These Postmodern definitions are a useful gauge to show how academics construct their sentences in Artspeak. The list is compiled by theorists who have set their own standards to the meaning of each word and its terms. It may be wise to double check on the usage to see if the word actually exists in a precise contemporary dictionary.
SACRED: Much art has been preoccupied in varying degrees throughout its history with the sacred — conceived as the quintessential identifying characteristic of all divinity, holiness, saintliness, sanctity, and the like — but there has recently been a very sharp turn towards a conception of the sacred deriving from the writings of Emil Durkheim and, more aggressively, Georges Bataille (see Bataillean). Describing the sacred as the “wholly other” (see ganz Andere) — i.e., that which is of so fundamentally different an order from common existence that we cannot even describe it — Bataille argued that the sacred therefore springs from the same sources as those things we conventionally find vile, like ritual sacrifice, bodily mutilation, all manner of transgressive activities, and even excrement. (He also notes in passing that this dual nature of the sacred explains why we fear spirits and death: logically, if the sacred were only positive, we would welcome such things.) Among other things, Bataille wrote about art and artists, and he had a particular fascination for sacredness revealed in the grotesque. For example, he reproduced Precolumbian images showing sacrifical rituals, and his discussion about Vincent van Gogh was more about about self-mutilation than painting. For Bataille’s methodological spin, see especially heterology.
SALVAGE PARADIGM: A general mode of operation in which a dominant culture, usually Eurocentric, perceives a subordinate culture as dead or dying and attempts to save or salvage it from oblivion. In so doing, the dominant culture usually distorts, mystifies, mythologizes or destroys the other culture. The paradigm figures in much discussion of the treatment of native art by Western trained artist like Emily Carr. See Marcia Crosby, “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art. Ed. Stan Douglas. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991. See also James Clifford, “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm,” in Discussions in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay, 1987: 122.
SAMPLING: Technology now permits musicians to make digital recordings of any sound and play them back, thus emulating (see emulation) any combination of instruments or noises, with or without further electronic manipulation. The technique is interesting relative to the history of art for several reasons. Futurist painter Luigi Russolo once wrote a manifesto of music as a new “art of noise,” and he even designed technologically primitive forerunners of today’s digital samplers. (”Art of Noise” was also the name of a popular music group of the 1980s relying heavily on sampling.) Sampling also raises the question of copyright or intellectual property and has given rise to several legal cases. Similar issues could be discussed re Jeff Koons’ or Sherri Levine’s appropriation.
SCHEMA: In Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich coined the word “schema” to refer to a diagrammatic depiction of an object or arrangement in space — something along the lines of what we would now call a wireframe drawing — but he also used the word generically to refer to any formulas or standardized devices which could quickly solve pictorial problems. The latter sense is now the most widespread. Although viewers are typically able to identify these devices when asked, they conventionally suppress their awareness of them in order to experience a coherent illusion. A classic example is the shot/reverse shot formula used to depict a conversation in a narrative film. If we think of each view as hypothetically placing the viewer in a particular space, as does illusionistic painting in perspective, then this schema rips viewers from place to place, as it were, yet no one objects.
SCOPOPHILIA: The love of looking which underlies and colours much putatively disinterested critical inquiry into visual culture. See desire, erotic-for-women , gaze and glance, libidinally driven , scopophobia.
SCRIPTO-VISUAL: Imagery which has characteristics of both visual art and writing. It could refer to everything from calligraphy (which means “beautiful writing” and would include Islamic illuminations, Irish bibles, and homilies of the sort you see in gift shops) to “calligraphy-like” imagery (itself ranging from pseudo-writing in visual art, as in Cy Twombly, to actual, legible writing, as in much contemporary feminist autobiographical art, like Mary Kelly, Mary Scott). Frankly, I wonder if the reliance on the written word isn’t largely due to a failure of the visual imagination, but I’d be happy to be wrong about that.
SELF: The self is the subjective sense of being a personal owner of and witness to what neuroscientists call “mind,” to distinguish it from “brain.” The brain is a physical organ, and although its structures and functions are enormously complex, it is an objective entity: that is, multiple observers can independently draw the same conclusions about it, whether simple (for example, its size) or complex (which parts are active at a given moment according to a PET scan or a fMR scan) In contrast, the mind is nothing more than a series of electrochemical events taking place within the brain, and while it currently seems utterly subjective and immeasurable, I expect that this barrier will eventually fall, and mind will be measurable. Self is another matter. Although we are far from having a clear answer, most recent research suggests that “self” is little more than an illusion of personal homogeneity which emerges from within the activity of mind. (See, for example, Antonio Damaso’s The Feeling of What Happens.) Self, then, will probably remain internal, inscrutable, private. While the components giving rise to it will be determinable, the illusion these components produce is not likely to be susceptible to objective measures in the same way. Somehow in this I see an analogy for art: the object is objective. Like the brain, it can be described as having objective characteristics by multiple observers. Interpretation is like the mind: it now seems utterly subjective because we lack mechanisms of sufficient sophistication to map all of its strategies, manoeuvres and ruses. This will eventually not be the case. What remains is self. Obviously the object-maker’s sense of self is irretrievably lost upon his or her death, but the object remains as a record of the activities of the mind (not just the hand). That lost self is simply replaced by the sense of self of the interpreter, which accounts for a good deal of the illusory (and therefore irreproducible) results of interpretation. If these selves are fictions, should they even matter in interpretation?
