Analyzing Metaphors “Caught in the Wild”

by Mark G. Taber

A recent article of art criticism has been published which exercises metaphor theory in reflection on specific works of art. Since this was written by an author completely independent of the Metaphor and Art project, it’s worth noting this observation of metaphor theory in action “caught in the wild.” The article is “The MetNey Is a Landscape-Changer. Unfortunately, the First Show Is Not.” by Jerry Saltz. It uses several interesting metaphors that can be analyzed in Lakoffian terms.

First, the title has a surprising number of basic metaphors, most of them part of the large complicated Event Structure Metaphor. This metaphor model maps states to locations, in other words, a state of being is metaphorically construed as a location in three-dimensional space. In this case the state of the New York City museum culture is mapped to a landscape. The Event Structure Metaphor is complicated because it also includes at least four other properties, which are changes, causes, actions, and means. So in addition to likening the state as location metaphor, there is a second metaphor “landscape-changer,” which is a version of the states are shapes metaphor structure. The state of museum culture is mapped to a landscape, landscapes have shapes, and so a change to the state of the museum culture is mapped to a change in shape to the landscape. Incredibly, there is even one more basic metaphor in this title, which depends on the two described above to complete the idea. It is one that maps the institution of the Metropolitan Museum, which is a large, complicated social structure with diverse inert material assets to a single being with agency. So to recap, the state of museum culture is a landscape, changes to the landscape maps to a change to the state of museum culture, and finally, the museum is a being with agency with the power to change the landscape, and hence possibly change the state of the museum culture. The coherence of the second part of the title depends on the logic of the metaphors of the first part. The metaphorical being with agency could act on the landscape to improve it, or the converse is that such a being could act on the landscape in a destructive way, or it could be indifferent and make no changes at all. “Unfortunately” indicates a conclusion that the museum has failed because it has failed to exercise its power as a metaphorical being with agency to change the shape of the landscape of museum culture in any way. In any case, the judgement of failure is a judgement of a being that literally does not exist.

But relevant to Metaphor and Art, this is not the most interesting metaphor in the article.

“The unfinishedness of the surface is a metaphor for the tearing apart of Christ’s body, and we can see how the artist plotted an upper and lower stage for the picture, how he lays in grayish grounds and tonal washes set against highlighted explosions of fast-applied paint. In these parts of the show the metaphors of unfinishedness resound.”

The painting the quote refers to is The Agony in the Garden (1558 - 1562) by Titian. An image is posted here.

This metaphor is simple, it is the basic states are shapes model, in this case the state of a human body is mapped to the shape of the painting. Here shape is “unfinished.” How can this metaphor possibly work?

“Unfinished” being the negation of “finished” requires a concept of what finished is. For example, Impressionist paintings, when first exhibited, were notoriously criticized as looking “unfinished” due to their loose brushstrokes1. Impressionists, in their efforts to push the possibilities of painting into new forms used innovative paint techniques that negated contemporary norms of what counted as “finished.” Specifically, established salon painting of the 19th century held to long standing notions of paint handling and surface treatment that required the painter to deny the flat character of the support and manual application of the pigments in order to create an illusion of depth and imperceptable tone gradations.

The Impressionists had different ideas about perception, and their techniques reflected their position. By applying paint in discrete strokes of color, and by making no effort to conceal the character of their tools, i.e. brushstrokes appearing as such, they permanently transformed the notion of what a finished painting could be.

But this hasn’t necessarily changed what counts as finished in an older style of painting. In order to make the metaphor under discussion work requires having an a priori concept of what the unfinished painting should have looked like, had it been finished by the artist. In fact, this is the premise of the show, see the first sentence of the exhibition overview.

A body being torn asunder is brutal in a terrorizing, graphically vivid way, not merely for the victim, but just the thought of it in the mind ought to make one tremble. One element of the terror is the bringing into view what normally is hidden, such as bones, organs, and blood. One way to look at this is to argue that what the metaphor attempts to do is map the exposed innards of the torn human body to the exposed underpainting of the work. A classical painting is created by the patient application of many layers of paint one on top of the other, each interacting with the layer above and below to create the characteristic effects of this style. Furthermore, the paradigm of this style de-emphasizes surface texture and the appearance of brush strokes as such. So the metaphor works like this. The form of the skin of the body is only the outermost layer of other parts such as muscle and bone hidden inside. Underpainting is like bone and muscle that provides structure for the visible finished surface.

