The Trouble with Metaphor

And the radical autonomy of art

Photo and art studio of author

“Don’t give me what the artwork stands for; give me the thing itself,” I’d say to my former college-level art students.


That’s the trouble with metaphor. Many of my students were taught it equaled art. They were trained to come up with something that represented something else. Of course, sometimes, to get to the “thing itself,” we must enlist metaphor. Take writing. It’s filled with them. Used well, crafted well, metaphor can coax out the thing itself. A problem I’ve noticed in the visual arts, especially with young students, is that metaphor can be the end goal. Therefore, all too often, the result is a cliché and ultimately a cop-out.

A bad painting of a butterfly, for example, could have a moving story behind it. At a junior level critique, everyone is enthralled with the student’s story of struggle and transformation, of a new gender designation or the lack of one. How brave they are, is the consensus.

But wait, it’s an awful painting! When metaphor is the objective, this important fact can be ignored. Why did they choose to paint the butterfly in the first place? What would the work be doing if they had cast the butterfly in cement? If they made it out of diaphanous paper? Performed it? Why is the craft meticulous or slapdash? An idea must be transformed through its making to have significance.

“What are the materials doing? What is your artwork doing?” I’d ask.

Never, “What does your artwork represent?” — to my student’s consternation.

A similar dilemma can happen with political work, particularly with political painting, drawing, sculpture, where the artwork itself takes a backseat to the message. Take, for example, a student of Armenian descent who paints a picture depicting some aspect of the Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Again, a compelling story, a righteous intention. But the painting sucks. That critical detail that it’s a shitty painting, or perhaps shouldn’t be a painting at all, can get lost or even regarded as irrelevant.

Political art, almost by definition, stands against. But in his book The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a critique of Marxist Aesthetics, the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse observed that what is in opposition to something else, is horizontally equal to what it opposes. It puts art on the same level as what it counters, becoming one-dimensional, straightforward, intelligible.

When it comes to art with a message, the difficult part is not to mediate with righteous intention all the mystery out of it. The distinction of art is in its ability to transcend social determination and retain its poetical aesthetic nature. In this way, art is autonomous, so it may rise above opposition and conflict even when its stance is critical. To be any kind of artist, one must remain a poet, Rainer Maria Rilke taught me.

When art is autonomous, it is free. Free from all authority but its own. Therein lies its radicality.

This immunity from external authority includes never being contingent on it. Art, including the literary arts, must be entirely itself — other, in some ways mysterious, and true.

Visual Artist & Nonfiction Writer; New agented memoir: “Growing Up Under Water”—From Southern Gothic New Orleans to the art world of New York.

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