Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 2, 2023
Mark Staff Brandl A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art New York: Bloomsbury, 2023. 240 pp.; 21 b/w ills. $115.00 (9781350073838)

A worthy contribution in the still-growing efforts to de-silo theory from practice in writing and teaching about contemporary art, Mark Staff Brandl’s A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art is approachable and informal while being specific and sincere, and a tonal success for the way it loosens up and shakes out the rhetoric, jargon, and tropes common to so much scholarly writing about art. Visual tropes and metaphors (as opposed to literary ones) are central protagonists in Brandl’s philosophy of art, and they anchor his major propositions about the mechanics of visual communication and interpretation. They are not glib or surface facsimiles of legitimate cultural knowledge, but rather, “discovered and built out of revisions of cultural possibilities, in fact, fought for and won” (6), a crystalline thesis which lands Brandl’s theory of art in an obvious historical dialogue with Kant and ontology, particularly the idea that the material conditions of possibility are not necessarily predicated on existence; they can be thought into reality, just as concretely and just as well. This metaphysical understanding of the cultural tangibility of visual metaphors also aligns Brandl’s text with trending contemporary art practices engaged in the concepts of world-building, reality construction, and parafiction.   

Dense, obscure, theoretical language has dominated art history, critical theory, and the pictorial turn for decades, such that it is now its own kind of trope. This writing style has thankfully receded in recent years due to the efforts of a few emerging scholars. Brandl is a more established voice in the field, but he asserts that while high theory has long ruled literature and art departments respectively (2), the usable fusion of philosophy with art interpretation has not yet entered its mature phase, and that this provides one of the rationales for the publication of the book (21). On the maturation point I disagree—post-structuralist art analysis and methods have certainly seen their heyday in academia—but I am nonetheless happy for the other expansions that Brandl offers.

One particular expansion involves moving the linguistic and semiotic analysis of images beyond the domain of advertising images, which has historically been the origin point along the art-philosophy axis. Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay “Rhetoric of the Image” was the pacesetter for a significant wave of scholarship (and for a while, entire academic departments) devoted to semiotics, their influence peaking in the late 1980s. Art turned to language during these decades for some shiny new methodologies, and philosophy turned to aesthetics, and it is from this late twentieth century disciplinary swapping of source materials that a different set of intellectual silos were built to store theories about the comparative and distinct functions of image versus text. Quoting abstract painter William Conger, Brandl asserts in Chapter four (overall one of the book’s strongest chapters) that the chief function of text is to “eliminate” ambiguity, whereas “the visual is always ambiguous. It cannot be unambiguous” (86). For an abstract painter, this is probably largely true. But is it true for, say, anything Warhol or Judd ever claimed about their own work? While it does help as an initial heuristic to set language and image apart to examine their components and limits, it cannot be responsibly said that text always drives toward specificity and monosemy, and that images always retreat from it.

Brandl’s book feels in this respect like a holdover from the golden era of semiotics, with more utility as an explication of philosophy via art than as a working theory of contemporary art. It feels even more so this way with each reference to contemporary art as a coherent unit that might be served wholesale by this guide, as if to suggest that contemporary art is isolable and definable sheerly by virtue being visual as opposed to textual. But is it? Any serious student of contemporary art knows deeply its multivalency and categorical resistance to being one or anything in particular, even necessarily visual. To treat contemporary art as a monolith that can withstand and absorb across-the-board analysis therefore draws suspicion. Brandl does recognize that abundance and multivalence of metaphorical readings are important to a lot of contemporary art, even possibly contributing to its significance and its degree of “wonderfulness” (20). But this is still an unwieldly generalization considering the efforts of minimalist and conceptualist artists who sought to pare down or evacuate metaphor entirely—efforts which the author insists through the example of Lawrence Weiner are both impossible and wrongheaded (33). Some historians of conceptualist and minimalist art would beg to differ: not that that eliminating all referentiality is a fool’s errand, but that it is never quite that simple.

Metaphor, the author points out, is both a detour and a destination, a turning toward and a turning around, both of and about something. This is what makes it so instrumental toward understanding art. The experience of what a particular artwork conjures in a viewer and the specific form it takes are distinct but interwoven elements. It might move Brandl’s theory into even more productive philosophical territory to discuss certain art works that “feel” like what they aim to represent—not just present an idea about it, which would be the domain of pure cognition, but which produce something else beyond cognition: a bodily or sensory or haptic or uncanny effect, or the thing that Joseph Kosuth wrote in Art After Philosophy And After makes art, art and everything else, everything else. My mind goes initially to Bruce Nauman’s Waxing Hot, Yoko Ono’s textual propositions in Grapefruit, Robert Irwin’s discs, Mickalene Thomas’s Something You Can Feel, any one of Rachel Harrison’s polystyrene sculptures. Speaking of Harrison, here is Maggie Nelson in The Paris Review in 2020, honing a point that A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art reaches for throughout, but doesn’t quite capture as succinctly: “Harrison’s sculptures are remarkable for their capacity to stir up the primal agitation at the root of cognition and analysis, the whir of thinking.”

“The whir of thinking” could also characterize Brandl’s entire book as an intellectual and didactic exercise. Ultimately, it is useful for artists who, like the author, seek a roadmap for how to imagine a methodological bridge between analytic philosophy and imagery, “a theoretical apparatus for understanding the struggles of contemporary artists and their achievements, at once both intellectual in tangible, in using visual metaphors” (94). From an art historian’s perspective, much of the book reads like a statement of methods rather than their full explication. On the plus side of its teachability, however, the book breezily moves through dense concepts from analytic philosophy, not by surgically defining precise terms or historicizing their usage as would be the charge of traditional academic studies, but by applying them economically to specific and varietal objects. The cartoons that serve as epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, also authored by Brandl, are wordy infographic illustrations that mostly recapitulate the ideas in the text. They may serve as useful teaching tools or not, depending on one’s relationship to other famous diagrams of art history and their tendency to either illuminate or occlude comprehension, joining Rosalind Krauss’s map in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Alfred Barr’s Cubism and Abstract Art, the golden rectangle, the Vitruvian Man, and so on.

Speaking of artists and utility: in a chapter subtitled “paint, to paint, a painting, painting,” Brandl does not directly address but still invokes a famous scholarly debate between philosopher Martin Heidegger, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and alpha-deconstructionist spoilsport Jacques Derrida on a painting (which painting?) by Van Gogh, of his (or were they a peasant woman’s?) shoes. Derrida arrives last to lift the veil, to show how deconstructionism takes the polysemy of language and uses it to lube up the friction between reality and representation. In French, peinture (painting) is one vowel and infinite reference points away from pointure (verb), alternately meaning pointing, pricking, puncturing, and a tool used in bootmaking. The dictionary definition of pointure serves as one of three epigraphs that begin the essay. The other two are quotes about truth and painting authored by Cézanne and Van Gogh, which alternately speak about truth in art as something which is either existential and communicable, or metaphysical and immanent. It is a brilliant, near-infographic distillation of Kantian analytic philosophy via art delivered in three short pull quotes, and it lingers unaddressed in the background of Brandl’s text and its attempts to communicate more or less the same. The linguistic coincidence of peinture and pointure, the extremely tight neighborliness between the real and the represented, is the armature around which Derrida builds an entire rebuttal and correspondent theory of art, sending the high-minded tête-à-tête crashing back down to the concrete object of the shoes, permanently. “It was materiality the whole time!” the artist laughs in the distance. Even the language was the material. The representation was always the real thing.

Brynn Hatton
Kindler Family Assistant Professor in Global Contemporary Art
Department of Art and Art History
Colgate University