature (called in
German 'Anglistik') in order to concentrate on the linguistic options of my
endeavor. Later, after I had completed the learning of Latin as a portion of
my studies, another opportunity arose as the University of Zurich finally
had a scholar of modern and contemporary art as a professor, Dr Philip
Urpsrung, whom I met personally when we both were speakers at the convention
of art historians in the US in Boston, The 2006 College Art
"Delusions of Postmodernism,"
Literature and Aesthetics 2 (1992): 23-35.
(8) Donald Kuspit,
Email to author, Dec. 2004.
Almost simultaneously I became acquainted with Dr Andreas Langlotz of the
University of Basel, an expert in cognitive linguistics. These events led me
to change to art history, leave my original, more orthodox literature
advisor, and begin afresh with the stimulating new influences of Ursprung
and Langlotz. Professor Ursprung understood not only my focus, but
encouraged me to reach for a whole new form of dissertation, suggesting not
only that I investigate other artists' works, both historical and
contemporary, but that I also include my own art in it as an integral
component, the performative presentation of the creation of these
dissertation works and an attempt to analyze them with the tool of my
theory. I was thrilled and yet presented with a whole new range of
challenges, which I hope I master.
first my theoretical research consisted of working my way through key books
and articles by and about the most influential poststructuralist
practitioners of literary theory and of what has come to be called
"critical" theory, the expansion of literary critical theories into the
discussions of socio-political questions. Simultaneously, I intensified my
already existing involvement with contemporary analytic aesthetics. In
both fields, I was seeking points of conjecture which I felt illuminated my
understanding of art in unexpected ways, yet also rang true to my experience
as an active artist, art critic, art historian and appreciator of
contemporary art by others. I was inspired by concepts from many thinkers,
as I describe in the next chapter, yet not the entirety of anyone's system.
I have thus sought to incorporate ideas I find enriching from a variety of
sources into my own theoretical construction. I now realize that an ulterior
motive was also to be able to theorize myself out of the constraints of
theory, fighting fire with fire as is often my wont. I sought to discover
philosophers offering pertinent, contemporary analysis which, however, also
acknowledged agency, that creators were responsible makers of meaning and
not mere symptoms of societal flaws. In truth, I heartily hoped for
theorists who would go even farther, searching for ones who suggested
intelligent means of resistance to an at that time ever-increasing dominance
by the radical right of politics and mass media; likewise, seeking
methodologies which could serve as insurrection against the even then
quickly hardening academic stifling of art in consensus and market
sophistry. Books important to me then included Hans-Georg Gadamer's
Method, (9) Bakhtin, Essays
and Dialogues on His Work edited by Gary Saul Morson, (10) Arthur C.
Danto's The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, (11), John
Lechte's Julia Kristeva, (12) Cornel West's Prophetic Reflections:
Notes on Race and Power in America, (13) and R. A. Sharpe's
Contemporary Aesthetics: A Philosophical Analysis. (14)
learned from all these and more. However, most crucially, I found the
greatest revelation in the cognitive linguistic approach of George Lakoff
and others and in the antithetical revisionist theory of Harold Bloom.
Combined, they accorded genuinely with my experience of art while also
electrifying me with new possibilities for understanding art, its production
and its producers. Cognitive linguistic theory was first widely introduced
in Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (15) and
Lakoff and Mark Turner's More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic
Metaphor. (16) Bloom presented his theory initially in a trilogy
of books beginning with The Anxiety of Influence.
Trope and Struggle
Although also first appearing in the late 80s, cognitive
metaphor and the embodied mind concept took until the turn of the millennium
to begin affecting the practice and understanding of creators and scholars.
Cognitive linguistics, especially the subdivision of it
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, revised trans.
Joel Weinsheimer and
Donald G. Marshall (New York: Seabury Press, 1989).
(10) Gary Saul Morson, ed., Bakhtin, Essays and Dialogues on His Work
The University of Chicago Press, 1986).
(11) Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art
(New York: Columbia
University Press, 1986).
(12) John Lechte, Julia Kristeva. (London: Routledge, 1990).
(13) Cornel West, Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in
America. (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press, 1993).
(14) R. A. Sharpe, Contemporary Aesthetics: A Philosophical Analysis.
St. Martin's Press, 1983).
(15) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago:
The University of Chicago
Press, 1980; paperback, 1981).
(16) Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to
Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1989).