SEME: When one encounters a word like “bark” without a context, one cannot be sure whether it refers to a dog noise, a commander shouting orders, the sheath of a woody stem, the rubbing off of skin, or various kinds of boats, etc. As soon as some context is supplied, however, we are able to suspend one or more of the multiple meanings. Like “bark,” most signifiers have clusters of possibilities circulating about them like moths about a flame, but when they come together with other signifiers, elements within one cluster will reinforce similar elements in another. The effect is to foreground a possibility which is more likely than any of the others by virtue of having been activated, as it were, by more than one signifier in the construction. For example, unless we are facetiously imagining a fleet of sailing vessels owned and operated by canines, a phrase like “the dog barks” obviously makes use of both words’ capacity to signify something having to do with an animal. The foregrounded meaning stands out as a kind of path between the other possibilities, which led A. J. Greimas, Roland Barthes, and others, to characterize the structure as a “semic axis.” Semes, then, are basic “units of meaning constructed from their relational structures alone” due to a “sorting among contextual variables” (after Paul Ricoeur’s Conflict of Interpretations). The filtering of semes is one of the ways language creates a meaning effect (see isotopy).
SEMIOTICS: Deriving from linguistics, semiotics is the study of signs and signifying practices which has, along with deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, and a few other critical tendencies, dominated much of the artwriting of the 1980s and 1990s. Modern semiotics began early in the century with the work of two farsighted individuals who were curious as to how structures could produce meaning, as opposed to the resultant meaning itself. Ferdinand de Saussure (see Saussurean) has become the more celebrated of these two men because his core insight lies at the heart of deconstruction and a host of related intellectual fashions: he discerned that the signifier (that which carries meaning) and the signified (the meaning which is carried) have no essential relationship — for example, the signifier “red” is not itself red — thus exposing the arbitrary nature of all language and language- like systems. (This is important because it has become a necessary condition of many of the concerns of postmodernism, especially polysemy.) The system of the second individual, Charles Sanders Peirce (see Peircean), is actually a little more practical for visual art, for his distinctions between icon (meaning based on similarity in appearance), index (meaning based on cause and effect relationships), and symbol (meaning based on convention) allow resemblance to play a greater role than in Saussure’s system (see also reference). Neither of these men, however, did much themselves to apply their insights to visual culture. The first notable attempts to do so took place in the 1960s in Europe, especially France, with writers like Roland Barthes (see Barthesian) attempting to analyze at length the mechanisms allowing the production of meaning in all sorts of visual images, from advertisements for Italian food products to photography and motion pictures. Meyer Schapiro was one of the earlier North Americans to assess on these ideas in his “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art,” S emiotica 1 (1969): 240. By and large, however, the methods and the jargon did not catch on until well into the 1970s and early 1980s. The proliferation of semiotics since then has made a simple glossary entry like this one almost impossible. Winfried Nöth’s massive Handbook of Semiotics provides a very thorough overview of a number of positions. See also Baudrillardean, coloreme, Derridean, intertextuality, Kristevan, Lacanian, langue and parole, semiotics of the natural world, semiology, semiosis, sign, sign proper, signifiance, signifying economy, signifying practice.
SEMIOTICS OF THE NATURAL WORLD: In their Sémiotique, Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage, A. J. Greimas and P. Courtès used this phrase in lieu of “visual semiotics” because of the differences between verbal and visual languages.
SENSITIVITY: An imprecise word with various connotations all relating to a state of high responsiveness or susceptibility to something. The most important implications are “the capacity of being hurt” (as in the sensitivity of an ethnic group to a racial slur), “an awareness of the needs and emotions of others” and “a tolerance towards the marginal” (in questions of political correctness), and “a particular susceptibility to aesthetic affect” (as in connoisseurship).
SIGN: In Saussurean semiotics, an element of language composed of the relationship between a signifier (a sound-image) and a signified (the idea which is thus expressed). Although the Saussurean model has become the more fashionable, Peircean semiotics is actually better suited to the visual because it accounts more successfully for resemblance. For Peirce, a sign is an element of language composed of the relationship between a the sign itself, a referent (the object to which the sign refers), the “ground” (the nature of the relationship to the referent, which in turn determines whether the sign is an icon, index, or symbol), and the interpretant (the relationship between the interpreter and the meaning). It is important to note that in virtually all current critical practices, the sign never innocently indicates reality; instead, it refers to other signs in what one writer calls “webs of significance” (see stratigraphic fallacy, thick description). In this respect, current practice is counter-intuitive. In critical practice influenced by Marxism, these webs of significance usually involve some form of hegemony and the concomitant suppression of alternative ways of understanding signs. Sign, for Marxists like V. N. Volosinov, is thus “the arena of the class struggle” (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language ).
