Archive for the ‘Postmodern terms’ Category

Postmodern terms – HABITUS to KRISTEVAN

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.

Postmodern Terminology: A-C D-G H-K L-N O-R S-T U-Z

HABITUS: Person’s predisposition to be affected by something

HAGIOGRAPHY: Writing about saints. Traditionally, saints are not recognized as such until they have been officially canonized (see canon). By extension then, any type of artwriting giving undue praise to an artist or attempting principally to identify an important contribution to an art-historical canon is implicitly a hagiography. In official religious hagiography, certain criteria must be met. The most well-known of these are miracles and martyrdom. The straightforward analogies for these in art history are masterpieces and bohemianism. See also genius.

HAMARTIA: Frequently translated as “tragic flaw,” hamartia is simply a mishap or human frailty which leads to someone’s reversal of fortune.

HAPTIC: Haptic means “relating to or based on the sense of touch.” Since its application in artwriting is almost always about space, texture and/or volume, it is most typically used as an adjective for sculpture. It is less often used of painting (most often as a variation of painterly) and of architecture (in instances where, for example, a tactile sense of space is created by some arrangement of volumes). Jennifer Fisher of Cornell University surveyed some of these in her paper “Haptic Resonances in Aesthetic Experience,” for the 1998 College Art Association conference. I have seen a few occasions in which the concept is applied to photography in the instance of exceptionally detailed prints. (See, for example “A Haptic Theory of Photographic Processes”.) Most recently, the notion has been brought up in the contxext of tactile digital interfaces (see and media luminary Marshall McLuhan (see Readers might also be interested in Art Through Touch, a British group fostering art for the visually impaired.


HEARSAY: A legal term denoting evidence not based on a witness’s personal knowledge, but on information reported to him by someone else. As such, in many legal systems, most hearsay is not admissible as evidence without meeting a rigid set of criteria. In some art criticism, hearsay has become so entrenched in interpretive history that facts about an artwork are sometimes obscured (see context [tertiary], King Richard effect). This is a particular problem in popularizing contexts. For instance, general books usually make quite a to-do about Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, but few of them point out that the work was not publicly exhibited for at least a decade after its completion. So assertions that the painting was a direct influence on a host of young artists must be revised to distinguish more clearly between those who had first-hand knowledge of the work and those who either did not know of it or had heard about it only through the grapevine.

HEBRAISM: The subordination of everything to principles of obedient conduct. Matthew Arnold uses the term in Culture and Anarchy to signify “strictness of conscience,” in contrast to Hellenism‘s “spontaneity of conscience.” The contrast is thus between duty and curiosity.

HEDONISM: Although it roots are genuinely philosophical, hedonism is now taken to mean sensual gratification as an end in itself. The term pops up in discussions of the work of Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and other artists who seem to have made a point of avoiding troubling subject matter or politically specific themes.

HEGELIANISM: Generally, anything pertaining to the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. More specifically, the notion that history has a rational end — i.e., history is the manner in which reason realizes itself in human experience. It follows the typical dialectic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. Followers of Hegel disagreed as to what this meant, with the so-called Old Hegelians claiming current political conditions were rational and the Young Hegelians claiming the opposite. The latter preferred to think of philosophy as essentially a call to revolution: one of them, Ludwig Feuerbach, was of particular influence on Karl Marx (see Marxism). See also world-view. Hegel has had considerable influence on art history, especially in his basic distinction between form and content. His idea was that these two could be reconciled in a higher synthesis — as they are in a different way in a paralinguistic theory of art — but his application of thesis/antithesis/synthesis to the trio of symbolical (Oriental) art, classical (Greek and Roman) art, and Romantic (Germano-Christian) art misses the mark by a wide margin. See also idealism.

HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY: See new masculinity.

HEGEMONY: Often linked to the writings of Antonio Gramsci, but by no means exclusive to them, “hegemony” means predominant influence, especially when it involves coercion, as in colonialism. One reads frequently of the cultural hegemony of the capital over the provinces, the economic hegemony of the middle class over the working class (see embourgeoisement), etc. The maintenance of hegemony is dependent upon the ideological effect, which makes the power of the dominant class appear desirable and natural. This in turn makes the meanings chosen by the dominant group appear to be universal. The hegemony of the mainstream media is a case in point, creating common sense beliefs that contradict statistical observations: for example, people tend to think the majority of crack cocaine addicts are black inner-city urbanites when in fact they are white suburbanites, and the elderly are the most afraid of experiencing violence even though they are statistically least likely to. Hegemony is, however, not a stable entity but what Gramsci called a “moving equilibrium” in which positions are ceaselessly revised. The seat of power is thus not the exclusive possession of a particular class once and for all but a series of shifts of power, sometimes across alliances. (A troublesome case in point is that well-meaning advertising can give the impression that women are far more likely to suffer violence at the hands of their spouses than men. Recent research indicates this is not true.) Hegemony thus needs continually to be reconfigured and resymbolized.

HEIDEGGERIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Martin Heidegger. See Dasein, existentialism, ontological difference, open.

HELIOGRAPHY: See photography.

HELLENISM: The subordination of everything to the intellect, even sensual beauty. See Hebraism for Matthew Arnold’s application of the term.

HERESY OF PARAPHRASE: The notion that anything — an artwork, text, utterance, etc. — means what it means only in its original form, so that any abbreviation, paraphrase, translation, or other form of representation introduces distortions, simplifications, and misunderstandings. When Cleanth Brooks used the phrase in The Well Wrought Urn, he had no idea that the notion would be turned on its head as part of postmodern orthodoxy in the form of mediation. Brooks intended to give priority to the literary work itself, but it is now understood that any act — even reading — is a type of mediation, so there is no real “work” without some sort of paraphrase. This realization gives rise to the death of the author, on the one hand, and to reader-response criticism on the other.

HERMENEUTIC CIRCLE: In hermeneutics, the notion that one cannot understand the meaning of a portion of a work until one understands the whole, even though one cannot understand the whole until one understands the parts. It is not simply a paradox, since it indicates that any act of interpretation occurs through time, with adjustments and modifications being made to one’s understanding of both the parts and the whole in a circular manner, at least until some sort of resolution is achieved (see closure, sense 2). (There are some similarities to the sorts of adjustments made in Pepper’s conception of the consummatory field.) The word “barked” cannot properly be said to mean dog sounds if the sentence in which it appears is “the child barked his shin when climbing the tree.” Similarly, this sense of the word “shin” does not operate in a sentence describing the twenty-second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Accordingly, a reader will not understand the parts until s/he has read the whole, and vice versa. Such examples are far too simple to characterize what happens in full-blown hermeneutics, however. See prejudice for a different type of example. Cf hermeneutic spiral for a related model which tries to sidestep closure.

HERMENEUTIC SPIRAL: In theory, the traditional hermeneutic circle presumes to reach a definitive conclusion as to the meaning of an utterance. Because it invokes closure, it remains open to attack from postmodern writers, who prefer indeterminacy to determinacy. In historical practice, no statement made about a work of art has ever been truly conclusive (cf reception history), but rather than discard the hermeneutic model, we can find ways to spring it open systematically. One such is simply to acknowledge that something else can always be said, however invalid or irrelevant it might be. The adjustments and modifications one makes during the process of coming to understanding never cease and a true closure is never evoked. But we might want to invent a system which also enables us to create relevant and valid responses, despite open-endedness. One such is a hermeneutic spiral equation, which has two advantages: first, it provides a hypothetical space for all future contributions in structurally schematic form and it provides a mechanism for testing their usefulness; and two, its structural holism assures the practitioner will not be subject to interpretive agnosia.

HERMENEUTIC SPIRAL EQUATION: The use of a formal language to produce a scheme of interpetation which tends towards holism without invoking closure and without excluding future interpretive strategies or new evidence. In its open-endedness, it avoids interpetive agnosia.

HERMENEUTICS: Any of a series of systematic theories of interpretation. Because it originally designated the interpretation of religious texts — a practice which assumed that every aspect of a Biblical text had to be meaningful because it was divinely inspired — hermeneutics carries a similar connotation that meaning is to be derived from every conceivable feature of a text that can be construed as a contribution to some sort of organic whole (see holism). In spite of this, there are all sorts of hermeneutic approaches. For Gadamer’s special contribution to hermeneutics, see prejudice. Paul Ricoeur’s The Conflict of Interpretations distinguished between linguistics, which he saw as a closed system of intrasignificant signs, and the extralinguistic properties of hermeneutics. More recently, the idea that a hermeneutic interpretation must apply in some way to a total meaning has been revised by Peter Bürger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984): formerly, the hermeneutic interpretation had to resolve all traces of contradiction, but Bürger calls for a revised approach replacing the necessary agreement of parts with a stratification of sorts, in which various layers might contradict one another and yet still contribute to the meaning of the whole in their very contradictoriness. See hermeneutic circle, hermeneutic spiral, hermeneutic spiral equation. Cf extralinguistic.

HERSTORY: A neologism invented because of the false peception of affinity (see faux amis) between “history” and “his story.” Despite the etymological fallacy, “herstory” is an economical way to describe women’s history and the feminist project of dismantling a male-only canon.

HETERODOXY: Ideas not in accordance with or critical of established doctrine or received opinion. See also doxa, orthodoxy.

HETEROGENEITY: The state of being fundamentally different in kind. See heterology.

HETEROGLOSSIA: “Different tongues” or “the speech of others.” Mikhail Bakhtin coined the word to describe multiple voices in a text (see dialogism).

HETEROLOGICAL STATEMENTS: A statement which is not true of itself. For example, “Italian,” which not an Italian word. See homological statements.

HETEROLOGY: James George Frazer’s Golden Bough characterized the primitive mind as incapable of distinguishing between the sacred and the impure or filthy. Building on this, Georges Bataille (see Bataillean) drew from German sociology and theology the sacred notion of the “wholly other” (see ganz Andere). Seeking to fuse these notions, Bataille hit upon the idea that that which is most “other” in the human body and therefore most sacred is that which we have actually ingested but cannot assimilate — that is, the undigested material which passes through the intestines. Excrement, then, is an example of the completely other — a heterogeneous “ foreign body [Bataille’s stress]…that can be seen as sacred, divine, or marvelous.” Moreover, excrement is a type of expenditure, a basic conception in Emil Durkheim’s theory of social exchange. Bataille thus theorized that the surplus value of the vile/sacred had some effect on the social formation, as in such things as potlatches, sacrifice and ritual mutilations. He proposed that the study of such phenomena should be called “heterology.” The idea has become influential as a strategy for disruption. The terminology of heterology — e.g., bassesse — have started to appear in discussions of disturbing artworks, like those of the Surrealists (Rosalind Krauss) and Jana Sterbak.

HEURISTIC: Stimulating interest in order to make new discoveries and formulations, and/or a teaching method to encourage students to discover for themselves. The term is fairly common in current artwriting. For a specific application, see W. McAllister Johnson, Art History: Its Uses and Abuses.

HIERARCHICAL: The defining characteristic of any system of persons of things given different ranks or statuses, as in a governmental hierarchy.

HIERATIC: Originally, “sacred” or “priestly.” The term is routinely used to designate a formal, conventional, and conceptual style like that in the art of ancient Egypt or the Byzantine Empire. Potential antonyms are demotic and perceptual.

HIERONYMY: Originally, “sacred naming.” The term now means the granting of special status to some thing by virtue of the way it is named.

HIGH ART (CULTURE): Until recently, there has a distinction between high art (also called “high culture,” fine art, or beaux-arts) and low art (also called “mass culture”). Where the former supposedly consisted of the meticulous expression in fine materials of refined or noble sentiment, the latter was the shoddy manufacturing in inferior materials of superficial kitsch. Moreover, the assumption always was that appreciation of the former depended on such things as intelligence, social standing, educated taste, and a willingness to be challenged. In contrast, the latter simply catered to popular taste, unreflective acceptance of realism, and a certain “couch potato” mentality. Although many earlier artists took inspiration from popular and folk art — e.g., Gustave Courbet’s appropriation of woodcuts — the most systematic approaches towards blurring the differences between high and low art were taken by Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. Pop Art further weakened the distinction, and artists as various as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and the Guerilla Girls, influenced strongly by the different branches of postmodern thought, seem have dealt it the final blow. We now find that formerly “high” artists are approaching mainstream celebrity status: for example, performance artist Laurie Anderson’s song O Superman reached the top ten of the pop charts in England, video and camera artist William Wegman has appeared on The Tonight Show to promote a book of photographs, and both have done segments on Saturday Night Live. In spite of this, one still wonders if the distinction still exists, albeit in a slightly different form. Few would seriously argue that the droves who follow televised wrestling matches and afternoon soap operas have any genuine interest in contemporary art. It is even less likely that the millions who read supermarket tabloids or romance novels would ever choose to read advanced art criticism.

