Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought
In a panel held in New York and moderated by Beatrix Ruf, the director of the Kunsthalle Zürich, John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner and Liam Gillick discussed the metaphor.1 Because of their suspicion about its use in works of art, they believed it needed attention. Gillick commented that metaphor is often used in society to repress critical thinking. He said that the Bush administration’s metaphor of “desert storm” was an instrument to form an identifying figure that would locate the war as an act of patriotism.
The reason that this comment is noteworthy is because since the sixteenth century, metaphor has been considered the sine qua non of art. Gillick’s observation raised the unsettling possibility that a trope that has been considered central to our very idea of what it means to be human and which has its noblest expression in works of art can be used as an instrument of repression.
For many years I have shared Gillick’s suspicion about the metaphor. In my case it grew out of an understanding of the limits of its basic semiotic structure: that metaphor is a trope or figure where two unrelated signs are mapped together based on some similarity or analogy between them. This means to me that the metaphor forms itself based on structural similarities between signs and does not consider the meanings of the signs in this operation. Meaning, therefore, plays no role in how metaphors are formed. Instead the cognitive process the metaphor triggers produces a pleasure in the individual as she comprehends an order or relationship between two unrelated things; this is a consciousness-changing experience where difference is unified resulting in a new thought or idea. Because of the way metaphors are formed, this new thought is not constrained by the cultural, ethical or political forces that shape society at any particular time. And the affect or pleasure it produces suppresses these critical constraints. Gillick’s observation recognizes this and warns that this pleasure has often been used to seduce us to embrace analogies that are intended only to serve the political interest of its producer, such as “desert storm” and the Bush foreign policy.
In this paper, I intend to show that this “suppression of thought” is a faculty in forms of art whose raison d’ętre is based on aesthetics. Further, that there is a historical evolution of ideas that reveals the relationship between metaphor and the philosophy of aesthetics, and later metaphor’s role in developing an affect-based theory of art that we find in Croce’s theory of Expressionism. Moreover, how metaphor helped advance the Western idea of universal knowledge, the idea that there are totalizing concepts that preclude dissent or difference.
To begin with, let us define metaphor. Take the example: “John is a wolf.” The signs “John” and “wolf,” two completely unrelated ideas, are being compared. If in metaphor two unrelated ideas are mapped together, what drives the conflation? As the cognitive linguist Barcelona says, the two signs share a similar structure, and so the metaphoric analogy is made on the basis of this structural similarity. But we should note that metaphors require that there not be in the analogy a similarity of meaning.
What this means is that metaphors are not formed through a consideration of meaning. In fact, difference in meaning is essential to the metaphoric conflation. On this basis, the metaphor is not a critical illumination of its meaning. We see this in our example: even though “John” and “wolf” are unrelated concepts, mapping the aggressiveness of the wolf onto John forms the metaphoric analogy. And as a result, one sign is substituted for the other: “John” is then converted to “wolf.” Since the metaphor is a semantic function, we recognize it because it conflates unrelated sememes (semantic units). So where is the analogy or similarity found? It is found at the predications of each sign.
John is + (predicate).
Wolf is + (predicate).
Hence, according to Barcelona, the transfer from one sign to another is facilitated by a redundancy on the level of each predication. This is described by Barcelona as a structural analogy, which allows two unrelated signs to come together. To repeat, this “coming together” is not based on a consideration of their meanings but on structural similarities. We can understand this to mean similarities in the way we can cognize or understand the sign. Kant described this as a “rule” that is similar in both signs that permits us to reflect upon them. Modern linguists call it “structure.” For example, the metaphor “Congress is a machine” is understood because Congress can be described in terms of a machine, its integrated parts work together in order to produce laws as a clock’s integrated parts work together in order to track time. This is a transfer of the structure (or rule) of the clock onto government and happens on the cognitive level as the machine’s structure becomes a map that spatializes (organizes) all the separate parts of government according to it. This operation occurs at each sign’s predication, that is to say, the things we think about (reflect on) regarding a thing may reveal some similar characteristics found in other things (trees and light posts are both tall and slender even thought they are different things). As I have said, this is not a consideration of the meaning itself because on this level they are different. (John is the name of a friend, a person, an uncle, etc., and wolf is the name of an animal). The consideration of meaning does happen, parenthetically, in metonymy. Later, we will elaborate on the metonym.
We find in the metaphoric structure the very mechanism that can suppress critical thought. This is not to say metaphors do not produce ideas or that metaphor is not a type of thinking, for the metaphor is often responsible for the introduction of new ideas, which is due to the fact that it is a type of thinking that is unconstrained by established meaning, and this explains its indeterminate relationship to established knowledge. Metaphor is a special category of thinking where sequences of analogies are freely formed and constrained only by the structure of the metaphor itself (that all relationships are analogical). This produces what I call a “free play of meanings,” echoing Immanuel Kant’s description of aesthetic judgment as a free flow of forms unconstrained by reason.
