Lawrence Weiner and Metaphor
by Mark Staff Brandl
Conceptual Artist Lawrence Weiner is quite fond of formulating statements in which he claims to have dismissed metaphor from his artwork. This is a very short article to point out that he is completely wrong. In fact, his use of vinyl lettering, called “text” in the artworld, is an obvious combination of tropes, masking itself as non-tropaic, which is in itself another metaphor.
Art critic Barry Schwabsky writes of the influential New York painter Jonathan Lasker in ArtForum magazine:
The desire for an imminent fundamental change linked to a new understanding of trope is indeed in the air, not only for me; ever more frequently, artists and authors have begun to refer to metaphor and cognitive metaphor theory. For example, Frank Davey, a Canadian poet with an involvement in theory, states the following in an interview with Héliane Ventura in the journal Sources.
Jonathan Lasker once told me he thought the Minimalists had been trying to make an art without metaphor, and in fact had succeeded; but the point having been proved, he continued, there’s no longer any urgent motivation to produce more metaphor-free work. Barry Schwabsky 1
It can now be seen that the Late Modernist attempt to undermine metaphor, whether in Minimalism, as described by Schwabsky and Lasker above, or in Conceptualism, as mentioned above with Wiener, although necessary at that time, did not actually function as expected, but was rather a negational, metaleptic trope in itself. One of Minimalism’s chief metaphors was that of theatre as/for presence, others included industrial furnishing and factory production as anti-decorative, and objecthood as anti-painting — thus anti-(art) history. One might assert that Minimalism was in truth an assemblage of similes. Likewise, Conceptualism can be shown to be based on a tapestry of metaphors and metonymies.
However, at this point let me simply discuss one small example in one Conceptualist’s work, Lawrence Weiner.
Weiner’s early Conceptualist works were both pseudo-pragmatic and the art object themselves. He presented instructions or descriptions such as “A Square Removal from a Rug in Use.” 2
Since then his work has developed into purely abstract language, such as fragmentary lists of prepositions. It has become an often tedious variation on concrete poetry, losing the strength it had earlier as vague potentiality.
Yet this vagueness, presented in vinyl letters on walls appearing for nearly almost 50 years, on the walls of galleries and museums and Kunsthallen around the world, Weiner sees as free of metaphor. There are in reality two chief metaphors in use. The Conceptualist elephants in the gallery, so to speak, as they are easily perceived yet never acknowledged.
First, the use of text itself. Text is a metonymy of intellectuality. Intellectuals, especially scholars, tend to write papers, write books, and the like. They (we) often generate reams of pages of text. It is an important part of their activity (thus indeed a synecdoche of intellectuality). Creating them is an important activity of such people and one of the foremost things others picture when they consider scholars, philosophers and other intellectuals. Therefore it makes an ideal stand-in for them, as it is contextually related to their thoughts. Thus, text is a metonymy of intellectuality and intellectuals.
Second, such vagueness as Weiner uses nowadays in his texts can be seen as poetic (an interpretation he resists), yet even more so as either an inadvertent parody or a travesty of the texts that intellectuals create. Scholarly writing is all too often extremely difficult to read, densely packed, seemingly on the edge of comprehensibility. Purposeful vagueness is thus overly artsy (a metonymy of the avant-garde) or dreadfully opaque (a distorted synecdoche of intellectuality). In short, it simply screams “ain’t I smart!”
I could continue with the metaphors underlying the physical materiality of Weiner’s presentations. Such as — work done by (usually unpaid or underpaid) assistants: metaphors of corporate production; machine-cut letters: metaphors of brain over body (anti-handicraft); vinyl: metaphors of “contemporary materials”; and so on. All of these playing hidden metaphors against suppositions of the metaphors of earlier Modernists, thus also making them metalepses!
However, my purposes have been served. It is clear that no matter what is claimed, Lawrence Weiner’s art, and I assert, most Conceptual Art and Neo-Conceptual Art, whether good or bad, is deeply grounded in interlocking base metaphors; metaphors commonly ignored because they are so transparent.