HIGHLIGHT: The point at which an object reflects the greatest light, or the representation of same in drawing, painting, photography, watercolour, etc. Works which follow the logic of perception tend to orient highlights in such a way that the direction of the light source can be deduced from them, but there is no shortage of examples which ignore this principle and use highlights in a rather more intuitive manner. See also reserve highlight.

HISTORICAL CRITICISM: Any criticism which attempts to describe, explain or recreate the meaning a work had in its original context, rather than what it might mean to later generations. See historical methodologies.

HISTORICAL MATERIALISM: The foundation of Marx’s (see Marxism) materialist (see materialism) theory of history: that the consciousness of men does not determine the social formation, but that the social formation — particularly the economic structure of society — determines consciousness independent of the will of men.

HISTORICAL METHODOLOGIES: Those types of criticism which foreground context, especially information of the environmental or secondary sort. See especially correlational social history, Geistesgeschichte, iconology, Marxism, new art history, new historicism, patronage, and reception theory. The terms macrohistory, microhistory, and quantohistory are also beginning to appear. Cf perspectivism, visuality.

HISTORICISM: Any of a variety of approaches which give priority to history, specifically with the implications that all of life and reality are historically conditioned and that each historical phenomenon must be interpreted according to its own terms. Historicism appears in many guises in aesthetics and criticism, including the following: Hegelian idealism (that culture in general must be understood in terms of a transcendental progression of historical change); positivism (that a particular artwork must be interpreted in the light of the unique, verifiable circumstances in which it was created); new historicism (the revitalized historicism of the postmodern period, emphasizing economic and ideological circumstances), and perspectivism and/or relativism (that no one point of view is central).

HISTORICITY: The historical actuality of a thing, as opposed to putative timelessness.


HISTORIOGRAPHY: The theory and practice of historical writing, especially history about history. In artwriting this usually takes the form of extended historical commentaries on the writings of key art historians, as in Michael Podro’s Critical Historians of Art, Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention, Mark Roskill’s The Interpretation of Pictures, and so on. Most of these feature case-studies of an historiographic nature. For postmodern applications, see Linda Hutcheon, The Poetics of Postmodernism.

HISTORY: For “history” as a category of content in art, see genre. For various aspects of “history” as a branch of knowledge or an account that records, analyses and explains past events, see art history, herstory, historical criticism, historical methodologies, historicism, historiographic metafiction, historiography, metafiction, metanarrative, new historicism, postmodernism.


HOLISM: The philosophical notion that the structure and behaviour of a system or an organism in its entirety cannot be explained solely as the sum of the operations of its parts.

HOMAGE: Reverence or tribute, as a serf might give to his lord, or an apostle to his master. artists throughout history have paid homage in various ways to those who influence them, as in Odilon Redon’s À Edgar Poe.

HOMEOSTASIS: The tendency to maintain constant functioning of organic processes or to attempt to restore constancy when one of the processes is disturbed. For a specific application, see jouissance.

HOMO DUPLEX: Man conceived as having two distinct natures, the body and the mind (see Cartesian interactionism, mind-body problem). George Mauner understood édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, with its impossible mirror reflection of a male viewer, to be a meditation on this theme.

HOMOLOGICAL STATEMENTS: Statements which are true of themselves, as “English” is an English word (compare heterological statements). One of the basic tenets of formalism is that what an artwork symbolizes is external to the work itself and might just as well be discarded in any serious critique of it. In Ways of World-Making, Nelson Goodman uses the notion of homological and heterological statements to undo this assumption. He maintains that what a symbol symbolizes is not necessarily extraneous to itself, since, for example, “word” is a word which applies to itself and to other words, “short” applies to itself among other things, and “having seven syllables” has seven syllables, as do many other phrases. Formalists, he concludes, implicitly and erroneously maintain that the most important characteristic of art is it heterologicality.

HOMOLOGY: A correspondence, relation, or similarity between structures. In sociological writings, the term is likely to refer to a metaphorical match between the values of a group and its lifestyle. Paul Willis’s Profane Culture (1978), for example, shows how the hippie subculture‘s anarchic reputation was a misconception, for the group’s values and lifestyle were highly organized along homologous lines. That is, hippies’ espousal of certain values like bohemianism agreed with (found a correspondence with, matched, paralleled) their taste in music and recreational drugs. Dick Hebdige’s Subculture (1979) does much the same for the punk phenomenon. Similar homologies can be found for most art movements, especially those in which a marked taste for expressionism is also manifest in an artist’s rather freewheeling lifestyle (e.g., Jackson Pollock).

HOMOPHOBIC: Irrational fear and/or persecution of homosexuals.

HORIZON: The limit or range of perception, knowledge, etc. See fusion of horizons, horizon of expectations.

HORIZON OF EXPECTATIONS: The range of values — aesthetic, economic, moral, religious, social, symbolic, etc. — a given audience anticipates it will encounter in an artwork. The work functions either by meeting those expectations or by challenging them. The idea is central to reception-theory.

HORROR VACUI: A tendency, sometimes characterized as medieval or primitive, to fill all the available pictorial space with decorative or other motifs, as if “afraid of a vacuum.”

HUBRIS: Arrogance, insolence, or pride that leads to misfortune.

HUE: See colour.

HUMANISM: Any attitude that gives priority to human endeavours, rather than to those of the gods, the spirits, the animals, or any other non-human thing. The term is frequently qualified, as in “Renaissance humanism,” which is characterized by a love of the achievements of the Greco-Roman world, an optimism that humans are inherently endowed with the skills necessary to reshape the world according to their own needs, and a belief in inherent human dignity. While the Renaissance humanists did not see their enlightened self-interest as a contradiction of their Christianity, a few recent demagogues identify “secular humanism” as a tacitly atheistic preoccupation with human affairs.

HUSSERLIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Edmund Husserl. See existentialism, phenomenology.

HYMEN: The mucous membrane partially enclosing the vagina in a virgin. Jacques Derrida (see Derridean) used this image in “La Double séance,” in his La Dissémination as a metaphor to invent a hypothetical space for the operation of différance in a text. He chose a female image to counter the notion of the phallus as the privileged signifier.

HYPERBOLE: Exaggeration, whether used simply for effect or because of linguistic inflation. Some Baroque ceiling paintings are extravagantly hyperbolic, as in Pozzo’s Allegory of the Missionary Work of the Jesuits on the vault of S. Ignazio, Rome. Compare bathos, litotes, meiosis.

HYPERETHNICITY: A serious preoccupation with ethnicity. The word should be used with care, since some opponents of political correctness use it in a thinly-veiled contemptuous manner.

HYPHENATION: A common postmodern technique to draw attention to hidden political and other agendas in supposedly apolitical words. Examples include “dis-possessed” (Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology), “photo-graphed” (Jacques Lacan, “What is a Picture?” Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis), etc. Sometimes it is not really necessary, as in “re-vision” or “re-presentation.”

HYPOCRISY: Pretending to be what one is not or to believe what one does not. The idea should be discussed with reference to traditional myths about artistic bohemianism and genius, as well as to new ones like anti-intellectualism and political correctness.

HYPOTAXIS: The grammatical arrangement of words in dependent or subordinate relationships of causality, logic, space and time, usually taken as a characteristic of mature, formal or disciplined speech. It is opposed to “parataxis,” the grammatical arrangement of words in coordinate relationships where subordinate ones are called for. For example, the statement “You should try and get some sleep” is incorrect because “You should try to get some sleep” properly indicates that the second verb is dependent upon the first. The statement “Although Seurat’s intention was to render the canvas more luminous, he failed because the optical mixture was too evenly distributed” is properly hypotactic because the failure is in spite of the stated intention. The statement “Seurat tried to render the canvas more luminous and he failed…” is paratactic because the causal relationship is obscured by “and,” which uses coordination. There is an understandable temptation to interpret art paratactically because images appear to be presented in terms of coordination. I.e., Arnolfini and His Bride could be described in a paratactic sequence: “a man and a woman are standing in a room with a bed, and a dog stands at their feet, and there are shoes set to one side, and there is a chandelier with one candle, and there is a convex mirror, etc.” As soon as we start to speak of figurative meaning, however, we must use causally subordinating relationships: “The wedding vows are understood to be holy because there are shoes set to one side, which is a conventional act of respect when standing on holy ground.” Theorizing a set of criteria for visual hypotaxis and parataxis might provide some useful weapons for the fight against perceptualism. On another level entirely, hypotaxis has occasionally popped up as a metaphor in discussions of political correctness, with white male language construed as a hypotactic grammar of power (i.e., an instrument designed to subordinate those who have not mastered its niceties of expression). This is the ground for the recent debate about Ebonics in California.

IATROGENIC DISEASE: Disorders caused by treatment for a previous ailment or by the practices of the physician, as in the case of a patient who seeks medical help and develops debilitating side-effects or is abused by the doctor, creating symptoms of mental illness. There are implicit parallels in discussions of sexual harassment in educational institutions, as in the case of a male teacher, unaware that he is libidinally driven, who unwittingly harasses his female students. One wonders if the principle could serve as a metaphor for the production of meaning in postmodern contexts. Compare fusion of horizons.

ICON: 1. A picture, image or representation. In conventional art history, “icon” generally refers to images of sacred personages in the Byzantine and Greek Orthodox traditions. Some of these were virtually worshipped in past times, provoking a strong reaction in the form of iconoclasm (sense 1). 2. In various newer approaches, especially those influenced by Peircean semiotics, “icon” means a signifier which resembles that which it signifies (in other words, something which carries meaning by virtue of resemblance). Of course, this is much more common in visual imagery than in spoken language, although there are examples like onomatopoeia. Compare index (sense 2), symbol. 3. In popular writing, “icon” is sometimes taken to mean a celebrity who has come to represent the essence of some quality or characteristic, as Marilyn Monroe was an icon of a certain type of feminine sensuality or Arnold Schwarzenegger is of a certain type of masculinity. The cult-like dimension of celebrity interest in popular culture indicates that the root of this use of the word probably relates to sense 1 above.

ICONICITY: Resemblance, the defining characteristic of an icon (sense 2).

ICONOCLASM: 1. The destruction of images (see icon [sense 1]), especially those receiving religious veneration. 2. By extension, the breaking of traditions, doctrines, convictions, practices, etc. Marcel Duchamp is the modern archetype of the iconoclast.

ICONOGRAPHY: The study of subject matter and symbolism in the visual arts, especially with reference to verifiable traditions, visual dictionaries (like that of Cesare Ripa), and the like. Erwin Panofsky is arguably the most famous practitioner (see his Meaning in the Visual Arts).

ICONOLOGY: The study of iconography with greater emphasis on historical and contextual constraints on the possibilities of meaning (see context). Erwin Panofsky and Aby Warburg are arguably the most famous practitioners (Studies in Iconology and Gesammelte Schriften, respectively). See also semiotics.

ICONOPHOBIC: A rare neologism meaning irrational fear of images. It has recently been used to describe the conservative desire to suppress the more explicitly sexual images of such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe. See, for example, Thomas Sokolowski in Artforum 25.9.

ICONO-SEMIOLOGY: See semiotics.

ID: That portion of the psyche which is the seat of the libido, out of reach of the outside world, driven only to satisfy the basic urges of the body (see drive). Compare ego.

IDEALISM: 1. In art, the elimination of what is undesirable in the treatment of any thing, as in a visual image, until it reaches a predetermined standard of perfection. 2. In philosophy, any of a number of theories sharing the notion the reality has no objective existence but is produced in some way by the mind. Among these theories are Berkeleian idealism (also called “immaterialism”), which holds that all matter consists only of ideas in the mind of God (or in the minds of those whom He has created); objective idealism (usually associated with Hegelianism), which holds that everything is a manifestation of one “Absolute Mind”; and transcendental idealism (usually associated with Kantian thought), which holds that objects are nothing more than appearances. These theories should be debated in any thorough- going investigation of psychologically orineted art, especially Surrealism.

IDEOLOGICAL EFFECT: Ideology works by making what is economic/political/social and historically contingent appear apolitical and timeless. This process needs to be unconscious, so it functions by creating myths like common sense. The resultant appearance of naturalness (for example, the illusion that sense is genuinely common) is said to be the ideological effect. See Stuart Hall, “Culture, the Media and the ‘Ideological Effect’,” in J. Curran, et al., eds., Mass Communication and Society (1977).

IDEOLOGY: The philosopher Destutt de Tracy coined this word in the early nineteenth century to describe a science of ideas which would reveal unconscious habits of mind like prejudice and class consciousness. Karl Marx and Karl Mannheim separately introduced the word into modern sociological discourse, where it has come to mean a range of things related to the social production of people’s ideas, still usually without their conscious awareness of it (compare political unconscious). Thus it means beliefs, horizons of expectations, ideals, Weltanschauungen, and the like as interpretive mechanisms superimposed onto the world by identifiable social groups to impart some sense of order to their experience of it. The result, particularly in Marxist thought, is a distortion of reality to maintain authority over it. In this regard, the most succinct definition is in Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction: “those modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power.” Various applications of this sense of the word can be found in feminist, Foucauldian, and other types of critical activity. One of the strongest streams is Althusserian. Although as individuals we are the products of social determination (see structuralist Marxism), we do not feel simply as small cogs in a larger mechanism. Instead, we relate to society at large in a political variant of the Lacanian mirror stage: ideology gives the individual the notion that s/he is a fully integrated, coherent and centred self, and the individual accepts this fiction, thus becoming subject to ideology (see interpellation). Ideology in this sense is preconscious and taken as “natural” (see ideological effect). In contrast, Clifford Geertz and others use the term with less political load, meaning one type of symbolic system among others, like art, religion, and science (see text, thick description). See also James H. Kavanagh’s essay “Ideology,” in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study.

IDENTITY: Sameness. The distinguishing character of an individual or social group.

IDENTITY POLITICS: See politics of identity.

IDIOLECT: The speech patterns peculiar to a particular individual, usually in a particular period of his or her life. The farther art is from language — in the sense that it does not subscribe to rules which guarantee intelligible dialogue — then the closer it is to idiolect. This is a profitable analogy since traditional artwriting has usually prized works which are readily identifiable as the productions of specific individuals.

IDIOM: A figurative expression in one language that cannot be translated literally into another, as in “carrying on” (for “foolishness”), or an expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the sum of the meanings of its constituent elements, as in “kick the bucket” (for “die”). For some of the problems confronting the notion of “idiom” in visual art, see translation.

IDYLL: Conventionally, a charmingly simple, pastoral and/or sentimental written work. By extension, anything that exhibits similar characteristics, as in Giorgione’s Concert champêtre.

ILLIBERAL EDUCATION: Title of a controversial popular book by Dinesh D’Souza espousing an extremely conservative position in the debate on political correctness. D’Souza’s thesis is that postmodern thinkers are literally attacking “common sense,” free speech, and traditional scholarship, and in so doing are destroying the value and integrity of American education. The subtitle of the book is The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus.

ILLOCUTIONARY: See speech-act theory.

ILLUSIONISM: The principle characteristic of an artwork which attempts to convince viewers that they are not looking at a representation but at the thing itself. In other words, illusionism means making an image as “realistic,” in the conventional sense of the word, as possible. Especially when accompanied by the word “optical,” “illusion” is often used to indicate an image which we recognize as playing a deliberate trick on us, like alternating figures. This is precisely not what is meant by “illusionism,” which refers instead to coherent images which pass for the real. The classic examples of illusionism have to do with extending into fictive space the linear perspective of a real space, as in Masaccio’s Trinity or Pozzo’s Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius. There is no reason why the concept would not apply to sculptural illusionism like that of Duane Hanson’s Tourists. See also trompe l’oeil.

ILLUSTREMENT: Stephen David Ross’s term in A Theory of Art for a multimodal approach to art discourse that is better suited to express the multiple locatedness (see inexhaustibility by contrast) of any artwork. Ross reduces the complex variety of art discourses given under the headings art history, criticism, and historical methodologies to four basic types: they are description, criticism, intepretation, and theory (or philosophy). These correspond respectively to assertive statements, statements of active judgements, constructive statements, and statements concerning the relations of the work to general themes or to a broad human order. Within each of these categories, statements about a work can be traditionary (re its historical location), intramedial (re the physical composition [see form] of one work), intermedial (re the relations between the physical composition of various works), intermodal (re the modes of judgement applied to a work), and intersubjective (re the diversity of audiences). The more easily an “articulative response” — a prolonged verbal consideration of a work — shifts into any of these different levels of discourse and critical perspectives, the more effectively it will transcribe the work’s multiple locatedness, and thus its apparent polysemy. Illustrement’s verb form is “illustre,” and its adjectival form is “illustrive.”

IMAGE: In Ways of Seeing, John Berger stipulated that “image” means a “sight which has been created or reproduced…, detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved.” In other words, an image is an aspect of culture, not nature. Since images are made by humans, they embody “ways of seeing” — i.e., the assumptions, desires and values of the makers (compare horizon of expectations). The implication, then, is that an image can not be an unmediated reality (see mediation and compare perceptualism).

IMAGINARY: Translation of Lacanian term imaginaire, meaning the psychological dimension of all images, conscious and/or unconscious, whether simply imagined or genuinely perceived. Lacan once felt the imaginary was the most basic psychological process, but he later felt that the imaginary was displaced by the Symbolic. See also Real. For a different application in political thought, see ideology.


IMAGO: An idealized recollection of a cherished person, formed during childhood and very resistant to subsequent change.


IMBRICATION: A successive overlapping, like shingles or tiles. The term has become fashionable as a figurative description of the ways meaning is produced by the interrelations of various forces, rather than in a linear, non-reversible manner. Compare codeterminacy, constellation, interpretive web, stratigraphic fallacy. This term is not be confused with imprecation.

IMITATION: A close copy, as in all art which endeavours to reproduce natural appearances. Imitation has played a role in aesthetics since Plato, who banished artists from his hypothetical republic. Material things, he argued, are imperfect reflections of the ideal forms underlying all existence. As an imperfect reflection of something already imperfect, art could only lead men further from the truth. Compare expression theory, mimetic theory. See also perceptualism, realism.

IMMATERIALISM: See “Berkeleian idealism” under the heading idealism.

IMPERIALISM: The expansion of a state’s authority through the procurement of territory, typically through conquest, and the suppression and exploitation of the native populace. Although historical applications involved conscious policies of dominant states, current references often target unconscious attitudes, as in Eurocentrism. As such, imperialism is a central issue in debates on political correctness. See colonialism.

IMPLIED ARTIST: See implied author.

IMPLIED AUTHOR: Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction distinguishes between the real author of a literary work and the author implied by the fiction in the work. The conception is close to Aristotle’s ethos. Note, however, that an implied author can actually have the same name as the real author. There is material for a reconsideration of the role of the visual artist along analogous lines.

IMPLIED READER: In The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading, Wolfgang Iser maintains that one of the functions of a text is to construct a conception of a hypothetical reader who will possess all the propensities required for the text to create the effect of meaning. The implied reader, therefore, exists within the text and not in external reality. A similar phenomenon occurs in some visual art which achieves a meaning effect with an implied viewer, as in Velázquez’ Las Meninas, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and numerous other examples.

IMPLIED VIEWER: See implied reader.

IMPOVERISHMENT: Reduction to poverty; depletion of something considered valuable.

IMPRECATION: A curse. There are historical precedents for visual images having the power to curse the viewer, simply by having been looked at. Notorious examples are the curse of the mummy’s tomb and the sight of Medusa turning men to stone. This term is not to be confused with imbrication.

IMPRESSIONISM: See subjective impressionism.

IMPRESSIONISTIC CRITICISM: See subjective impressionism.

IMPRIMATUR: Literally, “let it be printed,” a term originally signifying an ecclesiastical stamp of approval to publish something. By extension, the endorsement of critics who exercise, according to their enemies, too much influence on public taste.

IMPROVISATION: A work which places emphasis on spontaneous performance without premeditation, or at least without the appearance of premeditation. Improvisation can be found in varying degrees in virtually all art forms, from film to literature, dance to painting. In many of these, the improvisation is something which is suggested by, but departs from, specific features of a text, as in a written piece of music which is spun into something quite different by a performer. Rarely, however, is the term evoked to consider an interpretation‘s degree of adherence to specific features of a text. deconstruction and the dialectic of intersubjectivity, to name only two of many possibilities, depend heavily on the notion that an audience may depart from the text. See also interpretatio excedens, literacy.

INAUTHENTIC: In existentialism, the unreflective submission of self to circumstances; allowing an exterior, alien world to buffet oneself about without exercising any choice.

INCANTATION: A spell, formula or ritualistic chant purporting to have magical power, as in the famous witches’ chants in Macbeth. The device is occasionally used quite consciously in visual art, as in Max Ernst’s incremental repetition of the phrase “L’oeil sans yeux, la femme 100 têtes garde son secret” in La Femme 100 têtes. Quite independent of the captions, Ernst’s images have a similar incantatory effect.

INCITEMENT PREMIUM: See fore-pleasure.

INCREMENTAL REPETITION: A literary term meaning the repetition of a phrase in a poem with either minor consecutive modifications (compare elaboration) or different contexts which effect slight changes in meaning. Max Ernst used the device in La Femme 100 têtes.

INCULPATORY: See evidence.

INDETERMINACY: The opposite of determinacy: i.e., the notion that the final meaning of a text cannot be settled once and for all, undermining an audience‘s certainty about such things as closure or E. D. Hirsch’s tidy distinction between meaning and significance. The reasons for this are as various as the theories that make use of the concept, but none is so radical as deconstruction.

INDETERMINISM: The doctrine of free will: i.e., that one is able to act as one wishes, without the constraints of determinism.

INDEX: 1. Any of a number of devices which serve to point out or indicate, as in the index of a book, the index finger, an economic growth index, etc. 2. In Peircean semiotics, “index” means a signifier which alludes to an absent signified by pointing in its direction, usually by virtue of some causal connection (see causality). Uncomplicated examples include bloody footprints in Daumier’s La rue Transnonain and the shower of water in Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, both of which point to the passage of bodies through the depicted space at a time prior to the depiction. Compare icon (sense 2), symbol.

INDICTMENT: See indulgence or indictment.

INDOCTRINATION: To teach a doctrine, principle, etc., usually through repetition and adherence to authority, rather than a truly heuristic method.

INDUCTION: Reasoning in which a general principle is derived from a number of specific observations. An argument from deduction can only convey what is already implied in its premises: e.g., “All humans are mortal; Michelangelo was human; therefore, Michelangelo was mortal.” In contrast, induction states that while the available premises may not guarantee the truth of the conclusion, they may collectively suggest there is good reason to accept it: e.g., “The addition of paint to a surface in a gallery is considered art; the removal of material from a sculptural mass in a gallery is considered art; the exposition of light through a lens onto a light-sensitive paper in a gallery is considered art: therefore, Vito Acconci’s self-biting and printing of tooth-marks in a gallery should be considered art too.” See also interpolation.

INDULGENCE OR INDICTMENT: It is often difficult to determine if a representation, particularly of something a given audience finds distasteful, is shown simply for the sake of indulgence, or if it chosen to draw critical attention to some issue relating to the subject. There are no simple formulas to make this determination. Canadian censors have unwittingly drawn attention to the issue: they banned the October 1986 issue of Playboy because they interpreted an ambiguous photograph of a nude woman rolling in parachute cords as bondage. Yet feminist artists Carmen Coulombe and Persimmon Blackbridge have both made images (L’Emprise sur l’univers II and Drawing the Line, respectively) which feature much more explicit bondage. Works which blur the line between gratification on the one hand and cries of social injustice on the other should be debated rigorously.

INEXHAUSTIBILITY BY CONTRAST: In A Theory of Art: Inexhaustibility by Contrast, philosopher Stephen David Ross employs certain features of ordinal theory (number theory which concerns the position of a thing in a ordered system) to explain how the meanings of an artwork can never be fully catalogued or explained, thus achieving multivocality or polysemy. Ross argues that anything that exists is located as a constituent in many orders, which is to say that it belongs to many sets or categories of things, a phenomenon he calls “multiple locatedness.” For example, a portrait painting can belong to the hypothetical orders “surfaces covered with paint” and “objects hung on the wall,” yet it may have little in common with certain other members of that order — e.g., “highchair” (also a painted surface) or “coatrack” (also suspended on the wall). The relations that the painting has to other members of its orders may be relatively stable, as in a classification of paintings according to genre. If this is the case, Ross describes the order as having integrity in a particular location, giving rise to actualities of meaning. In another location — i.e., when it is placed in a different order — its relations may be relatively unstable, as in a set of nearly flat, rectangular objects ranging from artworks to note pads, carpets, and handkerchiefs. In this instance, Ross describes the order as deviant, giving rise to possibilities of meaning. Since any work of art can be placed in a hypothetically infinite number of deviant sets — i.e., sets of things with which it has at least one thing in common, but with which it may otherwise contrast –the possible meanings that a work can produce are said to be inexhaustible by contrast. Criticism and interpretation aimed at elucidating the ways in which a work participates in multiple locatedness is called illustrement. A simple way to demonstrate the principle is to compare William Berczy’s Joseph Brant to Paul Kane’s Mah-Min, or “the Feather”, in which case the integrity of the order would seem apparent: both are portraits of Amerindian leaders. Replacing the Kane with Paul Peel’s A Venetian Bather would create an apparently deviant order, until ones realises that both are images of figures accompanied by small animals. The Berczy painting has not changed, yet it participates in different locations in such a way that radically different possibilities of meaning are produced. Since successive audiences of necessity constitute different locations for a work, indeterminacy can never be avoided (compare reception theory).