As the linguist George Lakoff states, in addition to producing new ideas, metaphor gives us the ability to conceptualize our world, to experience it by being able to describe one thing in terms of another. For example, “up” is a metaphor that allows us to describe space by describing spatial orientation in terms of the body, i.e., perceiving an up/down axis in the world by comparing it with the body where the head is “up” and the feet are “down.” 2
Needless to say, metaphor is a critically important cognitive trope, but one that can certainly be abused. Whether this abuse is occurring in the claim that autonomous art has a “disinterested relationship” with political or cultural values has to be carefully considered. This is a determination that has to be evaluated in light of the relationship between metaphor, aesthetics and the idea of autonomy that characterizes both, because the same function that can produce new ideas can also prevent ideas from being produced. This paradox reveals itself when considering the metaphor as either a cognitive linguistic trope (a way of thinking) or a theory of art. In the second instance it becomes an overarching construction, a transcendentalism that prevents other theories of art to be considered by advancing its cognitive operation to a more totalizing construction, an area of knowledge itself. I mean by this that when metaphor is described as constitutive of art itself, this shifts a cognitive function to that of a discipline, the result of which is to eliminate all constraints on that discipline.
In other words, to remove “culture” from cultural practice and replace it with the word “universal” protects that practice from critical scrutiny by becoming its very definition. Whether this act of history, which I am describing as a rhetorical trope evolving into a theory of art, demonstrates an abuse of the metaphor is up to questioning, but this vague territory between cognitive process and concept conceals its abusive use in the instances when individuals who claim this history intend only to escape critical scrutiny in order to buttress an already existing idea rather than posit a new thought, as in the use of “desert storm,” or in works of art that engage provocative social or political subjects in problematic ways and rely on metaphor to protect their actions from critical scrutiny.
I am proposing that metaphoric thinking is not critical thinking, the type of thinking that tests ideas against known knowledge, to interrogate the ethics of ideas, that is, their social/political consequences. This should matter to us with respect to works of art. If metaphor has been considered the sine qua non of art, this would make the suspicion about metaphor radical. Principally, its defenders argue that it is responsible for the richness we find in reading and interpreting works of art. And further, its expression in art has enriched our liberal humanist heritage. Metaphor comes out of a long history that begins in classical Greece and winds up as the basis for the ideas of aesthetics that we find in modern art theory and philosophy. This is a 2,000-year evolution where metaphor played a central role in helping form the Western Humanist tradition that emphasized the relationship between universal knowledge and truth.
The critique of the metaphor can be considered alongside the poststructuralist critique of transcendentalism and totalizing theories, paradigms that do not permit criticism of them based upon difference, i.e., more culturally constrained critiques that generate from the interests of gender, race or politics. For example, we find it in Foucault’s critique of Western knowledge where he explains that knowledge is power rather than truth; hence, knowledge expresses the values and affirms the authority of those who author it over those who receive it. Questioning the primacy of the metaphor in artistic practice is part of the general resistance to Western humanism that we find in poststructuralist intellectuals such as Lyotard and Derrida as well as postcolonial intellectuals such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak.
According to classical theory, metaphor is central to our humanist tradition because it plays a significant role in the acquisition of universal knowledge. In the case of art, because of its capacity to express human sentiment, metaphor helped realize the idea of the aesthetic experience, a universal principle. And accordingly, those faculties that constitute the idea of the human, such as the aesthetic experience, cannot be explained; they are beyond critique and analysis, acts that would, if permitted, serve to constrain the production of sentiment.
Historically, we find the term metaphor in Aristotle’s Topics, where he discussed it as a rhetorical construction in the Trivium: the study of logic, grammar and rhetoric. It derives from the Latin metaphora, meaning “carrying over.” Its humanist underpinnings began there, and as it evolved through the Middle Ages it became part of the formal study of the humanities, i.e., the study of those things or areas of knowledge that make us human. This allowed the realization of the difference between the human and the barbarian. Hence the study of rhetoric, poetry, grammar and logic would provide the foundation for a fully developed human rather than a less developed barbarian. In the middle seventeenth century, the metaphor was central in the development of Mathew Arnold’s theory of disinterestedness, a concept basic to modern aesthetics because it establishes aesthetic judgment as a priori. In other words, we have to separate the feeling judgment (or experience) from the objects, events and experiences that are judged. At this point, the link between metaphor and feeling is established in Western philosophy and art criticism. As part of his theory of literary criticism, Arnold said: Criticism’s primary quality is to be disinterested. The law of criticism’s being is “the idea of a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” 3 Disinterestedness is the theory that universalizes Romantic and Modern theories of aesthetics. It makes art immune to political and social judgments and, in addition, it is here that we find the basis for the nexus between the metaphor and feeling (affect), setting up the binary of thinking/feeling, where metaphor facilitates the latter and suppresses the former.
This is a critical point because I have made the argument earlier that the metaphor is a mapping of feelings onto a sign and that critical thought is not involved in this mapping. This is the mapping of feelings that we have about one sign onto another. In other words, as the cognitive linguists say, it is a description of how feeling can “cross domains”—can move from one sign to another. For example, to show how feeling is such an important factor in the understanding of the metaphor, if Bush called the war in Iraq “desert cucumber” instead of “desert storm,” the whole thing would have been dismissed as a joke. But it was the Bush administration’s intent to map a natural phenomenon onto a political event in order to introduce in the idea of the war the sense of awesome power and overwhelming force that we attach to natural events like storms (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, typhoons, etc.) and make us feel proud of or patriotic about our military might. Lakoff and Johnson describe this as an ontological metaphor, one that describes an idea by comparing it to a natural event. Its purpose is to give the metaphor a sense that what it describes comes from experience.