SIGNIFIANCE: Not to be confused with significance, Julia Kristeva used this term to mean the mechanisms within language which permit it to deliver more than the simple communication of verifiable facts. Roland Barthes’ Image, Music, Text (1977) associated it with the so-called “third” or “obtuse meaning,” which stands outside the merely “informational” and “symbolic” meanings of conventional communication. Barthes’ most well-known example is a reading of a still from the film Battleship Potemkin which was supposed to have a certain dignity but which somehow struck him as stupid. This response was a meaning in excess of the still’s intentionality, which he characterized as a kind of floating (see also metonymic skid). Signifiance is a process and is thus a matter of the signifier. In contrast, significance is a product and is thus more a matter of the signified.
SIGNIFICANCE: Not to be confused with signifiance, “significance” has a chain of denotations running from “importance” to “purpose” to “meaning.” In the latter instance, however, a few writers like E. D. Hirsch maintain a strict theoretical distinction between (unintended) “significance” and (intended) meaning (sense 2).
SIGNIFICANT FORM: Clive Bell’s vaguely defined term indicating what he saw as the essential characteristic of all art — relations and combinations of aesthetically moving formal elements (see form) — regardless of the circumstances of its production or the era in which it was made (see context). See begging the question, unique aesthetic emotion.
SIGNIFIER: In Saussurean semiotics, the sound-image (or other form of vehicle) which conveys a signified. According to Saussure, although the two together constitute a sign, they have only an arbitrary relationship. That is, while the letters “r,” “e,” and “d,” when presented in a particular order, are taken to denote a certain colour, neither the letters themselves nor their formal combination have anything to do with redness. This insight has had a profound effect on generic postmodern thought: since all meaning is supposedly founded upon convention, it is subject to critique on the basis of guilt by association. For example, the most widely accepted meaning of a disputed term could be dependent upon the suppression of its use amongst a marginal group (see hegemony, power).
SIGNIFYING ECONOMY: An economy is the organization, structure or mode of operation of a group. A signifying economy is the system of exchange within an identifiable group that pertains to meanings. It thus has much to do with how meaning is a function of a horizon of expectations. For example, the signifying economy of the seventeenth-century Netherlands was different from that of today, so their still-life paintings of flowers had different sorts of meanings for them than they do for us. One of the goals of traditional art history has always been to reconstruct the original values of the signifying economy so that we can understand what works meant when they were made. However, postmodernism has characterized such endeavours as pseudo- scientific (see disinterestedness), and there appears to be little agreement that such a reconstruction is even possible.
SIGNIFYING PRACTICE: A common phrase in current artwriting and cultural analysis. For example, in La Traversée des signes and elsewhere, Julia Kristeva uses this phrase to mean the simultaneous creation and interrogation of any system of signs. The creation of the system evokes a subject within a particular social formation, and the disruption of the system challenges that social formation (cf. intervention). Her emphasis on process clearly gives greater weight to the signifier than to the signified.
SIMULACRUM: Term laid out in Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulations,” available online at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Baudrillard/Baudrillard_Simulacra.html. The key piece is that where images used to refer to something outside themselves, we have now moved into an era in which images seem to refer to things outside themselves but are in fact devoid of any reference — that is, they are simulacra, things which bear no relation to reality, so that there is no “re-presentation” because there is nothing which is “present” in the first place to be presented again (”re-”) in the second. “Simulacra” (plural of simulacrum) seems to refer to individual instances of the phenomenon, whereas “simulation” seems to refer to the whole system.
SITE SPECIFIC: Some maintain that “site-specific” is virtually synonymous with installation, because an installation involves art made for a specific space, exploiting certain qualities of that space, more often indoors than out. However, for some writers there are subtle differences, not the least of which is that site-specific work exploits outdoor sites as well. Oddly, when outdoor works are called installations they tend to be works that are actually less site-specific in character. I presume that this is because the main focus of interest in installation is what it is composed of rather than how it relates to its surroundings. There are, of course, exceptions. In any case, the root of “install” is actually to place something in a stall that signifies elevation to a special status, as in installing a political figure by giving him or her an official seat, like a throne. The specialized nature of the space in this example is such that associating installation with outdoor sites somehow seems inadequate. In contrast, site-specific can refer to something other than an installation altogether, as in the frequent use of the phrase to refer to how architecture adapts itself to its surroundings. This takes at least two forms, (1) building designs that adjust or respond to the site and (2) building materials that are natural to the area. For example, (1) Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water is a notable example of a building that relates to its specific site through affinities in design and execution. More generally, (2) mud brick is a site-specific building material. Site-specific and installation are both notoriously vague, so readers would be well advised to read critically in order to tease out what connotations a writer is employing.
