The Painterly Turn, Metaphor and Meta-Form

by Mark Staff Brandl

In discussing my Lakoffian theory of central trope, which I call metaphor(m), let us begin with a metaphor: that of painting.

The elements of my theory, then, are my palette, in the sense of my range of color. These hues are the recent discoveries in understanding metaphor within the field of cognitive neuroscience, which can be used to compose a useful understanding of artistic process.

In the past, two unproductive viewpoints have seen art as solely a matter of the playing out of formal invention or, contrarily, only the charming delivery of important messages. A third, more recent and grave dismissal of visuality and visual art is the “linguistic turn,” which is still now predominant, although its stranglehold on the artworld appears to be loosening slightly. The phrase linguistic turn is actually Gustav Bergman’s, given new currency by Richard Rorty. 1 This is the postmodern notion that there is no reality outside language, and furthermore, language is itself arbitrary and only self-referential. This idea has performed the significant work of undercutting claims of a universal standpoint from which to pass judgment on art. Nevertheless, such a conception of language has become fetishized, detached from culture, specific linguistic traditions, and performative function, while being used to dismiss the efficacy and embodiment of tropaic thought possible beyond solipsism.

Indeed, it has often been difficult to perceive the central and creative role of metaphor in all cognition, including the visual, due to the omnipresence of tropaic reasoning in daily life on the one hand and the complexity of its imaginative transformation in the arts on the other. Metaphor may seem either fully transparent or opaque, when in fact it is the translucent essence of transmission, of communication, itself. How this can fade from view is illustrated by the fact that naïve viewers often discuss representational images in art as if they were the very things they depict (actually, therefore, an elision, perhaps even a form of the trope synecdoche). This is what René Magritte so skillfully and philosophically spoofed in his painting La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) of 1928–29, depicting a pipe and the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe.)

For artists, the verity of images as constructed illusions is always forefront, as they craft them. Much of the talk in the past by theorists claiming that painting has been naïvely confused as a window misses this important point. The maker of any image cannot but see it as a surface upon which she has conjured a vision, whether abstract or representational, when she has spent weeks, months or more putting it together. The creator may wish that the panel be imagined as a metaphor for a window, or that viewers have an experience similar to that of peering through a window, but one would have to be utterly insane to have painstakingly made something and then mistake it for its image; even Pygmalion was yearning, not befuddled. In fact, concentration on the richness of communication’s shifting degrees of opacity is what makes visual art so dense. Trope’s principal industry is to dialectically integrate the misleading oppositions drawn above. Art’s craft is to make the most of them.

With the materials and forms I have researched, altered and molded, in my dissertation, speeches and even art, I am painting my own cognitive and agonistic theory of central trope. This ties in evocatively with the fact that I, like most contemporary artists, have all but abandoned the palette as an object. In his book Working Space, Frank Stella writes that abandoning the palette was one of the most important events in contemporary art production. “What we failed to see is that it was the loss of the palette, not the easel, that changed the face of what we see as painting.” 2 Most of us now use a table top or similar larger surfaces, or alternately jars and cans, mixing colors in larger fluid quantities, in effect accomplishing the important mixing and combination directly on the artwork itself. This is a performative, almost existential placement of the act of mixing, making it a process of operational discovery analogous to the way I suggest artists discover and form their central trope and its extensions within the course of action of creating their work, not aforehand.

According to my depiction of metaphor(m), a vocabulary of foundational cognitive tropes (as identified by Lakoff, Johnson and Turner) is active in the formal, technical, material and stylistic aspects of the works of authors and artists. 3 One central trope of form is embedded in the construction, composition, syntax, vocabulary, paint-handling, color, dialogue, or other configurative elements of the work. It is hunted, recovered, and (seemingly incongruously) forged in order to allow authors and artists to express their desires. Importantly, these desired meanings include both those willed and those discovered within the central trope itself. This is an interactive, agonistic, performative activity which results in a new and deeply personal angle, let us say style, of vision. The best analogy for this is making a painting. In fact, many paintings. Thus, this is a theory that is not based in the linguistic turn, but is rather a painterly turn.


  1. Richard Rority, The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). The term became popular with this anthology.
  2. Frank Stella, Working Space (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 110.
  3. Foundational metaphors (which will always appear in upper-case italics in my writing) can be found in all of the works of Lakoff, Turner and Johnson. The primary source for researchers is the “Master Metaphor List” begun by Lakoff and in revision (pdf here: This is the bulk of the web site at the University of California at Berkeley titled the Conceptual Metaphor Home Page. As the metaphors repeat in these sources, they will not be individually referenced. A stimulating, complementary, and somewhat different, list of major metaphors is being compiled by John A. Barnden and his students. They are working on “reasoning about mental states,” primarily as an aspect of artificial intelligence. The site is titled ATT-Meta Project: Mental States and Metaphor (URL: