UNARY SUBJECT: Julia Kristeva’s term for the erroneous notion that consciousness is some sort of unified whole. At best, she regards it as a momentary blockage of the disruptive (see disruption) drives characteristic of the real psyche, evident in the split subject.
UNBIDDEN: Un-commissioned works produced on spec, as it were.
UNCANNY: Sigmund Freud (see Freudian) discussed E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale “The Sandman” in terms of a state of psychic estrangement or disquieting strangeness, to which he gave the name “the Uncanny.” (The German source word, Unheimlichkeit, breaks down roughly into “un-home-like-ness.”) The first artist to consciously cultivate this type of anxiety as an aesthetic thrill is said to be Giorgio de Chirico, who felt that the silence, solitude and obscurity of deserted Italian piazze gave rise to a curious amalgam of aesthetic sentiment and psychic distress. (See Jean Clair, “Metafisica et Unheimlichkeit,” in Les Réalismes, 1919-39 [Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 17 December, 1980-20 April, 1981], pp. 26-34.) De Chirico preferred to use the word presentiment, but his confusion of animate and inanimate — he described statues in public places as particularly evocative because they seemed to have the potential to rise and enter the world of men, especially at twilight — is precisely what Freud had described as the primary criterion for the generation of the Uncanny. The supposed leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, developed the notion into his doctrine of convulsive beauty — i.e., that beauty had to have a certain shock value to qualify as genuine. More recently, with the increasing influence of Freudian and related terminology (see jargon) in contemporary artwriting, the Uncanny pops up in descriptions of many works which are marginally disturbing. Specific examples include Mark Cheetham’s comments on painter Alice Mansell in his Remembering Postmodernism and David Garneau’s “Wyn Geleynse: Images on the Tip of the Tongue,” in Wyn Geleynse (Calgary: Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Alberta College of Art, 1994), p. 13, and the term could easily be employed when discussing the works of Fuss, Lukacs, Serrano, and many others.
UNDERPAINTING: Artlex gives this: “Underpainting: The layer or layers of color on a painting surface applied before the overpainting, or final coat. There are many types of underpainting. One type is an all-over tinting of a white ground. Another is a blocked out image in diluted oil colors that serves as a guide for the painter while developing the composition and color effects.
UNDERSTATEMENT: A statement that is restrained in ironic contrast to what might have been said
UNHEIMLICHKEIT: See Uncanny.
UNIQUE AESTHETIC EMOTION: Clive Bell’s vague conception of the rarefied sentiment experienced when examining a true work of art. The conception does not hold up well under close inspection.
UNIVERSAL HUMAN INTEREST: Many canons appear to have been constructed with the idea that certain things — works of literature or art — are of such great quality that they belong to no particular time and place or no specific ethnic group or culture. They are thus granted the status of timelessness, in which case they are supposed to be of universal human interest. The critique of institutions, multiculturalism, political correctness, and postmodernism in general all deny that such a state exists, apart from those political situations in which groups in power seek to control knowledge in order to suppress other groups. In such an instance, what appears to be timeless is actually pseudotranshistorical.
UNIVERSALISM: The theological doctrine that all people will eventually be saved
UNLIMITED SEMIOSIS: A hypothetically infinite process by which one sign or set of signs can take the place of another sign or set of signs which in turn can be replaced by yet another sign or set of signs, and so on. Without such polysemy, artists and poets would soon run out of figurative images like tropes. The inexhaustible production of new meanings that results is a key concept in the semiotics of Umberto Eco and in deconstruction.
UNPACK: Occasionally used as a synonym for “analyze” or “deconstruct” in the context of deconstruction . That is, to unpack something is to reveal its layers of hidden meaning.
UTILITARIANISM: Webster’s gives this: “A doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically, a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
UTOPIA: A perfect, remote and almost unthinkably ideal “place” (construed as a location, an era, a political state, or even a state of mind) and therefore the opposite of dystopia. Pictorial instances of utopian scenes are fairly commonplace, ranging from Arcadian vistas of the golden age (Greco-Roman wall paintings, some of the landscapes of Poussin and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, etc.) to almost bizarre visions of an afterlife (Girodet’s Ossian Receiving the Napoleonic Officers  comes to mind). There are even picture cycles which show both ends of the spectrum, as in Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire (1836), which moves from prehistory through a utopian phase towards inevitable, dystopian desolation.