(17) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1973).
which I will use the most called cognitive
metaphor, is largely based on the ground-breaking work of George Lakoff and
his two collaborators, Mark Turner and Mark Johnson. Lakoff, who began as a
student of Noam Chomsky, initiated research which led to the creation of an
important interdisciplinary study of metaphor, now generally called
cognitive linguistics. Theorists involved in this approach advance the
hypotheses that metaphor is the foundation of all thought, that linguistic
elements are conceptually processed and that language is chiefly determined
by bodily and environmental experiences.
The desire for an imminent fundamental change linked to a new understanding
of trope is indeed in the air, not only for me; ever more frequently,
artists and authors have begun to refer to metaphor and cognitive metaphor
theory. For example, Frank Davey, a Canadian poet with an involvement in
theory, states the following in an interview with Héliane Ventura in the
and Johnson suggest that many of our habitual metaphors are connected to
our culture's ideological investments. ... To some extent their work
appears to be related to various projects of Deconstruction, in that they
raise to consciousness the hidden assumptions of banally figurative
language. Political and economic metaphors, they write, "can hide aspects
of reality," "they constrain our lives," they "can lead to human
degradation." But they also argue that ordinary language is necessarily
metaphoric, that cultures need the conceptual frames of metaphor to
provide perspectives and coherence. And I recall that as well they examine
metaphors around women--women as food ("a real dish") or as fire ("hot
babes," "hot stuff," "kiss of fire," "torrid romance" etc). It's this ...
kind of metaphor that I play with in Back to the War in poems such
as "The Complaint," or "Sweets," or "The Fortune Teller." ... The 'link'
that metaphor requires isn't foregrounded in [my poems] but is merely
latent until it is made by the reader.... (18)
art critic Barry Schwabsky writes of the influential New York painter
Jonathan Lasker in Art in America magazine:
Héliane Ventura, "An Interview with Frank Davey,"
17 (August 2004):
Jonathan Lasker once told me
he thought the Minimalists had been trying to make an art without
metaphor, and in fact had succeeded; but the point having been proved, he
continued, there's no longer any urgent motivation to produce more
metaphor-free work. (19)
Cognitive linguistics and
Bloom's revisionism were a revelation to me. I found Bloom's notion of
agon to supplement Lakoffian conceptions splendidly. Bloom sees the
primal activity of the creative life as one of struggling with and
overcoming one's influences by revisionistically, willfully and yet
imaginatively misunderstanding them. In cognitive linguistics and agonistic
revisionism, I discovered theories which read true to my experiences and
additionally offered openings to the world, criticizing the solipsism and
sophistry of much other current literary theory by, among other strengths,
subsuming their rivals' insights.
It can now be seen that the Late Modernist
attempt to undermine metaphor, as described by Schwabsky and Lasker above,
although necessary at that time, did not actually function as expected, but
was rather a negational, metaleptic trope in itself. Moreover, Davey
expresses a perception that there is a continuation between Derrida and
Lakoff , an opinion both controversial and, surprisingly, held by many. In
his eyes as a working poet, he finds aspects of Deconstruction and cognitive
metaphor to be akin, something that both factions would heartily rebuff. The
continuum containing both these theories is that of the free play of tropes.
The fascination and excitement of encountering and applying new conceptual
systems can lead to productive discoveries, both in the hands of creators
and of scholars, whatever their final political status becomes. Applying
novel theories can produce new discernments into literature and art
contemporary with a given philosophy, but also into aspects of the nature of
creativity across a broader time span.
theory offers an, at this time, atypical model, in that it acknowledges
agency -- that is, the individuals who make art experiences. This renders a
chance to investigate into and speculate on the nuts-and-bolts of creation.
The cognitive theory of metaphor is also unusual in that it is a theory more
concerned with concepts than with words alone, thus fostering application to
a wide range of art forms. An important facet of cognitive linguistic theory
is that metaphors are embodied, that is, that mental concepts are
"Jonathan Lasker - Brief Article," ArtForum
(September 2000). Cited from <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_1_39/ai_65649484>
tropaically out of bodily experiences. These foundational perceptions can
furthermore lead to what he terms "image schemas," which can then be used to
structure somewhat less physical events. This has potentially significant
implications for the poet, the painter, the novelist, the critic and the
scholar. It is indeed one of the main tools I have chosen to employ. In my
dissertation, Lakoffian theory will be applied to the competitive discovery
of trope within aspects of form in visual art.
believes that a proper appreciation for metaphor cuts through the perpetual
clash between the so-called "objective" view of trope (that it is purely
literary, almost decorative) and the so-called "subjective" view (that it
has no direct tie to experience). He promotes an alternative that stresses
the centrality of metaphor to our thinking processes, and thereby to our
language and other actions. Hence, I see cognitive metaphor theory similarly
offering an alternative to Formalism and Poststructuralism by subsuming them
This study will use theory derived from cognitive linguistics
as a method of augmenting the range of poststructural thought and
revivifying appreciation of the formal discoveries of authors and artists.