“Desert Storm” attaches to patriotism emotionally rather than discursively or critically, that is, the word “storm” is not being advanced as a metonymy, i.e., is not itself being offered as an instance of patriotism. To do so would make no sense at all; there is no relationship between “patriotism” and “a storm.” Umberto Eco, in fact, argues that one indication of a metaphor is that if taken literally, it would sound like nonsense:
I remain one of those who believe that the first signal of metaphorical usage consists in the fact that, taken literally, a metaphorical expression would appear false or weird, or nonsensical.4
On the other hand, metaphor can describe our feelings of patriotism. In this way, as a metaphoric analogy, Bush avoids the critical scrutiny that he would have to face if he insisted that a storm is in fact a type or example of war (metonymy) rather than like a war (metaphor). For in the second case what can we say? Only that “storm is not like a war”? We may disagree with but cannot deny the metaphor. With respect to the first claim, however, the metonymy that “storm is a type or example of war” is literally nonsense.
The case for the relationship of the metaphor to modern theories of beauty and aesthetics gets stronger. Susan Gibbons offers her position on the relationship of metaphor and aesthetics in her doctoral dissertation titled Kant’s Theory of Metaphor. In critiquing Kirk Pillow and A. T. Nuyen, she remarks that:
Kant (and Pillow) believes metaphors are found in literary or art forms, not everyday cognitive judgments. Here we see the importance he gives to imagination, which, in ordinary cognition, exists at least at a low level in reflective judgment. […] To say that symbol-makers are creative, contends Pillow, is to say only that they are proficient “noticers,” and this is clearly not the talent that we normally ascribe to great metaphor-makers. On the contrary, we normally think of great metaphor-makers as great “creators.” 5
Pillow’s argument is that “aesthetic ideas are also metaphors for Kant.” 6 In response to Nuyen’s idea that Kant’s theory of symbol is the modern idea of the metaphor, both Gibbons and Pillow suggest that since Nuyen does not include creativity and imagination in his description of the symbol, his idea that Kant’s symbolism is a modern version of the metaphor is wrong.
It is interesting to note that the idea of the metaphor is preceded by a philosophy of knowledge by which metaphors constitute a creative and possibly an aesthetic judgment. This is the case with Gibbons’ and Pillow’s understanding of metaphor. Aristotle defined the metaphor as a special kind of “elliptical analogy” 7 where the meaning of one word is carried over to another. This conforms with Roman Jakobson’s theory of the metaphor as well as the understanding contemporary cognitive linguists have on the subject, except that they refined it to say that the meaning formation trails the process whereby the analogy is formed, a process where the “cross-over” is formed by structural elements of the sign, not the meaning. So to say “love is an atom bomb” is to first combine the two signs based upon the co-presence of certain semiotic properties in each sign that can operate as a phonetic or a semantic redundancy: both “love” and “bomb” are destabilizing, or both love and the bomb are powerful. That is, we can say, love can be powerful like a bomb by comparing the laws of psychological emotion with the laws of physics: analogizing the emotion of love with the physics of an explosion (another ontological metaphor). This allows the carry-over of meaning or the crossover of the predication of one sign to the predication of the other.
Both Gibbons and Pillow argue that there are metaphors that are not analogies, an idea I think is hard to accept. Where would this idea come from? It derives from the proposition that the metaphor is an artistic expression, hence, beyond description, continuing with the polar division between artistic judgments and cognitive judgments. An analysis of non-comparative metaphor follows:
The question may arise at this point: what could a non-comparative metaphor look like? Monroe Beardsley in his landmark 1958 book Aesthetics gives an example of a non-comparative metaphor from a T. S. Eliot poem: “the yellowed souls of the Cambridge ladies.” For Beardsley, “the yellowed souls of the Cambridge ladies” is clearly a metaphor, but there is no comparison between two things being made in it. What could the two compared items be? Cambridge ladies’ souls and yellowed things? Yellowed souls and Cambridge ladies? In this metaphor it looks like nothing is really being compared at all, but rather the speaker in the poem is asserting that Cambridge ladies have “yellowed souls.” Thus, for Beardsley, there was good reason to claim that the elliptical simile theory of metaphor worked for many, maybe most, metaphors, but failed for others. As a consequence of this claim, Beardsley also thought that the view which drove the elliptical simile theory, namely the idea that all metaphors are analogies, was false.8
On what basis is this statement metaphorical if not through analogy? “Yellowed souls” compares something sour or dying like fruit to “souls.” “Souls” is clearly a metonymy for persons (“Cambridge ladies”); in other words, “souls” stands for persons, a proper metonymy. Actually, the consideration should be “souls of Cambridge ladies,” a conjunction Beardsley inappropriately separates. So something yellowed, e.g., fruit (or some other souring, rotting object) is being compared to a person. Is that not a metaphoric analogy? The metaphor is a compound construction that is comprehensible only because at its core it is forming an analogy. If Eliot’s metaphor is not an instance of analogical crossover, then under what terms is it a metaphor? The claim may be that in this instance, the metaphor is only an assertion: that “Cambridge ladies have yellowed souls” is in the same category as “Cambridge ladies are women.” But the assertion is still comprehensible only because it is an analogy, otherwise, as a statement of fact or knowledge (as a metonymy) it is nonsense. As an assertion of fact, “Cambridge ladies are women” conforms to our cultural knowledge, but that they “…have yellowed souls” is factually nonsense, hence revealing what Eco calls its metaphoric usage. We understand Eliot’s metaphor only as an analogy and not as a literal fact (metonymy). The fact that is an assertion makes it no less analogical.”