UTTERANCE: The use of uttered sounds for auditory communication
VALIDITY: 1. In informal logic, validity is determined by whether or not the conclusion of an argument follows necessarily from its premises. If the premises of a valid analytic argument are true, the conclusion must be true. If the premises of a synthetic argument are true, relevant, and sufficient, the conclusion is likely to be true. Note that an argument may be structurally valid even if one of the premises is untrue. In the syllogism “Picasso was a painter; painters are wild and irreverent; therefore, Picasso was wild and irreverent,” it is undemonstrable that all artists are wild and irreverent. So the argument is untrue even though it is valid. Similarly, an argument that is invalid (see invalidity) may happen to be true, as in “Roumanian artists speak Roumanian; Picasso was not a Roumanian artist; therefore, Picasso did not speak Roumanian.” The conclusion is not certified by the premises. It is conceivable that a non-Roumanian artist could speak Roumanian, although we happen to know in this instance that he did not. Obviously, the best argument is going to be both valid and true. 2. In a widely read book entitled Validity in Interpretation, E. D. Hirsch argued against what has become the standard postmodern disclosure of multiple meanings (polysemy) by asserting that certain interpretations were more valid than others, particularly those which allowed the author, rather than the work and/or its affect on the audience, to have authority in the determination of meaning. See authorial ignorance, authorial irrelevance, authorial responsibility, meaning, meaning in and meaning to, read into, significance.
VANITAS: The general term applied to a category of subject matter (see content) expressing the folly of vanity and the belief in the permanence of healthy existence, beauty, and the like. Vanitas themes include such things as beautiful young women confronting death in the form of a skeletal figure (e.g., Anton Wiertz), figures meditating over skulls or skeletons (Georges De La Tour), withering flowers (a host of seventeenth century Dutch still-life artists), children blowing bubbles (Chardin, Paul Peel), and so on. The category is one of the more common in all of pre-modern Western art history.
VARIORUM: An edition containing various versions of a text or notes by various scholars or editors
VATIC: Resembling or characteristic of a prophet or prophecy
VAUDEVILLE: A variety show with songs and comic acts etc.
VAULT: Any of various types of arched ceiling (see arch). A “barrel” vault is like an arch increased in depth to create a simple tunnel. While quite effective for some purposes, the disadvantage of a barrel vault is that any penetration of it, as for windows, weakens its ability to withstand thrust. This disadvantage is alleviated when two or more barrel vaults are run into each other to create a “groin” vault (so called because of the complicated geometry of the intersections): there, the weakness of the one barrel is compensated for by the other. A “ribbed” vault articulates the edges of the intersections with stone work creating a segmental effect. A “fan” vault is an exceedingly complicated, essentially decorative ribbing that resembles a fan or, in some extremely elaborate instances, lace-work. The history of vault development determines to a great extent the evolution of innumerable other architectural details. See, for example, buttress. See also wall
VECTORS: A variable quantity that can be resolved into components.
VEHICLE: In the literary theory of I. A. Richards, the means by which a metaphor exploits something familiar (the vehicle) in order to convey poetically an adequate impression of something unfamiliar (the tenor). For an example, see vehicle shift.
VEHICLE SHIFT: By analogy with paradigm shift, a vehicle shift is the point at which certain types of vehicle become too much of a cliché to operate effectively in the production of expressive metaphor. For example, the standard vanitas vehicles had become so conventional by the early nineteenth century that those indifferent to academic thought sought new vehicles for old tenors in natural appearances. For example, Théodore Rousseau’s Under the Birches, Evening might appear at first glance to be a simple scene of a grove of trees, but it also implies a narrative about the cycle of life and the inevitability of change. The phenomenon of vehicle shift allows one to circumnavigate easily the apparent paradox of Courbet’s title The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory….
VERIFICATION: Karl Popper argued that nothing could ever be proven true once and for all, since no-one could ever be sure that there was no exception to the rule. A statement like “all swans are white” would only appear to be true to those who had never seen a black one. Popper concluded that the scientific method could not proceed by verification but only by falsification. That is, one would know the statement “all swans are white” was false as soon as one saw a black swan. See also corroboration, plausibility, testability, and validity.