metaphor theory proffers a mode of thinking which can be applied to the
analysis and creation of art, while accentuating the efforts of the makers
of these objects. After the object-only orientation of Formalism, after the
medium-only focus of deconstruction, this may lead to a feeling of
liberation, of agency. Nevertheless, this is a theory which brings with it a
new sense of the burden of the past. Whereas the Formalist Modernists felt
free from the past and the Deconstructivist Postmodernists are endlessly
tangled in an inescapable present, authors and artists as viewed through
cognitive metaphor theory are directly responsible for fashioning their own
tropes through the processes of extension, elaboration, composition and/or
questioning. This they accomplish in and through the formal parameters of
their work, with enough cultural coherence to be able to communicate, but
enough originality to be significant. Important tropes cannot merely be
selected from a list; they are discovered and built out of revisions of
cultural possibilities, in fact, fought for and won. Thus Harold Bloom's
theory of antithetical revisionism also contributes an important component
to this paper, as he writes:
again, why should someone crossing out of literary criticism address the
problematics of revisionism? What else has Western poetry been, since the
Greeks, must be the answer, at
least in part. The origins and aims of poetry together constitute its
powers, and the powers of poetry, however they relate to or affect the
world, rise out of a loving conflict with previous poetry, rather than out
of conflict with the world. ... This particularly creative aspect of a
kind of primal anxiety is the tendency or process I have called "poetic
misprision" and have attempted to portray in a number of earlier books.
The heart of Bloom's
theory of misprision is the concept of an indispensable, antithetical agon
of each poet. With poetry being the chief artistic discipline for Bloom, the
word poet may also be replaced here with artist, which is what
I will do. Revisionism is exalted to the central fact of artistic
creativity. Agon is Bloom's term for the conflict arising from the
anxiety of influence. Each and every author must wrestle with his or her
precursors, the ones who inspired them to be writers in the first place. In
amendment of Bloom, though, this "loving conflict" also transpires with the
world, as it involves tropes of bodily experience as outlined in Lakoffian
theory. Creators seeking individual ways to convey their experiences within
their media, are necessarily forced to fence with comparable expressions of
similar experiences by their predecessors, therefore primarily with their
predecessors' tropes. Cognitive metaphor theory offers an important basis
for the study of art and literature, in particular their formation. Bloomian
agonistic misprision completes the portrayal of the process by which
creators arrive at the cognitive tropes so described.
theory of central trope which I will be developing within this dissertation
is postmodern, as dscribe. It is a model describing the construction by
authors and artists of distinctive central tropes in the tangible forms and
processes of their media. They achieve this by means of an agonistic
struggle with predecessors' tropes, doing so in order to uniquely articulate
personal perceptions and experiences.
Such tropes in
the hands of artists are both metaphoric and meta-formal, thus yielding the
punning term metaphor(m) in my title. This word describes and
embodies the core of the theory. For creators, artistic value is grounded in
form, the way a work is made and its technical aspects. Yet, turning
Formalism on its head, these attributes in themselves are significant only
due to their meta-properties as tools and modus operandi involving context,
tropaic content and cultural struggle.
Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1982;
paperback, 1983), vii-ix.