"Yellowed” is used metaphorically in the same way that “black” is used in the term the “black arts.” We could say “blackened arts” in order to describe an action upon an art to suggest that there are arts that are not black as there are souls that are not yellow. And this might be the basis for Beardsley’s idea that the term “yellowed” is an assertion about a state of souls rather than an analogy. But its elliptical usage is revealed when used to describe people.
In this case, if we look first at the term "black" rather than "yellow" as applied to person, it can be read as an assertion about or a description of a thing or the state of a thing, but it is based upon a metaphoric conflation. "Black" cannot be a literal description of "people" but instead a racial category; and as such it describes people in terms of other black things or states. Among them are metaphors of absence, negation, obscuration or obfuscation as in certain Manichean paradigms, i.e., various metaphors that inform racist discourse.
These terms also inform the idea of the "black arts." Kant’s idea of rule (or reflection on an object) can be applied to show how we can reflect on or think about the structure of the color black as a sign (some of the above mentioned terms make up part of this reflection), and that these predications can analogize predications or reflections on "people." Here lies the metaphoric conflation. We can find this same situation in the use of "yellowed" in Eliot’s poem. Beardsley may have believed that the descriptive term is not thought to be analogical but our example shows that it is, that it is not used in the sentence as a statement of fact but as a thought about the similarities between two dissimilar concepts, the color yellow and souls.
The question of whether all metaphors are analogies can be debated between philosophers and cognitive linguists, but those who claim that there are metaphors that are not analogies are driven by a view of the difference between metaphor and symbolism, or that the metaphor is a creative cognition whereas symbolism is empirically driven. According to Eco, symbols are determined empirically, meaning they are by definition literal. The empirical basis is the degree to which a meaning of a sign is agreed. Pillow, in his analysis of Kant’s theory of the symbol, argues that the symbol has a definite meaning.9 This is the opposite of Eco’s assessment of the symbol:
…a symbol can be either something very clear (an unambiguous expression with a definable content) or something very obscure (a polyvalent expression, which summons up a whole nebula of content).10
Since metonyms are determined by cultural agreement, the symbol is actually a metonymic construction. Hence the metonym is believed to be the very opposite of what is generally identified with artistic practice.
Eco defines symbol as a semiotic sign. But a metonym, although also a sign, is indicative of a cognitive process. Under these terms, all symbols are metonyms although all metonyms are not symbols. The discussion about the difference between symbol and metaphor that Gibbons undertakes has the purpose of establishing certain properties exclusive to the metaphor, such as imagination and intuition, properties necessary for its perception and cognition, and unnecessary for the recognition of a symbol. In addition to connecting intuition and imagination to the metaphor, these things also become connected to art. Additionally, it establishes the difference between metaphor and metonymy, and since metonymy shares certain characteristics with symbol (the absence of imagination, creativity and intuitive thinking), metonymy is also excluded from the artistic process.
A metonym is the relationship or coming together of two signs based upon contiguity, that is, social agreement, and not a similarity between them. They are formed in a part-to-whole or cause-and-effect relationship where the part stands for the whole or the cause stands for its effect. According to linguists, there are more than a dozen types of metonymies all formed in one of these ways. Thus, “bottle” stands for “beer” and a policeman’s badge stands for the law. We also find metonymy in symbols, such as the image of a dove standing for “peace” or a flag standing for “nation state.” These relationships are learned culturally, and ultimately can form complex concepts and ideas that form abstract systems of knowledge, for example, the discourses on art are made up of a complex linkage of contiguous concepts, which would include objects; “painting” stands for or is an example of a work of “art,” or “Mondrian” is an example of “early modernism.” You will notice that all of these ideas must be learned, and this is the means by which we can know about and describe the world.
Therefore, we can say that metonymic relationships form our cultural knowledge. For example, in the phrase, “The White House reported today that the economy is good,” the White House cannot speak because it is an inanimate object, not a human being. But through our cultural knowledge we know that the terms “White House” and “the President” are linked, so we can substitute “White House” for “the President,” or “White House” for the people who occupy the executive branch of the government. The “White House” is a literal sign made so by cultural agreement. A person who is not familiar with the U.S. government system would not be able to conflate these two terms.11
Classical aesthetic theory privileges the metaphor over the metonym because it is assumed its literalness excludes it from acts of the imagination. However, some believe that this privileging of metaphor over metonymy is problematic. If one believes that a work of art is first and foremost an aesthetic act, then the metaphor fits the bill as its figural model. But if one believes that the work of art is first and foremost a critical process then the metonym is the desired model.
As I have said, metaphor privileges affect over intellect (language) because the redundancy of metaphoric conflation itself produces a pleasure that is thus applied by the reader (or viewer) to the perceived new idea or perspective. Thus, the metaphor does not provide the linguistic mechanism for criticality. It provides instead a sensible or body relationship to the metaphoric concept or object. We can associate the feelings we experience from one sign into the domain of the other sign. For example, in the phrase, “She has a thunderous brain,” “brain” and “thunder,” two unrelated signs, are thus related. The feeling we get from “thunder” (powerful, dominating, godlike) is transferred to the word “brain” and produces a feeling in the phrase. For those who feel art is an aesthetic process, this shows how an aesthetic effect occurs in the artwork itself. Also in this example, there is no criticality to be discerned. For the phrase does not critique the contents of the “brain,” but it does impart value, it tells how one feels about it.