SITUATION: Name of an exhibition in London, England, in 1960 of paintings created according to very restrictive rules, like complete abstraction and large scale. The more monochromatic the works were, the better, for the viewer’s whole field of vision was supposed to be completely occupied by the “situation” of the work. As a result, the Situation exhibition wsas a precursor to minimalism, not Situationism. The better known painters of this group were probably Gillian Ayres and William Turnbull.
SITUATIONISM: Not to be confused with Situation, Situationism was a proto-punk manifestation of extreme irreverence, contempt for boredom and bourgeois domesticity, and artistic freedom of expression very much influenced by Dada and Surrealism’s spirit of poetically expressive revolt. Although the so-called Situationist International began in 1957, it only became a subject of widespread discussion in the 1990s with the English translation of guiding light Guy Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. See The Situationist International for links.
SKEPTICISM: Often mistaken for cynicism and mere naysaying, skepticism is more productively the attitude, philosophy and practice of critical thinking — i.e., informal logic — in everyday life. The editors of Skeptic magazine define it as “a provisional approach to claims…, the application of reason to any and all ideas…, [requiring] compelling evidence before we believe.” The opposite of the skeptical attitude is called everything from credulity, a relatively kind term, to outright foolishness and self-delusion. In his The Killing of History, skeptic Keith Windschuttle maintains that many components of what we now call postmodernism are compromised by fundamentally uncritical thinking.
SLICE-OF-LIFE: A type of synecdoche — that is, an arbitrary cropping of a scene, especially common in Impressionism and in snapshot photography, where figures or important motifs might be interrupted by the edge of the image or by something interposed between them and the camera. The device suggests a momentary glimpse of reality, rather than a carefully composed, formal imitation of it. Among others, Edgar Degas used the device in countless paintings of ballet dancers, carriages at the races, and fashionable people strolling in Parisian streets. (Note, however, that the true amateur snapshot did not exist as such until after Degas’ accomplishments were made.)
SNAPSHOT: An informal photograph displaying ostensibly amateur characteristics, like accidental compositions, momentary glimpses of quotidian events, and sometimes even technical problems. Certain professional photographers (e.g., Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand) have mimicked the effects for a variety of purposes, and the term is sometimes used more or less synonymously with slice-of-life.
SOCIAL FORMATION: The social context (embracing the economic, moral, political and other expectations of a given group) in which a language produces a shared meaning specific to the time and place. The term is close in meaning to horizon of expectations.
SOCIAL PRACTICE: The notion that art of whatever sort is produced in and for a given social formation, rather than as an indulgence in pure self- expression or self-exorcism. Perhaps the most frequently quoted application of the phrase is from Allen Sekula’s “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary,” in Photography Against the Grain.
SOCIOLOGICAL CRITICISM: Umbrella term for a variety of interpretive approaches foregrounding environmental or secondary context — i.e., the circumstances of production outside the artist’s control — but not necessarily applied to material considered historical. See correlational social histories, cultural analysis, cultural anthropology, feminism, Geistesgeschichte, historical methodologies, and Marxism.
SOPHISTICATED: An antonym for vulgar (sense 3). Where a vulgar Marxist (see Marxism) is concerned principally with a superficial description of, say, market forces and their impact on class consciousness, a sophisticated Marxist interweaves these ideas with a more complex consideration of such things as ideology, psychology, and even deconstruction . It has been said that it is only their understanding of “vulgar” as disdainful that prevents respectful sophisticated Marxists from applying the term to Marx himself.
SOURCE ANALYSIS: Classical source analysis, one of the more long-standing and widespread approaches in traditional art history, is the study of artists’ allusions to and appropriations of the work of earlier artists. The analyst hopes to discover if the later artist’s sources indicate admiration, citation, emulation, or simply a learning experience. As such, the artist’s practice is not to be confused with forgery. Famous examples of source analysis include such things as Manet’s Olympia as a reworking of Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Rauschenberg’s Retroactive I as a reworking of Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve. Cf aegis, anxiety of influence.
SPECIAL PLEADING: In informal logic, an undesirable one-sidedness, bias, or lack of objectivity in argument. This has to be carefully examined in any published work — artwriting included — for the merit of the argument to shine through. Publications which are forever congratulating the artist for being a genius who transcends time (see specificity, timelessness) lean precipitously towards special pleading. Coffee-table books are rather prone to this, but there are exceptions.
SPECIFICITY: Distinctiveness in time and place; the particular nature of any phenomenon; the uniqueness of a response to a particular set of circumstances. Most postmodern thought emphasizes historical specificity, which challenges those outdated concepts like genius, masterpiece, and timelessness which share the opposed idea that some things can be universal or transhistorical.
SPECTACULAR: Conventionally, something which is especially dramatic or impressive. In some writing, in contrast, it means simply any public display (as in punk clothing) which has features distinguishing it from other public displays (as in business suits), although all might be quite unspectacular in the conventional sense. See Dick Hebdige’s Subculture.
SPIN DOCTOR: Colloquial term indicating a public relations person hired to shape public perception, particularly of political persons, parties, and situations. There has never been a shortage of art critics willing to serve in this capacity for artists. A careful reader will distinguish between such a critic and a less subservient voice.