INFLATION: See linguistic inflation.

INFLECTING: See agglutinating, inflecting, isolating.

INFLUENCE: The effect of antecedent conditions, persons, works or the like on an individual artist, as in “Michelangelo was influenced by Jacopo della Quercia’s baptismal font in Bologna.” The study of influence is at the heart of classical source analysis, but it has recently been amended substantially by the Freudian-inspired anxiety of influence. See also Louis A. Renza’s essay “Influence,” in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study.

INFORMAL LOGIC: See ad hominem, ad ignorantium, analogy, analytic, appeal to precedent, argument, argument from analogy, categorical statements, categorical syllogisms, class logic, causal arguments, conditionals, definitional rules, extensional definitions, fallacies, generalizations, guilt by association, intensional definitions, invalidity, irrelevance, laws of thought, noise, pro homine, propositional logic, relevance, special pleading, synthetic, validity.

INFORMATION THEORY: A theory of language and, by extension, the arts, based on models of information exchange in electronic media. Simply put, the theory presents any communication as a circuit in which a sender codes a message and transmits it along a channel to a receiver, who decodes it to achieve a hypothetically complete reconstruction and, therefore, closure (see determinacy). To forestall potential misinterpretations created by interference with the encoded message (see noise), the message would ideally be sent in more than one channel in different codes (see redundancy). See also entropy.

INFORME: Georges Bataille (see Bataillean) said that “informe” (sometimes translated “formless”) is “a term that serves to bring things down in the world” and that the goal of philosophy is to give a shapeless universe a “mathematical frock coat.” Like bassesse, the informe is a tool for accessing the level of base materialism.

IN MEDIAS RES: A literary term for a narrative beginning “in the middle of things,” retracing the beginning of the story through flashbacks.

INNATENESS HYPOTHESIS: Once influential Chomskyan notion that children’s ability to learn their language rapidly indicates they are born with an innate knowledge of language’s deep structure. See generative-transformational. The idea is probably suspicious to postmodern thought since it implies an essentialist position, instead of relativism.

INNOVATION: The introduction of something new, as in the rapid stylistic changes of the period of so-called “heroic” modernism. Innovation, especially of an adversarial sort, was one of the cornerstones of the avant-garde. Postmodern artwriters tend to think that the novelty produced by innovation is more of an illusion than anything.

INSCRIPTION: 1. Originally, symbols or words engraved into a surface. By extension, a written dedication or other statement in a book or on an artwork. 2. More recently, the way one text insinuates itself into another: this can be through a kind of appropriation, homage, or imitation, as in James Joyce’s Ulysses inscribed within the outlines of Homer’s Odyssey, or a less apparent intertextuality.

INSTALLATION: A type of art in which a given space is redefined by the (usually) temporary arrangement therein of objects and/or materials in quasi-sculptural and/or quasi-theatrical constructions. Examples can range from traditional museum dioramas and similar arrangements of readymade articles to galleries filled with everything from topsoil to pennies to individually wrapped candies. See site-specific for important distinctions.

INSTINCT: See drive, personality types.

INSTINCT-ORIENTED: See personality types.

INSTITUTION, INSTITUTIONAL: See critique of institutions.

INSTRUMENTALISM: A type of pragmatism, the notion that ideas, concepts, theories and the like cannot be evaluated in terms of truth and falsehood, but only in terms of their effectiveness or ineffectiveness as instruments in a given process of inquiry. One of the more famous instrumentalist philosophers was John Dewey, who postulated that all human activities could only be understood in terms of their function in material human experience and history. Dewey’s book Art as Experience examined art as an effective instrument serving the purpose of expressing psychic wholeness and one’s sense of belonging to a larger, all-inclusive whole which is the universe. This has since been refined into the view that art must seek social change, rather than indulge itself in empty formalism. Examples of instrumentalism in art range from specific critiques of the corporate mentality (e.g., Hans Haacke’s American Cyanimid) to more broadly based social movements (e.g., General Idea’s AIDS Project).

INSUFFICIENCY: An insufficient definition is one which describes too few characteristics to differentiate the thing being defined from some other, similar thing. To define “chair” as “a piece of furniture” is clearly insufficient since “table” could also be so described. interpretations are not definitions, but they are often similarly insufficient and should be read with skepticism. Philip Monk’s discussion of Paterson Ewen, for example, says virtually nothing about the works themselves (compare autoptic evidence, epiphenomenon) and could thus apply to any number of other things.

INTEGRATED STUDIES: See combined studies.

INTEGRITY: See inexhaustibility by contrast.

INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY: Self-explanatory. It is included here because it is what urges scholars and others to continue to turn up new evidence bearing on matters which may be of little practical consequence in everyday life but which seem to have enormous impact on interpretation. Intellectual curiosity may have begun as some sort of biological drive, but its expression is distinctly cultural (and thus political). As a result, it can be subjected to the critique of institutions. In some instances, intellectual curiosity is outright careerism, particularly where one critic picks apart another’s critique principally because doing so satisfies some criterion of continuing employment in a given academic or other context. In other instances, it is outright intellectual fashion, practiced for prestige or to fit in with the in crowd. There are other possibilities as well, and they need not be negative. Whether the material thus discovered is in any way genuinely useful is a matter to be debated rigorously. For one suggestion as to how this might be done, see hermeneutic spiral equation.

INTELLECTUAL FASHION: Immoderate adherence to theoretical innovation for the sake of appearances, faddishness, sycophancy, and the like. The terrible seductiveness of intellectual fashion is clearly demonstrated every decade or so, when a notable figure publicly repudiates his or her earlier work.

INTENDED READER: A literary term meaning the conceivable type of audience(s) for whom a text was composed. This ranges from the simple, such as a competent native speaker of the language in which the text was written, to the complex, such as a reader with a similar level of education. Interestingly, when an intended viewer is substituted by analogy, that which is most simple becomes that which is most complex: a competent native speaker becomes a competent “native” observer, which opens up all the problems discussed under the heading perceptualism.

INTENDED VIEWER: See intended reader.

INTENSIONAL DEFINITIONS: Definitions which identify the essential qualities that make something a member of a class, using genus (the larger class of things to which something belongs) and differentia (what marks off a thing from the other members of a class). E.g., “a chair is a piece of furniture (genus) with legs supporting a seat and an upright back shaped to accomodate the human form (differentia). “Intensional” is not to be confused with “intentional,” as in intentional evidence, intentional fallacy, intentionalism and intentionality.

INTENTIONAL EVIDENCE: Evidence pertaining to the intentions of an author or artist in creating an artwork. Because of the intentional fallacy, however, the artwork alone cannot be considered among this evidence.

INTENTIONAL FALLACY: The fallacy of determining the meaning or evaluating the achievement of a work of art in terms of the author‘s intentions. The phrase, proposed by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in The Verbal Icon, has been used in recent writing to deny the usefulness of all intentional evidence, in line with the death of the author. However, Wimsatt and Beardsley themselves allowed the author’s own statements into the act of interpretation, provided that these statements were intelligible in ways the work itself was not. (For a critique of this oversimplification, see E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation.) Put more simply, the intentional fallacy means that we cannot construe intentions from the work in the absence of corroborating evidence outside the work. Otherwise, if an artist intended to make a mark resembling “X” but managed to produce “Y” instead, we would make the fallacious assumption that his or her intentions were to make a mark resembling a “Y.”

INTENTIONALISM: Any interpretive strategy that gives priority to the intentions — whether known or inferred — of the artist. For an example, see meaning (sense 2).

INTENTIONALITY: Part of the problem with the issue of intentions in determining the meaning of a work of art is the degree to which a given artist is even conscious of those intentions. E. D. Hirsch (see intentional evidence) feels that the artist’s consciousness of intending something is a crucial factor, but others sidestep the issue by imputing to the work itself a kind of intentionality. After all, if it is possible to discern meaning in the absence of conscious intention — as is the case in Freudian and certain other critical approaches — then it should theoretically be possible to attribute intentionality to the thing itself. See David Couzens Hoy’s The Critical Circle (1982).

INTENTIONS: The real or supposed motives of an artist in making a particular work. The idea is currently is disfavour in the critical community, largely because of the death of the author and the intentional fallacy. However, the need to know or construe an artist’s intentions still seems to be strong among younger art students and the general public. See intentional evidence, intentionalism, intentionality. See also Annabel Patterson’s essay “Intention,” in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study.

IN(TER)DETERMINACY: A neologism implying a contradictory state of affairs in which the different elements of an utterance help to determine each other’s meaning by a process of mutual inflection (see inflecting), thus constraining meanings to the possibilities offered within the present terms of the utterance (see presence). At the same time, indeterminacy is always acknowledged as a possibility, even within those constraints, so closure can still be avoided.

INTERDISCIPLINARY: A type of study which explores a general theme by adopting methods and theories from several different areas of interest and expertise, usually, though not necessarily, within an academic context. For example, university Women’s Studies programs are typically interdisciplinary, with overlapping courses in art, history, literature, psychology, sociology, etc. “Interdisciplinary” can also refer to the breaking down of the traditional boundaries between media, like drawing and sculpture. This is quite common in the twentieth century, from Archipenko’s sculpto-peinture to Rauschenberg’s “combine paintings” and beyond.

INTERGENERIC: Pertaining to an artwork which belongs to more than one genre.

INTERIOR MONOLOGUE: A literary device for the representation of the uninterrupted flow of consciousness, as in the famous Molly Bloom section of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Visual art has interior monologues of a sort as well, ranging from the turbulent narrative flow of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de bonté to the agitated self-expression of Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings.

INTERMEDIA: The use of a variety of media in an interdisciplinary way. This still somewhat fashionable term was first used by Dick Higgins in late 1965 in a context describing what we would now call performance art. See In the Spirit of Fluxus (1993).

INTERMEDIAL: See illustrement. Not to be confused with intermedia.

INTERMODAL: See illustrement.

INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION: The processes by which oppressed groups, particularly women in patriarchal societies, accommodate their society’s definition of them. Although the phrase is not always used, the idea operates in such things as the beauty myth. For a general discussion, see Demaris S. Wehr, Jung and Feminism: Liberating Archetypes.

INTERPELLATION: According to Louis Althusser (see Althusserian), the process by which ideology gives the individual the notion that s/he is a fully integrated, coherent and centred self. Ideology interpellates the concrete “individual” and transforms him or her into a concrete “subject.” The explanation is a metaphor: ideology in effect calls to or hails a real person in the street, and in turning to see who or what is calling, the individual grants a reality to ideology, accepts its fiction, and thus becomes subject to it.

INTERPOLATION: The drawing of a conclusion about some missing information by a process of deduction or induction based on present information. For example, given only the fragmentary statement “Claudel made _____ versions of the work: one she placed in the Hôtel Biron and one she gave to ______,” we can interpolate that Claudel made two versions of the work, but we cannot tell to whom she gave one of them. In its simplest sense, interpolation means that we are able to reconstruct some lost portions of a damaged work, as is routinely done in archaeological reconstruction. On a more complex level, interpolation is one of the stages in the phenomenology of interpretation, since meaning is currently understood as something theoretically infinite produced by a finite number of indications within a text. Compare metaphysics of presence.

INTERPRETABILITY: The degree to which a text, work, or other thing admits of interpretation. Interpretability is an historically relative phenomenon: at one point in time, for example, it would have been taken as a matter of course that high art by definition could be interpreted with greater refinement and a greater yield in meaning than low art. In contemporary postmodern discourse, however, the interpretability of even commercial advertising, to say nothing of kitsch, is often not significantly different from that of fine art.

INTERPRETANT: C. S. Peirce (see Peircean) imagined a triadic relation between every sign, the object to which it referred, and the effect it had upon an intepreter. The latter he called the “interpretant,” which thus can be understood as the meaning or meaning-effect of the other two elements in the triad. C. W. Morris put it more succinctly in Signs, Language and Behavior: “the relationship between linguistic signs and their users.” Paul Ricoeur’s The Conflict of Interpretations develops the notion to undermine the idea that interpretation has anything to do with exegesis: instead, the interpretant is a sign or group of signs which develops the meaning of the first sign and which can be subtituted for it (as in a definition or a symbol). Ricoeur maintains that such a system remains intrasignificant (see extralinguistic). Compare unlimited semiosis.

INTERPRETATIO EXCEDENS: A legal term designating an interpretation that is only loosely related to the evidence at hand. subjective impressionism and all other types of criticism that affectedly read into works of art can be so described.

