Metaphor(m): Engaging a Theory of Central Trope in Art
Mark Staff Brandl


Tropi, Agon et Quo Vadam


Theories are constructed objects. … They assembled a theory.
—George Lakoff (The Conceptual Metaphor Home Page)


 A Personal Beginning


 In the early 1980s, the artworld was in an uproar. It was increasingly clear that Modernism had, surprisingly, indeed been a “period,” not the ultimate state of culture, and furthermore that it was slowly coming to a close. Postmodernism seemed a little insipid, even unappealing at first as diverse anti- or retro-styles vied for the pole position. French literary theory of a Deconstructivist bent slowly became hegemonic, a situation still now in place. Yet, for most artists and authors, Post-Modernism (still capitalized and hyphenated at that time) seemed an opportunity to seek new theoretical inspiration, to free oneself of the previously prevailing Formalism, also termed the New Criticism in literature, while hopefully also offering a way to avoid the trap of what threatened to be a cynical mise en abyme of sophistry under the first influences of Poststructuralism. In heated discussions in New York and elsewhere, artists sought out new interpretations of the inevitably intertwined dialectic of form and content. Art was clearly not all about form, it was plain to see that creators had something to say, to discover. Equally, art was not all about the inability to say anything,
George Lakoff, et al., Conceptual Metaphor Home Page (University of California at Berkeley
website,, page:

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about illustrating the unreliability of form as sole content. There was a widespread recognition that, indeed, form was a tool for discovery and yet also the discovery itself. Through that fissure, the great beast, long considered dead, re-arose in a new and splendid form: ludic trope. At first the source of inspiration for many artists, including myself, was Jacques Derrida and the Yale Deconstructivists such as Paul de Man.

 Jacques Derrida was a French literary philosopher and the founder of what is called Deconstruction. He argues that much of philosophy rests on arbitrary dichotomous categories, sees language as writing, uses the metaphor of "text" for all experience, and suggests that there is no possibility of intentional meaning. Deconstruction can and has been disparaged as nihilistic, solipsistic, and a-political, but has also contributed greatly to the contemporary critical analysis of art and society, attacking seemingly fixed notions of gender, race, and privilege. I  found Derrida's notions most interestingly presented in Writing and Difference,(2) and Margins of Philosophy,(3) although Of Grammatology(4) is his most popular book. Many of the theorists affiliated with Yale University in the late 1970s, including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Harold Bloom, are especially influential in literary criticism and, influenced by Derrida, are called the "Yale Deconstructivists." One of De Man's key texts in my opinion is The Resistance to Theory.(5)

 Theory in this vein remains the most powerful force in literature and art departments in universities around the US and indeed the western world. As a rather trendy art gallery owner once commented to me in 2003, “Aren't ALL contemporary artists Derridaian and poststructuralist now?”(5) While this may appear to be true, many of the artists, authors and students who identify themselves with poststructuralist thought do not fully understand it, not truly applying their own preferred theory. They are generally citing it as an influence for fashionable reasons, verbally espousing many of its tenets, such as the impossibility of fixed

Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London & New York: Routledge, 1978).
(3) Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1982).
(4) Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
(5) Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
(6) Susanna Kulli, personal communication, St.Gallen, Switzerland, 2003.

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interpretation, the death of the author, and others. Denis Dutton describes this situation in his article of 1992, “Delusions of Postmodernism” from the journal Literature and Aesthetics:

 That contemporary artists are as eager as ever for attention as unique individuals is demonstrated by the fact that they tend to treat their work as an expression of individual subjectivity in discussion and documentation. That the privileged position of the author/artist is not entirely dead in the minds of artists is also indicated by the unceasing tendency of artists everywhere—including those who style themselves “postmodern”—angrily to dispute hostile critical interpretations of their work which “fail to comprehend” their intentions, which “miss the point” of their work. For many artists, complete freedom of interpretation is fine as a general philosophical theory applied to other people’s work, but not to their own. (7)

 What began as a situation promising a possibility for more free artistic play, has unfortunately now become the dominant master of the academy. Renowned art historian, psychologist and art critic Donald Kuspit has asserted in an email that, “In the artworld, followers of Derrida are not against hegemony; they now possess almost complete hegemony.” (8)