SPLIT SUBJECT: Since Freud, consciousness has been divided into more than one level. “Split subject” is simply the heterogeneous nature of the real psyche, as described by such writers as Julia Kristeva (see Kristevan), as opposed to the illusion of wholeness signified by unary subject.
SPONTANEITY: Once a watchword of advanced art interested in unpremeditated self-expression (see expression theory), spontaneity is now regarded with suspicion. Theodor Adorno was one of the earliest to say why, although his example is actually jazz music: since mass culture in the era of capitalism works by offering ever-increasing sensual happiness in the here and now, spontaneity in the arts is really just an expression of the desire created in the populace by ideology. The result is an example of a social antinomy. For a general discussion, see S. Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics (New York: Free Press, 1977), 110. The result is that the long-vaunted spontaneity of art movements like abstract expressionism has recently been viewed with a certain doubt, and the attention is turned to something else, like the social formation. See, for example, Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art.
STIPULATIVE DEFINITION: Non-standard, personal or other specific connotations of a term in a given context — usually overtly laid out as diverging from dictionary standards. E.g., see Bullough’s use of the word presentment.
STRATIGRAPHIC FALLACY: In The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz argued against the establishment of an anthropological hierarchy of human behaviour, with biology as its base and successive psychological, social, and finally cultural strata. The image such a scheme gave of culture was that of an afterthought, not an integral part of the human condition. To oppose this stratigraphic fallacy he proposed the notion of “webs of significance” which spun their way throughout various levels without prioritizing them. Anthropology was thus in his mind not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive science in search of meaning. See also thick description.
STRUCTURALIST MARXISM: Term sometimes applied to Althusser’s method of describing human individuals not as having some essential characteristics (see essentialism) but as the product of social determinants taking the form of some sort of social structure, as in class consciousness, for example. See Althusserian.
STYLIZATION: Any manner of representation putting greater emphasis on the method of expression than on the appearance of nature (see naturalism). See conceptual, conventional. This includes the Egyptian canon of proportions, the conventional drapery patterns in Byzantine icons, Cubist fragmentation of figures into interpenetrating planes, and so on.
SUBCULTURE: Conventionally, any group sharing characteristics which are distinctive enough to differentiate them from other groups within a larger or “parent” culture. These characteristics may be economic, ethnic, political, or any matter of lifestyle. More particularly, “subculture” is used to designate those smaller groups which function in opposition to the larger culture, as in the punk subculture discussed in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). Stuart Hall (et al., Resistance Through Rituals ) distinguishes subculture, which he sees as informally and intuitively organized, from “counter-culture,” which he sees as more formally arranged and more expressly political and consciously ideological. In this scheme, punks were subcultural and hippies were counter-cultural.
SUBJECT: 1. Older writings will use this word to indicate an issue, theme, or topic, as in subject matter, or to indicate a body of knowledge, as in the subjects one studies at school. 2. Recent ones, particularly those influenced by psychoanalytical criticism, are more likely to use it exclusively as “agent,” an entity that acts, thinks and feels. See, for example, split subject, unary subject.
SUBJECTIVE: Characteristic of reality as perceived rather than as objectively true outside of the mind. This would include such things as objects and events experienced in a manner peculiar to a particular individual (and therefore not reproducible, in the manner of an objective scientific inquiry). This is what most speakers mean when they say that interpretation, for example, is purely subjective. But is it? See self.
SUBJECT MATTER: The old definition of this as “the topics or themes in a work as distinct from the style in which they are presented” is no longer tenable since the form of an artwork is one of the factors constitutive of its content. A simple distinction between subject matter and content is not detailed enough to transcribe the mechanisms of signification. Compare plane of content, plane of expression, semiotics.
SUBJECT PRESUMED TO KNOW: A phrase that appears in Jacques Lacan’s écrits, sometimes translated “subject who is presumed (or supposed) to know.” Generally, it indicates that a subject can only presume to have achieved objective knowledge. Specifically, it warns psychoanalysts not to be seduced by the illusion that they fully understand everything about a patient — an effect brought about by the patient’s growing self- awareness but attributed to the analyst through transference. The idea should be kept in mind when psychoanalytic criticism is applied to art. Jane Gallop has written on the issue in Art in America (November 1984).
SUBLIMATION: In Freudian and Lacanian thought, the process of diverting the energy of a drive, such as a sexual urge, to some other, ostensibly more elevated or socially acceptable realm, such as aesthetic activity. For example, Nietzsche felt that Raphael’s Madonnas could only be the result of the sublimation of his passions. See also desublimation.
SUBLIME: Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) identified the Sublime (usually capitalized today) as something so vast, grand, or dangerous that it could only inspire awe, fear or veneration. Accordingly, artists immediately supplied a demand for windswept landscapes and storms at sea (Ruisdael, Turner), enormous cityscapes (Cole, Martin), struggles between man and beast (Delacroix, Rubens), and all manner of variation — most with the tacit assumption that the forces of the Divine were immanent in Nature (Bierstadt, Friedrich). Traditionally, sublimity was best evoked by irregular and dark forms, so it was long taken as essentially Romantic and antithetical to classical forms. In modern times, however, the Sublime is as likely to be evoked by non-objective art, but less in the form of the terrifying than in the notion of complete abstraction as a trope to represent the unrepresentable (i.e., the Divine). The works of Malevich and Mondrian have been so described, as have been the paintings of Canadian Otto Rogers.