INTERPRETATION: Standard dictionaries give “interpretation” as the act of setting forth the meaning of something (as in explanation or clarification), the construal of meaning (as in confabulation or interpolation), the translation of material from one form into another (including that done for the purposes of computer programs and the convenience of members of the United Nations), and the manner of performance (as in a particular rendering of music or drama). Generally speaking, postmodern discourse insists that interpretation is a relatively free process of producing meaning in cooperation with a text, rather than simply deriving it slavishly from a work to which one is chained. However, there are exceptions. For example, Mary Ann Caws (“Ladies Shot and Painted,” in S. R. Suleiman, ed., The Female Body in Western Culture) maintains that followers of Kristevan lines of thought reject any idea of indebtednesss to the object under investigation, and like practitioners of deconstruction, they are only illustrating their interpretive ingenuity. “Interpretare,” she argues, means “to find oneself indebted to, based on the derivation of “inter” from the Latin for “amidst, among, between, during, mutually, reciprocally, together,” and the derivation of “pretation” from the Latin “praesto” for “at hand, present, ready.” Interpretation which fails to acknowledge indebtedness to the text bears a relation to it similar to the relation between a written piece of music and an improvisation, thus implying that many contemporary modes of interpretation are closest to the last meaning, the manner of performance (see also literacy). Just as some free jazz departs rather forcibly from the tunes that inspire it, improvisatory interpretation so understood depends more heavily on the self-expression of the performer than the author (see also death of the author). This is fine, but it tends to undermine its legitimacy as a historical undertaking in the view of conventional art history. (The reasoning is: if it is true that some of what passes as free jazz, especially in the semi-professional community, is interpretively meagre self-indulgence, then the same could be said of some criticism.) In any case, Caws’s etymology differs from that of many standard dictionaries, which give “pretation” as a derivation from the Latin “pret(ium)” for “price, value, worth,” thus putting more emphasis on evaluation than indebtedness. See also illustrement, interpretant, interpretatio excedens, interpretatio predestinata, interpretatio restricta, interpretive agnosia, interpretive community, interpretive web. See also Steven Mailloux’s essay “Interpretation,” in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study. See also self.

INTERPRETATIO PREDESTINATA: A legal term designating an overly biased interpretation (i.e., one that emphasizes only the evidence tending to prove something the interpreter has already decided about).

INTERPRETATIO RESTRICTA: A legal term designating a very strict interpretation (i.e., one that sticks very close to material evidence and objectively verifiable presumptions).

INTERPRETER: One who performs an interpretation.

INTERPRETIVE AGNOSIA: Agnosia is a mental deficiency, usually caused by serious brain injury, leading to the inability to attach appropriate meaning to sense-data. “Appropriate” here means that something is to be recognized objectively, with no role played by interpretive ingenuity. Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat describes a number of clinical cases in which patients were, for example, unable to identify their own feet or recognize that a face was in fact a face. Is there a non-medical analogy to be drawn here between agnosia and acts of interpretation which refuse to be indebted to the texts they supposedly investigate? Consider, for example, the case of a well-intended group of young male students at an American ivy league school: conducting their own seminar to enlighten other young men to the rampant sexism in their community, they showed slides of explicit hard-core bondage, saying “this is exactly the same as such-and- such an image in mainstream soft-core pornography,” usually an example featuring a model adopting a similar pose. The statement, however, is patently untrue. There are differences in directly observable formal features like lighting and composition; the quality of reproductive technology; the photographic techniques involved; the training, motivations, skills, etc. of the photographers and support staff; the implied readers of the work; and the types of women who would choose to pose (or be coerced into posing) for such material. None of these justifies objectification, but it indicates that any interpretation may be seriously flawed. (In other words, the conclusion may be true even though the argument is invalid. See validity [sense 1].) The task before us, then, is to establish a workable set of criteria to determine what distinguishes a good interpretation from a bad one. See also indulgence or indictment, misreading.

INTERPRETIVE COMMUNITY: Any identifiable social formation or subcomponent thereof which shares certain values or a horizon of expectations can be identified as an interpretive (or interpretative) community. An individual viewer does not merely receive an artist‘s meaning in the form of an unequivocal message carried along a channel. Instead, s/he “presuppose[s] the company of others who are also looking at it…[and] continually reconstructing it — a community of viewers,” in the words of Michael Parsons (How We Understand Art). Credit for the invention of the term usually goes to Stanley Fish.

INTERPRETIVE INGENUITY: An act of interpretation which places greater emphasis on its own cleverness, inventiveness, originality, or resourcefulness than it places on the work which it interprets. Most contemporary critical modes which share as their point of departure the death of the author have some degree of interpretive ingenuity.

INTERPRETIVE WEB: Any of several models of interpretation which attempt to be exhaustive without evoking closure, especially one which is determined to exploit all categories of content, context, and form, even when contradictory results are obtained. See hermeneutic spiral, hermeneutic spiral equation, in(ter)determinacy. Compare “webs of significance” in stratigraphic fallacy and thick description.

INTERROGATION: The act of questioning someone or something. In many postmodern contexts, the term is nearly synonymous with intervention.

INTERSUBJECTIVITY: Pertaining to the unfettered exchange of the contents of consciousness conceived not as the one-way dissemination of objective knowledge but as the mutual communication of subjects’ (sense 2) responses to experience. See dialectic of intersubjectivity, illustrement.

INTERTEXT: One of the texts modifying another text in intertextuality.

INTERTEXTUALITY: Term proposed by Julia Kristeva in La Révolution du langage poétique to describe the way a single work can actually consist of several texts and/or the transposition of one set of signs into another. Kristeva described it as a text conceived as a “mosaic of quotations…, [an] absorption and transformation of another text.” It is a specific type of coextension in which a variety of diverse meanings overlap and interrelate within a text in ways unforeseen by its author. The idea is similar to multiple locatedness (see inexhaustibility by contrast) but for the fact that it really entails only one “location.” Intertextuality has been expanded (if not misconstrued) by subsequent writers like Wendy Steiner (The Colors of Rhetoric) to mean the interrelations between a work of visual art and its title, works and their sources and influences, and/or multiple contemporary works. The very old art historical notion that an artist learns not from nature but from earlier art is a rudimentary expression of this expanded sense of intertextuality.

INTERVENTION: The refusal, subversion or re- negotiation of received meanings, usually because those doing the intervening believe such meanings to be enforced by political power or general consensus, which is of course determined by ideology. Intervention is standard practice in numerous manifestations of contemporary culture, from feminist revisionism to punk bricolage.

INTOLERANCE: Inability or unwillingness to grant or to share equal rights and privileges. Both sides of the debate on political correctness accuse the other of intolerance. For example, there have been many instances of hypocrisy in which one side literally shouts down the other, in spite of its own claims to freedom of expression. Oddly, even those who made the first politically correct agendas have sometimes been attacked by a second generation. Edward Said (see orientalism) described such an instance in “The Politics of Knowledge,” Raritan (Summer 1991).

INTRAMEDIAL: See illustrement.

INTRASIGNIFICANT: In classical linguistics, relations of mutual interpretation between signs without necessarily making reference to some external object. The idea is central to Baudrillardean thought. For a critical application, see extralinguistic.

INTRIGUE: A subcategory of genre (sense 2), meaning any representation placing emphasis on collusion, scheming, and trickery, as in Fragonard’s portrayals of the progress of courtly love.

INTRINSIC: Inherent; innate; characteristic of a thing by its very nature. Some art historians maintain a traditional distinction between instrinsic and extrinsic approaches to the work of art. W. Eugene Kleinbauer, for example, anthologized writings on form and iconography as intrinsic, separating them from writings on psychology, society and the history of ideas as extrinsic. Few of the more adventuresome critics working today maintain the distinction.

INTROVERSION: See personality types. See also

INTRUSIVE NARRATOR: A narrator who interrupts a narrative in order to offer commentaries of various sorts.

INVALIDITY: In informal logic, an argument is invalid if its conclusion does not follow necessarily from its premises, or if lacks relevance and/or sufficiency. See irrelevance.

INVERTED CONSCIOUSNESS: See false consciousness.

INVISIBLE HAND: Adam Smith maintained that a businessman was not a mere profiteer because he was “led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention” — i.e., promoting the interests of society. In Art in America (July 1988), Carter Ratcliff reworked the idea to illustrate how art dealers subtly convey the image that they too provide a cultural benefit above and beyond mere marketing.

IRRELEVANCE: Premises which do not increase the probability of the claim they are intended to support. The classic types of contextual irrelevance are the red herring and the straw man (or straw figure). The former is an inappropriate shift in the boundaries of an issue through the introduction of an irrelevant consideration, as might be the case if one alluded to Margaret Bourke-White’s bank account in a discussion of her photographic composition. The latter is the incorrect or inadequate representation of an opponent’s position to make a rebuttal more effective, as when beginning lecturers overplay the negative criticism of Impressionism to make it seem heroically above the average crowd.

IRONY: A trope in which the latent meaning is the opposite of the manifest meaning or markedly different from it. Irony is a particularly slippery trope, for an apparently bald statement of fact can be turned upside down by something as simple as a slight inflection of the voice. This is also true of imagery, although there are unequivocal instances as well. An untitled work of 1969 by Shusaku Arakawa bears the text “I have decided to leave this canvas completely blank,” invoking a certain type of irony. A more straightforward example is a photograph of the Isle of Fun, Skating Rink, Grand Island, Nebraska (1975), by Lynne Cohen (reproduced in Penny Cousineau, The Banff Purchase: An Exhibition of Photography in Canada. Toronto: Wiley and Sons, 1979, unpaginated). It shows a vast, empty skating rink, with no-one having the kind of fun depicted in the advertising on the walls. One of the more blatant examples is a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White of Afro-Americans standing in a bread line directly under a billboard stating “America — Highest Standard of Living in the World.” Irony is not synonymous with “coincidence.” See aporia, apophasis, dramatic irony, litotes, tragic irony.

ISM: 1. A back formation from words with the suffix “ism,” indicating a distinctive doctrine, system, theory, etc. 2. In art history, a period designation, often but not necessarily ending in “ism,” whether that period is determined by stylistic (e.g., Impressionism), iconographical (postmodernism), chronological (Early Renaissance), or other criteria.

“IS” OF ARTISTIC IDENTIFICATION: Arthur Danto’s term (in “The Artworld,” The Journal of British Philosophy [1964]) to distinguish the “is” of identity (he is a printmaker), the “is” of predication (he is tall), and the “is” of representation (he [e.g., a mortal actor] is a god) from an “is” which identifies an object as a work of art. Saying that a particular blob of paint “is” Icarus is not the same as saying that it “represents” Icarus, he argues. The word “Icarus” is an arbitrary device which “represents” Icarus, yet we would not point to the word and say “That (word) is Icarus” in the same sense that the blob is Icarus. The idea might be rephrased inelegantly as the “is” that can constitute any object as a work of art simply by virtue of the decision to do so. The notion was clearly influential in the early years of conceptual art. Danto developed related ideas in his later transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cf artworld.

ISOGLOSS: A boundary differentiating linguistic features.

ISOLATING: See agglutinating, inflecting, isolating.

ISOMORPHISM: Literally, isomorphism means “different in ancestry but having the same shape.” Figuratively, practitioners of artwriting use it to mean “different signifiers which have the same meaning (i.e., signified).” E.g., in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, the detail of a dog (a symbol of faith) is an isomorph to the overall theme of the picture, the faithfulness of marriage. For another application, see narrative analysis.

ISOTOPY: Following A. J. Greimas’s La Sémantique structurelle, Paul Ricoeur’s The Conflict of Interpretations grapples with how the appearance of homogeneous meaning is produced by a text. Greimas had spoken of the sifting effect of contextual variables. In “a dog barks,” for example, the second and third words have an unstated contextual variable in common, “animal,” which serves to strain out other possibilities (like the bark of a tree). A simple statement like this produces an impression of consistent meaning (which Ricoeur called the “meaning effect”) because the contextual variable works to bring the possibilities to the same place, as it were. “Iso-” is Greek for “same” or “equal,” while “topy” derives from topos, “place.” The isotopy of an utterance is thus the “location” of the contextual constraints upon meaning. In more complex systems of signs, as in a work of literature or an artwork, there are many contextual variables, making it difficult to choose between parallel (and sometimes competing) isotopies. This is the origin of polysemy. (See also “multiple locatedness” under the heading inexhaustibility by contrast).

JAMMING: See culture jamming.

JARGON: Pierre Bourdieu has argued that academic jargon, which he says imagines itself to be objective and value-free (see value-freedom), has meanings it is not aware of, and that its self-image as liberal humanism disguises its history of oppressing marginal groups. Cf illiberal education.

JEU: French term for play.

JINGLE: Dictionaries of literary terms often include “jingle,” a short, infectious verse set to music for advertising purposes, in order to distinguish it from “literature” proper. Is there a visual equivalent of the jingle?