 It was in this context that my study of literary theory arose — perhaps a bit defensively, yet also out of enthusiasm. In fact, it was more of a return to previous pursuits than a new interest. Throughout my university studies and in my free time I have been actively involved in aesthetics, the analytical philosophy of art. This passion operates in concert with my ardor for and interaction with the possibilities of an “extended” interpretation of the (supposedly dead) medium of painting, of installation art, of comics as an artform, and of display sign-painting. Indeed, I even began my doctoral studies in the department of English Language and Literature (called in German 'Anglistik') in order to concentrate on the linguistic options of my endeavor. Later, after I had completed the learning of Latin as a portion of my studies, another opportunity arose as the University of Zurich finally had a scholar of modern and contemporary art as a professor, Dr Philip Urpsrung, whom I met personally when we both were speakers at the convention of art historians in the US in Boston, The 2006 College Art

(7) Denis Dutton, "Delusions of Postmodernism," Literature and Aesthetics 2 (1992): 23-35.
Donald Kuspit, Email to author, Dec. 2004.

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Association conference. Almost simultaneously I became acquainted with Dr Andreas Langlotz of the University of Basel, an expert in cognitive linguistics. These events led me to change to art history, leave my original, more orthodox literature advisor, and begin afresh with the stimulating new influences of Ursprung and Langlotz. Professor Ursprung understood not only my focus, but encouraged me to reach for a whole new form of dissertation, suggesting not only that I investigate other artists' works, both historical and contemporary, but that I also include my own art in it as an integral component, the performative presentation of the creation of these dissertation works and an attempt to analyze them with the tool of my theory. I was thrilled and yet presented with a whole new range of challenges, which I hope I master.

 At first my theoretical research consisted of working my way through key books and articles by and about the most influential poststructuralist practitioners of literary theory and of what has come to be called "critical" theory, the expansion of literary critical theories into the discussions of socio-political questions. Simultaneously, I intensified my already existing involvement with contemporary analytic aesthetics.  In both fields, I was seeking points of conjecture which I felt illuminated my understanding of art in unexpected ways, yet also rang true to my experience as an active artist, art critic, art historian and appreciator of contemporary art by others. I was inspired by concepts from many thinkers, as I describe in the next chapter, yet not the entirety of anyone's system. I have thus sought to incorporate ideas I find enriching from a variety of sources into my own theoretical construction. I now realize that an ulterior motive was also to be able to theorize myself out of the constraints of theory, fighting fire with fire as is often my wont. I sought to discover philosophers offering pertinent , contemporary analysis which, however, also acknowledged agency, that creators were responsible makers of meaning and not mere symptoms of societal flaws. In truth, I heartily hoped for theorists who would go even farther, searching for ones who suggested intelligent means of resistance to an at that time ever-increasing dominance by the radical right of politics and mass media; likewise, seeking methodologies which could serve as insurrection against the even then quickly hardening academic stifling of art in consensus and market sophistry. Books important to me then included Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and


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Method, (9) Bakhtin, Essays and Dialogues on His Work edited by Gary Saul Morson, (10) Arthur C. Danto's The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, (11), John Lechte's Julia Kristeva, (12) Cornel West's Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America, (13) and R. A. Sharpe's Contemporary Aesthetics: A Philosophical Analysis. (14)

 I learned from all these and more. However, most crucially, I found the greatest revelation in the cognitive linguistic approach of George Lakoff and others and in the antithetical revisionist theory of Harold Bloom. Combined, they accorded genuinely with my experience of art while also electrifying me with new possibilities for understanding art, its production and its producers. Cognitive linguistic theory was first widely introduced in Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (15) and Lakoff and Mark Turner's More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. (16) Bloom presented his theory initially in a trilogy of books beginning with The Anxiety of Influence. (17)

Trope and Struggle

Although also first appearing in the late 80s, cognitive metaphor and the embodied mind concept took until the turn of the millennium to begin affecting the practice and understanding of creators and scholars. Cognitive linguistics, especially the subdivision of it

(9) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, revised trans. Joel Weinsheimer and
Donald G. Marshall (New York: Seabury Press, 1989).
(10) Gary Saul Morson, ed., Bakhtin, Essays and Dialogues on His Work (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1986).
(11) Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1986).
(12) John Lechte, Julia Kristeva. (London: Routledge, 1990).
(13) Cornel West, Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America. (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press, 1993).
(14) R. A. Sharpe, Contemporary Aesthetics: A Philosophical Analysis. (New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 1983).
(15) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1980; paperback, 1981).
(16) Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1989).
(17) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

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which I will use the most called cognitive metaphor, is largely based on the ground-breaking work of George Lakoff and his two collaborators, Mark Turner and Mark Johnson. Lakoff, who began as a student of Noam Chomsky, initiated research which led to the creation of an important interdisciplinary study of metaphor, now generally called cognitive linguistics. Theorists involved in this approach advance the hypotheses that metaphor is the foundation of all thought, that linguistic elements are conceptually processed and that language is chiefly determined by bodily and environmental experiences.

