The new Dr Great Art Podcast. Episode 42: Defining Visual Metaphor. Images can be Tropaic, Not Just Words. This episode, I give my definition of visual metaphor. This is a new area of scholarly interest, and there have been few attempts to clearly describe visual metaphor or trope. This is an important foundational action and idea for the book on visual metaphor and contemporary art I am in the process of writing.
Dr Great Art Podcast 42 42
Defining Visual Metaphor
Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 42nd "Dr Great Art" brief podcast.
This episode, I wish to give my definition of visual metaphor. This is a new area of scholarly interest, and there have been few attempts to clearly describe visual metaphor or trope. Instead most theorists simply take it for granted that this is the same as verbal, textual metaphor, or at least have not seen clear to separate the two.
The most important, and indeed, first such attempt is by the wonderful philosopher Noël Carroll in his chapter "Visual Metaphor" in his book Beyond Aesthetics. I greatly recommend it! He has stimulated me to write my own, an important foundational action and idea for the book on visual metaphor and contemporary art I am in the process of writing. Here it is (with a rather typical philosophical "style." I'll try to make it into more normal speech as well as I go along.)
A visual metaphor is an image that suggests a particular association, similarity or analogy between two (or more) generally unconnected visual elements.
This often functions in a roughly comparable fashion to the better-known concept of verbal metaphor, but not always, and visual metaphor has developed many of its own unique characteristics.
This "presence," artwork, whether 2D, 3D, filmic or whatever, is primarily optical. It is a nonverbal embodiment of a conceptual metaphor. As Noël Carroll describes it, visual metaphors "prompt insights" in the viewer by depicting "noncompossible" (generally impossible to combine) elements in a "homospatially unified" image. That is, two or more visual images or ideas, ones usually not able to be seen together, as combined anyway into one image.
Furthermore, the optical tropes are typically intended for the viewer to recognize as having heuristic value, not a representation of an actual previously unknown entity, such as a god, mythical creature, strangely surfaced object or the like. That is, the artists create images in this way that will however NOT be seen by viewers as realistic representations of some previously unknown yet existent thing, like a real god, or mutant or some such thing (Surrealism). Or such as an object that is composed of a bunch of weird chunky textures on its surface (Impressionism). Rather, they are seen as opportunities to contemplate possible new insights. In what way IS the sky like swirling comets and flaming energy? What can I learn about life when I contemplate the head of an ordinary-looking man compared to, indeed replaced by, a floating apple? Why would someone compare or reduce all visible sights to horizontals and verticals and primary colors?
In cognitive metaphor theory, this would be described as an imagistic target compared pictorially to some visual thing from another category, the source. (In I. A. Richards's language, the tenor and vehicle, respectively.)
Comparable to verbal metaphor, these visual metaphors can, though, be dissected into various sub tropes including, metaphor, metonymy, simile, synecdoche, litotes, hyperbole, irony, allegory, symbol, metalepsis, and more. I will describe these in a future podcast.
I do not solely focus on pictorial, representational images as most theorists currently tend to do. I seek an understanding of visual trope in the formal, technical and stylistic aspects of visual art most of all! --- composition, surface, paint-handling, color, placement, editing cuts, context, etc., the nuts-and-bolts of creation.
Importantly, as a follower of cognitive metaphor theory, I see visual trope as a thought process, involving the fact that metaphors are embodied. That is, that mental concepts are constructed tropaically from bodily experiences. These foundational perceptions can furthermore lead to what George Lakoff terms "image mappings" and "image schemas," which can then be used to structure somewhat less physical events. Image schemas generally rely on an abstracted sense of space and vision and can be described with prepositions or simple directionality: out, inside, from, along, up-down, front-back, etc. In the arts, both these image-metaphor activities shade into one another along a vast spectrum of possibilities.
The discovery animating all of this is that trope is the basis of thought, thus language is one instance of it, not the other way round. And contemporary visual art contains other, highly intriguing instances. (Additionally, visual metaphors are used in advertising, political cartoons, and elsewhere, but my interest and discussion revolve around their application in fine art, particularly contemporary art.)
I will explain this more concretely in the next podcast, on the Metaphor(m) and Foundational Metaphors in Vincent van Gogh's Art.
Thanks for listening. Podcast number 42.
Defining Visual Metaphor
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