JOUISSANCE: The usual English translation, “enjoyment,” does not carry the sexually orgasmic connotation that the French does in addition to the idea of taking pleasure in something. In Lacanian circles, jouissance is distinguished from pleasure ( plaisir) in that the latter indicates simply the search for psychic balance ( homeostasis) through the release of tension, whereas the former is supposed to be a perpetual state in violation of the pleasure principle. There is thus an implicit analogy drawn between demand and desire. See transgression. Julia Kristeva (see Kristevan) offers a slight development and a bit of wordplay: she uses plaisir for sexual pleasure and jouissance (or j’ouïs sens, “I heard meaning”) as total joy due to the presence of meaning.

JUDICIAL CRITICISM: Any of several types of criticism sharing the goal of judgement of a work, as connoisseurship is thought to judge quality. The criteria that the work is supposed to meet vary widely, however.

JUNGIAN: Pertaining to the theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. See Jungian criticism.

JUNGIAN CRITICISM: Criticism infleunced by Jungian ideas, principally the role of the colllective unconscious in the determination of cultural behaviour. Every individual participates in two psychic streams, one personal and one supposedly sharing psychic constants (see anima, archetype) with everyone else. The emphasis in practical Jungian writing, however, often ends up on the latter of these two streams, leading some opponents to describe Jungian approaches as essentialist (see essentialism). See also myth, presentiment.

JUVENILIA: Artworks produced during the artist‘s youth. In literary studies, “juvenilia” usually implies a degre of artistic immaturity. In art history, some juvenilia is considered prodigious (i.e., produced by a prodigy, as in the case of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, John Everett Millais, or Pablo Picasso).

JUXTAPOSITION: A placing of objects, images, etc., side by side. The term is particularly common in writings on Surrealism: there, because the practice was used with emphasis on the irrationality of the things juxtaposed, it sometimes seems to have an extra connotation of weirdness or inappropriateness. See, for example, the work of the Surrealist precursor Giorgio de Chirico or any Surrealist object by Salvador Dalí or Man Ray. The Surrealists’ fascination with the practice can be traced to their interest in the obscure nineteenth century poet Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), whose famous example of it was “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” In non-Surrealist contexts, the term is devoid of this connotation.

KANTIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Immanuel Kant. See autonomy, formalism, idealism, modernism, synthetic a priori.

KENOSIS: A process of draining, evacuating, lowering, relinquishing, surrendering, or yielding, as when Christ lowered Himself from divine to human form. Harold Bloom (see anxiety of influence, misreading) uses the term as a trope amalgamating the senses of bassesse and bathos.

KING RICHARD EFFECT: Occasionally an erroneous characterization of a person, thing or event is so compelling that it persists in the popular imagination long after it has been rendered implausible or even disproven. The phrase derives from the popular conception of England’s Richard III as the evil kidnapper and murderer of his nephews Edward V, true heir to the throne, and Richard, in spite of some revisionists’ descriptions of the story as anti-York propaganda produced by Tudor supporters. (Paul Delaroche made a well-known painting depicting their incarceration in Windsor Castle.) The phrase has since been applied to anything which specialists recognize as popular myth or error. There are numerous instances in art history. Some are misconceptions fostered by Hollywood distortions, as in the case of people who are convinced that Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of Van Gogh in Lust for Life is historically reliable. Others are caused by overemphasis on selective portions of the historical record, as in the case of the negative critical reception of early Impressionism. (For revision of the latter, see Paul Hayes Tucker, “Monet and the Bourgeois Dream,” in Benjamin Buchloh, et al, eds., Modernism and Modernity: The Vancouver Conference Papers).

KITSCH: Variously translated as “artistic rubbish” or “gaudy trash,” kitsch derives from an old German word meaning “to throw together,” according to some dictionaries. The word thus means any artwork which is thrown together chiefly to satisfy popular taste, rather than to state anything of high moral value or to advance a new aesthetic. In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review (1939), Clement Greenberg wrote that “Kitsch…welcomes and cultivates…insensibility…and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations…. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” That is, much of what popular culture preferred — plastic Madonnas, Disneyland, Muzak, hamburger stands shaped like hamburgers — is what Greenberg dismissed. Since Dada and Pop Art succeeded in making use of the imagery and materials of daily life, however, the boundary between kitsch and high art has become increasingly indistinct. Some artists, like Jeff Koons, quite consciously manipulate kitsch, although critics seem divided as to the significance of their actions.

KNOWLEDGE: See epistemology. In Lacanian contexts, “knowledge” is ambiguous: it can indicate knowledge within the Imaginary (from the original French connaissance), or it can indicate knowledge within the Symbolic (from the original French savoir), neither of which means “knowledge” in the common sense of being objectively right or wrong about a thing.

KNOWLEDGE TESTING: See translation.

KRISTEVAN: Pertaining to the ideas of French thinker Julia Kristeva, herself influenced strongly by Lacanian ideas, and her followers. See author, disruption, grammatology, intertextuality, jouissance, other, semanalysis, semiotics, signifiance, signifying practice, split subject, unary subject.

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Postmodern terms – UNARY SUBJECT to ZIGGURAT:

These Postmodern definitions are a useful gauge to see how academics construct their sentences. 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


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


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 [1802] 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.

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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.

Postmodern Terminology: A-C D-G H-K L-N O-R S-T U-Z

SACCADE: The movement of the eye from one fixation point to another. For an application peculiar to visual semiotics, see coloreme.

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.


SAUSSUREAN: Pertaining to the influential notions of French linguist Fernand de Saussure. See langue and parole, linguistics, reference, semiotics, sign, signified, signifier.

SAVOIR: Lacanian term for knowledge within the symbolic.

SAYING: A word or phrase that particular people use in particular situations

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.

SCIENTIFICITY: A synonym for disinterestedness .

SCOPIC PULSION: An irresistible urge to look.

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.

SCOPOPHOBIA: The fear of looking, as in castration.

SCOTOMA: An isolated area of diminished vision within the visual field

SCREEN WALL: See wall.

SCRIPTION: See écriture .

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.


The opportunities for free spatial design that such freestanding sculpture presents are not always fully exploited. The work may be designed, like many Archaic sculptures, to be viewed from only one or two fixed positions, or it may in effect be little more than a four-sided relief that hardly changes the three-dimensional form of the block at all. Sixteenth-century.

SECTION: Drawing of the interior of a building as if vertically sliced midway.

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?

SEMANALYSIS: The disruption of “normal” semiotic procedure (see semiotics) by intentionally producing new areas of signification. See Kristevan.

SEMBLABLE: See counterpart.

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).

SEMEME: The meaning of a morpheme.

SEMIC AXIS: See seme.

SEMIOLOGY: Term preferred by the French for semiotics.

SEMIOSIS: The mechanism by which figurative meaning is produced. See mimetic theory, unlimited semiosis.

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.

SENSATION-ORIENTED: See personality types.

SENSE: The faculty through which the external world is apprehended.

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).

SEXISM: Discrimination based on gender, although sexism is most often understood as discrimination specifically against women. See bi-sexism, feminism.

SFUMATO: See chiaroscuro.

SHADE: See colour. .

SHOW TOWEL: Embroidered Mennonite hand-towels intended primarily for display.

SHUTTERING: Formwork for moulding unset concrete into the desired shape.

SHOCKART: An artist’s intention to shock its audience or at the very least to invent a radical form of art. Such works are authenticated, only if accepted by peers of the art community.

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 [1973]).

SIGN PROPER: Phrase sometimes used in place of symbol, as understood in Peircean semiotics.

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.

SIGNIFICATION: The message that is intended or expressed or signified

SIGNIFIED: In Saussurean semiotics, the idea (or “meaning,” in the simplest sense of the word) expressed by a particular signifier. The two together constitute a sign.

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 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.

SIMULATION: The self-aware creation, manipulation, and exchange of simulacra (see simulacrum).

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.

SOCIOLINGUISTICS: The study of linguisitics as lived experience — i.e., of language as it is actually used in identifiable social contexts. See genderlects, rapport-talk, report-talk.

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.

SOFFITT: 1. The underside of a projected eave. 2. A synonym for intrados.

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.

SPACE: Under construction. Foucault uses the word as a metaphor of episteme when he speaks of “the space of knowledge” in the preface to The Order of Things.

SPACE-TIME: An imprecise term indicating the prevalent conditions of time and place in a work. See also chronotope.

SPACING: See différance. Place at intervals or Place at intervals

SPATIALITY: See plane of content, plane of expression, semiotics.

SPATTER: A decorative motif achieved by random distribution of accidental driblets, usually described with more pretentious terms when applied to high art.

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.

SPECIALNESS: The quality of being particular and pertaining to a specific case or instance

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.

SPECTACLE: An elaborate and remarkable display on a lavish scale

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.

SPECULAR: Having the properties of a mirror. See mirror stage.

SPEECH: The mental faculty or power of vocal communication.

SPIN: Colloquial term indicating paralinguistic inflection or connotations accruing to an image, word, etc.

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: See split subject.

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.

STATEMENT: Sometimes used as a translation for énoncé. See enunciation.

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.

STOCHASTIC: Being or having a random variable

STOICISM: Under construction.STONE: Under construction.

STORY: In current semiotics, “story” is a near synonym of diegesis, the apparent narrative as it is produced in the mind of the reader, rather than literally on the page.

STRATEGY: See tactics. Cf perruque.

STRATIFICATION: The condition of being arranged in social strata or classes within a group

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.

STRAW MAN: Or straw figure. See irrelevance.

STRUCTURALISM: Linguistics defined as the analysis of formal structures in a text or discourse

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.

STRUCTURAL SEMANTICS: Under construction.

STRUCTURE: The complex composition of knowledge as elements and their combinations

STURM UND DRANG: A state of violent disturbance and disorder (as in politics or social conditions generally)

STYLE: UA way of expressing something (in language or art or music etc.) that is characteristic of a particular person or group of people or period

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.

SUB: Under, lower, below, secondary, inferior

SUBCONSCIOUS: Psychic activity just below the level of awareness

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 [1976]) 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.

SUBJECT IN PROCESS: A near synonym of split 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.

SUBJECTIVISM: (philosophy) the doctrine that knowledge and value are dependent on and limited by your subjective experience

SUBJECTIVITY: Judgment based on individual personal impressions and feelings and opinions rather than external facts

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).

SUBLATION: Out/up-lifting Sublation is the motor by which the dialectic functions.

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.

SUBSTITUTION: Permutation, Placing one thing for another

SUBTITLE: Translation of a foreign dialogue

SUBTRACTIVE: Constituting or involving subtraction

SUBVERSION: Any act intended to overthrow or undermine something, usually in situations where the thing overthrown is seen as oppressive, as in intervention

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.

SUPERCOLOREME: See coloreme.

SUPEREGO: (psychoanalysis) that part of the unconscious mind that acts as a conscienc

UPERSTRUCTURE: See base and superstructure.

SUPPLEMENT: In Derridean thought, the “extra” clusters of meaning normally screened out by the action of semic axes (see seme) but retrieved by deconstruction.

SURFACE MEANING: Under construction.

SURFACE STRUCTURE: See deep structure and surface structure.

SURFICTION: Another word for metafiction and title of a Raymond Federman study of same.

SURREAL: Phantasmagorical, characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions

SURREALISM: A 20th century movement of artists and writers (developing out of dadaism) who used fantastic images and incongruous juxtapositions in order to represent unconscious thoughts and dreams

SURROGATE: Someone who takes the place of another person

SUSPENSE: Apprehension about what is going to happen

SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF: Under construction.

SWEETNESS AND LIGHT: a mild reasonableness

SYLLEPSIS: Use of a word to govern two or more words though agreeing in number or case etc. with only one

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.

SYNTACTICS: See pragmatics, semantics, syntactics.

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.

TABLEAU VIVANT: A group of people attractively arranged (as if in a painting)

TABOO: A prejudice (especially in Polynesia and other South Pacific islands) that prohibits the use or mention of something because of its sacred nature

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.

TACHISME: See action painting.

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.

TALBOTYPE: See photography.

TAXONOMY: See also formalism. A classification of organisms into groups based on similarities of structure or origin etc

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.

TENEBRISM: See chiaroscuro.

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.

TEXTUALITY: See intertextuality.

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 MEANING: See signifiance.

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.

THOUGHT POLICE: Popular media term of disdain for those in favour of some variation of political correctness.

THRUST: The downward pressure of architectural weight.

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.

TINT: See colour.

TITLE: A heading that names a statute or legislative bill; may give a brief summary of the matters it deals with

TOPOI: A traditional theme or motif or literary convention

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.”

TORSION: Twisting or bending, especially in buildings of great height.

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.

TOTEM: A clan or tribe identified by their kinship to a common totemic object

TOUCHSTONE: A basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated

TOUR DE FORCE: A feat requiring great virtuosity or strength, often deliberately undertaken for its difficulty

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, [1973]). 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.

TRACT: A system of body parts that together serve some particular purpose

TRADITION: An inherited pattern of thought or action

TRAGEDY: Drama in which the protagonist is overcome by some superior force or circumstance; excites terror or pity

TRAGIC FLAW: the character flaw or error of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall

TRAGIC IRONY: Dramatic irony in a tragedy.

