ABSENCE: An instance in which uncertainty about meaning prevails over the metaphysics of presence. See deconstruction, différance, presence. The term lurks behind the received opinion of David Salle’s paintings of the 1980s.
ABSOLUTE: 1. As a noun in general, anything free of dependence upon factors external to itself. In metaphysical idealism specifically, the totality of what in fact exists. 2. As an adjective in formal terminology, it has connotations related to the former. For example, “absolute scale” (see scale) means the actual size of an object, without reference to the size it appears to be in a given context (cf absolutism, relative, relativism).
ABSOLUTISM: 1. In aesthetics, the opposite of relativism — i.e., that there are, for example, eternal and immutable standards for the evaluation of works of art. 2. In politics, unrestricted political power. Postmodernism generally rejects all forms of absolutism.
ABSTRACTION: Often used interchangeably with non- objective; more precisely, imagery which departs from representational accuracy (often to an extreme degree) for some affective or other purpose unrelated to verisimilitude. Compare, however, Wassily Kandinsky’s conception of abstraction with that of contemporary artists like Peter Halley. Abstraction has been treated to a good deal of revision by critics who practice a type of semiotics: Peter Wollen, for instance, sees the move to abstraction as a gradual separation of signifier and signified, until the signified is suppressed altogether in favour of an art of pure signifiers (Semiotic Counter-Strategies: Readings and Writings ). See also Craig Owens’ “The Discourse of Others” in Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic (1983).
ABSURD: Generally, a state of irrationality or meaninglessness. More specifically, absurdity is 1. a flaw in logic (see reductio ad absurdum) or 2. a basic premise of existentialism which asserts that the meaning of the world does not precede the existence of beings capable of formulating a conception of meaning.
ACCEPTABILITY: The idea of acceptable standards, particularly of interpretation, is pretty much a taboo in generally postmodernist times, but if a criticism is tacitly an intelligent argument, then it is measurable by such standards. Of course, artwriters then have to agree on the criteria of acceptability, which they have not yet done. In conventional informal logic, acceptability is usually defined as sufficency, validity, and defensible premises for a given audience, which is ideally assumed to be a “universal” audience of reasonable people. Postmodernism insists that universality is really a Eurocentric and/or androcentric illusion — or a variant thereof, like fleshless academicism — so one can easily see why acceptability is such a problem. An interesting recent attempt to define the parameters of the issue in philosophical terms is Annette Barnes’ On Interpretation: A Critical Analysis.
ACCOMMODATION: Adaption or adjustment practiced by a individual, an ethnic group, or the like seeking admission or assimilation into a larger group, culture, or social body of whatever sort. For a specific instance with visual ramifications, see speech accommodation.
ACCULTURATION: This can describe both cross-cultural (or intercultural) borrowing and the process by which persons acquire knowledge of the culture in which they live. Feminism and critiques of ethnocentrism make use of the term with slight variations.
ACCUMULATED INTENTION: In The Principles of Semantics, Stephen Ullmann argues that words gather meanings unto themselves over time, producing not merely conventional ambiguity, but also the power of symbolic expression in general. Words and images thus function as accumulators of meaning. The idea could serve as a practical explanation of some of the more ephemeral results of deconstruction.
ACRYLIC: A plastic-based painting medium which, because it is water soluble, dries quickly and cleans up easily. Especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s for effects ranging from translucent watercolour-like washes to opaque hard-edges in bright colours, acrylic seems to have been declining in popularity since the new image movement of the early 1980s restored interest in oil as a medium.
ACTION PAINTING: Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 term for those works within the orbit of American abstract expressionism which featured very energetically applied painting, apparently involving movements of the whole body — or at least of its larger limbs, as opposed to minute movements of the fingers and wrist — and a certain indifference to traditional niceties of execution, like the avoidance of drips and spatters. Rosenberg had the works of Willem de Kooning in mind, but because of the famous 1951 coverage in Life magazine of Jackson Pollock, in which Hans Namuth’s photographs clearly show the artist dripping paint through the air onto a canvas on the floor, the phrase seems attached to this sort of quasi-theatrical activity. (Many artists followed this particular thread to its logical conclusion, a sort of painting as performance. Internationally, Georges Mathieu is a well-known example; in Canada, William Ronald was an early, if only occasional, practitioner.) There are many other variations of action painting, including French tachisme and Canadian automatisme. Although in varying degrees, they have in common Rosenberg’s notion that the canvas is “an arena in which to act,” rather than a distanced product of reflection and deliberation.
ACTUALITY (OF MEANING): See inexhaustibility by contrast.
ACQUIRED DRIVE: See drive.
ADBUSTERS: See culture jamming.
ADD WOMEN AND STIR: An expression used by some feminists (see feminism) who feel that simply adding women to existing canons of artistic greatness really does nothing to challenge or change the processes of canon-formation, which are inherently hierarchical and sexist.
AD HOMINEM: Traditionally considered a fallacy, ad hominem is a usually pernicious type of argument which attempts to discredit a counter-argument by questioning the opponent, rather than the opponent’s position: such-and-such person’s views should not be given credence because his/her character is disreputable; s/he is not knowledgeable, trustworthy, or unbiased; his/her credentials are not apparent or are irrelevant; or there is no consensual agreement or resolution on the part of other authorities. A recent example in the popular press is Susan Faludi’s dismissal of Camille Paglia’s theories: this is not done because of the quality (or lack thereof) of Paglia’s thought but because Paglia was filled with spite and a desire for revenge on other feminists who failed to recognize her talent, leading seven publishers to refuse her work (see backlash, feminism, sexual personae). William Blake’s occasionally vicious marginalia in his copy of Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses — e.g., “This Man was hired to depress Art” — are perhaps the most famous art historical examples.
AD IGNORANTIUM: Considered a flaw in reasoning, an ad ignorantium argument appeals to ignorance, as it were. One commits this error if, after failing to find evidence that a claim is true, one appeals to ignorance by concluding the claim is false, or vice versa: There is no evidence of X (or -X). Therefore, -X (or X).
ADMISSIBLE: Capable of being admitted, allowed, conceded, permitted, and the like. In legal contexts, a great deal of attention is paid to what can and cannot be admitted as evidence, but only rarely is such attention given to the question in artwriting. This results in arguments and interpretations which appear to be valid but are constructed on flimsy or irrelevant grounds. See hearsay for an application.
ADVERSARIAL: Occasionally used in place of the adjective “adversary,” meaning “having or involving antagonistic parties or interests.” It is a key component of the avant- garde and of bohemianism, and some feel it has even become mainstream culture. See for example, licensed rebels.
AEGIS Term used in Norman Bryson’s Tradition and Desire to replace source analysis in traditional art history with a conception of allusion as a trope. Hypothetically, an artist uses an earlier artist’s manner as a source to take refuge in and to challenge its authority. His principal example is the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, but it can easily be applied to others. The concept ultimately derives from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. See anxiety of influence.
AESTHETIC DISTANCE: 1. The audience’s awareness that art and reality are not the same, entailing some suspension of disbelief. Edward Bullough’s famous essay “Psychical Distance” (In the British Journal of Psychology, 1912) is the most extended discussion of the idea. Cf antinomy of distance. The idea should be debated in discussions of images that capitalize on shocking subject matter, ranging from Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa to Joel-Peter Witkin’s Pathological Reproduction: The Guernica Variations. 2. The term is sometimes used to refer to the distance between a completed art object and the circumstances of its production. Marxists (see Marxism) and non-partisan historians concerned with the social and/or economic circumstances in which artworks were produced would likely be indifferent or opposed to this idea.
AESTHETIC EMOTION: See unique aesthetic emotion.
AESTHETICISM: See art for art’s sake. The term is often used to connote a certain decadence or preciousness.
AESTHETICS: Originally, that which pertains to the beautiful, as conceived variously by artists and, especially, philosophers with reference to noble aspects of experience beyond superficial appearance or mere prettiness. The theme preoccupied philosophers in ancient Greece, but the term itself first appeared in the eighteenth-century writings of Alexander Baumgarten. Since the adoption of the term of the term “esthetician” to describe purveyors of cosmetics, “aesthetics” seems to have little relevance, unless one thinks of it more generically as “pertaining to the philosophy of art” — i.e., its function, nature, ontology, purpose, and so on. Even these have has largely been supplanted by postmodernism’s questions of meaning and linguistically based investigations. The term is still sometimes used to indicate a certain imprecise distinction between art and life, or as a rough synonym for “artistic.” See art theory.
AFFECT: In an essay in Social Text (Fall 1982), Frederic Jameson characterized the move from modernism to postmodernism as a move from affect to effect, from emotional engagement to slick superficiality. Jeff Koons’ works could be so described. Cf simulacrum. Cf speech act theory.
AFFECTIVE: Pertaining to emotional expression. Cf affective fallacy, perlocutionary, speech act theory.
AFFECTIVE FALLACY: Once of great value to all types of expression theory and to Aristotelian catharsis, the notion that a work’s value resides in the emotional affect it has on an audience has lost its lustre both for formalism and for postmodernism in general, though for very different reasons. Hence it is called a fallacy. The question should be raised when discussing Romanticism and much early modern art and theory, especially that of Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich, among others.
AFROCENTRIC: Characteristic of any of a number of positions demanding greater representation of African cultural heritage in post-secondary curricula in the humanities (see canon). The range is very wide, from straightforward demonstrations of black pride to claims that classic Greek philosophy was plagiarized from lost black sources and that the ancient Egyptians were actually black Africans. The term is most closely associated with the academic books of Molefi Kete Asante, but the issues should come up in discussions of the works of artists like Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, among others.
AGEISM: On the model of racism and sexism, a discriminatory attitude against people because of their age. Are Ivan Albright’s paintings ageist or sympathetic? See the special issue of Art Journal 53.1 (Spring 1994) on art and old age.
AGENDA: A list or outline of things to do, issues to resolve, questions to be decided, and the like. In popular postmodern parlance (see postmodernism), especially when preceded by “hidden,” the word connotes premeditated cultural mechanisms of persuasion and/or repression. Cf power.
AGGLUTINATING, INFLECTING, ISOLATING: August von Schlegel’s three categories of grammatical relations in comparative linguistics. An agglutinating (or compounding) language is one in which changes in relations are most frequently expressed by an additive process of prefixes and roots. Turkish and German use agglutination much more than English, but an English example in “antidisestablishmentarianism.” An inflecting language is one in which changes in relations are most frequently expressed by changes in the forms of the words themselves. In English, for example, the plural noun “birds” calls for the verb formation “fly,” whereas the singular noun “bird” inflects the verb into the form “flies.” An isolating language (sometimes also called analytic) is one in which the word forms are invariable and changes in relations are signalled by word order and various other parts of speech, as in Vietnamese. The typology suggests interesting parallels with visual art, if art is genuinely understood to be a language. Realism, for example, might be understood as isolating: since the forms of the representation are hypothetically true to nature (but compare perceptualism), they remain constant and meaning is principally produced through different arrangements and accomodations. Expressionist art would likely be inflecting, since its aesthetic impact is largely a matter of deformation in a given context of something which would appear “normal” in another context (compare paralinguistic). The difficulty here is that spoken language usually has denotations and connotations which expressionist art probably does not have (see idiolect). A truly agglutinating visual art is more difficult again to imagine, although one might so consider Northwest Coast Indian totem poles, or certain productions of the more mythically inclined Surrealists and early Abstract Expressionists.
AGNOSIA: See interpretive agnosia.
AHA EXPERIENCE: The literature of psychology describes the instant of insight and release in puzzle or problem solving as the aha (sometimes ah-ah) experience. It would be useful to consider whether the type of satisfaction afforded by a particularly compelling interpretation corresponds to this is any meaningful way, since it would seem to imply that an artwork is principally something to “figure out,” rather than something to experience in an open-ended manner.
AHISTORICAL: Generally, that which is not concerned with history or historical development. It is sometimes used as a synonym for anachronism, particularly when the actions, ideas, and/or motives of a given generation are attributed to an earlier one.
AIR BRUSH: A device which sprays paint with compressed air to offer a broad range of applications, from wide patches of paint to thin mists enabling precise details. The principle is the same whether one uses an inexpensive contraption with one’s breath or a rather expensive mechanical version of a device invented in the late nineteenth century by Charles Burdick. Air brush painting was particularly popular in 1960s and 1970s advertising and van painting, and its effect of photographic verisimilitude was adopted for use in pop art and photorealism.
ALBUMEN: See photography.
ALEATORIC: Composition based on chance, usually, but sometimes also random accident and/or highly improvisational execution. Hans Arp’s so-called Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance is an early example. The composer John Cage is particularly noted for this technique, and traces of it can be found in the work of numerous artists within his circle (e.g., Robert Rauschenberg, Naim June Paik, Jim Dine, etc.).
ALETHEIA: Originally a Greek term meaning “truth” or “the unconcealedness of things.” Current writers often use the word with the connotations supplied by Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art, in which an artwork is useful to the extent that it can open up a space in which existentially alienated beings (see alienation) can discover the meaning of their existence, which is not synonymous with “truth” in the conventional sense. See Dasein, existentialism, existential phenomenology, Open.
ALIENATION: Sometimes generally used to suggest depersonalization, disenchantment, estrangement, or powerlessness, alienation is actually a philosophical word with a lengthy history. The most particular conceptions appear in Hegelianism, Marxism and existentialism.Simply put, in Hegel, alienations were various stages in the development of human consciousness: the lowest was immediate perception of sense-data, the next a consciousness of self, the next the abstraction of reason, and finally the world of the spirit, manifest in religion and art. Alienation is perhaps not the happiest translation of his Entaüsserung, which was the dialectical (see dialectic) process by which the mind moved from one of these stages to the next — a move which entailed the recognition of the illusion of the first stage and a move beyond it, as if the mind became alien to itself, only to return to itself later in a higher stage. In Marx alienation meant the proletariats economic, psychological and other senses of separation from the products of their labour, the forces of production, and his own social formation (see also species-being). In existentialism, generally, alienation is the experience of the world as absurd (see authentic, Dasein).
ALLEGORY: Traditionally, a type of figurative expression, usually a narrative with one or more personifications, and often with some moralizing conclusion. More recently, it has been used in postmodernism to describe the relation of one text to another, particularly where they purport to be about the same thing but actually introduce unbidden levels of signification alien to each other. See, for example, Gregory Ulmer’s “The Object of Post-Criticism” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic.