Cognitive metaphor theory will be put in the
service of art and art historical theory. In this dissertation, then, I will
develop a theory of how meaning is embodied in Modern and Postmodern
creativity. I view my hypothesis as the elucidation of a theoretical yet
concrete tool with which artists create. Based in part on linguistic theory,
metaphor(m) is a general theory of trope in art, which links content and
form with historical and critical cultural awareness. I will apply my theory
to visual art, especially to painting and installation art. The artists will
include the famous and the less well-known, historical and contemporary,
friends and foes, a smattering of all of these. I have been studying an
applying my theory to Charles Boetschi, Vincent van Gogh, Gerhard Richter,
Wesley Kimler, Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, Donald Judd, Leonard Bullock,
C Hill, Bill Viola, Robert Rauschenberg, Sigmar Polke, Lawrence Weiner,
Marcel Duchamp, George Brecht, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Jonathan Lasker,
Stephen Westfall, David Reed, Mark Francis, Mary Heilmann, Edith Altman,
Annette Messager, Joseph Beuys, Richard Long and many others. Who exactly
will turn up in my dissertation I cannot yet say for certain. Topics will
include specific and close analysis of artworks and media. While the theory
of central trope will be in dialogue with a number of theorists and creators
within my discussions, this dissertation is intended to be a work of
performed theory, not an exhaustive monograph on a single artist nor a
purely personal reflection. Rather, I will test my thesis through the study
of chosen subjects, while simultaneously working through the implications of
the theory on my own art as manifested in the planning and creation of a
painting-installation. In this way, I will probe metaphor theory's bounds
and limitations, as well as its depth and utility in the study of creative
works. Thus my theorization will be embodied performatively, and what is the
creation of art, especially paintings, if not mentally guided bodily
will create this dissertation in the traditional form of a book, but with
the addition of an actual installation. If successful, both will manifest
the process of creation displaying, in open performance, the slow but steady
making and finding of a metaphor/m. However, much like Sigmund Freud's
psychotherapy of himself, this may not be completely possible, opening my
dissertation to the rich possibility of partial failure. In either event, it
will be a thoroughly dialogical approach to production, uniting performance
and reflection in a manner perhaps best describable as a Deweyian
double-loop learning procedure or a Gadamerian hermeneutic circle of
understanding. Philosopher and education reformer John Dewey proposed that
more than the prevailing view described as error and then correction. He
believed learning to be a reiterating process of testing, learning,
correction and within re-testing modification of the underlying goal could
be altered, thus seeing it as two loops of correction. The philosopher of
hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes that understanding is accomplished
by coming to a situation with preconceptions, testing these and then
necessarily altering ones judgment, resulting in ever repeating circles
through which one then
deepens the comprehension of any whole through knowledge of its parts
encountered in subjective yet open investigation.
the writing and the concomitant creation of the art, I will perform a guided
tour of the installation, but one changing and allowing alternate paths,
perhaps enlisting the various aspects of such an exhibition as tropes and
forms: labels, comments, catalogue essay, sketches, plans, etc. Each chapter
of the dissertation, then, will embody the idea of the chapter through the
inclusion of analytical discourse, a painting, sketches and plans for the
installation, and a comic sequence featuring an investigation of how the
(meta-)discourse is being applied in the art works, in a plurogenic, braided
interlacing of registers, a methodology much inspired by Giuliana Bruno's
book Atlas of Emotion. (21)
"painting installations," which I term
are wall and room-filling works wherein a group of large painted canvases
are surrounded by additional painting directly on the wall, thereby
transforming the space into huge, readable, sequential "pages" of a walk-in,
"comic book." Second, there are the somewhat more detached paintings I term
Covers. These works are paintings in gouache, ink, acrylic and oil on
paper, wood panel, or canvas. They are recognizably based on the structure
of comic book covers, with title, bold lettering, price, date, numbering,
image and so on. Both types of artworks are frequently presented together as
one large installation.
Furthermore, important portions of the dissertation will be
posted on-line on an art "e-zine" as blogs, allowing for additional "viewer"
and reader discussion. My hypostatization of central trope will center on
testing it in the production of a Covers and Panels
painting-installation. Thus, I will be imagining, conceiving, and
bringing-into-vision the concept of central trope in art, as proposed in my
subtitle. Some Modernist critics are
Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys
in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: New Left
Books, Verso, 2002; paperback, 2007).
dismissive of the possibility that various art forms and media might have
any similarities or effects upon one another. Most famously advocated by
Clement Greenberg, this form of Modernism asserts that each art must be
rendered "pure" by concentrating solely on what separated it from other
disciplines, especially demanding an anti-literary stance in visual art. By
contrast, my theory of central trope denies such separation, claiming an
underlying level of tropaic reasoning to be integral to literature, visual
art and creative works in other media, perhaps even postulating a necessary
postmodern impurity. Application of a conceptual theory of metaphor to art
history remains a relatively unexplored -- but potentially very rich -- area
addition to the text, artworks, and series of on‑line e‑zine articles
(called blog posts) as mentioned, my dissertation chapters will include
sequential art (called comics), as well as sketches for the installation and
occasional groups of paintings concerning tangential, associational
thoughts. The image preceding this "Prelude" was the first Cover
painting. The page following is the first of the meta-sequences in comic
form. In the completed book, the "Introduction" will either precede or
follow this chapter, as of course introductions are best written after the
entire text has been completed, but are presented at the beginning. The
topic of the next chapter is "Wandering and Surveying: Links and to Literary
Theory and Contemporary Aesthetics." It is a "placement" of the theory
within the world of literary theory, as well as a discussion of related
approaches or influences from contemporary analytical aesthetics.