Metonymy provides the means for critique and discourse because it links words through substitution based upon contiguity. In this case, one might say, “The brain spoke truth to power,” “brain” is a metonym for person. More than that, it offers a critique of the person. We are less clear about how we feel about the person, but we do know something about her, that she is smart. (In this example, there is no indication that we are impressed by this “smartness.” In order to include such a feeling, we would have to present “brain” as a metaphor by forming an analogy with a sign that is a marker of the feeling of being impressed.) This information is provided by the metonymic structure of part for whole (a brain is a part of the “whole” body). And we know this through our education (cultural knowledge).
Although many claim that, for art, affect is enough, a metonymic critique demands more of a work than just being interesting. Therefore, I propose that we undertake a metonymic reading of work in order to facilitate its ability to critique ideas and, in so doing, organize a purpose for art that does not instrumentalize it but allows it to increase our knowledge of and deepen the way we experience the world. My investigation is intended to demand from work more than just being interesting. It is intended to find out if we can propose a new justification for political art as well as art that comes from very specific cultural narratives. It is not my intention in doing so to reinforce old binary oppositions between aesthetics and theory. Such oppositions are unnecessary and unsupportable today. We can, in fact, embrace both.
Sam Durant, End White Supremacy, 2008; electric sign with vinyl text, 96 x 135 9/10 x 11 inches; courtesy the artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photo by Joshua White
In a way, Edward Said exemplifies this possibility. When he wrote Orientalism, his intention was not to reject the Western system of knowledge acquisition but to “promote one that is non-coercive and ‘advance(s) the interest of human freedom.’” 12 Similarly, because of the potential of a metonymic critique of art and representation, we can imagine an art that is non-coercive and embraces multivalent social discourses and cultural practices in the interest of the acquisition of knowledge. At the same time, we can embrace art as an aesthetic practice, not through the traditional ideology of form and expression but through a postmodern view of language and communication where a critique of representation might form, as Lyotard puts it, an aesthetic theory of culture.
Theodor Adorno also shares with Lyotard the co-relation of aesthetics and politics:
Whereas in Philosophy, aesthetics fell out of fashion, the most advanced artists have sensed the need for it all the more strongly. It is clear that even Boulez is far from envisioning a normative aesthetics of the traditional sort but sees, rather, the necessity of a historicophilosophical theory of art. What he means by “orientation esthétique” could best be translated as the critical self-awareness of the artist.13
This idea of an art that embraces both aesthetics and theory/criticism certainly needs further explanation, but because of the constraints on the size of this paper, I will not be able to offer a more in-depth discussion. Suffice it to say that the idea of the aesthetic that permits this cooperation with criticality is not the traditional one but one that escapes the normative frameworks of Kant, Hegel, Croce and Edmund Burke. And since I have argued that there is a historical link between traditional theories of aesthetics and metaphor, the presence of traditional aesthetics even in works that do not employ the language of form and expression can be discerned. This is an important point because the binary opposition between aesthetics and theory/criticism only exists in traditional aesthetic theories. Therefore, the possibility of an art that represses critique exists in these works. Through the analysis of a work’s narrative elements, i.e., its metaphors and metonyms, one can discern the obscuration or the illumination of certain aspects of its content. This is a central issue with respect to political art because this action upon content is informed by the aesthetic/criticality debate: whether a work’s only interest is to advance an experience (phenomenological/aesthetical) or impart ideas in order to encourage discourse.
Olafur Eliasson, The New York City Waterfalls (Brooklyn Bridge at night), 2008; commissioned by Public Art Fund; © Olafur Eliasson, 2008; courtesy of Public Art Fund; photo by Bernstein Associates, Photographers
As I have attempted to show, metaphor has largely determined the modern idea of art as an aesthetic and expressive practice, but as we engage art through metaphor, we are constrained to question it critically. As George Lakoff has said, by forming analogies between things and between concepts, metaphor helps us form an understanding of the world. But I have argued that it doesn’t provide the capacity to engage these understandings critically, to form the complex network of ideas that happens in discourse so that we can, for example, connect the idea of painting to the larger idea of art. Metaphor is incapable of determining whether an instance of labor is or is not an example of exploitation even though it may help us form the idea. (The issue of exploitation is raised about the work of Santiago Sierra.) The metonym seeks to form networks between ideas in ways specific to it. In art we find that theory and criticism are the means by which these networks are formed and engaged, not on the basis of analogy, as is the case in metaphor, but on the basis of social agreement, which is the case in metonymy.
Therefore, metonym helps us address the problems in the work of an artist such as Santiago Sierra. If we use the yardstick of just being interesting, Sierra’s provocative installations certainly measure up. The hiring of immigrants in order to tattoo their backs and put them on display does get my attention. But this does not address what is problematic in the work. That is, it does not illuminate whether or not Sierra is in fact exploiting, because if he is, then for me the work has little or no credible value. Indeed, I do not hesitate to consider a critique of the work’s ethics in order to form an idea of its value.