ALLUSION: Passing reference to an event, object or person presumed to be familiar to the audience, most commonly to increase affective potential without extensive digression. As such, it is a less precise artistic borrowing than appropriation or citation. The wailing mother with the dead child in Picasso’s Guernica, for example, may be understood as an ironic (see irony) allusion to the typical Madonna and child. Cf source analysis.
ALTAR: A structure on which sacrifices or other offerings were made to the gods. In Christian tradition, although the altar serves more to allude to the table at which the Last Supper took place, the celebration of the mystery of the Eucharist — i.e., that bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ — is still a sacrificial affair of sorts. Altars are a central part of many forms of religious life and are accordingly given special visual treatment with such things as altarpieces.
ALTARITY: Title of a 1987 book by a/theologian Mark C. Taylor (see a/theology) describing religious existence in terms deriving from deconstruction. The term plays on alterity but is not synonymous with it. See also disfiguring.
ALTARPIECE: Any of a varety of decorated panels, screens or shrines rising behind an altar to signify its importance and authority, to tell an associated legend, and so on. The most common type of altarpiece is a painting spread over several panels hung together like folding screens. A simple type consists of a central panel with two flanking half-sized doors to close over it (e.g., Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights). A three-part painting of this sort is called a triptych. Paintings with more complicated arrangements, as in Van Eyck’s celebrated Ghent Altarpiece, are called polyptychs. Altarpieces often have a decorated panel at the bottom called a predella. Some Baroque altarpieces are gloriously overblown flights of fancy, with painting, sculpture, and architectural accompaniments skillfuly interwoven for theatrical effect. Altarpieces are sometime called reredos or retables.
ALTERITY: Not to be confused with altarity, alterity is the condition of being radically different or unlike some other being, state or thing. See other.
ALTERNATING FIGURES: Ambiguous diagrams (see ambiguity) serving in the psychology of perception to illustrate the way the mind habitually tries to achieve a coherent Gestalt. An example is the famous impossible trident, the bottom half of which seems like a square “u,” and the top half like three prongs. Op art occasionally makes use of the phenomenon. One might speculate whether there is a non-visual, cerebral equivalent which could be useful in discussions of ambiguity or plurivocality. See closure.
ALTERSSTIL: German term referring to the style of an artist in old age, especially when it has characteristics distinguishing it from earlier parts of the artist’s career. Notable examples include late Michelangelo and Titian. See Hugo Munsterberg’s The Crown of Life (1983).
ALTHUSSERIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of philosopher Louis Althusser. See autocritical, coupure épistémologique, ideology, interpellation, masquerade, overdetermination, problematic, structuralist Marxism, theory of practice.
ALWAYS-ALREADY-READ: Frederic Jameson argues that no text exists in a vacuum, for when it is read by a member of an identifiable social group, its meaning is mediated (see mediation) by his or her ideology. The material is thus always already read, in a sense. See political unconscious. For visual art, there is no need to transform theterm to” always-already-seen,” because the component “seen” implies a value-free physiological phenomenon which postmodernism generally dismisses. See perceptualism.
AMBIGUITY: Something which admits of interpretation in two or more possible senses. In logical and critical texts, ambiguity is usually something to be avoided (however, see dissemination), but many creative works capitalize on it quite effectively. There are, for instance, ambiguities of drawing in Matisse’s Le Luxe II and ambiguities of content in Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday. See also double entendre, pun.
AMBIVALENCE: Often colloquially known as “mixed feelings;” mildly conflicting emotions or contradictory attitudes.
AMBULATORY: An aisle surrounding the altar at the apse end of a church, or a covered passage around an open court, as in a cloister.
AMORPHOUS: Formless — i.e., devoid of readily recognizable regularity in form, as in a standard shape like a rectangle or a triangle.
AMPHORA: A large storage jar with a fairly tall neck and two handles stretching from a wide mouth to a broader oval body. In Greek antiquity, such jars were for both practical and trophy purposes. Without their painted depictions of the Greek myths, we would have very little knowledge of ancient Greek pictorial practice.
ANACHRONISM: Chronological misplacement, usually running backwards in time, as in asserting that Freud used a CD player, or some such thing. Cf ahistorical. For a possible instance, see camouflage.
ANALEPSIS: The recovery into consciousness of unconscious, repressed or forgotten material. Clear examples are in Max Ernst’s descriptions of the discovery of frottage and Salvador Dali’s paranoiac-critical method.
ANALOGY: A comparison in which two things have sufficient numbers of similar characteristics to conclude that they will probably share others. It is commonly used when a familiar thing is used to explain something less familiar and as such is a basic component of symbolism. See argument from analogy.
ANALYTIC: See synthetic a priori. (For a less frequent sense, see agglutinating, inflecting, isolating.)
ANALYTICO-REFERENTIAL: See discursive activity.
ANALYTIC PSYCHOLOGY: Jungian term for a wholistic type of depth psychology which takes into account not only the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious as motivators of behaviour, but also the conscious aspirations and goals of the subject. A hypothetical criticism so inspired would differ fundamentally from Freudian-based psychoanalytical criticism.
ANAMORPHOSIS: Mannered or distorted imagery that can be optically corrected by examining it from an unconventional point of view or through some optical device. Although the term usually indicates a simple visual example of the phenomenon, as in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Donald Preziosi uses it in Rethinking Art History as a metaphor of the way historical narrative (see metanarrative) deforms the object of investigation. Jacques Lacan has also used the concept to describe how his conception of a picture functions (see gaze and glance).
ANCHORAGE AND RELAY: Roland Barthes’ characterization of the functions of captions in advertising, the former serving to anchor (i.e., delimit) the meanings of the example, for example, via identification, and the latter serving to proliferate meaning via a process of referral to other, absent significances.
ANCHORING GAZE: In You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen coined this term to indicate the principal line of sight of people in conversation. She found that female speakers tended to face one another and look directly into each others’ faces, whereas male speakers tended to sit at angles to each other and find visual home bases elsewhere in the room. The idea gives further support to her distinction between rapport-talk and report-talk. The idea might be exploited to disrupt the simple polarity of Bryson’s gaze and glance.
ANDROCENTRIC: A specifically male anthropocentrism. A typical, though simple example is the use of the word “man” to refer to both genders. Imagine how it might be used to discuss the canon of art history.
ANIMA: Originally the soul or life force, but now universally construed as the Jungian archetype of the female components within a male personality. Presumably, a male projects his own female side — whether it be creatively inspiring (the muse) or protective and nurturing (the mother), etc. — onto those around him. Jung designated the reverse, the male components within a female personality, as animus, but he did not explore the concept to as great a depth. The notions have been much abused in popular writings, opening them to charges of essentialism.
ANIMUS: See anima.
ANOSAGNOSIA: A neurological term coined by Babinski, a contemporary of Freud (see hysteria), designating certain patients’ inability to know they are suffering from a cognitive deficit, particularly agnosia (see interpretive agnosia). Such patients thus have a double deficit, for they have even lost an awareness of their loss.
ANTAGONIST: In narrative analysis, the adversary or opponent of the protagonist. The antagonist in Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, for example, is the latter.
ANTHROPOCENTRISM: The mind-set that sees human beings as central (i.e., essential and most significant) in the universe. A more precise term that says the same specifically of male centrality is androcentric.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM: The representation of non- human beings, whether real or fictitious, in human form (e.g., the gods); the ascription of human attributes, characteristics, and/or preoccupations to non-human beings (e.g., the speaking animals in Aesop’s fables).
ANTI-AESTHETIC: The title of an influential postmodernist (see postmodernism) anthology edited by Hal Foster (1983), in which he expressly argues that “anti-aesthetic” does not mean a reassertion of modernism’s principle of aesthetic negation, or anti-art, but rather a critique of the very notion of the aesthetic (see aesthetics), especially in its modern manifestations with supposedly pseudotranshistorical and determinate meanings (see determinacy).
ANTI-ART: Imprecise but once fashionable term to describe works which sought to denounce or dismantle traditional conceptions of art, whether through untraditional techniques, materials, and display formats (e.g., automatism, combine painting, installation) or through unusual iconography and the like.
ANTI-AUTHORITARIAN: The essential characteristic of any challenge to presumed authority.
ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM: Any position, whether originating with an unreflective street tough or a philosophical pragmatist, which eschews, fears, or mistrusts reason. Some hyper- intellectual artwriting is, paradoxically, overtly anti- intellectual. (See, for example, écriture féminine.) The relation between it and once fashionable Romantic bohemianism should be explored.
ANTINOMIANISM: Originally, the doctrine that moral laws do not apply to Christ. By extension, the notion that certain persons with privileged status do not have to obey their own dictates, as in “Do as I say, not as I do.” Many artists, especially those of the middle class who feign distaste for bourgeois values, have exhibited such characteristics. In “Suspicious Art, Unsuspecting Texts” (In H. Smagula, ed., Re- Visions), David Carrier uses the idea without identifying it as such to point out the paradox of artwriters whose “incredulity towards metanarrative” (see postmodernism) is framed within yet another metanarrative.
ANTINOMY: A paradox or contradiction between two conclusions, both of which were apparently arrived at by proper reasoning. For specific applications, see antinomy of distance, spontaneity.
ANTINOMY OF DISTANCE: Edward Bullough’s conception of aesthetic distance includes a paradox of sorts: an artist’s work will be most powerful when it is most personal, but s/he can only formulate an effective artistic expression by assuming a certain detachment from it. Similarly, a viewer’s experience of a work of art will be augmented if s/he has experienced something similar, but if a certain aesthetic distance is not maintained, the art is superseded by the viewer’s own emotional state. Bullough formulated the principle in this way: “What is…most desirable is the utmost decrease of [aesthetic] distance without its disappearance.”
ANTIPHRASIS: A specific type of irony in which a sign is used to signal its opposite.
ANTIQUARIANISM: Originally, the study of the material culture of ancient societies, particularly those whose current descendants exhibit markedly different customs, as in Egypt. In certain circles, the term now has a connotation of commercialism and commodity exchange for profit, rather than for the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge.
ANTITHESIS: 1. A single figure with markedly contrasting ideas. 2. The second component of the Hegelian dialectic (see Hegelianism).
ANTONOMASIA: A figure in which a general idea is represented by a proper name, as when artists’ names signify their entire oeuvre or an unspecified single work. This is everywhere in art criticism, art history, etc.
ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE: The title of a book by literary theorist Harold Bloom, who asserted that the ambiguous relationship writers have with those who influence them is akin to the psychological relationship of sons to fathers described in Freud’s Totem and Taboo. It concerns alternating veneration and vilification — the mixed feelings of adoration and fear of the artistic forefather, whose authority represents an implicit castration threat, but whose position as father is nonetheless worthy of some veneration. Its application to art history appears in Norman Bryson’s Tradition and Desire. See aegis. An instance of the popularization of the term appears in Stephen Eisenman’s Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History, wherein the author casually and without explanation describes Drouais’ relationship with his master David as anxiety of influence.
AORIST: Literally “without horizons,” the term designates a classical Greek tense presenting an occurrence without limitation as to duration. It could be used as a rough synonym of indeterminacy. Norman Bryson uses the term in Vision and Painting as a rough antonym of deixis.
APHASIA: Impairment of the ability to use and/or understand words. The term is still fairly rare in contemporary theory, but it has crept in via Roman Jakobson and others (see concatenation relation) and, from there, into a few writings on contemporary art inasmuch as both artists and aphasics find other ways to communicate (see communication). For a related idea, see artist envy. Cf agnosia, paralinguistic.
APHORISM: A concise statement of a principle or something held by the speaker to be true or deeply felt. While there is a strong philosophical tradition involved — as in, e.g., Nietzsche’s well-controlled aphorisms — many artists’ writings are simply strings of unordered aphorisms, as in the cases of Brancusi and Picabia.
APOPHASIS: The rhetorical figure in which one states something while seeming to deny it. The phrases “not to mention such and such” and “to make a long story short” are apophases. To maintain, for example, that a depiction of cruelty towards animals is a protest, rather than an indulgence, requires some notion of apophasis. Compare indulgence or indictment.
APOPHATIC: A theological term meaning knowledge of God obtained by negation (see negative theology). Much modernism has been apophatic inasmuch as the autonomy of art has been asserted chiefly by excluding what art is not. Since what “art is not” is really what “art is thought not to be,” there is a similar dimension of faith involved.
APORIA: Formerly, a type of irony in which certainty, say, about a person’s character, masquerades as deferential uncertainty. Now the term is more likely to mean the point at which a text is most explicitly indeterminate (see indeterminacy) or self-contradictory, as in deconstruction.
APOSTROPHE: A figure in which something or someone is addressed in their absence. For example, pictorial appeals to the saints usually include some sign of the saints within the picture’s space, but instances in which no saints or signs appear might be legitimately considered apostrophes.
APOTROPAIC: Having the power to avert evil or bad fortune, as in a good luck charm or talisman. Magico-religious art and ex-votos could be said to have an apotropaic dimension.
APPEAL TO PRECEDENT: X should be allowed (or not) because some analogous Y has been allowed (or not). This structure of informal logic is very widely used in writing about art, especially in attributions and interpretations, but it is rarely explicitly identified or critiqued on the basis of its logicality. See analogy, argument from analogy.
APPETITIVE DRIVE: Any of the instinctual urges thought to require some sort of satisfaction of a need, as in hunger, sexuality, sleep, etc. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche and many others (André Masson, male Surrealists in general) have thought that sexual appetite was the real drive behind works of art — even the high idealism of Raphael. More recently, Stephen Pepper used the idea in The Work of Art to argue in favour of determinacy: see consummatory field.
APOLLONIAN: Friedrich Nietzsche’s designation for the calm, conscious, orderly, and rational side of human nature. Cf Dionysian.
A POSTERIORI: See synthetic a priori.
APPROPRIATION: More aggressive than allusion or citation, appropriation is the excision of material from one context and its reuse in another context, usually with intent to expose some unrecognized irony in the original or to undermine notions of authorial responsibility. The range of possibilites extends from simple reuse, as in collage, to Sherri Levine’s rephotographed photos by Edward Weston (see aura).
A PRIORI: See synthetic a priori.
ARBITER ELEGANTIARUM: A putative final authority or judge in matters of taste. Clement Greenberg might be so described, using other terms. Cf connoisseurship.
ARCHAEOLOGY: The scientific study of the material remains of past cultures. Michel Foucault used the term figuratively (see figurative) to describe the history of the mechanisms which appear to constitute knowledge. See episteme.