TRANCHE-DE-VIE: French for slice-of-life.

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.

TRANSCULTURAL: extending through all human cultures; “a transcultural ideal of freedom embracing all the peoples of the world

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.

TRANSGRESSION: The act of transgressing; the violation of a law or a duty or moral principle

TRANSHISTORICAL: See timelessness.

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.

TRANSLITERATION: The representation of a word in the characters of another alphabet, as in transliterations from Cyrillic to English. For food for thought, see translation.

TRANSLUCENCY: Transmitting light but causing sufficient diffusion to prevent perception of distinct images.

TRANSPARENCY: A transparent object, especially a photographic slide that is viewed by light shining through it from behind or by projection.

TRANSVERSAL: Extending or lying across; in a crosswise direction; at right angles to the long axis

TRAVESTY: A comedy characterized by broad satire and improbable situations

TRIBUTARY: Tending to bring about; being partly responsible for

TRIPTYCH: A work consisting of three painted or carved panels that are hinged together. A hinged writing tablet consisting of three leaves, used in ancient Rome.

TROMPE L’OEIL: Illusionism, most commonly in painting, but also in some sculpture, etc., intended to “fool the eye.” See gaze and glance.

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.

TRIVIUM: The lower division of the seven liberal arts in medieval schools, consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric

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).

Go to listings: A-C D-G H-K L-N O-R S-T U-Z

Postmodern terms – Oedipus Complex to Romanticism

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.

Postmodern Terminology: A-C D-G H-K L-N O-R S-T U-Z

Oedipus Complex or Oedipal Complex – a sequence of development experiences that Freud argued all human boys went through. It involves the boys romantic feelings for his mother. However, in Freud’s theory, if the Oedipal Complex is “properly” resolved, the boy gives up his quest for his mother’s romantic affections. Supposedly this happens because he believes, unconsciously and symbolically, that he will otherwise be castrated

Ontology – the philosophy of Being, that is, the study of the metaphysical foundations of the universe, foundations that exist beyond science and can only be discovered through reasoning.

Operational definition – a concrete and procedural definition of something that is otherwise difficult to agree about. For example, people can disagree about how creative a particular person is. After all, people are creative in different ways and what one person would consider “creative” another person might consider “off the wall.” But an operational definition removes the challenge of differing opinions and ties the definition to a procedure that is precise and, for those using the operational definition, not contestable. A set of questions might be used to “operationally define” creativity, for example so that every time someone answered a question “yes” they were given a point. Their operationally defined creativity might be the sum of all their points — even if the questions have nothing to do with what you and I ordinarily think of “creativity.” Questions about whether the operational definition measures what it says it measures are questions about the “validity” of an operational definition.

Ostensive definition – To define something by pointing to it as it is named. For example, if someone were to say, “What’s a baboon?” one might point to one (or to a picture of one), and say “That’s a baboon.” Ludwig Wittgenstein organizes much of his thinking around the concept of an “ostensive definition”. The first section of his book, Philosophical Investigations:, begins with a passage from St. Augustine that argued that humans learned language by having adults point to things and name them. Then, Wittgenstein shows how such ostensive training would not be enough because in an actual case thed with no language at all would not know what aspect of the object was being pointed to. When the parent pointed and said “ball”, that is, the child would not know if it was the red color of the ball being named, the roundness of the ball, and so forth. This lays the foundation for Wittgenstein explaining his own philosophy of language.

Other – The term “Other” with a capital “O” is used throughout the postmodern literature. It means something quite different from the word “other” with a small “o”. Whereas the “other” is just someone else, an other with a capital “O” is a more important figure. For some authors, the Other is an imaginary person whom wants talks with, or debates, perhaps a deposit of authority figures. For other authors, and particularly for Emmanuel Levinas in works such as
Time and the Other, the Other is a living person of profound importance in one’s life. return

Pagan – Lyotard’s term. It means to judge without criteria. Lyotard says, “I am not using a concept. It is a name, neither better nor worse than others, for the denomination of a situation in which one judges without criteria.” Just Gaming (Theory and History of Literature, Vol 20) (p.16) Pagans for Lyotard are “ones who judge for themselves” The Lyotard Reader (Blackwell Readers) (p.125) without relying on the authority’s rules as to what is good or bad. Be careful to distinguish this postmodern meaning of the term from both the historical one which means ‘non-Christian’, as well as the contemporary meaning of western (neo)Paganism, especially Wicca.

PAEAN: A joyous song (or hymn, or analogous thing) for praising, giving thanks or tribute, or celebrating triumph.

Pagan voice
– The pagan voice is the heartfelt voice that expressesan opinion that goes beyond the evidence, beyond the rules, beyond the criteria.

PAGEANT: Any of various sorts of temporary exhibitions with processions, perfomances, music and dance, colourful costumes, and the like. Pageants and pageantry are fairly frequently represented in visual art of earlier centuries, and some artsists were also well-known for creating them (e.g., Gianlorenzo Bernini). For a narrower connotation, see carnivalesque.

PAINTERLY: Heinrich Wölfflin’s term for any formal element or compositional principle which draws attention to the characteristic sensuous traits of paint, like fluidity, looseness, impasto, scumbling, texture, and so on. By analogy, even a drawing or a photograph can be painterly. Painterly works are often conventionally understood to be more impassioned than linear ones, which are associated with reason and deliberation. See linear, periodicity. Cf deictic.

PALILOGY: The repetition of a word, or part of a sentence, for the sake of greater emphasis; as, ‘The living, the living, he shall praise thee.'”

PALIMPSEST: A manuscript illumination or similar inscribed surface which has been erased and repainted or otherwise used more than once, so that occasionally layers of what is beneath will show through and blend or interfere with the most recent image on the surface. “Palimpsest” refers to an objective phenomenon, like certain medieval works of art, and it also sometimes used metaphorically to indicate metaphoricity, polysemy, or even simple figurative language (sense 1). See also palimpsestablishment. See also this essay on palimpsest in the context of film studies.

PALIMPSESTABLISHMENT: Because it can have multiple meanings, the word “palimpsest” is sometimes used to signify indeterminacy. But a real palimpsest is limited to those images that actually appear there. That is, a palimpsest might have commingled images of, say, a good shepherd, a pastoral scene, and a classical myth, but that does not give us license to say that it is also represents an experience I had at my grandmother’s house because it reminds me of that. What is actually in the image establishes certain boundaries of interpretation. Within these restrictions one can still produce a bewildering variety of interpretation, depending upon the quantity and kinds of contextual information adduced.

PALINODE: A retraction of something previously said, often in poetic form.

PAINTING: Any of a variety of works of art made by applying paint on a surface. There is a wide variety of types of paint media, surfaces, application tools and techniques, and aesthetic preoccupations. Paint media, for example, include acrylic, bodycolour, casein, enamel, encaustic, fresco, gouache, ink, lacquer, oil, pastel, tempera, watercolour, and any number of natural alternatives from blood to elephant dung. Surfaces include animal hides, architectural features, canvas, cardboard, cotton, felt, paper, silk, wood panels, various types of natural surfaces like rock faces and cave walls, and various types of three-dimensional surfaces, as in combine painting, sculpto-peinture, and other forms of installation and multimedia work. Application tools and techniques include airbrush, brush, drybrush, palette knife, pen, etc. The sky’s the limit for aesthetic preoccupations, since even a brief list here would consitute a summary of much of the entire history of art. Dedicated readers would be well advised to visit a site like Chris Witcombe’s Gateway to Art History.

PANEGYRIC: Formal praise in an elaborate or grave manner, as in a eulogy. One wonders if the word could be applied to a painting like David’s Death of Socrates.

PANEL: Sheet that forms a distinct (usually flat and rectangular) section or component of something

PANOPTIC: Something which provides a comprehensive or panoramic view is said to be panoptic. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was a model for an ideal prison in which a minimum number of guards could observe a maximum number of prisoners by virtue of having a panoptic view of the goings-on. Michel Foucault appropriated the idea as a metaphor for the scientific point of view, which can supposedly survey everything objectively. Here is more on Foucault’s take on the Panopticon.

PANORAMIC: Pertaining to a panorama — i.e., an unobstructed view in every direction. Figuratively, then, “panoramic” indicates comprehensiveness or thoroughness in a presentation of a subject. By entension it can mean any of several types of visual presentations that endeavour to represent an unobstructed view, as in a panoramic photograph (now commercially available in an impoverished variation) or an enormous painting in which a seemingly endless vista is literally unrolled before an audience, as in certain pre-twentieth-century entertainments. The closest relative to the latter, which is now outdated, is perhaps the IMAX film projection system.

PANTOMIME: A performance using gestures and body movements without words

PARABLE: A short moral story (often with animal characters)

PARADIGM: 1. An example, pattern or standard. In grammar, a paradigm is the set of inflected forms of a word — e.g., “artist, artist’s, artists, artists'” — or the standard pattern followed in the conjugation of a verb — first person singular, second person singular, third person singular, first person plural, second person plural, third person plural. 2. By extension, the term also refers to the basic structure of given mind-sets or models of knowledge, as in paradigm shift. 3. Saussurean semiotics has developed the notion that every sign is part of a system of relationships with other signs structured through similarity and difference. These systems are called paradigms. A word thus has a paradigmatic relationship with its own inflections, new words established through prefixes and suffixes, synonyms and antonyms, etc. The “paradigmatic axis” is a field of possible substitutions of one word for another, developed by Roman Jakobson into what he called a selection relation. In film studies, a paradigmatic axis refers more simply to a single shot or view of something (see mise-en-scène) rather than to a succession of images, so that a metaphor, for example, in a paradigmatic axis is one which emerges in an individual shot, rather than in a sequence of shots (which would be its syntagmatic axis).

PARADIGM SHIFT: Established, largely unconscious habits of mind, like faith in scientific progress in the modern era or the divine right of kings in the mediaeval era, can be considered paradigms. When one era shifts into another, the old habits are disrupted by new ones which eventually settle into a familiar routine. The phrase derives from Thomas Kuhn, who wrote about changes in the history and philosophy of science (see realism), but it is now a commonplace used to describe any sort of major shift of mind-set or perspective. For example, the change from pre-modern to modern art was effectively a change from the so-called “window paradigm” — the idea of a painting as a hole in the wall through which one saw beyond the room, as in Renaissance and Baroque illusionism — to a new paradigm of abstraction. Similarly, the change from modernism to postmodernism is now commonly called a paradigm shift.

PARADIGMATIC AXIS: See paradigm, sense 3.

PARADOX: (logic) a statement that contradicts itself

PARAESTHETICS: A state of being essentially equal or equivalent; equally balanced with beauty

PARAGONE: The state of being in the pass

PARALEPSIS: Suggesting by deliberately concise treatment that much of significance is omitted

PARALINGUISTIC: A paralinguistic shift is a matter of the way form affects meaning: If one changes the delivery of a word or image (that is, the signifier), one can produce a corresponding change in the meaning of the word or image (that is, the signified). Like tropes, these shifts can be conventional, evoking an immediate, intuitive response: For example, everyone spontaneously recognizes the difference between the look, sound, and meaning of “fire” and “FIIIRRRRE!!!” Like tropes, these shifts can also be invented for expressive, aesthetic purposes, as in expressionism. (Similarly, design decisions affect content in architecture: The primary content of a building might be “church,” whereas the secondary content might be “a truely awe-inspiring church for the glory of God” versus “a simple church of humble piety,” or some such thing.)

PARAPHRASE: Rewording for the purpose of clarification

PARATAXIS: See hypotaxis.

PARENT CULTURE: A euphemism for the dominant portion of a culture. See subculture.

PARENTHESES: A postmodern tactic to reveal the hidden agenda of putatively neutral words. Common examples include “(cult)ure” (indicating that culture is in some respects an expression of the symbolic fetishism of cult-worship), “imag(in)ing” (to conflate something akin to aimless day-dreaming with the deliberate construction of ideology), and so on. Some examples seem decidedly sophomoric, and some publications — like the newsletter of the College Art Association — occasionally poke fun at the practice by recording particularly laboured examples from recent conferences, etc. The singular is “parenthesis.”

