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Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought
- Charles Gaines -
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’être 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.
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.
End of Preview. Read the complete text in Art Lies, Issue No. 64