ARCHETYPAL CRITICISM: Usually Jungian, but any criticism which seeks to discover the role of archetypes in generating meaning. Cf matriarchal aesthetic.
ARCHETYPE: An essentialist (see essentialism) term imported from Jungian analysis, it means basic, unchanging images of a primordially mythic character that reside in the collective unconscious. The presumption is that these images are universal, transcultural, and transhistorical. Jung himself said the idea was not his invention and could be found in previous writings by Adolf Bastian and Friedrich Nietzsche (Jung, Psychology and Religion ).
ARCHITECTURE: Under construction, if you will pardon the pun. For the moment, note that the word itself is made up of two components originally meaning “of a leading or distinguished sort” and “pertaining to construction,” so that “archi-tecture” meant buildings of artistic, political, religious or social significance, as opposed to run-of-the-mill structures of little or no importance. This explains to a great extent why many classically trained architects of the nineteenth century were so strongly opposed to structures like the Eiffel Tower: designed by an engineer, it was thought by some as mere “building” — somehow sub-architectural. Lately, however, we have used the word with fewer restrictions, although we sometimes still feel it necessary to use phrases like “vernacular architecture” to identify ordinary, average, everyday structures like domestic housing or commercial facilities. See column, order, vault, wall.
ARENA: Many writers are now concerned with how speakers and listeners work with each other to ascertain the meanings of the things they say (and, by extension, the things they produce). Herbert Clark argues in an anthology entitled Arenas of Language Use that only analysis of the common ground between speakers can determine their meanings. Each area of common ground is an arena, which is thus a near synonym of what other writers call the social formation.
ARGUMENT: In informal logic, a propositional form in which premises (reasons) are given in support of a claim (conclusion). While most art is not propositional, and therefore cannot be construed as argument in itself, much (if not all) art criticism is implicitly or explicitly a matter of substantiating claims about a work. As such, it admits of the kind of critical analysis applicable to logic. A simple argument consists of one conclusion supported by one or more premises. An extended argument consists of a main conclusion supported by premises, some of which are, in turn, conclusions of subsidiary arguments.
ARGUMENT FROM ANALOGY: If X is true, Y is likely to be true if it similar in sufficient, relevant aspects, and if it is not relevantly dissimilar. See sufficiency, relevance.
ARISTOTELIAN: Pertaining to the thought of Aristotle and his followers. See catharsis, mimesis, techne.
ART: Any simple definition would be profoundly pretentious and tendentious, but we can say that all the definitions offered over the centuries include some notion of human agency, whether through manual skills (as in the art of sailing or painting or photography), intellectual manipulation (as in the art of politics), or public or personal expression (as in the art of conversation). As such, the word is etymologically related to artificial — i.e., produced by human beings. Since this embraces many types of production that are not conventionally deemed to be art, perhaps a better term would be culture. This would explain why certain preindustrial cultures produce objects which Eurocentric interests characterize as art, even though the producing culture has no linguistic term to differentiate these objects from utilitarian artifacts. For an interesting list of the various definitions that have preoccupied writers over the years, see definitions of art. Cf craft, high art, low art.
ART APPRECIATION: The introduction of basic principles of visual literacy — especially the fundamentals of formal analysis without reference to iconography or historical context — to general audiences for the purpose of enhancing their enjoyment of works of art in non- academic contexts. In some postmodernisms, the term has a slightly pejorative tone indicating unreflective indulgence.
ART CONSERVATION: Principally, the technical study of the best ways to preserve and protect artworks from physical deterioration. However, some programmes in art conservation also address related issues, such as the ethics of conservation, art restoration, museology, and so on. The most famous — and hotly debated — conservation issue in recent times is the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
ART CRITICISM: See artwriting, critic, criticism. Cf art history, art theory, historical methodologies.
ART FOR ART’S SAKE: Any of a number of positions related to the possibility of art being autonomous (see autonomy) or autotelic. The term is usually used of artists and artwriters of the second half of the nineteenth century: in France the prime movers were Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier; in England, J. A. M. Whistler and Oscar Wilde; in the United States, Edgar Allan Poe. In the twentieth century, the notion has been sharply critiqued by Walter Benjamin, among others. See, for example, aura.
ART HISTORY: Misleading presentations of a unified, homogeneous art history have eroded the reputation of the field as a serious intellectual endeavour. In much of Norman Bryson’s writing, for instance, it is equated exclusively with perceptualism, while Nicolas Hadjinicolau (Art History and Class Struggle) assumes it is hagiography unconcerned with social context. Reductive characterizations like these should be baffling to postmodernists (see postmodernism) and students of traditional historiography alike. While it is true that certain approaches achieved predominance in institutional contexts in the 1960s — especially connoisseurship and formalism — simplifying characterizations do not recognize the rich variety of interpretive approaches that have succeeded one another over the history of art history. The real culprit is not the field itself but textbooks — written for general service courses at the university level, but strongly influenced by the commercial success of coffee table books. Since textbooks reduce everything complicated to a simple taxonomy, often with a teleological bent, the onus is on innovative instructors to generate enough intellectual curiosity that students won’t forget to see the trees for the forest. (No responsible student of psychology or biology would assume that their field is perfectly characterized by a first year textbook designed for specialists and dabblers alike.) See art criticism, art theory, criticism, hagiography, historical methodologies, perceptualism, taxonomy, teleology.
ART MEDAL: See medal.
ARTIST: A maker of art. See also author.
ARTIST ENVY: Donald Kuspit’s term (in Artforum [November 1987]) for the envy psychoanalysts — and by implication, practitioners of psychoanalytical criticism — have for artists, whom they feel can establish a pre-verbal closeness (empathy, identification. etc.) with the audience. This closeness is of the sort that psychoanalysts work so hard to achieve with their patients.
(L’)ART POUR L’ART: See art for art’s sake.
ART RESTORATION: The rectification of damage to artworks. Cf art conservation.
ART THEORY: The general study of aesthetics and art, with a particular view to elucidating the nature (see ontology) and purpose (see function) of works of art. Art theory has been written by practising artists, critics, historians, and professional philosophers. It is impossible to see a work of art without theory: even the most unreflective, untrained viewer — protesting, e.g., that even a child could draw such and such — is encountering visual phenomena through a tacit theory (in this case, one which foregrounds illusionism and traditional conceptions of talent as technically based). Although art theory sometimes deals with history and ideology, historical methodologies and postmodernism in general are more directly concerned with and responsive to them.
ARTISTIC BIOGRAPHY: The interpretive mode which seeks to produce an accurate account of an artist’s life and/or foregrounds data about an artist’s life in the discussion and evaluation of the artwork. Vasari’s Lives is a prime example, and the model continues to this day. As in the case of Vincent Van Gogh, sometimes biographical accounts become so distorted in popular consciousness that readers fail to recognize the merits of disinterested scholarship. Cf biographical fallacy.
ARTS JOURNALISM: The production of descriptive reviews of arts activities (including dance, drama, music, theatre, visual arts, etc.) for publication in the mass media. Because it is usually directed towards a general audience, much arts journalism has not been very critically acute. Except in some larger centres, popular writing about the arts has even fallen under the rubric of entertainment or lifestyle journalism, and in such cases it is often written by columnists without particular qualifications.
ARTBOOK: A book constructed as a work of art, functional or static in its form.
ARTOPHABIA: The fear of art pertaining to the object
ARTOPHILIA: The genuine love of art without bias or discriminatory intent
ARTWORK: A work of art. Sometimes, like oeuvre, it can also signify an entire body of works.
ARTWORLD: Not simply an art world (sic) — i.e., an institutional framework in which art is commodified, discussed, insured, researched, etc. — “artworld” is Arthur Danto’s term The Journal of Philosophy ) for the knowledge of theory and art history that is necessary to understand how a single artifact can be non-art in one situation and art in another. More bluntly, theory is not a parasite of art but is constitutive of it. Cf “is” of artistic identification.
ARTWRITER: A practitioner of artwriting.
ARTWRITING: David Carrier’s book Artwriting is a thought-provoking analysis of practices in both art criticism and art history, based in part on Arthur Danto’s theory of interpretation (see also artworld). It traces the interrelations of three conceptual points: “the need to properly identify an artwork [i.e., to distinguish it as an artwork, rather than a non-artwork]; the possibility of conflicting interpretations; and the use of rhetoric in intepretation.” Accordingly, the term “artwriting” is more or less a conception of art criticism and art history as essentially rhetorical, rather than scientific — i.e., the primary characteristic of both is persuasive instrumental value, not truth value.
ASIDE: A term used mostly in theatre and film criticism to describe the dramatic convention in which an actor directly addresses the audience without the other actors’ knowledge. It could easily be applied to paintings like Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
ATAVISM: Reversion to an earlier type or to the characteristics of a remote ancestor, as in some varieties of primitivism. Joan Miro’s pictograph-like images and Henry Moore’s allusions to Precolumbian artifacts might be so described. The word was frequently used by Salvador Dali to indicate something closer in meaning to analepsis.
A/THEOLOGY: A unique brand of postmodern (see postmodernism) theology in which the Bible, God, the self and the Word of traditional theology are mutually interpretable in terms deriving from deconstruction. The term, first proposed in Mark C. Taylor’s 1984 book Erring, would have no currency in art discourse were it not for the same author’s Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion (1992), in which the disfiguring of artists and architects like Michael Heizer, Anselm Kiefer, Robert Venturi and James Stirling is discussed.
ATTRIBUTE: An object familiarly associated with an office, person, or personification, as in the sceptre of a king, the tablets of Moses, or the scales of Justice. See metonymy.
ATTRIBUTION: The act of giving credit for an unsigned work to an artist on the basis of similarity of style, iconography, or some other material evidence.
AUDIENCE: Originally, a group of listeners; now, any reader(s), spectator(s), or viewer(s). The traditional distinction between active artists and passive audience is being revised substantially, with much more of the responsibility for meaning going to the latter. See authorial responsibility, reader-response.
AURA: Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” defines “aura” as the unique existence of a work of art — its originality and authenticity. Reproduction withers the aura, detaching the object from the domain of tradition and “liquidating the traditional value of the cultural heritage.” Photography, which renders absurd the notion of the “authentic” print, replaces the ritual roots of authentic traditional art with a basis in politics. Discussions of contemporary appropriation, especially that of Sherri Levine, Richard Prince, Sarah Charlesworth and others, often make explicit reference to the idea. See also negative theology.
AUTEUR THEORY: The still fashionable theory that a single filmmaker, almost always the director, is fully and finally responsible for the creative processes that make the finished product. Essentially Romantic at heart, auteur theory often capitulates to modernism’s, rather than to postmodernism’s, definition of the artist as a singular genius. The contributions of a host of putatively lesser talents — writers, supervising photographers, editors, sound personnel, etc. — are supposedly superceded by those of the auteur. Films by Hitchcock, Kubrick, Truffaut, Vigo and a host of others are generally so treated. Analogies to artists with large workshops and/or numerous assistants (e.g., Rubens, Bernini, David, Warhol, etc.) are inevitable. Some important artists of the 1980s are forcing the issue by becoming film directors themselves (e.g., David Salle, Robert Longo, and Julian Schnabel).
AUTHENTIC MARXISM: See vulgar (sense 3).
AUTHENTICITY: Generally, the condition of that which is reliable, trustworthy, real, original, unique. In this sense, see the more specific term aura and cf simulacrum. In existentialism,art sometimes plays a primary role in establishing a sense of unique identity in the face of an absurd, basically meaningless world. The resultant freedom to choose — to fashion a meaning for oneself, instead of simply reacting passively to external circumstances — is considered authentic. Cf Dasein, existentialism, inauthentic.
AUTHOR: “Artist” can refer generically to practitioners of any number of art forms. Similarly, in some contexts “author” no longer means strictly an editor or writer, but any creator. The doctrine called the death of the author, however, has become one of the more powerful contributions to the growing body of reader-response theories. For this reason, translations of certain thinkers, notably Julia Kristeva, use “writer.” See also auteur theory, authorial ignorance, authorial irrelevance, authorial responsibility, authority.
AUTHORIAL IGNORANCE: The notion, at least as old as Plato, that authors do not fully understand what their own works are about. Cf authorial irrelevance.
AUTHORIAL IRRELEVANCE: The rejection of an author’s biography, social context, and/or stated intentions in the interpretation of a work. Postmodernism generally takes the idea as a given. In contrast, E. D. Hirsch argues against the concept in Validity in Interpretation. Cf artistic biography, authorial responsibility, intentional fallacy.
AUTHORIAL RESPONSIBILITY: Like the auteur theory in film studies, the notion that artists have conscious, determinate (see determinacy) intentions and thus are solely and fully responsible for their work’s success or failure, regardless of the audience. The notion is largely out of fashion in postmodernism. See appropriation, intentional fallacy. Cf reader-response.
AUTHORITY: The power to act, command or judge; expertise; mastery; or one who wields such power. As might be expected in a period of postmodernism and multidisciplinary pursuits, the notion is challenged as an instance of political power, rather than true knowledge. An interesting example is Jan Gallop’s “Psychoanalytic Criticism: Some Intimate Questions,” in Art in America (November 1984).
AUTISTIC CERTAINTY: A narrow example of the type of circular logic called begging the question, in which an individual maintains an illogical certainty about some matter by saying “It is because I believe in it,” or “It cannot be so because I believe it cannot be so.” Unverified or unverifiable statements like “I don’t think it, I know it” are even narrower instances of the same phenomenon. Obviously, this raises a number of issues concerning such matters as faith or belief in the paranormal.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ART: Art produced specifically to exploit, illustrate, or record events in the life of the artist, and/or art produced to give expression to personal thoughts or to vent feelings peculiar to the artist responsible. Autobiographical art is usually indifferent to public themes, but there are recent instances (particularly among feminist artists) in which the personal becomes political, as it were. Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document is a recent important example.
AUTOCRITICAL: In general, self-critical. A specific application is in the autocritical essays of Althusser, in which he revised his earlier opinion that philosophy was about science to a conviction that philosophy was the theoretical expression of politics (see Althusserian).
AUTONOMY: A state of self-government or freedom from restraint; by extension, the supposedly pure, independent realm which art occupies after the removal of all those things which are not “essential” characteristics of art, like iconography and social context. The latter implications are said to derive from Immanuel Kant, who argued that pure art was not limited by function, knowledge, morality, or necessity. The idea is clearly a cornerstone of absolutism, abstraction, apophatic, essentialism, formalism, modernism, non-objectivity, etc. Not surprisingly, postmodernism disputes the idea virtually everywhere. Cf autotelic, homological statements.