Conversely, the view of exposed inner organs and flesh could instead instead of terror elicit strange fascination. Now, if we apply this to the logic of the metaphor, could we say that the pleasure of this show is the strange fascination of examining the exposed innards of the unfinished paintings? In other words, the fascination of examining the unfinished innards of these paintings maps onto the fascination of examining the exposed innards of a torn human body.

This metaphor works well for the Titian, but as the article points out, since the 19th century classical paradigms of finish have been deliberately and systematically disrupted and inverted by modern artists. For example, there is a painting by Jasper Johns in the show that is completely resistant to the same body metaphor that works so well on the Titian, and this is telling. It points out the massive challenge the Met Breuer project faces.

Alternative metaphors for the post-modern painting

The 20th century half of the show includes a wonderful Jasper Johns painting “Voice” [1964-67]. This mixed-media painting is predominantly cool grays applied in short brushstrokes. They vary in value which serves to make it easy to read each one as a brushstroke and not an image. In the top left quadrant an arc of smeared paint terminates with a wooden stick attached to a piece of wire. The geometry of the wire, stick, and smeared arc strongly suggest the stick was the tool that swept across the canvas in the manner of a compass to scrape and push the top layer of paint in front of it. In fact there is a large pile of dried gray paint on one the side of the stick. All of this serves to focus attention of the surface of the painting as a site for work. If there is a narrative in this painting, it is a literal demonstration of a process suspended in dramatic fashion. Why the stick has halted where it has is not obvious, perhaps the fork and spoon suspended on the right side serve as counterweights to freeze the stick in its place.

Here the body metaphor doesn’t work. With the Johns there is no sense of the painting as something with a hidden inside that can be somehow examined. Rather, it is a literally material on the surface being worked by human hands. There may even be a little joke or satire aimed at John’s seniors, the Abstract Expressionists and their fans. The title of the painting is written below the stick. A small part of the word is covered by the stick and smeared paint, suggesting impending obliteration by the blind mechanism of the paint-pushing stick plow. An essential component of the Abstract Expressionist credo was the idea that somehow the unique inner life of the artist could be made legible in the vocabulary of the unique dab or splash of paint on the canvas. This brings to mind the old metaphor “the voice of the artist” referring to the distinctive style of certain painters. Johns of course was famous for his repudiation of this trope by way of his indifferent paint application and banal motifs. In “Voice” he goes even further by showing us a voice in paint about to be literally wiped out by an indifferent dumb stick.

However, for this painting there is a well-known metaphor that does work, which is of course the “flatbed picture plane” invented by Leo Steinberg specifically for Johns and his peers. What is wonderful about this metaphor is that Steinberg makes it very clear that it is an embodied metaphor.

“I propose to use the word to describe the characteristic picture plane of the 1960s—a pictorial surface whose angulation with respect to the human posture is the precondition of its changed content.” Leo Steinberg 2

Steinberg goes on to develop this metaphor of a an artwork resting horizontal where it receives data and is only later hung on the wall in a conventional and merely convenient manner, its orientation to the viewer completely unrelated to the older notion of the painting as view into a world. Suffice to say, the explicit reference to the human body makes it obviously an embodied metaphor. Steinberg’s essay is well known and doesn’t require further elaboration here.

One last observation. The show featured a special symbol to denote paintings “when research indicates the work was left unfinished unintentionally.” It’s ironic that neither the Titian nor the Johns were denoted with this symbol. In fact, 21% of the 219 artworks in the show were denoted as actually unfinished (and 89% of these were in the pre-20th century section). Perhaps it only makes sense to think of the finished-unfinished dichotomy for these two paintings in a metaphorical way.


  1. Samu, M. (2004, October). Impressionism: Art and Modernity | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved March 27, 2016, from
  2. Steinberg, L. (2007). Other criteria: Confrontations with twentieth-century art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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