A Short Definition of Visual Metaphor

by Mark Staff Brandl

Visual Metaphor or Visual Trope

Dr. Great Art icon by Mark Staff Brandl

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,” whether 2D, 3D, filmic or whatever, is primarily optical. It is a nonverbal embodiment of a conceptual metaphor. As Noël Carroll describes it, visual metaphor “prompt insights” in the viewer by depicting “noncompossible” (generally impossible to combine) elements in a “homospatially unified” 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.

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 be dissected into various sub tropes including, metaphor, metonymy, simile, synecdoche, litotes, hyperbole, irony, allegory, symbol, metalepsis, and more.

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—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. (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.)

  1. Trope and Metaphor.

    I prefer trope as the overriding term. I attempt to use the term trope when figurative language and its visual equivalent in general is meant. Metaphor is one usual term for this idea. Unfortunately, though, this word is used in two distinct applications, one general and one particular. Confusion often results from this failure to distinguish the species from the genus. Metaphor may mean alternately either figurative expression itself, the genus—therefore identical with figurative language or trope—or that particular instance thereof, the species, that is the famous description of metaphor as a “comparison without a like or as,” “Achilles is a lion.” Useful terminology does not allow a thing to be a species of itself. Other terms bring other difficulties, all probably reflecting the various underlying philosophies of the animal under study. Various general terms include trope, figure and figurative language. The latter two would cause a problem when the theory is applied to visual art as well as literature. Anything containing the word language is not interdisciplinary enough and figure in visual art is widely used to mean the human form (e.g. “figure painting”). These terms are inadequate anyway. They clearly reinforce views of the subject opposite to those I espouse.

    In short, the problems with the term reflect old, deficient and competing theories of the thing itself. Trope is derived from turning, and is an older umbrella term for all rhetorical analogies (metaphor, metonymy, etc.) Therefore, it serves me as the general term, metaphor is chiefly used in its specific application (“no like or as” species), occasionally substituting for the general, along with the other terms mentioned, where this occurs in common use and for stylistic variety.

  2. Metaphor(m).

    My theory of trope in visual art, which I call “metaphor(m)” or “central trope.” My major assertion is that the formal, technical and stylistic aspects of creators' approaches concretely manifest content in culturally and historically antithetical ways through a particular trope. I contend that artists seek to discover and construct such a central trope of form in a dialectical, even dialogical, circle of testing and understanding. This process allows them to express their desires, both those willed and those revealed by the trope. Therefore, technical aspects of works of art are important as performed content, which embody metaphor and an agonistic struggle. My punning neologism metaphor(m) describes and embodies the core of the theory—that such tropes in the hands of artists are both metaphoric and meta-formal. 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.