AUTOPTIC: A thing itself used as evidence.
AUTOTELIC: Art which has no goal outside of itself, unlike didactic or moralizing work. Audiences incapable of tolerating the portrayal of moral excesses or criminal activities in a work of art have refused to acknowledge the possibility of its autotelic status. Autotelic differs from autonomy in that the latter ideally refers to nothing but itself, whereas the former depicts, say, emotionally trying circumstances, without pretending to be an account of an actual series of events and without having an ulterior motive.
AUTOTELISM Belief that a work of art is an end in itself or its own justification
AUTRUI: French for other people or others in general. The term is occasionally used for alterity. See other.
AVANT-GARDE: Originally a French military expression meaning “advance guard,” and one which still carries distinct connotations of a group of courageous adventurers who take the lead, but now in cultural matters. It once had the very real sense of being ahead of — or at least outside of — the mainstream (i.e., the bourgeoisie, who were alienated [see alienation] by it), but it is now replaced with the debased illusion of “advanced” creative endeavour. And, of course, its productions — once genuinely outside the mainstream market — are now supported by public institutions with only the occasional flutter of public discontent. See also bohemianism.
BACKLASH: There are two related senses of this word. The first is applied to the often extremely aggressive resistance of so-called right-wing traditionalists to the dismantling or redefinition of the traditional canon in the teaching of the humanities (see also political correctness). The second is the title of a popular book by feminist journalist Susan Faludi, with the self-explanatory subtitle The Undeclared War Against American Women. Faludi’s backlash thesis is that the media and popular culture have conspired, even if unconsciously, to return the relative social positions of the sexes to the status quo of earlier times in spite of some minor advances for women. The backlash thus appears nearly everywhere: principal examples include news stories about women over thirty having poor chances of marrying, the contemporary anti-abortion movement, and advertising- inspired anorexia. The latter theme has become very important in recent feminist art. Examples include the large installations of Elizabeth Mackenzie, Tanya Mars’ performance Ms Frankenstein, and any number of others.
BAKHTINIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin. See carnivalesque, chronotope, dialogism, heteroglossia.
BALKANIZATION: Deriving from the Balkan peninsula, the breaking up of something apparently whole into smaller, usually antagonistic units. The idea is invoked in discussions of political correctness, as if the hypothetically uniform study of the humanities will disintegrate into a war between opposed critical communities. There are many other things that appear to be homogeneous, although they manifestly are not: art history, the cultural left, feminism, Marxism and psychoanalytical criticism are only a few.
BARBARISM: A mistake in the form of a word or image resulting from the violation of a standard custom. Barbarisms are common in modern art — Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon is a noted example — and in cases of colonializing primitivism the barbarism works in two directions. E.g., anatomical distortions appropriated from African artifacts violate European standards of figural representation, while the artists who do the appropriating are often indifferent to the significance of the motif in the original culture, thus violating its norms as well. Although the word frequently describes the transference of a motif from a non- European culture to a European one, it can go either way. James Clifford’s Predicament of Culture, for instance, describes a tribal person using a beer cooler for ritual purposes. This may be an instance of a barbarism serving as a perruque.
BARING THE DEVICE: A literary term deriving from Russian formalism, it is what must be done in works of art to show that they are not accurate reflections of reality, as in verisimilitude, but objects unto themselves. Cf autonomy, autotelic, defamiliarization, deictic, truth to materials.
BAROQUE: Once a term of disapprobation, “baroque” generally means a taste for extravagant forms, often heavy ornamentation, and dynamic effects, whether in architecture or in other media. In the seventeenth century, baroque design included classical forms, but it tended to create an effect of architectural muscularity with repetitions and massings (e.g., of columns on the façade of a building) or by breaking conventions (e.g., breaking a pediment or cornice open, to give it a jagged contour). In painting and sculpture, similar ends were sought, but the means included more dynamic compositions, raking effects of light, and the representation of more naturalistic attitudes and emotions. Conventional wisdom has it that baroque emotionalism was a response to the last meeting of the Council of Trent (1563), which fought the developing Reformation by enjoining artists to show spiritual truths as realistically and expressively as possible in order to keep viewers faithful to the Church of Rome. See also rococo.
BARTHESIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of the very influential French writer, critic and teacher Roland Barthes. See denotation, diegesis, floating, jouissance, linguistics, metonymic skid, pleasure of the text, semiotics, signifiance, text, work, writing degree zero.
BASE: See base and superstructure, base materialism.
BASE AND SUPERSTRUCTURE: In Marxist terminology, the base is the economic structure of a society which determines or conditions the state, culture and social consciousness, called the superstructure.
BASE MATERIALISM: Georges Bataille’s rejection of the idealism of Surrealism, among other things, took the form of a Dionysian lowering (bassesse) of the self into the instinctual plane in which appetitive drives determined most behaviour. The idea has subsequently been embellished by Rosalind Krauss (L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism) and others.
BASSESSE: A lowering of a person, state of mind or thing into the primal plane of base materialism. The idea has begun to achieve currency in descriptions of Dionysian works which generate distaste for some viewers, like those of Mark Prent or Jana Sterbak.
BATAILLEAN: Pertaining to the notions of Georges Bataille, once a nearly forgotten writer rejected by the orthodox Surrealists, but very influential among the French intellegentsia from the 1960s and in the United States from the mid-1980s. See base materialism, bassesse, general economy, informe, heterology, etc.
BATHOS: An anticlimax produced from an overreaching for grand style, especially when the subject is not normally so treated. A particularly common sort in the modern period is the faintly ridiculous treatment of historical personages as gods or heroes (see genres), as in Antonio Canova’s Napoleon, Horatio Greenough’s Washington, and so on. Compare hyperbole, litotes, meiosis.
BAUDRILLARDIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. See simulacra, simulation.
BEAUTY MYTH: Title of a controversial book by Naomi Wolf arguing that patriarchal society oppresses women by producing images in fashion, etc., that they cannot emulate without damaging or even destroying themselves.
BEAUX-ARTS: See high art (culture).
BEGGING THE QUESTION: A flaw or fallacy in rational argument in which one of the premises is founded on the matter under dispute. E.g., Clive Bell’s unique aesthetic emotion is the result of significant form, which is itself undefined except as certain relations of forms that generate aesthetic emotion. The argument is circular (see tautology) and is thus invalid. For a practical application, see cultural selection. For a narrow example, see autistic certainty
BEHAVIOUR: Activity, or the combination of observable and describable responses of an agent to internal and external stimuli. The term is included here because of its connotations in behavioural science and the potentially rich implications the latter has for the description and interpretation of the experience of works of art. See, e.g., ethology, phenomenology.
BEHAVIOURISM: The school of psychology, most famously linked to the studies of B. F. Skinner, which argues that most human behaviour is conditioned or learned, rather than genetic.
BEHAVIOUR OF ART: See ethology.
BENJAMIN: See aura, negative theology.
BERKELEIAN IDEALISM: See idealism.
BETRAYING VERSUS EXPRESSING EMOTION: In his Principles of Art, R.G. Collingwood ascertained that the simple, unreflective experience of an emotion, with its concomitant distortion of the facial features, etc., was only a matter of betraying emotion. Much more significant was the expression of emotion, which involved a certain degree of cognitive development and communication, as in art. See craft, expression theory, techne.
BIG LIE: Manipulation of the facts, particularly in popular contexts, make a story more interesting. For example, some writers think the to-do about political correctness is nothing more than a recent big lie produced within popular culture as part of a decades-old attack on the so-called ivory tower. (See Michael Berubé’s “Public Image Limited,” Village Voice [June 18, 1992]).
BINARY OPPOSITIONS: Specific examples of enantiomorphs — i.e., symmetrically opposed pairs — most usually challenged in social criticisms. Perhaps the most frequent critique of binary oppositions is feminism’s attack on supposed gender symmetry.
BIOGRAPHICAL FALLACY: According to formalism and other types of criticism that downplay the role of the author of a work, the erroneous idea that a work’s value and meaning reside in the circumstances of the artist’s life. It is clear that a psychoanalytical interpretation would also be so understood.
BIOPHILIC: Pertaining to a love of the organic or the natural. Rosa Bonheur and Franz Marc both had strong inclinations of this sort, although they gave them different expressions.
BI-SEXISM: Although the word itself simply means discrimination based on gender, sexism is most often understood as discrimination specifically against women (see feminism). That has led Warren Farrell, one of the proponents of the new masculinity, to coin the word “bi-sexism” to indicate discrimination which works against both males and females. For example, a man’s attachment to the workplace, he writes in The Myth of Male Power, is not a sign of his greater privilege but of his obligation to perform, leading to greater stress and a shorter life.
BISTRE: A brown wash made from soot, commonly used in the Renaissance.
BLACK HUMOUR: Absurdity, immorality and morbidity used for comic effect or to draw attention obliquely to some regrettable state of affairs that is too painful to confront directly. The Surrealists used it frequently, and André Breton even published an anthology of it. Black humour raises questions about the autonomy of a work of art. Cf autotelic.
BODEGONES: Paintings combining genre and still-life, often with a religious scene tucked into the background. Aertsen and Veláquez painted notable examples. See mise-en-abîme.
BODY COLOUR: A rather opaque type of watercolour, sometimes used sparingly for emphasis and ornament and sometimes used for the entire image, at which point it is likely called a “gouache.”
BOHEMIANISM: Deriving ultimately from Gypsy wanderers thought to have been from Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Moravia, or Romania, bohemianism evolved into the anti-bourgeois, anti-intellectual (see anti-intellectualism), alternative lifestyle of the avant-garde creative community in the Romantic nineteenth century. In the later twentieth century, there are successful artists whose lifestyles are about as far from the marginal as one can get, yet their carefully cultivated cachet of Romantic genius still capitalizes on the bohemian myth. See also divine afflatus.
BOO-HOORAY THEORY: In Language Truth, and Logic, philosopher A. J. Ayer asserted that all moral or other evaluations state nothing of objective value and are simply expressions of belief, emotion, feeling, and the like (see logical positivism for further explanation). Boo-hooray theory is simply a nickname for this proposition.
BOURGEOIS: Originally related to burgher — i.e., a citizen of a burg — and now generally taken to mean a typical middle-class person with middle-class moral, economic and other values. Bourgeois can be both an adjective and a noun; in the latter case, strictly speaking, it means a male. When a female is meant, bourgeoise is the term used. Bourgeoisie means the middle class in general. Haute bourgeoisie means the upper middle class, who might be better described as capitalists. Bourgeois, as might be imagined, appears frequently in Marxist writing.
BOURGEOIS DRAMA: A literary term roughly akin to genre (sense 2). It has been used by Norman Bryson (Tradition and Desire) in discussions of the more theatrical paintings of Greuze (e.g., The Drunkard’s Return).
BRACKETING: In E. G. A. Husserl’s phenomenology, one can never know if the external world has any existence independent of the perceiving subject. Accordingly, one “puts on hold” (i.e., brackets) any speculations concerning the external world, turning instead to a profound investigation of the workings of one’s own consciousness.
BRICOLAGE: French term meaning “puttering around” or “doing odd jobs.” Claude Lévi-Strauss (see structuralism) gave the term a more precise anthropological sense in books like The Savage Mind (1966) by stipulating that it refer to, among other things, a kind of shamanic spontaneous creativity (see shaman) accompanied by a willingness to make do with whatever is at hand, rather than fuss over technical expertise. The ostensible purpose of this activity is to make sense of the world in a non-scientific, non-abstract mode of knowledge by designing analogies between the social formation and the order of nature. As such, the term embraces any number of things, from what was once called anti-art to the punk movement’s reinvention of utlitarian objects as fashion vocabulary (see, for example, Dick Hebdige’s Subculture ). See also bricoleur.
BRICOLEUR: French term meaning “handy-man” or “jack- of-all-trades,” now implying someone who continually invents his or her own strategies for comprehending reality. Marcel Broodthaers has been so described. See bricolage.
BRIGHTNESS: See colour.
BURDEN OF PROOF: A legal term meaning that the holder of any intepretation diverging from what is objectively describable (i.e., factual) carries the burden of proving that it is plausible beyond a reasonable doubt. Some art criticism — especially subjective impressionism, but by no means only that — seems to have forgotten this basic principle of rational argument.
BURLESQUE: The use of caricature, distortion, exaggeration, irony, parody, and/or travesty to ridicule a subject normally treated in a noble or dignified manner. Many of Hogarth’s prints could be so described, as could some of the work of Vincent Trasov, General Idea, Gilbert and George, and so on.
BUTTRESS: Any of a variety of structures designed to reinforce a wall, particularly in instances where the thrust of a vault tends to make the walls of a structure spread apart. There are, for example, massive buttresses supporting the giant dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The most celebrated type is the so-called “flying buttress” developed for use in Gothic cathedrals: in these cases, the thrust of the vault is pulled away from the walls altogether via braces rather like the ribs of an umbrella without any fabric.
CAESURA: Originally the pause in a line of verse, particularly when read aloud; in Painting and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750, Rudolf Wittkower used the word more generally to identify any meaningful break in a pattern, as in a dramatic void in a painting or a formally decisive gap on an architectural facade. One wonders if the term is useful in the discussion of aesthetic distance, aporia, irony, and so on.
CALLIGRAMME: See carmen figuratum. This is also the title of Norman Bryson’s influential anthology of new art history from France.
CAMOUFLAGE: Concealment, deception, or disguise, conventionally, but Roger Caillois gave the idea a theoretical spin in the 1930s that has had influence on the Octoberists. Caillois described the ability of chameleons to take on the colours of their surroundings in psychoanalytic terms as the dissolution of the self. The idea often crops up in tandem with Lacan’s mirror stage. Cf chameleon criticism. Krauss’s essay “Corpus delecti” (in L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism) raises an interesting question of whether basically psychoanalytical interpretations are ahistorical. She describes one of Man Ray’s photographs of a nude torso inscribed with shadows from a nearby curtain in terms clearly derived from Caillois and Lacan, but the image itself predates their writings by years. Clearly, the photographer was not “illustrating” Caillois or Lacan. The loophole is the presumption that the mental state so described pre-existed the writers’ naming of it, which seems quite reasonable. The consequence, however, is that the image is primarily symptomatic, rather than creative in any traditional sense.
