Why don’t you just tell me what you’re trying to say?

Drawings by Charlie Mylie

Written by Jori Sackin
Drawings by Charlie Mylie

Metaphor is not just a literary device that compares things, it is the fundamental way we approach abstract thinking. This is the idea put forward in the book, “Metaphors We Live By” (Lakoff, Johnson, 1980).  Metaphor takes an ambiguous idea and relates it to something more concrete.  So for instance, if we talk about "love", we get a better understanding of it when we say, "love is a river".  In understanding ''love" as "a river", it opens us up to new ways of seeing, as well as restricts us from other ways of seeing. I am going to examine two ideas that are often brought up in the world of art, and instead of deconstructing them and being critical of them, I'm going to show how they validate part of our experience, but also, how they fail to complete capture it.  My goal is first to make us aware of the shared metaphors we participate in, and second, to actively seek better metaphors that encompass more of our experience. 

The first idea I’d like to examine is: an artist’s interpretation of their work gets in the way and taints the viewer’s interpretation. This sentence relies upon a few metaphors, the first being that experiencing art is a journey.  When we say that an artist’s statement “got in our way”, we are implying that we are going somewhere and that things can be placed in our path that we have to maneuver around.  In experiencing art we can "get lost”.  He can “go around in circles”, etc.  The metaphor of art as a journey also implies that there is a destination, an end point in which we are trying to reach.  

The second metaphor is people are containers.   Like most containers they have an inside and an outside.  The inside functions as a place to hold something and the outside functions as a protective barrier to keep the inside safe.  In the sentence we are examining, humans contain the purity of their vision. Ideas or other influences that break through the outside barrier can destroy the inside purity thus “tainting” it.  When we say an artist’s statement has tainted our interpretation, we are in a roundabout way referring to the idea that we have and maintain an internal purity of vision that needs protecting.


The other sentence I’d like to examine is: the artist’s interpretation of their work is an unnecessary crutch and is only there to support the in-articulation of the work itself.  The metaphors here are: ideas are people and also art is a container for ideas.  If art is a container for ideas, and ideas are people, then art is a container for people, meaning, in the metaphorical sense, there is a little person inside every work of art.  In this conception, as an artist, I have an idea which I mold into a little person.  I create the work around this person.  Since the person is inside the container, it is hidden from the viewer.  The viewer upon seeing the work must figure out how to be sensitive enough to listen to the person and hear what they are saying.  They have to hear the voice that is coming through the filter of the work itself.  

If ideas are people they should be able to do things that people do like stand up on their own and speak.  Art that needs “a crutch” is disabled, as the person inside can’t stand up without one. Art that is disabled is also “dumb” as it can’t articulate the meaning that the artist put into the container.  So it makes perfect sense when I say, “This work doesn’t speak to me.  It just can’t stand on its own.”  What I am saying is that this person (idea) that was embedded inside the work is somehow disabled in its basic functioning.  

Let’s first look at the complex metaphor ideas are people and art is a container for ideas, and see in what ways it validates the experience of looking at art and in what ways it fails us.  If we imagine that an artist has an idea and the work is created around that idea so that it is better expressed to others, then this metaphor works quite well.  This experience is validated by being able to look at a painting, formulate a meaning for it, and then check with the artist to see if your meanings are the same.  And sometimes they are.  Sometimes you know exactly what a person is trying to say.  This metaphor then accurately describes a certain kind of experience.  For the artist it would be: “I build art around ideas,” and for the viewer: “I want to discern the artist’s intention.”

It further works as a metaphor when we realize that by putting the meaning in a container, we are hiding it from the viewer.  When we approach a painting, we can’t see the artist’s intent.  When we approach an opaque container, we also don’t know what’s inside.  This grounds the basic experience of the mystery of art in something we can relate to, the wonder of not knowing what’s inside something.  To figure out what is inside, is to invoke the metaphor, the experience of art is a journey, in the sense that what you are journeying for, at least in this conception, is to find the artist’s original intention.