 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:

 Lakoff and Johnson suggest that many of our habitual metaphors are connected to our culture’s ideological investments. ... To some extent their work appears to be related to various projects of Deconstruction, in that they raise to consciousness the hidden assumptions of banally figurative language. Political and economic metaphors, they write, “can hide aspects of reality,” “they constrain our lives,” they “can lead to human degradation.” But they also argue that ordinary language is necessarily metaphoric, that cultures need the conceptual frames of metaphor to provide perspectives and coherence. And I recall that as well they examine metaphors around women—women as food (“a real dish”) or as fire (“hot babes,” “hot stuff,” “kiss of fire,” “torrid romance” etc). It’s this ... kind of metaphor that I play with in Back to the War in poems such as “The Complaint,” or “Sweets,” or “The Fortune Teller.” ... The ‘link’ that metaphor requires isn’t foregrounded in [my poems] but is merely latent until it is made by the reader.... (18)

 Likewise, art critic Barry Schwabsky writes of the influential New York painter Jonathan Lasker in Art in America magazine:

Héliane Ventura, "An Interview with Frank Davey," Sources, Revue d'études anglophones 17 (August 2004): 74.

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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. (19)

 Cognitive linguistics and Bloom's revisionism were a revelation to me. I found Bloom's notion of agon to supplement Lakoffian conceptions splendidly. Bloom sees the primal activity of the creative life as one of struggling with and overcoming one's influences by revisionistically, willfully and yet imaginatively misunderstanding them. In cognitive linguistics and agonistic revisionism, I discovered theories which read true to my experiences and additionally offered openings to the world, criticizing the solipsism and sophistry of much other current literary theory by, among other strengths, subsuming their rivals' insights.

 It can now be seen that the Late Modernist attempt to undermine metaphor, as described by Schwabsky and Lasker above, although necessary at that time, did not actually function as expected, but was rather a negational, metaleptic trope in itself. Moreover, Davey expresses a perception that there is a continuation between Derrida and Lakoff , an opinion both controversial and, surprisingly, held by many. In his eyes as a working poet, he finds aspects of Deconstruction and cognitive metaphor to be akin, something that both factions would heartily rebuff. The continuum containing both these theories is that of the free play of tropes. The fascination and excitement of encountering and applying new conceptual systems can lead to productive discoveries, both in the hands of creators and of scholars, whatever their final political status becomes. Applying novel theories can produce new discernments into literature and art contemporary with a given philosophy, but also into aspects of the nature of creativity across a broader time span.

 Lakoffian theory offers an, at this time, atypical model, in that it acknowledges agency — that is, the individuals who make art experiences. This renders a chance to investigate into and speculate on the nuts-and-bolts of creation. The cognitive theory of metaphor is also unusual in that it is a theory more concerned with concepts than with words alone, thus fostering application to a wide range of art forms. An important facet of cognitive linguistic theory is that metaphors are embodied, that is, that mental concepts are constructed

Barry Schwabsky, "Jonathan Lasker - Brief Article," ArtForum (September 2000). Cited from <>

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tropaically out of bodily experiences. These foundational perceptions can furthermore lead to what he terms “image schemas,” which can then be used to structure somewhat less physical events. This has potentially significant implications for the poet, the painter, the novelist, the critic and the scholar. It is indeed one of the main tools I have chosen to employ. In my dissertation, Lakoffian theory will be applied to the competitive discovery of trope within aspects of form in visual art.

 Lakoff believes that a proper appreciation for metaphor cuts through the perpetual clash between the so-called “objective” view of trope (that it is purely literary, almost decorative) and the so-called “subjective” view (that it has no direct tie to experience). He promotes an alternative that stresses the centrality of metaphor to our thinking processes, and thereby to our language and other actions. Hence, I see cognitive metaphor theory similarly offering an alternative to Formalism and Poststructuralism by subsuming them both. This study will use theory derived from cognitive linguistics as a method of augmenting the range of poststructural thought and revivifying appreciation of the formal discoveries of authors and artists.