CANON: Originally referring to the saints who have been officially recognized as such (i.e., canonized) by the Roman Catholic church, now analogously applied to supposedly unquestionable great figures in the arts (e.g., DWMs). Just as one can only become a saint by performing miracles, one can only become a great artist by producing masterpieces. In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold said that every educated person should be familiar with the best that has been thought and said. However, we now tend to feel that the institutions that actually do the educating — like those of the church — have a certain inflexibility (or at least sluggishness) in responding to the work of women, or non-whites, or the working class (see critique of institutions). As instruments of the institutions of education, textbooks have become canons of what at least one individual in a position of power has thought to exemplify great art. By exclusion, then, textbooks are said to oppress outsiders. Postmodernism has put in question the very idea of an irreducible list of geniuses and their masterpieces for some time. See canon-formation, counterspeech.
CANON-FORMATION: The processes (often unconscious, Eurocentric, and patriarchal) by which a canon is made. Postmodernism generally critiques the cultural mechanisms at work as symptomatic of power relations in a society. Cf hagiography.
CARAVAGGISM: See chiaroscuro.
CARICATURE: The depiction of exaggerated physical characteristics or personality traits to achieve a burlesque effect. It is most common in drawings and editorial cartoons, but Daumier made several sculptural examples.
CARMEN FIGURATUM: Verbal texts composed so that their printed configuration on the page resembles some aspect of their subject matter. Sometimes also called figure poems. Guillaume Apollinaire composed a few notable examples.
CARNIVALESQUE: Mikhail Bakhtin’s term to identify an atmosphere of revelry, contempt of authority, and somatic anti-intellectualism in literature. Easily applicable to certain genre revelries in painting (e.g., the peasant dances of Breughel or Rubens) and to the virulent social criticism of some modern and postmodern art (e.g., Dada, General Idea). Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discussion of the festival in Truth and Method is related.
CARTESIAN INTERACTIONISM: An attempted resolution of the mind-body problem, deriving from René Descartes, which argues that the mind is quite distinct in nature from the body but interacts with it somewhere in the vicinity of the pituitary gland, giving the impression of a unified being. See also dualism, psychophysical parallelism.
CASTRATION: Understood as removal of the male sexual organs only, although most standard dictionaries also include something regarding removal of the ovaries. The reason for its inclusion here is the frequency with which this tired idea appears in criticisms influenced by Freudian thought. One of the more interesting reworkings is that of Jane Gallop (see erotics of engagement).
CATACHRESIS: Go here for a definition and some discussion.
CATALOGUE RAISONNE: “Catalogue raisonné” is from the French for “reasoned catalog,” appears to have been first used around 1784 (according to Merriam-Webster), and is used in English to denote a critical bibliography or a systematic, annotated catalog. The typical manifestation is the catalogue raisonné of a single artist’s works, in which the author usually tries to be as complete and comprehensive as possible, listing everything conceivable and accompanying the entries with information on location, condition, production information, provenance, a historical sketch of interpretations and receptions, and so on. Although packed with useful information, catalogues raisonnés tend to read like the phone book rather than fluid narratives.
CATECHISM: Religious doctrine put into the set form of questions and answers. See postmodern catechism.
CATEGORICAL STATEMENTS: In informal logic, statements which pertain to categories or classes of things. See categorical syllogisms.
CATEGORICAL SYLLOGISMS: In informal logic, three categorical statements related in such a way that two of them, having one term in common, validly yield a third categorical statement relating the remaining two terms. For example, “All humans are mortal; Michelangelo was human; therefore, Michelangelo was mortal.”
CATEGORY: Generally, a class, group, or section. Cf taxonomy. The term has very specific applications in the epistemology of Aristotle, Kant, and others. See category mistake.
CATEGORY MISTAKE: Philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s term for a type of error that occurs when one presents facts about a certain category in terms appropriate to another. Although he was thinking of age-old philosophical questions like the mind-body problem, the suggestion that we are deluding ourselves with mental habits like arguments from analogy, rather than categorical mental discipline, is perhaps something that should be discussed, given the proliferation of multidisciplinary practices. For example, the category “art” is quite different in fact from that of “ritual,” yet arguments from analogy (e.g., ethology) and the appropriation of the latter by the former as subject and practice give the impression that they are wholly and sufficiently one and the same. This has certainly become a commonplace assertion, but might it be a category mistake?
CATHARSIS: In Aristotle’s poetics, the purgation of the emotions, as if exposure to an affective work of art could cure imbalance of the passions or psychological distress. There has always been debate as to whether this was what Aristotle actually had in mind. In any case, the idea crops up frequently in subsequent expression theory and the like.
CATHEXIS: A Freudian term designating the investment of libidinal energy (see fetish, libido) in an idea, image, object or person. Critics fond of discerning appetitive drives in a work of art might be inclined to make use of the concept.
CAUSAL ARGUMENTS: Arguments which purport to explain one phenomenon as the result of another. For example, X can be said to have caused Y if there is a genuine correlation that is not mere coincidence and if there is not some other, unstated second cause that is the cause of both X and Y. The X may be a variable condition (a specific catalyst, like a match causes a fire) or a composite cause (a variable condition plus a constant condition, like a bolt of lightning at the end of a prolonged dry spell causes a fire). Interpretations which allude to invisible contextual information (see context) as causes of identifiable effects in the meaning or appearance of a work of art need to be carefully examined, because X and only X is frequently assumed to be the cause of Y, with potential causes Q, R, S, and/or T simply left out of the picture. A case in point is the debate over the cause of Picasso’s Blue Period: was it that poverty drove him to buy only cheap blue paint, that blue is a sign of despair, that blue was the principle colour in the influential works of Puvis de Chavannes, or some other, unstated cause? See causality.
CAUSALITY The relation of cause and effect. For an argument against this, see constant conjunction.
CENTRAL In postmodernist critiques, especially, the self-indulgent tendency of one group to see itself as more important, more highly developed, or more relevant to human experience in general than any other group, which is ignored, colonized (see colonialism), or seen as tributary at best. The conception is often applied as the suffix “centric,” as in afrocentric, androcentric, anthropocentric, egocentric, ethnocentric, eurocentric, logocentric, phallogocentric, and phallocentric. Cf marginal.
CHAMELEON CRITICISM:: Critical acts in an educational context are usually performed at the front of a darkened room by lecturers whose bodies interfere with projected images and thus distort them. Chameleon criticism is a figurative term (peculiar to this writer) to indicate the way in which critics hide themselves by taking on the colouring and markings of the object in question. From the point of view of the object or of a hypothetical postmodernist third party, the camouflage can be seen as self-deception on the part of the critics — i.e., the critics fool themselves that they have attained objectivity. However, from the point of view of the “chameleons,” who presumably know what they are, the camouflage can be a useful “survival strategy” midway between the myth of objectivity and complete subjectivism. That chameleons can rotate their eyes separately is a metaphorical bonus implying that critics should be able to exploit more than one point of view (i.e., critical or historical methodology) at a time. Cf illustrement.
CHAMELEONISM: See camouflage.
CHANNEL: In information theory, a path along which data can be transferred.
CHANNELING: A spiritualist medium’s passive reception of information from a disembodied soul or other supernatural entity. Were it not for a very few publications that claim to do this for deceased artists — most notably Paul Cézanne’s communications from beyond the grave via a 2000 year old man named “Seth” — the idea would have no substantial currency in writing about art.
CHARACTER: 1. The human beings, anthropomorphized creatures, and personifications that serve as actors in drama, image, narrative, and the like. 2. The intellectual, moral, psychological, and other components of a personality. Cf ethos. 3. Those aspects of an experience, image, object and the like that give it a particular flavour or quality of experience.
CHARM: An object or utterance intended to have a magical effect. Cf fetish, magico-religious, talisman.
CHIAROSCURO: In conventional artwriting, chiaroscuro means merely modelling a form, as in a shaded drawing, in terms of light (clear=chiaro) and dark (obscure=scuro). As such, chiaroscuro is a generic term and does not describe a particular manner of modelling. There are other terms narrowing this range, like “sfumato,” which refers to the soft, “smoky” modelling in Leonardo and Corregio drawings, and “tenebrism” (also called “Caravaggism”), which refers to sharply contrasted lights and darks, almost creating a spotlight effect, as in the works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Georges De La Tour. Curiously, in film studies, chiaroscuro always refers to the latter type of lighting, as in film noir.
CHIASMUS: The inversion of parallel phrases in poetic syntax, as in “He went to the city, to the country went she,” or Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” In Tradition and Desire, Norman Bryson uses the term to characterize a curious inversion of visuality present in images of people in meditation. Whereas Michael Fried (in Absorption and Theatricality) sees paintings of distracted figures as excluding the viewer, Bryson sees them as implying the viewer through chiastic reversal.
CHOMSKYAN: Pertaining to the theories of linguist Noam Chomsky. See deep structure, generative-tranformational, innateness hypothesis, surface structure.
CHROMA: See colour.
CHRONOCENTRISM: The self-indulgent tendency of the most recent era (and its history, values, etc.) to see itself as more important, more highly developed, or more relevant to human experience in general than any other era. See central.
CHRONOTOPE: Mikhail Bakhtin’s term for space-time in The Dialogic Imagination.
CINEMATIC: Pertaining to devices — usually visual — characteristic of films and filmmaking.
CIRCUIT OF VISUALITIES: Norman Bryson’s characterization of the way visuality circulates in a social context. See social formation.
CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: Demonstrable facts, events or states that condition or determine the inference of another, concomitant fact, event or state. This is a legal term, but its applicability to interpretation based on context is clear. See also causal arguments.
CITATION: Like quotation in a written text, an artist’s use of material from another source to contribute to a new image, whether in terms of form or of content. Much of the historical eclecticism in, for example, nineteenth-century architecture consisted of citations. Cf appropriation, source analysis.
CLASS LOGIC: That which pertains to categorical statements (relations between classes of things) and categorical syllogisms.
CLASSIC, CLASSICAL: These terms are so frequently confused that the following distinction may not hold true in all cases: strictly speaking, “classic” means of the highest order or rank, whereas “classical” means characteristic of Greek and Roman antiquity and things made in emulation thereof. For example, Picasso’s Guernica (1937) may well be a classic, but it is hardly classical. That is, it may have a certain staying power in history (cf masterpiece) based on any number of assumptions, including quality, but it does not exhibit any characteristics associated with various classical schools, like rationalism and impersonal execution. On the other hand, Gérard’s Cupid and Psyche of 1798 is classical, in some respects, but it is hardly a classic.
CLASSICAL CONTINUITY STYLE: Go here
CLASSISM: By analogy with racism and sexism, a disparaging attitude towards members of other social ranks. The word is not to be confused with “classicism,” the veneration of the the classical heritage (see classic, classical). See hierarchy.
CLICHE: An expression that has become hackneyed or trite through overuse or unrecognized banality. There are innumerable examples — the “poignant” juxtaposition of youth and old age, the clutching of the forehead to indicate intellectuality, etc. The adjectival form is clichéd. Cf dead metaphor.
CLIMAX: In traditional narrative analysis, the dramatic or emotional height in a narrative. E.g., in a hypothetical telling of the story of Medusa, if the crisis were the point at which Perseus finds he cannot avoid confronting the infamous Gorgon, the climax would be the moment he holds her severed head triumphantly aloft. The terms lend themselves to an interesting rethinking of the traditional distinction between Renaissance stasis and Baroque dynamism. Cf, for example, Michelangelo’s and Bernini’s Davids from this narrative point of view.
CLOSURE: 1. In Gestalt perceptual psychology, the satisfaction of a pattern encoded, as it were, into the brain, thus triggering recognition of the stimulus. This can involve the brain’s provision of missing details thought to be a part of a potential pattern, or, once closure is achieved, the elimination of details unnecessary to establish a pattern match. Both conditions can lead to erroneous interpretations of a stimulus, a famous example of which is the alternating figure. 2. The sense of a definite conclusion, a tying up of all loose ends, and a final determinacy of meaning. The possibility of an exhaustive interpretive conclusion extending to all details of a work with equal validity is challenged by postmodernism in general. Cf open-endedness.
CODE: 1. A conventional meaning arbitrarily assigned to a symbol (see semiotics, sign proper, symbol [sense 2]). 2. A set of transformational rules for converting the meanings of one semiotic system into another. Although the term has very specific applications in the work of some critics (e.g., Roland Barthes, Jack Burnham, Umberto Eco, Hal Foster, Roman Jakobson), it is generically used to indicate the presence of some latent meaning “behind” a manifest one which must thus be decoded for exposure to the understanding.
CODETERMINACY: Postmodernism generally prefers indeterminacy to determinacy, because the latter is thought to be restrictive, unresponsive to changes in context, and so on, while the former is sometimes so unrestrictive that interpretation is sometimes ahistorical semantic freeplay. An alternative which needs to be articulated is codeterminacy, which sits somewhere between the excesses of the other two. It agrees with indeterminacy that examination of simple causality can probably not produce an accurate description of the meaning of a text. On the other hand, rather than displacing the context of the author or the period in which the art was produced in favour of that of the interpreter, codeterminacy describes the causal constellations exerting formative influences of multiple sorts on the work of art. The effect of multivocality would in some sense be a function of this codeterminacy. For example, a list of the codeterminants of André Masson’s Massacre drawings would include at least Breton’s automatism, Bachofen’s Mutterrecht, Bataille’s heterogeneity, Nietzsche’s “Pale Criminal” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, the Marquis de Sade, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, contemporary French agricultural policies, and contemporary prostitution. Isolating or giving undue priority to any one of these could skew the interpretation. On the other hand, asserting that the works were about, say, dismantling Foucauldian epistemes of gender would be clearly ahistorical.
COEXTENSION: An overlapping of sorts, but instead of involving two originally separate things, coextension concerns one thing which can operate in several ways in different contexts. E.g., an F sharp is the same key on a piano as a G flat, but to identify that note with the former term in the latter’s key would introduce contextual distortion. The notion has interesting ramifications for postmodern theories of polysemy. Cf illustrement, intertextuality, multiple locatedness, nominalism.
COGNATES: Similar words, in two or more languages, which are related by descent from the same ancestral language. For example, the English “history” and the French “histoire” are both descendants from the Latin “historia.” For instances of the abuse of the principle, see faux amis, false cognates, folk etymology, herstory. Cf four term fallacy.
COGNITIVE: Pertaining to the act or processes of knowing and perceiving. Most aesthetic theories argue that art is not a matter of mere decoration because of its various appeals to the various cognitive faculties of the mind.
COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: A psychological term denoting the mental state in which two or more incompatible or contradictory ideas — e.g., enjoying smoking and knowing it to be unhealthy — are both held to be true. While a person who is successful at keeping them in suspension might be said to have a high degree of negative capability — implying that the conception has a potentially useful role to play in psychological criticism — a person who is not successful may simply be repressing one of the ideas in favour of the other, thus producing dissonant discomfort. Cf antinomy.
COLLABORATION: A putatively basic paradigm of female acculturation, as opposed to male competition. See also partnership. Cf conversational style, report-talk.
COLLAGE: The gluing together of bits and pieces of originally unrelated images and parts thereof, including previously used commercial materials, to create something unprecedented (rather than in imitation of the world). By analogy, any act of criticism which adopts a similar technique, usually (but not necessarily) relacing visual fragments with citations, paraphrases, and the like from other critical acts, chiefly as a strategy to avoid determinacy. Innumerable writers from John Cage onwards have experimented with the approach. In Canada, artist Sorel Etrog and critic Reesa Greenberg have exploited the idea.
COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS: Not to be confused with collective unconscious, this is Emil Durkheim’s term (in The Rules of Sociological Method) to distinguish how collective representations give shape to personal associations and aspirations in such a manner as to represent a social heritage in a given time and place. As such, the term is a near synonym of horizon of expectations or social formation, with a more sociological and psychological spin.
COLLECTIVE REPRESENTATIONS: Distinguishable values and sentiments as they link with shared cultural (see culture) symbols in a given time and place. Collective representations differ in type and range, from the moral status quo reiterated nightly in television sitcoms to specific symbols of revolt in, say, punk subculture. See collective consciousness.
COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: The field of inherited ideas, images, legends, myths, and the like that exists beyond individual memory but nonetheless informs it. The presumption is that just as biological evolution passes through preliminary stages which remain as, say, vestigial organs or structures in more developed species, the mind too retains remnants of earlier stages in its development. One of the most basic of these is primitive presentiment, which surfaces in dreams and nightmares. See archetype, Jungian criticism, myth.
COLLOQUIALISM: Slang or informal everyday speech. Perhaps the notion could usefully be applied to the visual arts to relax some of the tension involved in words like realism and slice-of-life. The notion can also be applied to visual slang. See slang.
COLONIALISM: The process in which an empowered culture assimilates, destroys or estranges a powerless one. Colonialism differs from imperialism chiefly in the degree of subjugation of the native culture. Imperialism does not necessarily involve sharp distinctions between the rulers and the ruled, whereas colonialism emphatically does. For related ideas, see acculturation, perruque, speech accommodation.
COLOREME: Term invented by Fernande Saint-Martin (Semiotics of Visual Language) to designate the basic unit of visual language as inherently different from those of verbal language. A coloreme is “the zone of the visual linguistic field correlated to a centration of the eyes” (i.e., the cluster of visual variables within the visual field during the momentary fixation pauses between saccades). Since the coloreme is a region, any change in one of its components will transform the coloreme itself and its relations with other coloremes, just as changes in phonemes will entail changes in morphemes in verbal language. “Coloreme” is not to be confused directly with “colour,” although Saint-Martin’s rationale for term is that colour supercedes all other visual phenomena. (E.g., a line, which we conventionally think of as opposed in nature to colour, is perceptible by virtue of a coloration different from that of its surroundings). Coloremes enter into relations with other coloremes, producing aggregates called “supercoloremes.” Saint-Martin concludes: “[Visual s]emiotic analysis is thus conceived as an intense subjective experience calling for the conceptual and emotive resources of the individual and not as a distribution of verbal labels.”
COLORIST TRADITION: In the history of art, there is an imaginary line of development moving from early colorists like the Venetian painters, who ostensibly placed more emphasis on color than on line, design, or concept, to later colorists like the Impressionsists, some of whom went so far in stressing colour over drawing and composition that their works appear quite amorphous, like veils of colored light. Of course, this is an over-generalization. The Venetians, for example, were fully capable of complicated composition and conceptual sophistication, but the notion is that their greatest contribution in general was a new attitude to the priority of color and light, as is the case for the Impressionists, who were also fully capable of, say, conceptual allegory when they wanted to be. The distinction seems to have arisen from old sources like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, in which Northern Italian colore was identified as fundamentally different in nature from Roman disegno (drawing or design). That distinction, by the way, is why there so much controversy during the late 20th-century cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, when Michelangelo’s colors were revealed to be quite bright. The conservative opinion was that this could not be right, since he was renowned for disegno, not colore. In any case, his work remains different in nature since even with bright colors, it remains a matter of brightly tinted drawings, whereas Venetian painting clearly functions a different way visually. Nowadays, to say that an artist works in the “colorist tradition” is to say only that he or she produces work which could occupy a point on that imaginary line.
COLOUR: In very formal writing about colour, the word “colour” (or “color,” if you prefer) refers simply to the broad category of visual phenomena in which one can differentiate objects (even otherwise identical objects) by virtue of differences in the portions of the spectrum of light that they reflect. That is, “colour” does not mean a particular colour but the category which includes particular hues and other things like tints, shades, brightness, and saturation. In turn, “hue” refers to the colour name — i.e., what people mean when they answer the colloquial question “what colour is that?” “Tint” refers to a variation of a hue produced by adding white to it, which typically (though not necessarily) results in a lower saturation and a high brightness. “Shade” refers to a variation of a hue produced by adding black to it, which typically (though not necessarily) results in a higher saturation and a low brightness. “Brightness” obviously refers to the relative amount of light a hue will reflect, while “saturation” refers to chromatic purity (that is, relative freedom of dilution with another hue). The word “chromatic” is clear; it means having an identifiable hue, as opposed to “achromatic” black, white, and gray, all of which are degrees of lightness rather than slices of the spectrum. In contrast, the word “chroma” is often unclear and inconsistent, but it usually indicates a combination of hue and saturation — that is, a hue’s degree of purity, vividness, or intensity as determined by either its freedom from dilution with white or by the way it differs from a gray having the same lightness (i.e., reflecting the same quantity of light). A hue with high chroma is purer and more apparently unadulterated by tints. “Chroma” appears to differ from “saturation” in that the latter can refer to adulteration by another hue, whereas the former refers to the level of adulteration by an achromatic element (black, white, or gray). See also cool colour, warm colour. There is an interesting page on colour and colour vision at York University.
COLOUR TEMPERATURE: See cool colour, warm colour.
COLOUR THEORY: Correspondent Zachary Stadel offers this interesting corrective: “One problem I found was with your definition of the primary colors. You mention only the classical ones, which I find erroneous and incomplete: “The primary colours actually differ from context to context, but in the classic formal language of much artwriting, there are only the three: red, blue and yellow. Classic colour theory asserts that admixtures of any two of these in the proper proportions will result in the creation of “secondary” colours which will be the “complementary” of the third primary colour. For example, mixing the primary red and blue gives the secondary violet, which is the complementary of yellow; mixing red and yellow gives orange, the complementary of blue; and mixing yellow and blue gives green, the complementary of red.” The subtractive primaries (primaries dealing with pigment) are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Their complements, the additive primaries, are, respectively, red, green, and blue. I’ve always been shocked that so many art books still put forth the red, yellow, blue primaries when the rest of the world has discovered the true primaries by extensive experimentation. Printers use CMYK (K for black because ink impurities prevent C+M+Y from achieving a deeper black than chemical black) because C, M, and Y are the complements to the RGB cones in our eyes. Televisions do not emit red, yellow, and blue light–they emit RGB because, again, these additive primaries correspond to the cones in our retinas. I believe RYB were taken as primaries early in the history of image making because cyan and magenta could not be readily produced, and now ritual and convention have solidified the place of RYB in art history. Please help to dispel the myth by revising your definition!”
COLUMN: Under construction. Include here abacus, acanthus, capital, shaft. See also wall.
COMBINED STUDIES: The use of more than one more narrowly defined type of criticism or historical methodology. In actual practice, most interpretations are combined studies in some respect. Also called integrated studies.
COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE: Commedia dell’arte refers to a popular form of comedy in 16th-18th century Italy, in which they used improvised dialogue and masked actors in farcical drama, pantomime, song, and dance. It engendered some very famous individual characters, most notably Harlequin and Columbine. Its influence on French pantomine (think street mimes) and English harlequinade (think Punch and Judy) was huge in theatre history, and a few artists really capitalized on those characters for their own ends (most famously, Picasso’s “self-portraits” as Harlequin).
COMMERCIAL ART: Visual art produced principally for commercial purposes such as advertising, as opposed to fine art. See also high art (culture).
COMMODITY: An article of commerce. Describing an artwork as a commodity overtly downplays any other function it might have had, like personal expression, communication, propaganda, etc.
COMMODITY FETISHISM: Marx used this term in Das Kapital to underline how commodities (see commodity) appear to be substantial objects but are actually networks of social relationships. (E.g., many objects are desirable primarily for prestige, rather than any practical purpose.) As such, commodities are fetishized (see fetishism, sense 1) by metaphysical and religious wishful thinking. In other words, commodity fetishism is an overweening preoccupation with the status possessions afford to their owners, and their exchange value independent of their “actual” worth, in whatever currency (i.e., personal expression, communication, etc.). When used to describe art, the concept indicates both the desire for possession above all else and a rather naive adulation of Romantic conceptions of art, artwork, and genius.
In response to this entry, Alan Wallach of The College of William and Mary offers this useful addition: Although your glossary seems quite useful overall, I thought the definition of commodity fetishism too simple. Marx describes the fetishisms of commodities in the very first chapter of Das Kapital, and it is in many respects the fundamental basis for his subsequent critique of political economy. It is not simply definied, and Marx tends to work through its modalities dialectically. Your definition makes it too arbitrary or simply a matter of some people’s delusions. The fetishism of commodities, in Marx’s sense, covers all commodities. It is basic to the commodity form in which social relations are hidden or disguised. (How often does anyone think of the laborers who made the glass from which you drink water or the labor processes involved in its creation?) Instead of seeing living social relations we endow commodities with a life of their own. For this reason, Marx uses the term fetish (the ascription of living powers to inanimate objects). The fetishism of commodities is inseparable from the commodity form, which is in turn inseparable from the capitalist mode of production.
COMMON SENSE: In postmodernism in general, common sense is considered a fiction created by those in power to convince the oppressed that ideology is simply the way things really are. See ideological effect, myth.
COMMUNICATION: A notion underlying particularly popular conceptions of art — i.e., that artists have something specific in mind that they want to transmit and that making an artwork is principally a matter of finding an appropriate vehicle and/or code. See information theory. This notion was completely out of favour among die-hard minimalists in the 1960s, some of whom apparently said “If I wanted to send a message, I’d have called Western Union.”
COMMUNICATION THEORY: Another name for information theory.
COMMUNITY: See interpretive community.
COMPENSATORY: Counterbalancing, neutralizing, making compensation for some injury or lack. The idea is fundamental to many of the principles of psychoanalytic criticism. See confabulation, desire, displacement, oceanic feeling, Oedipus complex, etc.
COMPETENCE AND PERFORMANCE: See langue and parole.
COMPETITION: According to Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, a putatively basic paradigm of male acculturation, as opposed to female collaboration or partnership. Cf conversational style, report-talk.
COMPLAINT: A literary term indicating the expression of sorrow or lament in fairly fixed form. Some of the more rhetorical paintings of lamentation or bereavement (e.g., Bouguereau’s Premier deuil) might be so described. A lament, in contrast, is usually more heartfelt.
COMPLEMENTARY COLOURS: See primary colours.
COMPLICATION: In a narrative, the development of the opposing forces set in motion by the conflict. Sometimes also called the rising action. See also crisis, narrative analysis.
CONCATENATION RELATION: Roman Jakobson (Essais de linguistique générale) used this term to distinguish signs in a syntagmatic axis from those in a paradigmatic axis. The concatenation relation of signs is the way they relate to each other as they actually appear, for example, in a given sentence (or, by extension, in an image). The selection relation is the way they relate to other signs which could take their place but which are not actually present. Deriving some of his insights from the effects of aphasia, Jakobson concluded that the brain structures information according to association or analogy. These are then related to metonymy and metaphor respectively, so the conception has fundamental applications for visual imagery. However, one might well ask to what degree they are mutually exclusive. For example, if one considers Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa as principally a matter of selection relations, then the work is most likely understood as an indictment of Bourbon Restoration politics. On the other hand, if the work were fundamentally a matter of concatenation relations, then it will more likely be seen as a broader statement of the human condition. Nothing about the work itself has changed, however. Jakobson’s ideas are increasingly being taken as givens, as in the writings of Paul Ricoeur (The Conflict of Interpretations). See also displacement.
CONCEIT: A striking image, motif or theme — often an elaborate or even fanciful controlling metaphor. Strong conceits were particularly common in Italian Baroque art (e.g., Bernini’s additions to St. Peter’s as ecclesia triumphans). Cf Gesamtkunstwerk.
CONCEPT: 1. Familiarly, something conceived in the mind, as in a thought or notion, especially when it concerns generalization from particular instances. 2. More specifically, the mathematician Gottlob Frege defined “concept” as an incomplete predicate which can achieve reference only with the addition of some other component. For example, “…was divine” is a predicate which makes little or no sense until we add “Michelangelo…”. The notion has interesting possibilities for interpretation, given that any identifiable object in an image is predicated in some way (see also mediation). For a related discussion, see paralinguistic.
CONCEPTUAL: Pertaining to concepts. More specifically, art possessing imagery that departs from perceptual accuracy to present a conception of the object, rather than its appearance alone. It has become fairly standard, for example, to characterize the rigidly formal art of ancient Egypt as conceptual, whereas Courbet’s Realism is perceptual. Lest it be thought that perceptual art is really without ideas (or ideology), however, see Norman Bryson’s critiques of Ernst Gombrich’s perceptualism in Word and Image, Tradition and Desire, and elsewhere. See also social formation.
CONCETTO: A conceit. The plural is concetti.
CONCRETE: Particular, real, tangible.
CONCRETE POETRY: Poetry in which layout and typography play visual roles. Including paralinguistic inflection as well as resemblance, the term’s use is slightly more general than carmen figuratum, which is more likely to resemble what it describes. See calligramme, phanopoeia.