Let us consider his work titled 250 cm Line Tattooed On 6 Paid People, in which Sierra paid six men to allow him to tattoo a line on their backs. He then had them stand in line in order for the tattoo to form a 250 cm continuous line. Of course this immediately raises the issue of exploitation. The fact that these six men would allow their bodies to be scarred for money reminds us of their desperation, a desperation that Sierra exploits. But does the installation only reveal commonplace yet disturbing institutional practices, or is it complicit in those practices? Let’s first consider the way Claire Bishop addresses this question in her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” 14
The tasks that Sierra requires of his collaborators—which are invariably useless, physically demanding, and on occasion leave permanent scars—are seen as amplifications of the status quo in order to expose its ready abuse of those who will do even the most humiliating or pointless job in return for money. Because Sierra receives payment for his actions—as an artist—and is the first to admit the contradictions of his situation, his detractors argue that he is stating the pessimistic obvious: capitalism exploits. […] Sierra himself does little to contradict this view when he opines, “I can’t change anything. There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. We do our work because we are making art, and because we believe art should be something, something that follows reality. But I don’t believe in the possibility of change.” 15
According to Bishop, the power of Sierra’s work is its ability to reveal institutional power by highlighting something about that power that puts viewers on edge. But the problem in Sierra’s practice is actually revealed in his statement that there is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. And that his work “follows reality.” These statements go directly to his assumptions about what art is, namely, art is something that may follow reality but is not the same as reality. In other words, the motive for making art makes its relationship to its subject different and perhaps emancipatory from that same subject in the real world. Therefore, an artist who participates in an act of exploitation is doing something differently from a business owner whose hiring practices are exploitative. Sierra’s idea is that his work is in relation to what is “real,” and this sets up a system of reference between art and “reality.” The “real” can be defined here according to Eco’s commentary:
The real is the idea in which the community ultimately settles down….The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.16
Sierra’s view of art is imbedded in his conception of the real, which is the reason I believe that his artistic practice is based in traditional allegory. Allegories employ representations that are both metaphorical and metonymical in that they employ both metaphor and symbol. This permits allegorical narratives to employ literal references, not only poetic, and to point to a reality.17 Hence, Sierra’s installations are allegorical narratives of events that happen in ordinary life that fall under the categories of exploitation, class, exclusion, immigration and capitalism. And as such they reveal certain influential forces that are operating in ordinary life that may be obscured or hidden but are made manifest or at least pointed to by the work. For example, 250 cm forms an allegorical narrative that reveals the forces of capitalism at work. Sierra believes that he is free to employ immigrants or poor laborers in this way because, as an artist, he is not the subject of his own work. That is, he believes that his work is a metaphor or allegory of institutional exploitation.
Without the metonym we can only remain on the level of the interpretations produced by the metaphoric mapping, interpretations that form ideas but do not form discourse because they do not form themselves as metonymies (cause and effect, etc.). If we reject Sierra’s idea of the real, and read the gesture as a metonymy in the work, then we can find no difference between what he does and what happens in cases of labor exploitation in business. The metonym affirms that his installation is indeed an instance of economic exploitation and thus becomes part of the very “real” from which he wants to distance himself.
Sierra is an example of an artist hiding behind the metaphor. He uses it to establish a space between himself and the ethical and political problems his work advances. A metonymic critique considers a work of art in terms of the idea it presents about its subject, whether this work contributes to the accumulation of knowledge. Therefore the subject has to be considered within the social and political context of its moment.
This is an issue that is at the heart of Olafur Eliasson’s practice. Although it is similarly shrouded in metaphor, which is advanced by its spectacle nature, Eliasson argues that his installations are actually political because they address the issues of community and public space. But in fact they are hardly metonymies of these ideas since the works’ central feature is to metaphorize nature or, in the sense of Robert Irwin and James Turrell, metaphorize phenomenon. The difference is that neither Irwin nor Turrell produced metaphors since they were so obsessively empiricist. As an example, let us consider Eliasson’s 2008 installation The New York City Waterfalls.
Built at four locations on the East River, these 90 to 120-foot structures were made of a gridwork of pipes and metal scaffolding that formed a vertical wall, which structurally supported the thousands of gallons of water that cascaded down their sides. The grandiosity of the spectacle obscures its complicity in advancing a neoliberal agenda that defined the politics of urban development and the privatization of public spaces at the time. In an excellent review by Peter Scott (in the December/January issue of Art Monthly), we get a good sense of this dynamic political environment.
Scott recounts that New York, from mayors Giuliani to Bloomberg, had been the site of a “profound socio-economic shift” as the city struggled to come out of the recession of the seventies. He cites Kim Moody’s book From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present in describing this shift:
Initially intending to “save” a city from what many claimed to be near bankruptcy, business leaders and government constructed what Moody refers to as a “crisis regime,” which, through emergency measures, served to shift the balance of power between business, government and unions in favor of a newly formed business elite. Part of the process of shifting political power from public to private interests is the trend towards increased privatization of city services, which is enhanced by recessions. As government is forced to “cut back,” the public sector shrinks, offering new opportunities for investment by private firms…” 18
Bloomberg’s New York represents the apotheosis of this shift, which shaped the neoliberal social and political context of Eliasson’s Waterfalls. As part of this process of privatization, Bloomberg and Daniel Tishman of Tishman Realty, a major developer in New York, began an East River development project that, through their financial support, helped realize the Eliasson project. They needed a way to form an image of the East River that made the idea of its private development more palatable, and Eliasson’s concept seemed suitable. Waterfalls implants the idea of the frontier, calling up the justifications used to expand the original thirteen colonies westward. The Nature metaphor that Waterfalls establishes is part of a narrative of frontier expansion, and in this way, Eliasson’s installation became part of the neoliberal agenda.