 Cognitive metaphor theory proffers a mode of thinking which can be applied to the analysis and creation of art, while accentuating the efforts of the makers of these objects. After the object-only orientation of Formalism, after the medium-only focus of deconstruction, this may lead to a feeling of liberation, of agency. Nevertheless, this is a theory which brings with it a new sense of the burden of the past. Whereas the Formalist Modernists felt free from the past and the Deconstructivist Postmodernists are endlessly tangled in an inescapable present, authors and artists as viewed through cognitive metaphor theory are directly responsible for fashioning their own tropes through the processes of extension, elaboration, composition and/or questioning. This they accomplish in and through the formal parameters of their work, with enough cultural coherence to be able to communicate, but enough originality to be significant. Important tropes cannot merely be selected from a list; they are discovered and built out of revisions of cultural possibilities, in fact, fought for and won. Thus Harold Bloom's theory of antithetical revisionism also contributes an important component to this paper, as he writes:

 But again, why should someone crossing out of literary criticism address the problematics of revisionism? What else has Western poetry been, since the Greeks, must be the answer, at


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least in part. The origins and aims of poetry together constitute its powers, and the powers of poetry, however they relate to or affect the world, rise out of a loving conflict with previous poetry, rather than out of conflict with the world. ... This particularly creative aspect of a kind of primal anxiety is the tendency or process I have called "poetic misprision" and have attempted to portray in a number of earlier books. (20)

 The heart of Bloom’s theory of misprision is the concept of an indispensable, antithetical agon of each poet. With poetry being the chief artistic discipline for Bloom, the word poet may also be replaced here with artist, which is what I will do. Revisionism is exalted to the central fact of artistic creativity. Agon is Bloom’s term for the conflict arising from the anxiety of influence. Each and every author must wrestle with his or her precursors, the ones who inspired them to be writers in the first place. In amendment of Bloom, though, this “loving conflict” also transpires with the world, as it involves tropes of bodily experience as outlined in Lakoffian theory. Creators seeking individual ways to convey their experiences within their media, are necessarily forced to fence with comparable expressions of similar experiences by their predecessors, therefore primarily with their predecessors' tropes. Cognitive metaphor theory offers an important basis for the study of art and literature, in particular their formation. Bloomian agonistic misprision completes the portrayal of the process by which creators arrive at the cognitive tropes so described.

 The theory of central trope which I will be developing within this dissertation is postmodern, as dscribe. It is a model describing the construction by authors and artists of distinctive central tropes in the tangible forms and processes of their media. They achieve this by means of an agonistic struggle with predecessors' tropes, doing so in order to uniquely articulate personal perceptions and experiences. Such tropes in the hands of artists are both metaphoric and meta-formal, thus yielding the punning term metaphor(m) in my title. This word describes and embodies the core of the theory. 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.

Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982;
paperback, 1983), vii-ix.

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This Dissertation

 Cognitive metaphor theory will be put in the service of art and art historical theory. In this dissertation, then, I will develop a theory of how meaning is embodied in Modern and Postmodern creativity. I view my hypothesis as the elucidation of a theoretical yet concrete tool with which artists create. Based in part on linguistic theory, metaphor(m) is a general theory of trope in art, which links content and form with historical and critical cultural awareness. I will apply my theory to visual art, especially to painting and installation art. The artists will include the famous and the less well-known, historical and contemporary, friends and foes, a smattering of all of these. I have been studying an applying my theory to Charles Boetschi, Vincent van Gogh, Gerhard Richter, Wesley Kimler, Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, Donald Judd, Leonard Bullock, C Hill, Bill Viola, Robert Rauschenberg, Sigmar Polke, Lawrence Weiner, Marcel Duchamp, George Brecht, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Jonathan Lasker, Stephen Westfall, David Reed, Mark Francis, Mary Heilmann, Edith Altman, Annette Messager, Joseph Beuys, Richard Long and many others. Who exactly will turn up in my dissertation I cannot yet say for certain. Topics will include specific and close analysis of artworks and media. While the theory of central trope will be in dialogue with a number of theorists and creators within my discussions, this dissertation is intended to be a work of performed theory, not an exhaustive monograph on a single artist nor a purely personal reflection. Rather, I will test my thesis through the study of chosen subjects, while simultaneously working through the implications of the theory on my own art as manifested in the planning and creation of a painting-installation. In this way, I will probe metaphor theory’s bounds and limitations, as well as its depth and utility in the study of creative works. Thus my theorization will be embodied performatively, and what is the creation of art, especially paintings, if not mentally guided bodily experience.