CONCRETE UNIVERSAL: The expression in the particular here and now of some putatively universal essence. Hegel illustrated the idea with the concept of law, which supposedly arises from the will of the people, rather than from an individual. In that respect law is universal, but since the people are bound by time and space, their law is concrete. Structurally similar arguments for the timelessness of art are made all the time. The notion is very common in classical schools of thought, but it is frequently frowned upon by postmodernists. See essentialism.
CONDENSATION: A basic psychological process described in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and elsewhere whereby the dreaming mind, unable to express its desires literally because of some psychic blockage or social restriction, finds a way to do so figuratively by compressing several latent elements into one manifest one. The notion clearly provides a psychological basis for metaphor, as recognized by Roman Jakobson (see concatenation relation, selection relation) and picked up from him in contemporary artwriting (e.g., Linda Nochlin in Art in America [Sept.-Nov. 1983]).
CONDITIONAL FALLACIES: The invalid (see validity) reverse of the conditional inferences, i.e., denying the antecedent (and assuming the consequent is false), and affirming the consequent (and assuming the antecedent is true). For example, “If Cindy Sherman is late for the meeting, (then) Jenny Holzer will be angry; Jenny Holzer is angry, so Cindy Sherman is late for the meeting.” Jenny Holzer could be angry for some other, unstated reason, so this argument fallaciously affirms the consequent. See conditionals.
CONDITIONAL INFERENCES: Valid reasoning from properly constructed conditionals. There are two basic procedures: affirming the antecedent and denying the consequent. (Affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent, however, are conditional fallacies.) Affirming the antecedent (also known as modus ponens) means that if the antecedent of a valid conditional is true, then the consequent will be true. For example, if the whole conditional “If Cindy Sherman is late for the meeting, (then) Jenny Holzer will be angry” is valid, then affirming the antecedent means “Cindy Sherman is indeed late for the meeting, so Jenny Holzer must be angry.” Denying the consequent is the reverse: “Jenny Holzer is not angry, so Cindy Sherman is not late for the meeting.”
CONDITIONALS: In informal logic, a statement in which a given conclusion will follow if certain premises happen to come about. In the conditional statement “If Cindy Sherman is late for the meeting, (then) Jenny Holzer will be angry,” the “if” clause is an antecedent, and the “then” clause is a consequent. A simple conditional is one in which the antecedent entails the consequent, but not vice versa. A biconditional is one in which the antecedent entails the consequent and vice versa (but see conditional fallacies). A conditional series is a type of syllogism: “if X then Y” is true, and “if Y then Z” is true, “if X then Z” is also true. See conditional inferences.
CONFESSION: A literary term describing a type of autobiography, but one which is more private and personal in nature. The concept could be used to describe works ranging from Dürer’s famous nude self-portrait to some of the more selfconscious productions of the Surrealists.
CONFIGURATION: A form or figure, as in Gestalt.
CONFABULATION: A psychological term denoting a compensation (see compensatory) for memory loss by the invention of fictitious details.
CONFLATION: A fusion, confusion or combination of elements into a composite whole.
CONFLICT: Tension in general. In narrative analysis, the opposition of forces that gives momentum to a narrative. Cf climax, crisis.
CONNAISSANCE: Lacanian term for knowledge within the imaginary. Compare méconnaissance.
CONNOISSEUR: Generally, a person of refined sensibility and discriminating taste. More specifically, as initiated by Charles Eastlake in the early nineteenth century, one who professes to know — from the Latin cognoscere — about such matters. Many postmodernists find this idea abhorrent (see, e.g., subject presumed to know). See connoisseurship.
CONNOISSEURSHIP: In the 1870s, Giovanni Morelli took the notion of the connoisseur and added to it a quasi-scientific method to make attributions of works of art by paying special attention to marginal details. Assuming that specific connoisseurs were genuinely in possession of special knowledge, they could identify artists with an authoritative discrimination that all but escaped the run-of-the-mill viewer. Since then, connoisseurship has implied secure standards of judgement. Although connoisseurship is a perfectly legitimate method within art history, its occasional tendencies towards pretentiousness have become a favourite target of popular writers and the media in general. Examples are William Grammp’s Pricing the Priceless (critiquing Bernard Berenson, among others), and the 1991-2 homophobic hoopla over Robert Mapplethorpe and the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. Postmodernists generally distrust connoisseurship for more or less Foucauldian reasons.
CONNOTATIONS: Figurative meanings, emotional baggage, and conventional associations accruing to words and images, as opposed to their literal meanings or denotations. Connotations may be universal, restricted to a group (e.g., a nationality or a social class), or personal. The usefulness of the latter category is questionable, since it is quite possible for a individual viewer to read into a work personal connotations which are not shared by a general audience. Compare metonymic skid, spin.
CONSCIOUSNESS: Standard works on psychology will break this into two basic categories: 1. the state of awareness and 2. the subjective aspect of neurological activity (i.e., the impression of self so produced, whatever its actual cause). There are subcategories and variations of these. For example, some define consciousness as the totality of experience at any given instant, as opposed to “mind,” which is the sum of all past moments of consciousness. The term has slightly different connotations in the philosophy of mind. Most recently, many twentieth century thinkers, both in philosophy and in the medical sciences, have dismissed the arguments of dualism (see also mind-body problem) in favour of a materialist conception of consciousness as simply the byproduct of synaptic exchanges (whether described in chemical, electrical, or neurological terms). An example might be what Gilbert Ryle called the ghost in the machine. See also false consciousness, multiple drafts.
CONSEQUENT: See conditionals.
CONSERVATION: See art conservation.
CONSTANT CONJUNCTION: David Hume denied that certain events caused others in strictly definable ways derived from empirical observation. Instead, he asserted that what appeared to be causality was simply the result of mental habits that saw apparent causes and apparent effects as constantly conjoined, whether or not they really had anything to do with one another. (See also post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Hume’s real object was to describe the nature of the mind in terms acceptable to a skeptical empiricist, but his notion of constant conjunction lurks behind the lines of his famous aesthetic essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” There, he argues against objective definitions of taste apart from those which accurately describe the mechanics of the mind. Some familiarity with Hume is necessary because his name pops up in contemporary criticism (for example, in the writings of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and Terry Eagleton).
CONSTATIVE: An utterance that desribes a condition, fact or state of affairs and can thus be judged as true or false. See speech act theory.
CONSTELLATION: A cluster of ideas held together by some common term or idea or merely by association. A psychoanalytical constellation, for example, is a group of unrepressed, emotionally loaded thoughts or impressions. In semantics, a constellation is a cluster of possibilities in meaning which, under normal circumstances, is filtered in such a way as to produce a meaning effect.
CONSTITUTIVE: Having the power to create, enact, establish. The word’s most frequent use in contemporary artwriting is in Marxist and Foucauldian contexts, especially where a meaning or even an artwork itself is described as without objective, independent existence but has the appearance of it because of the way it is constituted by an act of criticism or an institutional framework in which, for example, one thing (say, non-art) is recognized as another thing (art).
CONSTRUCT: Fashionable term indicating something constructed by mental effort or, more particularly, through political and social mechanisms. Gender, for example, is frequently described as a social construct, rather than a biological category, as in Linda Hutcheon’s brief discussion of the photographs of Nigel Scott in The Canadian Postmodern.
CONSUMMATORY FIELD: In The Work of Art, Stephen Pepper argues that viewers have an appetitive drive which requires them to examine a work of art in the best (or optimum) position for satisfaction or consummation. Characteristics of the artwork itself determine that optimum position. A simple example might be a painting in linear perspective, which demands that a viewer physically occupy a given position for the image to appear in correct proportion. Viewers will typically explore possible positions — which really need not be just physical points in space — until they find the one correct one that satisfies their drive relative to the artwork at hand. Their explorations are said to take place in a consummatory field. (There are certain similarities here to the hermeneutic circle.) Pepper uses the idea as an analogy for the interpretation of a work, implying that eventually only one meaning will be optimum (i.e., correct) and that all responsible viewers will agree it is determinate.
CONTENT: There is no clear consensus on what the content of a work of art is. Some would distinguish subject matter from content — i.e., denotations vs. connotations, more or less — while others would prefer terms like meaning and significance. What follows is a provisional record which tries to take into account most of the available possibilities. For the sake of categorical clarity, we can arbitrarily differentiate content from form and context, although there are clear points of interchange or mutual inflection. Simply put, content is “what” the work is (about), while form and context are “how” the work is and “in what circumstances” the work is, respectively. Within the category of content we can further distinguish three levels of complexity. Although they are arranged numerically here, there is no intrinsic hierarchy that holds true for all audiences. The primary content includes literal iconography; straightforward subjects and imagery; and describable facts, actions, and/or poses. The secondary content includes the basic genres (history, megalography, mythology, religion, portraiture, landscape, still-life, genre, rhopography); figurative meanings like those afforded by conventional signs and symbols (including allegories, attributes, personifications, and traditional connotations); basic tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony, parody, etc.); and/or performative effects (paralinguistic formal inflection of content). The tertiary content represents the convergence and mutual inflection of form, content, and context. The primary content of Ingres’s Napoleon Enthroned, for example, would simply be a richly dressed individual sitting on a throne, etc. The secondary content would become a megalographic portrait of a particular political figure, identifiable as Emperor by the various attributes, and given extra dignity by stylistic treatment, not to mention compositional allusion to Phidias’s Olympian Zeus. The tertiary level can be understood either as simple one-way determinacy or as a two-way chiasmus. I.e., Ingres’s painting glorifies Napoleon in apparent imagery and style, as well as in context — which is to say not only that Napoleon is idealized for obvious contextual reasons, but that obvious (and sometimes not so obvious) contextual factors are also idealized by Napoleon (or at least by his representation). In theory, failure to perform an exhaustive analysis of the interrelations of these levels opens the artwriter to charges of interpretive agnosia.
CONTEXT: Context means the varied circumstances in which a work of art is (or was) produced and/or interpreted. As in the case of content, there are three levels of complexity, arranged numerically here, but without an intrinsic hierarchy that holds true for all audiences. Conventional wisdom would have it that primary context is that pertaining to the artist, although there are equally good reasons to assert the primacy of “historical and material conditions of production,” as in Marxism. However, similar conditions are known to produce very different artists (e.g., Raphael and Michelangelo), so we will adopt the convention simply for convenience. Primary context is thus that which pertains to the artist: attitudes, beliefs, interests, and values; intentions and purposes (however, see intentional fallacy); education and training; and biography (including psychology). Secondary context is that which addresses the milieu in which the work was produced: the apparent function of the work at hand (to adorn, beautify, express, illustrate, mediate, persuade, record, redefine reality, or redefine art); religious and philosophical convictions; sociopolitical and economic structures; and even climate and geography, where relevant. The tertiary context is the field of the work’s reception and interpretation: the tradition(s) it is intended to serve; the mind-set it adheres to (ritualistic [conceptual, stylized, hieratic, primitive]), perceptual [ naturalistic], rational [classical, idealizing, and/or scientific]; and emotive [ affective or expressive]); and, perhaps most importantly, the colour of the lenses through which the work is being scrutinised — i.e., the interpretive mode (artistic biography; psychological approaches [including psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypal theory, ethology and Gestalt]; political criticism [including Marxism and general correlational social histories]; feminism; cultural history and Geistesgeschichte ; formalism [including connoisseurship and raw scientific studies]; structuralism; semiotics [including iconography, iconology, and typological studies; hermeneutics; post-structuralism and deconstruction; reception theory [including contemporary judgements, later judgements, and revisionist approaches]; concepts of periodicity [stylistic pendulum swinging]; other chronological and contextual considerations. It should be clear, then, that context is more than the matter of the artist’s circumstances alone. Cf determinants.
CONTEXTUALISM: More or less a synonym of relativism.
CONTINGENCY: Dependence on accident, chance, possibility, uncertainty or other non-essential factors. A certain degree of contingency is necessary if productive dialogism is to take place. See narrative analysis for an example.
CONTRAPUNTAL: See counterpoint.
CONTRAST: Generally, the exhibition of difference or juxtaposition of dissimilar elements in a work of art, as in the contrast of colours, textures, and what have you. A special instance in aesthetic theory is Stephen David Ross’s inexhaustibility by contrast, with repercussions on multivocality or polysemy.
CONTROLLING IMAGE: The basic image or metaphor that informs a more complicated sequence and gives it unity of purpose. Controlling images are frequently used in religious art (e.g., the Stations of the Cross, Michelangelo’s Neoplatonism, Bernini’s conceit of ecclesia triumphans) and in movements of pronounced Romantic sensibility (e.g., Max Klinger’s glove, Max Ernst’s femme sans tête).
CONTROLLING METAPHOR: See controlling image.
CONVENTION: An agreement, custom, formality, standard interpretation or practice, and the like.
CONVENTIONAL: Pertaining to conventions. Certain images have purely conventional, figurative meanings, many of which seem to have been forgotten in popular culture. One such is a child blowing bubbles, which is a vanitas.
CONVERGERS AND DIVERGERS: In Contrary Imaginations, Liam Hudson postulated two personality types with respect to the way they achieve goals. Some do so in a direct, linear fashion, as it were, proceeding from the general to the particular by a process of elimination and by establishing causal relationships (see causality). They are said to converge on their goal. Others approach a problem in a more open-ended manner, as if they expand their investigation across a field of possibilities, thus diverging. The terms lend themselves to distinctions between scientific and artistic personalities, as well as to the difference between vertical and lateral thinking. Cf codeterminacy.
CONVERSATIONAL STYLE: Differences in verbal expression arising from gender, socialization, and other factors, including ethnic origins, class associations, etc. See collaboration, competition, partnership, rapport-talk, report-talk. The idea provides some interesting material for speculation regarding analogous differences in art produced by men and women, different ethnic and social groups, and so on.
COOL COLOUR: Blue and the admixtures of it and the other primary colours, like greens and violets, are conventionally referred to as cool colours, ostensibly by virtue of their resemblance to the natural hue of water, grass and other cool things. Cool colours are said to recede or retreat — i.e., to draw towards the background of an image — and so are said to be generally opposed to the temperature and movement of warm colour. The effect can be both visual (note the blue cast of mountains in the distance of most landscapes since Leonardo) and symbolic (note the cool emotional tone of predominantly blue paintings like those of Puvis da Chavannes or early Picasso. The effect is, however, strongly dependent upon any number of other formal features.
CO-OPT: To absorb or assimilate. The notion is particularly important in discussions of modernism and postmodernism. Modernism, for example, is said to have fancied itself perenially outside mainstream culture in order to critique it from the position of the avant-garde. Of course, the institutions of the artworld have co-opted modernism so that the avant-garde is mainstream culture. There are similar issues in postmodernism, but one of the more important ones is raised under the heading parody.