The metaphor works in another way as well, which is, since there is a little person inside a work of art that is trying to speak to you, their speech and their words get jumbled or filtered out by the art (the container), much like they would if you were trapped in a container trying to talk to someone on the other side.  A person stands in front of a painting to listen to what it has to say.  Since the little person’s words have to travel through a barrier of art, they are filtered by the object they are trapped in.  In this way, the little person is trying to tell you something, but their words are misinterpreted because you can not just reach in, open up the container and ask them to tell you directly.  This validates the experience of knowing that an artist is trying to tell us something, but not being able to discern what it is.  The work is trying to speak to us, but possibly the misshapen container is filtering out the tiny voice inside, and so when we pass by, and hear nothing, we say, “This work doesn’t speak to me.”

The metaphor fails however when we realize the more complex nature of interpretation of both the viewer and the artist, which is, that the artist might not have any clear message that is trying to be conveyed, and the viewer might not care to discern what the artist is thinking.  The artist’s original meaning might have been tossed out and replaced with another meaning, or arrived at many years after the work was created. The viewer might not care at all what the artist is trying to say, and might be more interested in creating their own imaginative narrative.  The experience of art as a journey then is not exclusively to discern the artists intent, but for the viewer to create their own vision.

It is interesting to notice the similarity with this view of art and the homunculus problem, in which there is a little person inside our head viewing the world through a screen.  The fact that the two are so closely related cannot be a coincidence, and is most likely a reflection of ourselves projected onto the symbols we create.  If we view ourselves as having a little person inside of us that is viewing and controlling things, then it would make sense that we also have this same conception about the symbols we create.  When we search for meaning in these symbols, we are then searching for this little person that we assume is actually in control.

In looking at the metaphor, people are containers which protect their purity of vision, we are again presented with a metaphor that validates certain parts of our experience, while failing to do justice to others.  We have felt what it’s like to have a conception that is changed by a conversation or something we read.  It is the all too familiar experience of reading a lengthy review of a movie and then going to see it and not being able to get what the critic thought out of our head.  In this sense the metaphor is true, as it validates this basic experience of feeling overwhelmed or controlled by something outside ourselves, such as an idea.  Getting dumped and being unable to stop thinking about someone is another common example.  We want to change our behavior, but find ourselves powerless to do so.  In relation to the viewer, the artist’s statement has tainted their purity of vision by overpowering it and taking control.  The viewer is powerless and submits to its conception.

This metaphor fails us in two important ways, the first is in its conception of our perception as pure.  At what moment is our perception pure?  Without getting into a lengthy biological argument, I would say that even newborns come prepacked with 6 million years of evolutionary bias.  Having an outside barrier that is then responsible for protecting this purity seems kind of silly.  As we look at art, we move around the room, bumping into people, having conversations, drinking and eating.  All of these things are altering our perception.  It is constantly shifting and changing, being influenced and rewritten by the various “impurities” that surround us.

The second failure is in its description of the domination of the viewer by the supposed “impurity”.  Is it really the case that when confronted with an explanation for something, in this case, an artist’s statement, that we are powerless towards it, and are subject to its will, that we are so dominated by it, that we are unable to see anything else?  The description of this supposed domination seems a bit exaggerated.  While it is obviously true that those experiences do happen, it is equally as true that we’ve also had experiences where we overcome and are not dominated by these things.  For instance, you can read an artist’s statement and still have the ability to create your own imaginative vision.  If you treat ideas as invading impurities that have come to distort your vision, then you will react to them that way, and have a much harder time trying to remove them from your vision.  If, however, you look at them as differing points of view that you can assume and then release, you will have a much easier time, and will not feel so oppressed.

To tie all of these metaphors together into one coherent vision, let’s look at experiencing art is a journey, which also validates a number of our experiences, the main one being, that in thinking about a work of art, we are moving toward something.  Ideas rise and fall, twist and turn, things can be thrown in our way and hinder our progress, but in the process, we experience the movement of working our way towards an important realization, possibly the destination of our journey. Once there, we can also look back, and see the path we have taken in getting to our current conception and appreciate the experience of the journey itself.  In going on this journey we rely upon the purity of our vision, which uses the metaphor seeing is understanding.  If this purity of vision is tainted, we cannot see properly.  We then cannot understand.  We lose our way.  We get lost inside a work of art.  We circle around and come to no conclusion.  We then don’t make it to the end, either to find the little person that holds the key to the artist’s intention or by being able to create a narrative for ourselves which we can look back on and appreciate the path we’ve taken.

