Find Meaning, and Metaphor, in The Artworks Themselves

by Mark Staff Brandl

To state “that is”—such is the moment of belief, of ontological commitment, which gives affirmation its “illocutionary” force. There is no better testimony to this affirmative vehemence than the poetic experience. Along one of its dimensions, at least, this experience expresses the ecstatic moment of language—language going beyond itself. It seems, accordingly, to attest that discourse prefers to obliterate itself, to die, at the confines of the being-said.Paul Ricoeur 1

My articles here, dissertation, and in fact all my theory I call metaphor(m), or the theory of central trope, asserts the preeminence of the search for meaning, through metaphoric creativity, in art. This is not an attempt to restore some imagined, missing hint of a purport preceding the created text or object. It is an affirmation of the quest for meaning as the central struggle in creativity. It is no longer viable to seek to discover some imagined intention of meaning—the artwork is the achieved meaning, through its metaphor(m). Each artwork is a complex of multiple meanings performatively embodied. Historical fact is a necessary and enlightening frame of reference to anchor finer associations; nevertheless what a creator principally intended is always for that specific object to exist. What all creators try to do can likewise be plainly described. They try to tell truths—with emphasis placed on the verb and the plural noun ending. Yet these simple-sounding essentials are the bases for immeasurably rich creations. There is no objectivity beyond this. In the same way, a purely subjective response is of little pragmatic value, only perhaps inadvertently as a direction for a viewer’s own thought or as a guide to the thoroughly perplexed. A theory of creative metaphoric thought cannot be wholly “objectivist,” “subjectivist,” intentional, structural, paralinguistic, deconstructive, biographical, and most of all not formalistic. Each of these methods of interpretation places the weight of the meanings in a text or art work in some imagined, abstracted camp far from home, or in some cul-de-sac of unrecognized catachresis.

The greatest danger of theorists is that they tend to create situations wherein works of art are arbitrarily expurgated from any living process and from all contexts, (be they cognitive, historical, economic, or various others). As a practicing artist and art historian with strong analytic proclivities and the penchant to cerebrate, I have attempted and continue to attempt to construct a theory in resistance to this, an anti-theory of sorts, if you will: one which emphasizes living process, personal struggle, cognition, agency and historical context. In articles published here, I examine metaphor(m): the theory of central trope, from diverse standpoints, and through various levels of magnification.

Metaphor(m) is proposed as a general theory of trope in the arts. If this or any other hypothetical analysis of the arts is worthy of any serious consideration, it is in its usefulness for fuller understanding and criticism of the works before us: as creators, as perceivers, and as creative perceivers. Interpretation should seek the transformative through two important questions. What does the act of interacting with this work allow me to discover in life? How does this change and improve experience, i.e. “reality”? Metaphor(m), the theory of central trope, is a theoretical and critical approach emphasizing allusiveness and playfulness within concrete perception, linking striven-for content, discovered form, antithetical historical and critical cultural awareness.

  • This article is based on the conclusion of my dissertation.
  1. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of The Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977; paperback 1993), p.249. Ricoeur’s italics.