Art as Visual Metaphor

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    Art as Visual MetaphorAuthor(s): Hermine FeinsteinSource: Art Education, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Jul., 1985), pp. 26-29Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 14:54

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  • Art as



    Hermine Feinstein

    In this article... Feinstein continues to extend her explanation

    of the power of metaphor as a teacher's

    resource. "In the metaphoric process, ideas, situations, and

    feelings are re-organized and vivified ... new insights emerge, and different or deeper levels of meaning

    are tapped." is ,1I

    "American Gothic" by Grant Wooa, 1yJU. uII Art. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

    W ha hat's a meta for?, for understanding one kind of thing or experience in terms of another of a

    different kind (Johnson, 1981). In the linguistic metaphor, "He suffers from hardening of the categories," the concept of intellectual rigidity is char- acterized in terms of constricted blood flow. In a visual metaphor, such as the painting by Grant Wood in Figure 1, feelings of restraint are characterized in terms of how they are depicted visually. The Status of Metaphor Even though people have used metaphor for centuries, it has not been given the respect it deserves. To be sure, metaphor is used in ordinary talk but mainly as a cliche; it is given credence in academe though principally in creative writing. Metaphor has been considered at best an ornamental linguistic device and at worst a deviant use of grammar and

    semantics. By extension, metaphoric thinking has been regarded as unclear thinking, a shield that impedes the search for truth.

    Metaphor has begun to gain respect- ability. In the past decade, there have been numerous scholarly publications on the topic (e.g., Haynes, 1975; Goodman, 1976; Pollio, Barlow, Fine, & Pollio, 1977; Ortony, 1979; Sacks, 1979; Honeck & Hoffman, 1980; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Johnson, 1981; Gardner, 1982, 1983; Feinstein, 1982, 1984). Many scholars are beginning to realize what Susanne Langer advanced in the 1950s, as others had before: that the way we think is basically metaphoric and that the products of metaphoric thinking carry truth. As a result, new questions are being raised about the nature of knowledge. Those questions challenge many assumptions of logical positivism that emphasize singular truth and objectively and fail to recognize the

    arts as valid cognitive activities. I will use two ideas derived from the

    work of Langer (1953, 1957, 1967, 1976). First, that metaphor is an essential process and product of thought. Second, that works of visual art, being developed products of thought, can be metaphors for felt dimensions of experience in its broadest sense.

    Metaphor as Process and Product of Thought To understand metaphor requires placing it in the context of thought and language. Language, as we know, is the hallmark of our achievement as a species. It is the vehicle through which we convey our thoughts and feelings to ourselves and others. We use language to survive, to understand and expand our experiences and our realities. Language began with meaningful patterns of sounds, elaborated grunts that probably were transformed into

    Art Education July 1985 26

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  • linguistic and visual symbols. Those symbols have become the major building blocks of language.

    A linguistic or visual symbol is either one thing that stands for another thing or one that stands for other things. It is through those symbols that we convey and understand meanings. Additional complexity, however, quickly surfaces. For example, symbols can be combined and modified by sounds and gestures. The meaning of symbols changes over time and therefore must be understood in context. Nevertheless, symbols can be interpreted in two general ways: literally and metaphorically. Through literal symbols, we understand one thing in terms of another thing; through metaphoric symbols, we understand one thing in terms of another of a different kind.

    Literal meaning denotes, is in one-to- one correspondence with its referent. It is consensually agreed upon in a given culture, which is to say it is usually the same for everyone. As linguistic examples, we know the literal meaning of door. A door means entry and exit; it keeps people and things in and keeps them out. We know the literal meaning of life. It is the manifestation of metabolism, growth, reproduction, and so on. We know that people can be described as ultra conservative.

    In contrast to literal meaning, metaphoric meaning subsumes literal meaning and connotes. A metaphoric symbol, therefore, stands in one-to- many correspondence with its referent and is not necessarily the same for everyone; opposite and contradictory meanings can be derived from the same symbol. For some, a house can mean a prison, for others a haven. The meaning can change for the same person at different times. Let me return to the literal linguistic symbols used previously (door, life, and ultra conservative people) and note some metaphoric linguistic meanings. She closed the door to her past; she opened the door to opportunity. Life is a journey; life is a plate of spaghetti. Ultra conservative people are uptight, or they suffer from hardening of the categories!

    If we move from linguistic to visual symbols, the same principles apply: visual symbols also yield both literal and metaphoric meanings. A bill- board, for example, not only urges us to buy a certain brand of gin but can

    be a metaphor for a fantasized life of glamour. Ticky-tacky houses in suburbia not only are shelters but can be metaphors for a life of sameness. A painting not only can portray bottles and dishes but can be a metaphor for people huddled together in quiet antici- pation.

    How the process works. Given that metaphor enables us to understand one kind of thing or experience in terms of another of a different kind, how does this occur? First, by noting that two things are dissimilar; second, by asking in what ways could they be similar? That very question enables us to transfer attributes from one thing to another. When you considered a door as a boundary between the past and present, you transferred certain attributes of door to attributes of time. A transfer occurred when you considered that life is a plate of spaghetti and that certain people suffer from hardening of the categories. During such transfers, clusters of attributes belonging to one kind of thing interacted with those of another of a different kind. The attribute clusters of both became "filters" (Black, 1955; Johnson, 1981) that highlighted, suppressed, or redefined certain associations. In the metaphoric process, ideas, situations, and feelings are re-organized and vivified. Paradox- ically, they are both condensed and ex- panded. The result is that associations are generated, new insights emerge, and different or deeper levels of mean- ing are tapped.