This complex metaphor validates the solitary vision of standing in front of a piece of art and feeling the mind try and create meaning and decipher intention.  However it fails us in the sense that the experience of art is not just a solitary journey, but happens when we turn away from the work and engage our friends, the artist and the community in conversation.  The social side of art, which is, talking and bouncing ideas off of other people and enjoying the way that our meaning shifts and changes in relation to one another, exists outside of this basic metaphor, and is not validated by it.


A metaphor I would like to present, which is no means my own, is that art is a conversation.  Specifically, it is a conversation between the artist, the artwork, and the viewer.  All three are equal and important.  No one should be denied a voice, looked at as inconsequential or perceived to have the ability to contaminate or dominate the other.  The art object is the intermediary for the conversation. We use this intermediary, not just to decipher the artist’s original intent, nor to create our own solitary imaginative journey, but to create meaning between ourselves.  It is in this in between space that we feel our connection to one another, a connection that vibrates with our ability to remake and change, not only the meaning of the symbol, but each other as well.  

The metaphor art is a conversation validates this social side of art.  It also validates the internal side.  Our internal dialogue with a work of art is a conversation as well.  Instead of reaching a final destination and completing a specific task, we talk to it awhile, have a symbolic exchange, and then the conversation is over.  This idea validates a common experience of art, which is that most works do not take us on a journey that leads us to a grand conclusion. Rather, we talk awhile and then at some point, like in a conversation, we decide it’s time to go.


The conversation first begins when the artist makes the work.  As the work is being created, it has a voice that the artist must listen to and be sensitive towards.  In its completion, the viewer and the artist look at the work and have a similar internal dialogue with the symbols presented.  Possibly, the artist and the viewer can have a conversation about the piece, thus changing and remaking each other by presenting new symbols and new meanings.  In talking to a viewer, the artist’s own interpretation of their work might be remade.

It is much easier to remake these ideas and meanings when they happen between us, as opposed to being embedded inside something.  If we think of the meaning as being inside, then an artist would have to crack open the container of art, take out the little person that lives inside, and replace it with a new little person.  It makes much more sense, and validates our experience of what is really going on, to describe this replacing of meaning as being remade between each other.


Art is a conversation does not negate the metaphor experiencing art is a journey, as we have all experienced that a conversation can be a journey.  We talk to one another and sometimes it “goes somewhere” while other times we just “talk in circles” and “don’t get anywhere”.  Art is a conversation also gives us a framework of what to expect from one another, which is, to be a good listener, to speak clearly, to try and better articulate our point, etc.  Artwork that doesn’t speak to us, is not because there is a little person captured inside that is somehow disabled (can’t speak, can’t stand), but rather the art itself is a person.  If the artwork doesn’t speak to us, we are engaged in a conversation where one of the participants is bad at conversation (including us).  They are either confused in how they speak, lack the words to articulate their meaning, or are egocentric and not respectful of their share in the conversation.

Since in the metaphor art is a conversation we are also saying that art is a person and since people are containers then art is a container as well.  If art is a container, we are still engaged in the idea that there is something inside of art that we need to get at.  The little person inside has been replaced by the conception that the entirety of art is the person.  Since art is a person and people are containers, we are still engaging in the metaphor that the physicality of art is the exterior, and the meaning of it, is the interior.  In similar ways, we also engage with people this way.  The physicality of the person is the surface, whereas, the meaning of the person is in the interior.  This idea validates our experience in that, we perceive meaning as being inside because it is not visible to us, because often it is hidden and might require an interpretive journey to attain.  That journey always takes us “into” something, since that is where the meaning is held.


The obscurity of people’s intentions toward us is remarkably similar to the obscurity of art’s intention toward us.  Is this person making fun of us?  Are they saying one thing and thinking another?  Are the words they are using not serving their stated purpose?  We negotiate these relationships in similar ways, because there is a mystery involved, which is, what is actually inside the container?  Our inability to every know what is inside the container is itself one of the driving forces that propels us by its mixture of frustration and wonder.  It also leaves open the possibility to come up with metaphors that do not involve things being in containers, that have the power to change our conception of how we not only relate to art, but to each other.

The metaphors I’ve presented; experiencing art is a journey, art is a conversation, are true enough.  They can never encompass the entirety of our reality.  Instead, they are true when they validate our experience and are false when they fail to do so.  To be aware of these metaphors while we express ourselves is to be aware of what we are actually saying.  In becoming aware, we can choose the best metaphor for our experience, and in doing so, can become better conversationalists, in art and in life.