CORRELATION: Interdependency, mutual relationship, simultaneous occurrence, and the like. Correlation is not necessarily an indicator of causality, as a recent book entitled innumeracy points out. A positivist science of interpretation would want to distinguish very clearly between the two in order to be sure that feature “X” in a work of art was genuinely produced by factor “Y” in the context, instead of simply accompanying it.
CORRELATIONAL SOCIAL HISTORIES: A species of artwriting that gives priority to secondary context without necessarily distinguishing between causality and correlation in the formation of the work’s content. Examples include economic developments that encouraged Venetian landowners to build inland, thus affecting the career of Palladio (James Ackerman); Picasso and anarchism (Patricia Leighten); patterns in patronage (Francis Haskell); and so on.
CORRESPONDENCE THEORY OF TRUTH: In philosophy, the theory that statements are true to the extent that they actually describe some state of affairs in the real world. In Tenured Radicals, Roger Kimball attacks the cultural left, saying that it rejects the correspondence theory of truth on the grounds that there is no objective reality for any statements to correspond to.
CORROBORATION: Although most standard dictionaries say “corroboration” is a synonym for “confirmation,” Karl Popper clearly distinguished the two words in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, giving the former the sense of “bringing forward additional evidence.” Popper argued that nothing can be indisputably proven through verification. But instead of waiting for falsification to take place, an investigator could offer hypotheses based on the greatest amount of available data which tend to support each other in increasing the likelihood of the conclusion being true, even though they cannot guarantee (i.e., confirm) it. One of the advantages of the hermeneutic spiral equation is that it offers a set format for the production of circumstances in which the greatest possibilities of corroboration can be found.
COUPURE ÉPISTéMOLOGIQUE: In For Marx, Louis Althusser (see Althusserian) posited that Marx’s thought could be split into an early phase of humanist utopianism and a later phase of scientific disinterestedness in which he described history not as a sequence of great men but as a sequence of social forces and relations. The dividing line between the two was the epistemological break, or “coupure épistémologique.”
COUNTER-CULTURE: See subculture.
COUNTER-INTUITIVE: Running against unreflective expectations. Some archaeologists, for example, have recently discovered that paper biodegrades much more slowly and that disposable diapers take up much less space than is generally thought. The “intuitive” in the phrase thus relates directly to the ideological effect. art criticism often entails a certain counter-intuition, for what an artwork first seems to mean is frequently not what it ends up meaning. A healthy critical attitude in nearly every academic discipline almost always entails patience, a refusal to jump to conclusions, and an openness to the counter-intuitive. For another example, see sign.
COUNTERPART: English translation of Lacanian use of ” semblable” to describe the specular ego developed during the mirror stage.
COUNTERPOINT: A musical term meaning the interplay of parts against one another, as it were, to enliven by continuous contrasts, tensions and resolutions. In the visual arts, it usually applies to smaller, formal components of an image, rather than to larger, more monumental tensions. (Some of the diagrams in Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook explicitly theorize a counterpoint of line.) As far as theory and interpretation are concerned, the notion is subsumed by dialectic, although some of the multivocal passages in Derrida’s The Truth in Painting are more happily described as contrapuntal.
COUNTERSPEECH: In “The Value of the Canon” (New Republic [February 1991]), Irving Howe said a canon was useful not as something simply to be memorized, obeyed, or worshipped but as an opportunity to practice what Robert Frost called “couterspeech,” an active engagement with the products of other minds and voices with which we might not agree. The value of the canon is thus literally as material for the development of a skill, rather than indoctrination (cf literacy). Counterspeech might thus be thought of as a conservative version of dialogism.
CRAFT: Since the Renaissance, fine art has distinguished itself from craft in the conventional sense of “mere” manual dexterity or technical skill. In the era of mechanical reproduction (see aura), of course, this notion of craft has generally suffered a loss of respect. On the other hand, certain recent developments like the flourishing of ceramics programs and feminist reclamations of women’s crafts have counterbalanced the trend. However, the last time craft entered aesthetic discourse in an exhaustive way was in R. G. Collingwood’s Principles of Art in the 1930s, when craft decidedly took second place to art. Collingwood systematically differentiated craft from art on the grounds that craft always involves a distinctions between means and ends, planning and execution, raw material and finished product, and form and matter; and that there is a hierarchical relationship between the various crafts. While art uses some of the same devices, it is generally less likely to be strictly foreseeable and is ultimately a matter of expressing emotion (see betraying versus expressing emotion). If nothing else, Collingwood raised important questions about how the category “art” might differ from other categories in general, as well as what role technique plays.
CREDULITY: The opposite of skepticism, an uncritical acceptance of undemonstrable assertions.
CRISIS: In narratology, the point at which a narrative is most likely to change its apparent direction or momentum. The term is not synonymous with climax. Cf peripateia.
CRITIC: One who analyses, evaluates, or expresses an opinion on a work of art, from a cluster of Greek words meaning to decide, to discern, to judge. Academic scholars, primarily engaged in the historical study of visual arts, have generally seemed to maintain a tacit distinction between themselves and critics, whom they see as engaged in journalistic art appreciation, subjective impressionism, and other types of unreflective criticism. While this was certainly true before the growth of a professional arts press in the 1960s, the difference is no longer always so clear.
CRITICAL IDEALISM: Synonym for “transcendental idealism” (see idealism).
CRITICAL THEORY: A specific range of Marxist approaches common among the members of the Frankfurt School, thus not to be confused with the generic phrases “theories that are critical” or “theories about criticism.” Critical theory rejects positivism and value-freedom in science and dogma in Marxism, advocating instead an open-ended, continuously self-critical process that will eventually contribute to social reform.
CRITICAL THINKING: Within the framework of skepticism, critical thinking is synonymous with informal logic. The standards for what is considered critical thinking in many other contexts can be less rigorous and should be examined carefully on a case by case basis.
CRITICISM: The analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and study of works of art. While it is certainly true that disapproving remarks are sometimes made, it is a common mistake to assume that “criticism” simply means negative commentary and that to be critical means to be cynical, derogatory and insulting. While there is a multitude of critical methods, it is the contention of this glossary that their bewildering variety is created by subtle adjustments, selective foregroundings, and interplays of the subdivisions of three basic structural elements: form, content, and context. I.e., critical methodologies as diverse as connoisseurship and structuralism are related in that they both address formal aspects of works of art. From that point, however, they part ways in methods and motives. See the individual entries for aesthetics, antiquarianism, anxiety of influence, art appreciation, art conservation, art theory, artistic biography, arts journalism, combined studies, connoisseurship, correlational social histories, cultural analysis, cultural anthropology, deconstruction, ethology, feminism, formalism, Freudian criticism, Geistesgeschichte, gestalt psychology, hermeneutics, iconography, iconology, jungian criticism, Lacanian criticism, Marxism, material history, museology, new art history, new historicism, patronage, periodicity, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, public history, reception theory, scientific studies, semiotics, sociological criticism, structuralism, syntactical analysis, and typological studies. See also argument, historical methodologies, illustrement, interpretation, taxonomy.
CRITIQUE: An instance of serious practical criticism. The term is also habitually used of the evaluation of fine arts students’ work, but the intellectual level of these critiques varied widely from instructor to instructor and institution to institution. See also critique of institutions, critique of representation.
CRITIQUE OF INSTITUTIONS: Any critique addressing the constitutive role of a social institution, whether it be a governmental body, a horizon of expectations, a curatorial policy, or whatever. Mainstream art magazines, for example, in a sense create the work they supposedly describe, because they are imbricated in a commercial network of sales and advertising strategies.
CRITIQUE OF REPRESENTATION: Term used with increasing frequency in postmodernism to challenge a number of the conventional assumptions of art as communication, among other things. A very specific example is Susanne Kappeler’s The Pornography of Representation, in which she argues that standard critiques of pornography concentrate chiefly on the “porne” component (the sexual servitude of the harlot) and virtually ignore the “graphy” (the writing). She identifies this as the root of the problem, because writing is monologic — i.e., it runs only one way, from author to audience. The latter is thus put into a position of powerlessness, and since pornography is about power, all monologic representation — even when it is not about sexuality — is effectively pornographic. Kappeler’s alternative is the dialectic of intersubjectivity. Cf l’écriture féminine, fleshless academicism. Related strategies have been adopted by many postmodern artists — e.g., Victor Burgin, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, etc.
CROSS-CUTTING: A film term indicating the sequential presentation of actions understood to be contemporaneous or in rapid succession. Its usefulness in static visual art is limited to suites of images, like comic books, a few collections of prints (e.g., Goya’s Disasters of War), and the few collage-novels produced by the Surrealists.
CULTURAL ANALYSIS: A loosely employed term, but one which usually indicates a serious, multidisciplinary, critical approach to cultural phenomena in a variety of media, frequently with a view to exposing unarticulated social norms. As such, it has certain similarities with the much older Geistesgeschichte school of thought. There is, however, a much greater stress on popular culture, especially from a semiotic point of view.
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY: Anthropology that deals with cultural practices in a multidisciplinary manner, drawing on archaeology, ethology, ethnography, and linguistics, among others. It differs from physical anthropology, which concerns human evolution and the classification thereof.
CULTURAL DEMOCRACY: Occasionally used as a near synonym of multiculturalism. It is thus not to be confused with “democratization of culture,” which simply means “bringing culture to the masses.”
CULTURAL HISTORY: See Geistesgeschichte.
CULTURAL LEFT: Vaguely defined, usually journalistic conception of the anti-traditional proponents of multiculturalism and/or political correctness as heirs to the radical politics of the 1960s, especially feminism and Marxism, and supposedly related tendencies, like deconstruction and ethnicity.
CULTURAL LITERACY: E. D. Hirsch’s hotly debated notion that there is a definable body of knowledge which all educated Americans should share. Most proponents of the dismantling of the canon find Hirsch’s idea disagreeable because the two books in which it is developed simply substitute a broad but shallow canon for a narrow but deep one. The idea is problematic for at least one other reason: it replaces the generic conception of literacy as “competence to deal with the unknown” with one hinging on the “already known.” In other words, it equates literacy with knowledge rather than skill, which none of the other types of literacies do so single-mindedly.
CULTURAL POLITICS: Cultural analysis of a particularly Foucauldian and/or Marxist sort. John Tagg’s Grounds of Dispute is a recent notable example.
CULTURAL SELECTION: By analogy with Darwinian natural selection, the notion that only “strong” culture is fit enough to survive beyond its immediate historical moment. Though never articulated as such, the idea operates covertly in arguments about artistic quality, which frequently justify themselves not through close analysis of a specific work but through allusions to the notion of posterity as the final judge. Logically, the conception involves begging the question to some extent, since “strong” culture would be a class constituted only by those arts that have staying power (i.e., putative timelessness), while “staying power” is only defined by reference to the existence of pre-existing works of genius (i.e., “strong” culture). To break the circularity of this argument, one needs to adduce an external set of criteria to determine artistic excellence, but even among die-hard connoisseurs there is frequently disagreement as to precisely what constitutes quality. If there is any consensus, it is the agreement to allow the set of criteria to extend interminably. One of the results of this consensus is the ever-expanding introductory textbook of art history, which is already so far beyond the point of manageability that the selection of cultural excellence seems to have been forsaken anyway. Of course, the whole idea is tacitly Eurocentric and teleological.
CULTURE: A highly ambiguous notion, “culture” has directly opposed connotations, and it always best to consider carefully the context of its use by individual authors. For some it means high art and only high art, as in Matthew Arnold’s shopworn phrase “the best that has been thought and said in the world” (see canon). In other, more anthropological applications, it less a hypothetical standard of excellence than a generalized “way of life which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning, but also in institutions and ordinary behavior” (Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution ). In most postmodernism contexts, the latter connotation is the more common. If we understand nature as the world and its phenomena as they exist without human intervention, then “culture” means all things produced by human agency: decorative artifacts, environmental pollutants, high art, political ideologies, ritual beliefs, social customs, and so on. Paradoxically, it has been argued that even “nature” is a conception that could only have been produced by culture. On the other hand, it is equally possible to reason that humanity and all its products exist within nature, however superficially different they appear to be. There is sometimes a tacit assumption that “culture” refers only to creative, non-utilitarian endeavours; however, this leads to untenable separations between, say, a motion picture and the Hollywood industry which financed it. Cultural productions which are so contextually, stylistically, technically, and/or thematically unique that others cannot share in their significance are usually considered instances of culture if and only if they are accepted by posterity — a process begun by collectors and dealers but facilitated by critics and scholars. Cf cultural selection. See also subculture.
CULTURE JAMMING: A colloquialism referring to a species of media activism usually presented in the form of a fraudulent mass media event. One of the larger organizations dedicated to culture jamming, especially in the form of advertising parodies, is Adbusters, which publishes in Vancouver, B.C., a magazine which reaches an international readership. Arguably the best known individual practitioner is the New York School of Visual Arts’ Joey Skaggs, whose performance-based works have duped credulous newspeople into believing he is a world class windsurfer, a leader of a cult of lion imitators, a pimp for sexually repressed pets, a purveyor of hairpieces made out of human scalps, and so on. Such activities are examples of the critique of institutions or critique of representation — that is, they are said to be political commmentaries on the insipidity and gullibility of those who mediate (see mediation) most people’s experience of the world.
CUMULATIVE IMPRESSION: A simple way of illustrating the hermeneutic circle, even as it avoids the closure thus produced. When audiences encounter a work of art for the first time, they will get a first impression of what it is about. Perhaps when they learn something specific about the artist, their interpretations will veer in the direction of artistic biography. Or if they learned that the work was for a powerful patron, the interpretation would veer towards one of the correlational social histories in a modest form. Similarly, any responses communicated to them — even ones that are totally irresponsible subjective impressionism — will also add to the process. Presumably, unless they have closed minds by nature, any subsequent impression which could have an impact on their understanding will cause interpretations to veer in yet another direction (or corroborate and strengthen the first one). Impressions thus accumulate, and the experience of the art is enriched by lived experience. Since the process is theoretically endless, the hermeneutic circle cannot close and the ascending accumulation of meaning is really a spiral (see hermeneutic spiral). The process may play a significant role in multiple locatedness and polysemy. Cf illustrement.
CURSE: See imprecation.
CURTAIN WALL: See wall