    Aristotle wrote, "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor

    . . . it is also the sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars" (Poetics, 1941, p. 1459a). Although he was referring to poets, the principle of grasping similarities in disparate phenomena applies to how we think in all domains of life. Kekule', the chemist, had been trying unsuccessfully to determine the structure of benzene, a structure he assumed was open. He had a dream in which snakes appeared, one biting its own tail. Kekule' allowed attribute clusters to interact, those of the snake biting its tail with those of the structure of benzene. The resultant metaphor triggered his important discovery that benzene is not an open structure but a closed ring.

    The pervasiveness of metaphor is exemplified in everyday life according to Lakoff and Johnson (1980):

    Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor (p. 3).

    Classes of symbolization. People group symbols together and develop symbolic end-products. Langer has assigned such end products to two broad classes of symbolization: discursive and presentational. For that contribution, art educators owe Langer a great debt. With the addition of presentational symbols as a distinct classification, Langer honors the subjective aspect of experience, and its metaphoric end-products, the arts.

    The core of her argument is that experience, to be understood and conveyed, must be transformed into symbols. Discursive symbolization describes experiences that are sequential, i.e, logical and rule- governed. Yet there are many experiences that are quite different: holistic, alogical, and structure- seeking. Sometimes they are immediate, vivid, fleeting, and fragmentary. Thisfelt aspect of experi- ence, the subjective, defies discursive formulation. Because it is not possible to put certain aspects of experience into discursive symbolization, another class of symbolization is needed, one that is different in kind. Langer designates such a class, presentational symbolization.

    Up to this point, I have sketched the status of metaphor, briefly discussed its place in thought and language by explaining that the building blocks of language are linguistic and visual symbols that yield literal and metaphoric meanings. I also have defined the metaphoric process as the transfer of attributes that become filters for highlighting, suppressing, and redefining associations. Finally, I have identified our debt to Langer for creating a separate and different class of symbolization amenable to the arts.

    Art Education July 1985 27

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  • "Still Life (Vitali 1333)" by Morandi, 1929. Private collection.

    I turn now to the title of this paper. Art as visual metaphor. To para-

    phrase Langer (1967), the artist trans- lates feeling into form by intense concentration on the potentialities for forms to symbolize feeling. What she means is that the artist is very much at home with the act of transferring attributes, particularly of feeling. Quite simply, the visual artist works with elements of visual organization and allows those elements to interact with materials being used; the artist finds visual approximations for know- ledge of feeling and renders them into visual form.

    Just as the artist engages in the metaphoric process to make an art pro- duct, so the viewer must engage in the metaphoric process to interpret the art product. It is important to emphasize, that constructing metaphoric meaning in art does not preclude or cloud perception of the work itself. If the viewing and the interpretation are referentially adequate, i.e., if visual qualities prompting interpretation are evident in the work, each enriches the other (Pepper, 1945). Indeed, Aristotle contended: "Metaphors, like epithets, must be fitting, which means they must fairly correspond to the thing signified: failing this, their inappropriateness will be conspicuous" (Rhetoric, 1941, p. 1405a). The metaphoric process can be used to interpret art periods as well as individual works. Each period in the history of art is marked by particular characteristics that reflect its society, myths, and values. We can grasp the essence of a period by making a tentative metaphor, an overarching grabber, to capture those characteris- tics and to direct us back to the parts.

    Then, we can create a more delineated and comprehensive whole. Usually, however, when confronted with works of art, we tend to catalog. Cataloging, while necessary, is insufficient. If we interpret the works metaphorically as a group of objects and as individual objects, we lessen the risk of getting lost in the parts. Art, by its holistic nature, demands that we not be "splitters" but "lumpers" as well (Kagan, Moss, & Siegel, 1963; Cohen, 1969).

    Construction of metaphoric meaning begins by viewing the work as a whole, becoming aware of the visual attributes and nuances, and then by asking, other than the obvious, what do these works suggest? Consider three periods of Greek art. Art of the Minoan period is known for its colorful and bold shapes, rhythmic and undulating motion, exuberance, grace, and stylistic naturalism. Art of the Mycenaean period is known for its stiffness and formality and its concern with war, hunting, and massive forti- fications. In stark contrast, art of the Classical period is known for its rationality, order, balance, harmony, and its stress on the abstract ideal.

    What could serve as a single over- arching metaphor for the three periods? Taken together, the visual

    attributes suggest early adolescence: playfulness, expansiveness, mistrust, withdrawal, rejection of tradition, desire to comply, to learn and discover. The adolescent of the Minoan period can be conceived as playful and out- going, of the Mycenaean period as aggressive and mistrustful, of the Classical period as reflective and reasoned. Metaphor is not set in concrete. The metaphor of adolescence may be altered by the finding of new evidence. If evidence does not support the first metaphor, different meta- phors can be generated. History, after all, is properly understood and recreat- ed in light of multiple interpretations.

    As a more contemporary example, a literal cataloging of the painting by Morandi, Figure 2, would yield the name of the artist, time and style in which it was painted, size of the painting, kind o...