SUBLIMINAL: Below normal thresholds, as in a sound vibrating at a frequency below the normal range of human hearing. In the 1970s there was a great deal of discussion of subliminal messages in advertising, particularly in the books of Brian Wilson Keye (Subliminal Seduction). Ostensibly, all sorts of hidden communications — usually about sex — offered enticements to buy a given product, but they were themselves below the level of conscious reception. Some critics may also be taking something of this sort for granted in their artwriting, for they occasionally discover meanings which seem to have little to do with objectively describable features of a given work.
SUFFICIENCY: In informal logic, the notion that premises must be complete enough to account for a given conclusion. For example, an extensional definition that identifies a sculpture only as “something one can walk around” is insufficient because one can walk around a house, a shopping mall, or the block. Similarly, in the syllogism “The photographer hates models who are late; I am not late; therefore, the photographer will not hate me” is insufficient because the photographer might hate the model for some other, unstated reason.
SUPER: A colloquial expression for superimposed titles and/or credits in television production. Some contemporary painting makes use of a similar idea, with words placed directly over other imagery in the manner seen in television and print advertisements. Examples include David Salle, Annette Lemieux, Barbara Kruger, and innumerable others.
SYLLOGISM: An elementary structure in informal logic, along the classic Aristotelian lines of “All humans are mortal; all artists are human; therefore, all artists are mortal.” See also categorical syllogisms.
SYMBOL: 1. Conventionally, something used for or conceived of as representing something else, as an “x” symbolizes a variable in an equation, or a dog symbolizes fidelity, etc. 2. In Peircean semiotics, a symbol is one of three basic types of signs, the other two being the icon and the index. The ground of the relationship between an icon and its referent is resemblance, and the ground of the relationship between an index and its referent is causal or existential. For those signs with a relationship to a referent that is purely arbitrary and conventional, Peirce reserved the term “symbol,” as a flag symbolizes “patriotism” or a red octagon symbolizes “stop.”
SYMBOLIC: Lacanian term to designate the most basic psychological processes, in which the sense of self is forever under construction in the midst of a network of signifying structures (see semiotics) initiated during the mirror stage and inevitably involving the realm of the social. In other words, there is no self without an other. Compare imaginary, real. For an application, see name-of-the-father.
SYNCHRONIC: See diachronic, linguistics.
SYNECDOCHE: One of the four major tropes, synecdoche is the poetic use of a part to signify the whole and, somewhat less frequently, the use of a whole to signify a part. Even in common speech we encounter phrases like “all hands on deck” or “there were forty head grazing in the pasture.” In art, far from being a mere visual accident, the device is chiefly used for dramatic effect or for controlling the viewer’s degree of awareness of details, as in the barrels of guns anonymously poking in from the right side of one of Goya’s Disasters of War prints. (This practice has become something of a cliche in mystery and suspense movies, where directors almost invariably delay the audience’s awareness by showing only the villain’s feet or gloved hands.) In later nineteenth-century art, synecdoche serves to signify the much less dramatic Impressionist slice-of-life.
SYNTAGM: The polar opposite of paradigm (sense 3). Where “paradigm” indicates the relationship of a word to other words outside of a given utterance, “syntagm” indicates the relationship of a word to other words within a given utterance. The “syntagmatic axis” is thus basically grammar. In film studies, the syntagmatic axis is the succession of images, so that a metaphor, for example, in a syntagmatic axis means one which emerges across a sequence of views.
TABULA RASA: Tabula rasaa smoothed tablet; hence, figuratively, the mind in its earliest state, before receiving impressions from without; - a term used by Hobbes, Locke, and others, in maintaining a theory opposed to the doctrine of innate ideas.
TACTICS: Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life outlines the basic conditions within which cultural activity can be produced by those who are considered non-producers by traditional analysts. One must first distinguish between strategy — where subjects can be isolated from the environment to achieve apparent objectivity, as in scientific rationality — and tactics — where subjects have no “proper,” objective place, but insinuate themselves into the object’s place in a piecemeal manner, without taking it over entirely. Although de Certeau is speaking of the specific practices of powerless people (e.g., perruque), one of the general postmodern repercussions of the idea for art criticism and art theory is that a writer cannot occupy an objective position from which a work’s meaning can be seen in full determinacy. A writer, in short, cannot have a strategy, but only fragmentary tactics which depend on time and the constant seizing of opportunities. In many respects, the notion provides an alternative theoretical justification for illustrement.