VERISIMILITUDE: The degree to which something seems to be true; used of the putative accuracy of a representation. Cf naturalism, representation.
VERNACULAR: A common popular or regional variation from international, academic, or other “accepted” standard usage in language, architecture, etc.
VICTIMARCHY: Word coined by Warren Farrell in The Myth of Male Power to describe a society which conceives of its members as victims — perpetually unable to direct their own affairs or to control their own destinies. In other words, both men and women are victims of patriarchy. See new masculinity.
VIGNETTE: A photograph whose edges shade off gradually
VIRTUAL: Existing in essence or effect though not in actual fact
VISIGOTHS IN TWEED: Derogatory synonym for the cultural left coined for use in the popular media by Dinesh D’Souza.
VISIONARY MODE OF ARTISTIC CREATION: In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, C. G. Jung distinguished between two modes of artistic creation, the psychological and the visionary. The former is common and unremarkable because the artist simply interprets and illuminates the contents of consciousness — rational or not — in such a manner that the result is intelligible to an audience. The visionary, in contrast, derives material from the primordial realm of the archetypes in the collective unconscious, so that the result is astonishing, confusing, frightening, or even disgusting. The presumption here is that the visionary artist is “called to a greater task than the ordinary mortal,” which many postmodernists find an objectionable idea.
VISUAL AGNOSIA: See interpretive agnosia.
VISUAL CULTURE: The body of cultural artifacts which are experienced principally through vision, without the traditional academic separation between high and low culture. Books which deal with visual culture are as comfortable discussing film stills, advertisements, political posters, graffitti and the like as they are works of fine art. More importantly, perhaps, the terminology and conceptual assumptions about the ways in which meanings are produced are the same. A notable example is W. J. T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
VITAL IMPORT: Suzanne Langer’s conception of art as presentational symbols precludes fixed, determinate content, so she replaces the notion of conclusive meaning with vital import, which is the non-objective communication of emotional significance. This is similar to Barthes’ notion of the third or obtuse meaning (see signifiance).
VITALISM: (philosophy) a doctrine that life is a vital principle distinct from physics and chemistry
VOICE: Something suggestive of speech in being a medium of expression
VULGAR: 1. See vernacular. 2. Coarse, lacking in cultivated manners or taste, as in vulgar arts (see liberal arts). 3. Facile and superficial, when applied as an adjective to certain critical methodologies, especially Marxism. There, it derives from Marx’s use of the phrase “vulgar economics” in Das Kapital, by which he meant a simple study of rather cosmetic phenomena, often veiling an implicit defense of the bourgeois status quo. The antonym would be “authentic Marxism.”
WAINSCOTTING: Decorative panelling on interior walls, usually confined to the lower half.
WALL: In architecture, any of a variety of upright structures whose length is many times greater than its thickness and the purpose of which is either support or enclosure. The former, typical in most eras except the High Gothic and the Modern, carries the weight of whatever rests upon it, like the upper stories of a building or a vault. Such a structure is said to be a “bearing” wall, because it bears a load. Examples of the latter include free-standing barriers (like the Great Wall of China) and enclosures which bear loads by other mechanisms (as in the High Gothic and Modern periods of architectural history, when the load tended to be taken up by columns, or slender vertical elements functioning like them, in stone, iron or steel, rather than by the wall itself). In such a case, the wall is little more than a skin of glass serving principally to separate one space from another and so is called a “screen” or “curtain wall.” Examples of curtain walls range, then, from Cologne Cathedral to the shop block of the Bauhaus.
WAMPUM: Beads, usually of shell, strung together and used as a decorative means of exchange in some aboriginal North American cultures.
WANT-TO-BE: See lack, manque-à-être.
WARBURG: See iconology, Pathosformel, topos.
WARM COLOUR: Reds and yellows and their intermediaries (i.e., oranges) are conventionally referred to as warm colours, ostensibly by virtue of their resemblance to the natural hue of fire and other hot things. Warm colours are said to advance — i.e., to draw towards the foreground of an image — and so are said to be generally opposed to the temperature and movement of cool colour. The effect can be both visual and emotional — see, for example, Leighton’s Flaming June — but it is strongly dependent upon any number of other formal features.