 I will create this dissertation in the traditional form of a book, but with the addition of an actual installation. If successful, both will manifest the process of creation displaying, in open performance, the slow but steady making and finding of a metaphor/m. However, much like Sigmund Freud’s psychotherapy of himself, this may not be completely possible, opening my dissertation to the rich possibility of partial failure. In either event, it will be a thoroughly dialogical approach to production, uniting performance and reflection in a manner perhaps best describable as a Deweyian double-loop learning procedure or a Gadamerian hermeneutic circle of understanding. Philosopher and education reformer John Dewey proposed that


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learning was more than the prevailing view described as error and then correction. He believed learning to be a reiterating process of testing, learning, correction and within re-testing modification of the underlying goal could be altered, thus seeing it as two loops of correction. The philosopher of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes that understanding is accomplished by coming to a situation with preconceptions, testing these and then necessarily altering ones judgment, resulting in ever repeating circles through which one then deepens the comprehension of any whole through knowledge of its parts encountered in subjective yet open investigation.

 Within the writing and the concomitant creation of the art, I will perform a guided tour of the installation, but one changing and allowing alternate paths, perhaps enlisting the various aspects of such an exhibition as tropes and forms: labels, comments, catalogue essay, sketches, plans, etc. Each chapter of the dissertation, then, will embody the idea of the chapter through the inclusion of analytical discourse, a painting, sketches and plans for the installation, and a comic sequence featuring an investigation of how the (meta-)discourse is being applied in the art works, in a plurogenic, braided interlacing of registers, a methodology much inspired by Giuliana Bruno's book Atlas of Emotion. (21)

 My “painting installations,” which I term Panels, are wall and room-filling works wherein a group of large painted canvases are surrounded by additional painting directly on the wall, thereby transforming the space into huge, readable, sequential “pages” of a walk-in, “comic book.” Second, there are the somewhat more detached paintings I term Covers. These works are paintings in gouache, ink, acrylic and oil on paper, wood panel, or canvas. They are recognizably based on the structure of comic book covers, with title, bold lettering, price, date, numbering, image and so on. Both types of artworks are frequently presented together as one large installation. Furthermore, important portions of the dissertation will be posted on-line on an art “e-zine” as blogs, allowing for additional “viewer” and reader discussion. My hypostatization of central trope will center on testing it in the production of a Covers and Panels painting-installation. Thus, I will be imagining, conceiving, and bringing-into-vision the concept of central trope in art, as proposed in my subtitle. Some Modernist critics are

Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: New Left
Books, Verso, 2002; paperback, 2007).


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dismissive of the possibility that various art forms and media might have any similarities or effects upon one another. Most famously advocated by Clement Greenberg, this form of Modernism asserts that each art must be rendered “pure” by concentrating solely on what separated it from other disciplines, especially demanding an anti-literary stance in visual art. By contrast, my theory of central trope denies such separation, claiming an underlying level of tropaic reasoning to be integral to literature, visual art and creative works in other media, perhaps even postulating a necessary postmodern impurity. Application of a conceptual theory of metaphor to art history remains a relatively unexplored — but potentially very rich — area of research.

 In addition to the text, artworks, and series of on‑line e‑zine articles (called blog posts) as mentioned, my dissertation chapters will include sequential art (called comics), as well as sketches for the installation and occasional groups of paintings concerning tangential, associational thoughts. The image preceding this "Prelude" was the first Cover painting. The page following is the first of the meta-sequences in comic form. In the completed book, the "Introduction" will either precede or follow this chapter, as of course introductions are best written after the entire text has been completed, but are presented at the beginning. The topic of the next chapter is "Wandering and Surveying: Links and to Literary Theory and Contemporary Aesthetics." It is a "placement" of the theory within the world of literary theory, as well as a discussion of related approaches or influences from contemporary analytical aesthetics.



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