Eliasson’s metaphors of Nature are secured even more rigorously by the fact that he does not hide the armature of his constructions. The scaffolding, tubes and pipes are fully visible to the spectator allowing her access to a Brechtian reality. Ordinarily this would suggest that there is no intention to form a metaphor because the mechanisms of its construction are so apparent. But in fact, it is because of this armature that the metaphor is formed. Waterfall and the artifices of industrial construction form the analogy as signifiers of Nature (water, granite, etc.), are mapped over signifiers of manufacture (scaffolding, tubes, pumps), and together form a metaphor of the East River as frontier.
This very same armature, however, provides the opening for a metonymic reading that would properly include the social/political context of the installation; every pipe, tube and bolt of the artifice brings with it the entire history of the project of pacification of the discontented that the business elite, with Bloomberg’s assistance, undertook. But this is not the history that Eliasson nor Bloomberg wanted people to think about. Nevertheless, it is the critical narrative of the work, one that can produce a discursive space that we can engage as long as it is possible to move beyond the pacifications of the metaphor.
One could say that The Waterfalls of New York is the “Desert Storm” of art as we compare the neoliberal ideology that justified the invasion of Iraq with a neoliberal ideology that justified the continued usurping of public space for profit by the business elite.
Francis Al˙s’ practice is more complicated and uneven with regard to metaphor and metonymy. He seems to use both in his practice. One of the ways one can recognize a metonymic sign is if it is familiar; it points to something existing in culture. The metaphor, on the other hand, is recognized because it is an image that has no prototype culturally; it would often be regarded as bizarre if considered literally. We can find both in Al˙s’ various works. For example, in his 1999–2002 slideshow titled Ambulantes, we see street venders moving items they are selling in street wagons and carts. As a metonymy we recognize these images as instances of class difference in a society where wealth is distributed upwards to a very few elites. In Paradox of Praxis (1997) we find a similar picture, but in this case, instead of Mexican peasants, Al˙s is pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melts. This is a Sisyphean allegory rather than a critique of labor or capitalism because labor is articulated poetically, i.e., metaphorically, which aestheticizes the subject, producing a certain elegance that assuages the sense of outrage one feels in Ambulantes about class difference and poverty in the Mexican economy.
A work that seems to rest in between Ambulantes and Paradox of Praxis is Sleeper (1997–2002), another slideshow of photographs of homeless people juxtaposed with photographs of sleeping dogs. This work constitutes clear metaphoric mappings that are highly provocative. Al˙s’ intention was probably to reveal the depths of disgrace experienced by the homeless in Mexico City, but the “sleeping dog” metaphor also forms an ignoble characterization of the homeless themselves. The metaphor is not capable of thinking its way out of this paradox nor does it want to. Because imbedded in it is the elegance of the analogy, even as it maps characteristics onto people that are a little more than insulting. This is certainly an example of an instance where the metaphor’s capacity to form an idea about something fails to address it critically, that is to say, to address the problematic politics and questionable ethics it obscures.
Sam Durant’s work, on the other hand, stands as a stark contrast to the works of Sierra, Eliasson and Al˙s. He produces art objects that are either a direct remake of something existing at the center of a political controversy or part of a display system that addresses some thing as part of a social or political construction. By making or remaking these things as replicas of the original, he privileges the metonymic sign over the metaphor. For example, in his series Street Signs (2001–ongoing), he has made replicas of protest signs using colored vinyl sheets or electric light boxes. The signs come from various political protests and, after being remade, they are often inserted in new sites and locations, forming in that site an unusual montage.
In one work titled End White Supremacy (2008), a protest sign could be found hanging on the side of a nondescript gray building. The lettering on the sign comes from the actual sign used in protest. The montage does not produce an analogy between sign and site, hence refusing to be read metaphorically, but begins a process that expands the idea of the sign with that of the protest message. This expansion does not negate but is built upon the political narrative and history built into the message. This is why his work has activist possibilities, an idea of artistic practice that is still anathema to many, as we can see in Sierra’s belief that art cannot change anything.
In fact, art can and has changed many things. Feminist art made it possible for women to play a larger role in the art world. The political work of artists such as Adrian Piper helped open doors for minority artists. These and other political movements have even participated in changing the nature of discourse and criticism in art between the seventies and the eighties, the manner in which art is talked about, and played a role in the transition from the modern to the postmodern. In literary criticism, Edward Said helped change the way the novel is criticized, which now includes a critique of the novel as a political construction, not only an aesthetic one. So the old adage that art changes nothing can be challenged.