WASH: A layer of thinned colour applied by brush, often rapidly, to roughly block in and/or model forms in paintings, watercolours, and some drawings. Famous applications range from colourful watercolour notes, as in the Moroccan sketchbooks of Delacroix, to the colourless but equally adept modelling in Tiepolo drawings.
WATERCOLOUR: Pigment in a water soluble medium, handled as a wash. Most watercolours are quite translucent and exploit effects peculiar to the medium, like reserve highlights and the appearance of spontaneous and rapid execution (see, for example, Turner’s deft sketches of the British Parliament in flames). See also body colour.
WEBS OF SIGNIFICANCE: See interpretive web, stratigraphic fallacy, thick description.
WELTANSCHAUUNG: The mind-set , outlook, or “world-view” of a particular group, whether aesthetic, ethnic, political, social, etc. Weltanschauungen are usually limited in scope to readily identifiable historical, geographical, ethnic and other entities. See Geistesgeschichte .
WESTERN: 1. Pertaining to the culture, history and values of the Occidental world, especially Europe and North America. The western mind-set, for example, has been characterized as patriarchal, racist and rationalistic. (Such a viewpoint, of course, oversimplifies egregiously.) 2. In literature, film and theatre, works dealing with the western United States of the nineteenth-century, along with its trademark themes of “cowboys and Indians,” pioneering and expansionism, etc. One of the more notable Western artists is Frederick Remington.
WHORF HYPOTHESIS: In Language, Thought and Reality, part-time linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf formulated the notion that language was a function of the mind existing prior to our experience of reality, in a sense, thus shaping the external world in a fundamental way. Accordingly, speakers of a given language are parties to a binding agreement about reality, whereas speakers of a different language exist in a different reality, as it were. While the theory, also called linguistic relativity, was quite popular in the 1950s, it was discredited in 1969. One of the examples used to point out Whorf’s misconception was a discussion of the famous idea that Inuit peoples have a large number of terms for snow: since English has only one, the Inuit supposedly thus experienced the world as much richer and more variegated. This, of course, is wrong, for English distinguishes sleet, hail, slush, etc., not to mention the complex meteorological vocabulary that accompanies such terms. Interestingly, another of the debunking examples was a discussion of colour terminology in various languages, which apparently followed nearly identical structural patterns. By 1991, however, the idea was being reinvestigated (Scientific American [February 1992]), perhaps under the influence of generalized postmodern notions of cultural difference. However, many new theories seem to take it for granted that language is formative of experience. See, e.g., Lacanian.
WOMAN AS THE NOT-YET: Luce Irigaray challenges gender essentialism by arguing that woman is not biologically determined but is caught up in ceaselessly changing cultural productions of gendered meanings. It is possible to negate these productions as they arise, but it is not possible to fix the feminine, so woman is “woman as the not-yet.”
XENOPHILIA: Love of the foreign or unfamiliar.
XENOPHOBIA: Irrational fear or hatred of anything foreign or unfamiliar, especially other social or ethnic groups.
ZEITGEIST: In Geistesgeschichte, the Zeitgeist is the spirit of the times Zeit meaning time and Geist (akin to “ghost”) meaning spirit, intellect and other ephemeral aspects of the psyche. As such, the term is usually taken to mean the general trend of thought or sentiment which supposedly circulates through all the cultural productions of an identifiable era. For example, the Zeitgeist of the Neoclassical period has been characterized as rationalism, whereas that of the Romantic period is sentiment. The Zeitgeist of the early modern period may have been faith in salvation through technological advancement, whereas that of the postmodern period would be disdain for such expressions of certainty in general. Because the identification of a Zeitgeist tends to obliterate difference and imply a degree of essentialism, it is safe to say that postmodern thought in general distrusts it.
ZEUGMA: Use of a word to govern two or more words though appropriate to only one
ZIGGURAT: A pyramid with stepped, rather than sloped, sides.
ZOOMORPHIC: An object having the attributes of an animal.