TEACH THE CONFLICT: At the heart of the political correctness debate centres is the question of how to deal with a Eurocentric canon without simply caving in to the demands of pressure groups (which would merely set a precedent entailing caving in again in a few years, when new groups succeed them). Gerald Graff’s solution is simply to teach the conflict itself. If nothing else, it will show that it possible to live with difference and to do so without xenophobia or closed-mindedness.
TECTONIC: Pertaining to building; having an obvious structure; a work in another medium (e.g., a painting) characterized by horizontal and vertical emphases, as in a building. Mondrian’s mature works are obviously tectonic.
TELEOLOGY: The doctrine that things develop purposively towards an end (from the Greek telos) determined by the thing under development, as a being might move towards individual self-fulfillment or a species towards its ostensible perfection. This would be in contrast to a mechanistic evolution without purpose. The idea lurks behind the theory of formalism, as if art will emerge at some end point of complete and perfect “artness.” This kind of thinking is behind the complaint of the 1960s that Miminalism represented the death of art.
TENOR: 1. The general line of thought, as in the tenor of an argument or the drift of a conversation. Any generalization of the character of an artwork — e.g., its theme or general flavour — might be so described. 2. In the literary writings of I. A. Richards, a tenor is the idea being expressed in a metaphor, as opposed to the vehicle which expresses it.
TENSION: In architecture, the forces tending to stretch certain members, as in the thrust on the centre portion of a wide lintel; in other arts, a precarious balance established between opposing formal features or other elements, usually for some aesthetic effect.
TESTABILITY: In “The Testability of an Interpretation” (in J. Margolis’s Philosophy Looks at the Arts), Monroe C. Beardsley argues that some interpretations are by nature better than others. The best intepretation is therefore the “right” one. The criteria for testing interpretations are analogous to those under the heading validity. See also translation.
TEXT: Originally referring simply to a body of writing, its use in postmodernist contexts is closer to its origins in the Latin texere, to weave. Roland Barthes (see Barthesian) distinguished between a “work,” which he characterized as a finite body with a determinate meaning, and a “text,” which was indeterminate, open-ended, and endlessly subject to reinterpretation as audiences changed. (Cf reception-theory). As such, “text” can refer to any expression, consciously artistic or otherwise, which can be read — i.e., which is “lisible” (see also reader-response, reading), whether it is written or visual. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has even described social formations as texts which can be interpeted in ways analogous to the interpretation of literature. See also scriptible.
TEXTBOOK: The textbook is a troublesome thing in the postmodern era because it is a single object which purports to be a body of essential knowledge as well as implicitly the principal methodology for dealing with its subject. That is, it is both “what to know” and “how to know it.” As a result, it can serve as a good example of one institution’s type of power. See also art history, critique of institutions, cultural selection, politics of the textbook.
TEXTURE: 1. The surface characteristics of an object. These can be tactile, in the sense of a physical texture in actuality, or visual, in the sense of an illusionistic rendering of a texture in a virtually flat painting or photograph. 2. More loosely, the identifying character of a work — its flavour, mode, mood, tone, or voice. Both senses can have strong affective properties.
THICK DESCRIPTION: Term used by Clifford Geertz to describe his method of detailed analysis of an anthropological context by immersing himself in it, to some extent, instead of assuming he can achieve a standpoint of objectivity. (See also ideology, text). By extension, any attempt to transcribe in exhaustive detail all the “webs of significance” — i.e., potentially influential circumstances that obtained during, say, an artist’s career, whether or not s/he was conscious of them — could be so described. The art history of Albert Boime (essays on Friedrich, Manet, Van Gogh; books on Couture, the French Academy, a typological study on the representation of African-Americans, etc.) approaches this level of complexity. Robert Belton’s The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman in Male Surrealist Art attempts it in a very different way. Because thick description includes contradictory characteristics which traditional historical or sociological writing leaves out, it is a fundamental alternative to metahistory. Geertz, however, maintained that social relations can be observed objectively without being distorted by the values of the observer (see mediation), so some postmodern opponents claim the method is just another metanarrative. See also stratigraphic fallacy.
THINKING AS YET NOT THINKABLE: Hélène Cixous’s feminism indicts Eurocentric, patriarchal logocentrism and calls for a rebellious écriture féminine that bypasses Western rationalism. Since it is not clear what form of thought could replace it, Cixous simply designates it “thinking as yet not thinkable.” The clearest example of this sort of approach in current artwriting is probably the work of Joanna Frueh.
THIRD WORLD OTHER: Gayatri Spivak’s term to describe any non-European people with an intact material culture which can be recovered and exploited, either interpretively or in terms of commodity fetishism by Eurocentric interests. See “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in reading the Archives,” History and Theory 24 (1985): 247.
TIMELESSNESS: The notion that certain works of art are so filled with genius that they rise above the specifics of time and place to occupy a transcendental, superhuman plane of existence that does not belong to history. This idea, sometimes also called “transhistorical” (e.g., in Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension) and apparently still fashionable among the general populace, is rejected by postmodernism in general as pseudotranshistorical. Hans-Georg Gadamer (see Gadamerian) argues in Truth and Method that this notion can only be a sort of “sacred time,” which requires a theological justification having little to do with genuine, lived human experience. See also cultural selection.