Durant plays a major role in this challenge in a new series designed to be a public project titled Scaffold. The name given to what we know as a gallows, Scaffold, “is made up of a combination of exact reconstructions of gallows (or scaffolds as they were once called) that were used in executions of historical significance. The reconstructed gallows are built on top of and into each other to form a single, integrated unit. The different gallows are stacked one on top of the other, so that the deck of the most recent forms the bottom layer with each successive layer built up chronologically. The materials will match as closely as possible those used in the original construction.” 19
Durant is constructing full-scale composites of gallows that have been used to hang people for capital crimes. As a part of this project, not only will these constructions be placed in public spaces (parks, etc.) but there will be organized community discussions debating the issues around capital punishment.
Durant’s work exemplifies the fact that the metonymic sign exists in culture and is contiguously linked to other social signs. It cannot transcend culture, but it can implement change in political ideas and ideologies. Therefore, unlike Sierra, Durant cannot do a work that violates his ethics. This is because whatever he does is not only seen as art but as a political act. For this reason, I believe Durant and Sierra represent conflicting poles that occupy the center of art discourse today, namely, whether art is essentially a critical practice that adds to our knowledge of the world or that art is an aesthetic practice that continues to establish its autonomy in yet newer ways in the midst of highly charged political and social ideas.
In a conversation I had with the artist Andrea Bowers, she reminded me of the debates we had regarding metaphor/metonymy. One of the most difficult ideas about the metaphor is that it has the capacity to suppress critique. It is not easy to see how a figure that produces concepts and ideas, as metaphor does, is unable to produce an analysis of those ideas. Andrea, whose political work is among those I believe is based in metonymic constructions, was invited to participate in a recent exhibition titled Bitch is the New Black, curated by Emma Gray in Los Angeles.20 Because of the activist nature of Andrea’s practice, she had a problem with the title. To her, a feminist position was being advanced at the expense of a racial minority. And this could exacerbate the relationship between women and minorities, particularly since the show did not invite any black women artists to participate. In the press release, Gray commented that:
The title of the exhibition, an incredibly glib fashion term, was repurposed from a snippet of dialogue from Saturday Night Live that was broadcast during the 2008 presidential election. Tina Fey celebrates the idea of a woman president as a “bitch,” reasoning that “bitches get stuff done.” A few episodes later her cast mate Tracy Morgan rebutted Fey’s statement by saying: “Bitch may be the new black. But black is the new president, bitch!”21
Bowers was unable to convince the show’s organizers that the title was, in its new context, racist (its problems are similar to the problems discussed above in Al˙s’ work, Sleeping Dogs). The organizers were invested in the phrase as a metaphor, the mapping of race onto gender, and that a negative term for “woman” can be transformed and empowered through an analogy with black people. But the analogy with “bitch” also and problematically reduces the multivalent meanings of “black” to mean the racist term “nigger,” a necessary inference for the metaphor to work. (“Black” does not mean “nigger” except when it analogizes “bitch” in a metaphoric conflation.)
A metonymic reading of the title raises these issues and asks what is accomplished or intended by exploiting these stereotypes. Bowers said she attempted but failed to engage the organizers in this type of critical reading of the title, which may work as a joke, as these contradictions help produce humor, but not as the title of an exhibition unless that exhibition, like the joke, engages these contradictions. Bowers eventually withdrew from the exhibition. Because of her inability to engage this critique, she said she finally understood firsthand how the metaphor subverts critical analysis.
1 Beatrix Ruf, Again The Metaphor Problem and Other Engaged Critical Discourses about Art, a panel moderated by Beatrix Ruf with Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari and Liam Gillick as panelists (Wien: Springer-Verlag), 2007.
2 George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 132–133.
4 Umberto Eco, On Literature (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2004), 143.
5 Susan Gibbons, Kant’s Theory of Metaphor, PhD diss., https://urresearch.rochester.edu/institutionalPublicationPublicView.action; jsessionid=AC5834E63A2FE363FCF7B0A86BDA6E85?institutionalItemId=5852 (p. 15).
6 Op. cit.
7 Op. cit., 16.
8 Op. cit., 19 and 20.
9 Op. cit., 14.
10 Eco, op. cit., 140.
11 This is not to say that “White House” and “president” cannot form a metaphoric analogy, my interest is to show that literal meanings are culturally formed according to any one of the standards of metonymic conflations, and in this context, “White House” literally means “president.”
12 Leela Gandhi, citing Edward Said, Postcolonial Theory, A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 52. Said believed that the Enlightenment was a top-down hierarchy of knowledge, where we find only in the West its Universal form. This, he felt, oppressed other cultures by marginalizing their ideas and values.
13 Theodor W. Adorno, Gretel Adorno, Rolf Tiedemann, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge, 1984), 342.
14 Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004).
15 Op. cit., 71.
16 Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, First Midland Book edition, 1994), 40.
17 Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 161. Eco says, “…when meeting an allegory, the interpreter could also decide to interpret it in its literal sense.”
18 Peter Scott, “Bread and Circuses,” Art Monthly, no. 322 (Dec–Jan 2008–09): 7.
19 Sam Durant, email correspondence to Charles Gaines, excerpt of his artist statement, October 22, 2009.
20 One of Bower’s works, Sanctuary (2008), is a portrait of sorts of Elvira Arellano and her son Saul. She was living in the United States as an illegal immigrant. Saul was born in the United States and therefore had citizenship. When Elvira was ordered to return to Mexico, she entered sanctuary in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago instead to avoid extradition. She did not want to be separated from her son. The work is made up of extended live-action shots of the two as they sat motionless.