Metaphor(m): Artists Create New Metaphors to Live (and Work) By

by Mark Staff Brandl

Under the inspiration of Lakoff, Johnson and Turner’s Cognitive Metaphor Theory, I made the personal discovery which was the foundation of my dissertation and our articles here, that artists create for themselves new metaphors to live by, which viewers can then also use to think with and live by. This I refer to as artists’ metaphor(m)s or central tropes.

Much of the highly imaginative work of discovering their metaphor(m)s is accomplished by artists through what Lakoff and Turner term an “image-mapping.” However, these authors at first undervalued this discovery, describing image-mappings as “more fleeting metaphors.”1 They assert that “the proliferation of detail in the images limits image-mappings to highly specific cases.” By contrast, they find “image-schema mappings” less detailed and more useful in reasoning.2 Image schemas generally rely on an abstracted sense of space and vision, yet can also be grounded in sound, others senses or even in cross-sensory, synaesthetic perceptions. They can often 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. Both of these authors expanded their study of visual mapping in following books. Notably, Lakoff intensified his investigation of visual art in his pioneering essay “The Neuroscience of Form in Art,” in the book The Artful Mind, edited by Mark Turner.3 In his contribution, Lakoff reflects on Rudolf Arnheim, form as metaphor and presents the theory of “cogs” to explain this. Cogs are neural circuits, involving mirror neurons, which ordinarily perform motor control, but additionally can register and structure observation. Image schemas and force-dynamic schemas are presented as potential cognitive explanations of the application of cogs to reasoning.4 I believe image-mappings are purposefully interwoven by artists into this structure of inferences as well. Furthermore, Turner’s entire conception of cognitive integration and blending offers an excellent account of how metaphor(m)s are brought into being. The principal book on that theory is The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier and Turner.5

Because of its proliferation of details, image-mapping provides a bonanza of abundance necessary for mining new metaphors, thus making it very important in literature and visual art, more consequential than often imagined. The operation of image-mapping is simple to describe. A mental picture is projected in the mind’s eye onto another “target” image. For example, envision matching the appearance of a tree to that of a woman. Her litheness as she stands slowly moving in the breeze is dramatically foregrounded in this process, brought to the reader’s attention. Creators structurally, often visually, pursue this reasoning within the confines—or better said, using the treasury of—their media and genre. They find potential meaning in either projecting an image onto a formal element or finding schemas adequate for use which are natural characteristics of a formal element. This is described more precisely in my dissertation, where the creative process of conceiving central tropes is delineated in detail. A few examples will suffice for now. Simply whether a sculptural form emphasizes verticality or horizontality is a rich source of possible image schemas or image-mappings. For instance, perhaps the piece is vertical and building-like. Therefore, it is more “up” than “down,” linking it to all the foundational metaphors of UP: GOOD IS UP, HAPPY IS UP, etc. Depending on the composition, perhaps the piece is vertical, yet stresses its downward movement. This would elicit metaphors of DOWN. Long, winding sentences could be seen as matching the experience of taking a leisurely journey. Image-mapping consists in conducting a kind of “sampling” of the world of experience. It does not, therefore, have to be only a visual one, although I believe it generally is. It might be based in one of the other senses, or as our culture becomes increasingly multimedial, it might be based on a combination of sensory impressions.

“New metaphors are mostly structural,” according to Lakoff and Johnson.6 For artists, the structure of form and the structure of desired meaning (i.e., content) are functions of one another. When an image-mapping is solidly rooted in structural similarity, Lakoff and Turner refer to it as “iconic.”

This is, in general, what iconicity in language is: a metaphorical image-mapping in which the structure of the meaning is understood in terms of the structure of the form of the language presenting that meaning. Such mappings are possible because of the existence of image-schemas, such as schemas characterizing bounded spaces (with interiors and exteriors), paths, motions along those paths, forces, parts and wholes, centers and peripheries, and so on.7

Therefore, metaphor(m)s are often iconic image-mappings or image schemas raised to life-determining power, Weltanschauungen. To return to my metaphor of painting, here I have reached what painters refer to as their style or approach. The second of these terms is often preferred by creators because in common use the term style has been debased, signifying nothing more than individual, characteristic forms of expression without content or thought—habitual, unconscious quirks also referred to as tics. True style is much more than this. The linguistic field of stylistics shows how rich the concept can be. While such study has chiefly been carried out on literature in books such as The Concept of Style, it has exciting implications for the visual arts as well.8 Style is the distinctive, personal mode of production and expression of an artist which is visibly unique to his work: ones individualistic, intellectually and emotionally-charged mechanics of embodying meaning. (In the own case of my own art this becomes more of a modus operandi, as the term is used by police to describe a criminal’s characteristic way of committing a crime, rather than a stable series of representational choices.)

Cognitive 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.


  • This article is based on several sections of my dissertation.
  1. George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989). p. 89.
  2. Ibid., p. 91.
  3. Lakoff, "The Neuroscience of Form in Art," in The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity, ed. Mark Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 153-169.
  4. Ibid., pp. 160-162.
  5. Gilles Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, A Perseus Book, 2003).
  6. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980; paperback, 1981), p. 152.
  7. Ibid., pp 156-157.
  8. Berel Lang, ed., The Concept of Style (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987).
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