TOPOS: From the Greek koinos topos, “common place,” meaning a standard rhetorical theme or topic. In current artwriting, the term typically concerns a work’s content. Older writings sometimes include parallels to culturally determined patterns of configuration (i.e., impulses to use set forms in the expression of stock themes), as in W. Eugene Kleinbauer’s characterization of Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel in Modern Perspectives in Art History (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 64. The plural is “topoi.”
TOTALIZE: To combine into a whole or aggregate, oversimplifying difference in the process. “Totalize” has been used in different contexts by different writers: Marx used it with reference to the over-all process of world history; Lenin re the reciprocal relations of phenomena; Lukács and Mannheim re the sense of wholeness of individual consciousness; and Sartre re individuality as a process of interiorizing experience.
TOXIC: Poisonous. By extension, the principal characteristic of anything deleterious to the health or well-being. Although its most frequent use is in “toxic waste,” the word is now tossed about as a basic synonym for dysfunctional in numerous contexts, like “toxic relationships,” “toxic shame,” and so on. Toxic art would presumably be art with a negative affect.
TRACE: Discussing différance, Jacques Derrida (see Derridean) states that each element (for example, a signifier) “is related to something other than itself [i.e., a signified] but retains the mark of a past element…” (Speech and Phenomena, ). The various kinds of marks which thus cast doubt on our certainty about the relation between an element and its meaning (see indeterminacy) he calls traces.
TRACING: The copying of any form of illustration, drawing, diagram, etc., by covering it with a sheet of transparent or translucent paper or other material and registering its principle (and usually linear) elements thereon.
TRANSCENDENTAL: Characteristic of things which go beyond material existence. The term has two distinct senses in postmodernism, both of which are taken to be fundamental errors. The first is a near synonym for timelessness, and it is treated with skepticism (see also universal human interest, pseudotranshistorical). The second describes the traditional logocentric attitude in which the meaning of an utterance is guaranteed in some magical way by a kind of transcendental presence hovering behind the words themselves (see also metaphysics of presence).
TRANSCENDENTALISM: A literary and philosophical movement, associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, asserting the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable through intuition.
TRANSCRIPTION: The representation of speech sounds by means of phonetic symbols. There have been several attempts to devise related practices for visual images. A recent example is included in Fernande Saint-Martin’s Semiotics of Visual Language. Cf translation.
TRANSFERENCE: In psychoanalysis, the process by which emotions and desires originally associated with one person, such as a parent or sibling, are unconsciously shifted to another person, especially to the analyst.
TRANSLATION: It is a perennial matter of undergraduate debate whether or not any act of criticism can adequately “translate” visual images into verbal ones. One of the hidden premises of most arguments opposing the possibility is that translation is simply a matter of converting an utterance in one language into its exact equivalent in another. Professional translators know that such situations are exceedingly rare, so much of the substance of the argument evaporates. Idiomatic translations are universally preferred to literal ones, in any case. (Cf metalanguage, object language). The etymology of the word itself is “to carry across,” which explains why most dictionaries give as the first definition something along the lines of “to remove or change from one appearance, form, place, or state to another.” Even with this slight but significant change of emphasis, one should still adopt a critical attitude towards translation and be aware that standard tests for the reliability of a translation might be of some use. The most common is “back translation:” here a document is translated from language X to language Y, given to another translator and retranslated back to language X. The two X’s are then compared, but less for literal accuracy than for preservation of sense. Imagining such a test for artwriting would require an extremely adroit argument from analogy. At the very least, it would demand an exceptionally precise type of description. Tests defined for more specific kinds of document include “knowledge testing,” where recipients of document X would be able to answer the same questions of fact as recipients of translated document Y; and “performance testing,” where imperative statement X and its translation as statement Y are given to two people to see if they behave the same way. Given that one sense of interpretation is “performance,” this option may offer more possibilities for artwriting than any other. See also transcription, transliteration.
TROPE: Any of several types of diversion from the literal to the figurative. The so-called “four master tropes” are irony, metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche (see Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives), but one would have to add parody to this list. A few new ones have recently been invented: see aegis, catachresis, kenosis, perruque. Cf figures of speech.
TRUSS: Extremely strong, usually triangular arrangements of struts.
TYPOLOGICAL STUDY: Any of various types of study which approach a given category of content as a thematic block. The practice has its roots in studies of medieval art for the simple reason that analogies between Old and New Testament characters and stories had for centuries been treated as typological parallels. For example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale for three days was interesting to medieval and Renaissance artists principally because it was a prophecy of Christ’s entombment and resurrection. A recent example is Adrian and Joyce Wilson’s A Medieval Mirror : Speculum Humanae Salvationis, 1324-1500 (1984). The term has spread to include all sorts of monographs on a single subject, as in Robert Rosenblum’s The Dog in Art from Rococo to Postmodernism (1988), Jean Vercoutter’s The Image of the Black in Western Art, and Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983).