PARODY: An imitation of the form or content of a prior artwork, either for comic effect or to ridicule it or its author. Originally, parody could be quickly recognized because of a marked tendency towards caricature. The famous cartoons poking fun at Courbet, Manet and others in magazines like Charivari are obvious examples. (Less obvious is whether or not Courbet’s Bathers and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe are themselves parodies, as was alleged in the television series “Art of the Western World.”) In contemporary discourse, parody is a more serious affair, usually aimed at critiquing (see critique) or undermining the tacit assumptions of, say, patriarchy or late capitalism. Straightforward examples are Hans Haacke’s poster works about American Cyanamid; General Idea’s reworking of Robert Indiana’s Love series as part of an AIDS project; and pieces by any number of appropriation artists. For example, David Buchan redid Jacques-Louis David’s famous À Marat (1793) as an ad for Halo shampoo. It is often very difficult to determine just exactly what signals parody, leading Linda Hutcheon to offer this working definition: “repetition with critical distance [cf aesthetic distance] which allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity…. [This] allows an artist to speak to a discourse from within it, but without being totally recuperated by it [see co-opt]” (A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction). Unfortunately, there is still no unequivocal flag that pops up to indicate “this is parody,” leading to all sorts of instances in which, for example, Native art like Bill Powless’ Indian Summer — showing a fat Native in a Speedo suit and umbrella beany, eating a popsicle — is criticized for simply indulging in stereotype, instead of critiquing it (see indulgence or indictment).

PAROUSIA: (Christian theology) the reappearance of Jesus as judge for the Last Judgment

PARTICIPATION MYSTIQUE: Immersion of the individual self in the mystical participation in the collective identity of a culture, usually one that is non-European in origin and practices. The idea crops up in anthropology, ethology, sociology, etc., and it plays a role in Jung’s collective unconscious and visionary mode of artistic creation.

PARTICULARISM: In “Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures” (in The American Scholar [summer 1990]), Dianne Ravitch divides multiculturalism into two camps, the pluralists and the particularists. The former seek a richer common culture by including marginal groups in the existing historical narrative, with appropriate modifications (as in add women and stir). The particularists’s goal is separate self-fulfillment through the raising of self-esteem, ethnic pride, and the like. Among other things, Ravitch sees particularism as a wrong-headed assertion that blacks or women can only achieve if taught by blacks or women. Accordingly, she concludes that it is both deterministic (see determinism) and filiopietistic.

PASQUINADE: A composition that imitates or misrepresents somebody’s style, usually in a humorous way

PASSE-PARTOUT: A matte. Used metaphorically in Derrida’s Truth in Painting. See frame.

PASTICHE: A work of art that imitates the style of some previous work. A composition that is a mosaic of other pieces, or fragments or modifications of other pieces.

PATHETIC FALLACY: is the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that endows them with human feelings, thoughts and sensations. It is when the author expresses the character’s feelings through his/her surroundings.

PATHOGRAPHY: Freud used this term to characterize his investigation of the unconscious motivations of Leonardo da Vinci’s art. E. H. Spitz (in Art and Psyche) has suggested that the term implies that psychoanalytic criticism is necessarily preoccupied with works of art as symptoms of suffering, if not overt mental illness.

PATHOS: The quality that arouses emotions (especially pity or sorrow)

PATHOSFORMEL: Aby Warburg thought that specific historical periods were characterized by coherent clusters of perceptions and feelings, as in, for example, Renaissance classicism. The expression of these perceptions and feelings demanded a certain consistency of formal approach. Warburg thought he could identify principles of configuration which he called pathosformel — which might be translated loosely as “forms or formulas of emotional style” — running through many different arts and giving expression to a wide variety of cultural preoccupations, ranging from folklore to religion. See also iconology, topos.

PATRIARCHY: Literally, the rule of the father. A social organization in which men are the heads of their families and descent and inheritance are reckoned in the male line. Feminism, in characterizing patriarchy more generally as officially sanctioned male dominance, sees it as the root of all evil. For example, Lisa Tuttle’s Encyclopedia of Feminism (1986) defines it as “the universal political structure which privileges men at the expense of women.” Proponents of the new masculinity argue that feminism is right in seeing patriarchy as oppressive but that it is wrong in defining it as the universal privileging of men. A simple example is that men, historically, were drafted into the army and women were not. A more balanced view is probably that industrialized society suffers from epidemic bi-sexism.

PEDANTRY: An ostentatious and inappropriate display of learning

PEDIMENT: The uppermost portion of a principal architectural facade, usually triangular, but sometimes semicircular, broken, and/or curved, or the imitation of same as a decorative motif over windows, doors, and some furniture components.

PEIRCEAN: Pertaining to the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce. See icon, index, interpretant, reference, sign, symbol.

PEN: Produce a literary work

PERCEPTION: The neurological processes by which sensory stimuli are recognized and assigned simple meanings.

PERCEPTUAL: Concerning the faculty of perception. See mind-set for a specific instance.

PERCEPTUALISM: A notion appearing in the writings of Norman Bryson describing the uncritical reception of realism as optical (i.e., perceptual) truth, instead of as a meaning-bearing construction which is therefore subject to the inflections of social values. That is, when confronted with a realist image unreflective viewers think of what is depicted only that “it is,” rather than “it means.” (Bryson does not seem to take into account that what appears to be perceptualism might be a visual instance of a self-effacing or unreliable narrator.) For a related thought, see hypotaxis.

PERIODICITY: The state of being organized and categorized according to periods, as in Renaissance versus Baroque, Byzantine versus Modern, and so on. Since any such scheme streamlines, homogenizes, and ignores or downplays difference, much interesting material is lost. This is one of the fundamental complaints against the canon.

PERIODS: An amount of time

PERIPETY: A sudden and unexpected change of fortune or reverse of circumstances (especially in a literary work)

PERIPHRASIS: A style that involves indirect ways of expressing things

PERRUQUE: A French idiomatic expression meaning work one does for oneself in the guise of work done for an employer, as when one photocopies personal material on the office account, or the like. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau construes the idea as a socio-cultural trope of sorts, in which the socially weak (e.g., those who must work for others) make use of the socially strong (e.g., the bosses) by carving out an independent domain within the circumstances imposed upon them from above. See tactics.


PERSONA: (Jungian psychology) a personal facade that one presents to the world

PERSONIFICATION: The conventional representation of an abstract quality by a concrete thing, usually a person with identifiable attributes. Familiar examples are Justice (a blindfolded woman holding scales) and Liberty (a woman wearing a diadem and holding a torch aloft). In visual art, such representations have been codified for centuries. At one time, an artist who needed to know how to represent something abstract like “knowledge” or “charity” could turn to visual dictionaries, so to speak, like Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, which would give straightforward guidelines to follow.

PERSPECTIVE: The appearance of things relative to one another as determined by their distance from the viewer

PETRACHAN CONCEIT: conceit is a figure of speech which makes an unusual and sometimes elaborately sustained comparison between two dissimilar things. Related to wit, there are two main types:

1. The Petrarchan conceit, used in love poetry, exploits a particular set of images for comparisons with the despairing lover and his unpitying but idolized mistress. For instance, the lover is a ship on a stormy sea, and his mistress “a cloud of dark disdain”; or else the lady is a sun whose beauty and virtue shine on her lover from a distance.

The paradoxical pain and pleasure of lovesickness is often described using oxymoron, for instance uniting peace and war, burning and freezing, and so forth. But images which were novel in the sonnets of Petrarch became clich�s in the poetry of later imitators. Romeo uses hackneyed Petrarchan conceits in describing his love for Rosaline as “bright smoke, cold fire, sick health”; and Shakespeare parodies such conceits in Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

2. The metaphysical conceit is characteristic of seventeenth-century writers influenced by John Donne, and became popular again in this century after the revival of the metaphysical poets. This type of conceit draws upon a wide range of knowledge, from the commonplace to the esoteric, and its comparisons are elaborately rationalized.

For instance, Donne’s “The Flea” (1633), partially quoted above, compares a flea bite to the act of love; and in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1633) separated lovers are likened to the legs of a compass, the leg drawing the circle eventually returning home to “the fixed foot.”

PHALLOCENTRIC: Any of several self-indulgent tendencies which describe male characteristics as central and female ones as marginal. Anything which foregrounds a putatively essential masculine or patriarchal (see patriarchy) principle can be considered phallocentric. See also phallogocentric. Cf gynocentric.

PHALLOGENERIC: The sexist use of gender-specific nouns and pronouns to refer to generic humanity. For example, Montréal’s Expo ’67 had as its theme “Man and His World,” even though it was supposed to mean men and women collectively.

PHALLOGOCENTRIC: We traditionally tend to think that words have a necessary relation to the things they describe or designate. Such relations imply a certain presence hovering just behind the word itself. Deconstruction argues that there can be no such presence (see metaphysics of presence) and that words function only on the basis of their differences from other words in given contexts. This replaces presence with absence. Jacques Lacan (see Lacanian) argued that the phallus was the privileged signifier — i.e., the principal presence hovering just behind meaning as a general phenomenon. For Lacan, this was partly a metaphor and partly a psychological account of the way the mind is constituted (see constitutive) by language. Accordingly, any discussion of language which maintains presence as an essential condition is, particularly to some feminist writers, metaphorically an assertion of the primacy of the phallus. In other words, traditional conceptions of language are both word-centered ( logocentric) and phallocentric, hence “phallogocentric.” Paul Berman’s Debating P.C. puts it more bluntly: “the regrettable tradition of imposed masculine logic.”

PHALLUS: The male erect organ of copulation

PHENOMENOLOGY: A philosophical doctrine proposed by Edmund Husserl based on the study of human experience in which considerations of objective reality are not taken into account
Under construction.

PHONEME: In linguistics, the smallest sound, meaningless in itself, capable of indicating a difference in meaning between two morphemes. The word “dog” differs from “cog” by virtue of a change of the phoneme “d” to “c.” One of the problems of early visual semiotics was to determine what constituted a visual counterpart to a phoneme (e.g., Louis Marin, “élements pour une sémiologie,” in Les Sciences humaines et l’histoire de l’art). See also coloreme, phonology.

PHONOCENTRIC: Giving priority to the principles underlying verbal language when attempting to theorize about the very different nature of visual language. See semiotics.

PHONOLOGY: The study of language in terms of the relationships between phonemes. Phonology can be directed at segmental features (the segments of phonemes, like consonants, vowels, syllables) or suprasegmental features (see paralinguistic). See coloreme.

PHOTOCOLLAGE: A collage made chiefly of photographic materials. The Berlin Dada group (from c. 1919) were especially renowned for this technique, with notable examples in the works of Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, George Grosz, and many others.

PHOTOGRAPHY: The underlying principle of photography — that light could pass through a pinhole and be projected upon the other side of a darkened box — predates the mechanical means of modern photography by thousands of years. The first practical instrument to resemble a modern camera was the camera obscura (literally, an “obscure” or “darkened chamber”) , a contraption which allowed an image to be transferred by means of a lens fitted over the hole to a sheet of paper suspended on the other side of the chamber, where the image could be then be traced (see tracing) with some precision. These were available in the seventeenth century, and some scholars believe Jan Vermeer may have been familiar with their use. The first photomechanical means of transferring the image was developed by J.-N. Niépce in 1826, when he discovered that an asphalt coating on pewter, treated with solvent, would be bleached by the sun in proportion to the light reflected through a lens from nearby objects. Because it was a mechanical means of “sun-writing,” as it were, he called the process “heliography” (sun=helios). It was never a practical method because the exposure time ran to many hours. In 1839, the painter L.-J.-M. Daguerre announced an improved process called the daguerrotype, which substituted a silver-coated copper plate sensitized with potassium iodide fumes. The exposure time dropped to a half an hour or so, at which point the plate had to be developed by exposure to mercury fumes and then stopped or “fixed” with a hyposulfite of soda. (The process so effectively foreshadowed subsequent developments that we still use some of this terminology in spite of many significant advancements.) Within ten years or so the process was speeded up again with the application of bromine fumes to the plate. With the exposure time now down to a minute or so, photography began its history as the fashionable medium of portraiture. Popular and prized possessions, daguerrotypes were unlike today’s photographs in that they were fragile, single, non-reproduceable images of high quality and lustre, typically protected by little decorative boxes lined with velvet. Both the heliograph and the daguerrotype were positive processes: that is, both required that the light-sensitive plate be directly changed by light exposure, so that bright light created a bright spot on the plate. The next step in the evolution of modern photography was the discovery of a negative process, in which a bright light created a dark spot on an interim surface from which multiple prints could be made. That invention is attributed to W. F. Talbot, whose calotype (sometimes called “Talbotype”) of 1841 replaced the copper plate with a paper sheet sensitized with silver iodide. Prints made from these negatives would of course reverse the process and become positive images again. However, they were generally poorer in quality, so the method died entirely with F. S. Archer’s 1851 publication of the wet-plate or collodion process, which reduced exposure times to mere seconds and produced a glass negative from which multiple prints of better quality could be produced. Collodion’s disadvantage was that exposure, development and fixing had to be done in a sort of portable darkroom while the plate was still wet. Both processes produced albumen prints, so-called for the paper, which was coated with egg white and ammonium chloride and which produced a rich and lustrous surface. The gelatin-silver print gradually replaced this technique in the late 1870s and 1880s with a so-called dry-plate process involving papers coated with silver halide suspended in a gelatin emulsion. Roll film came along about the same time, enabling George Eastman to create an entirely new consumer phenomenon by marketing the Kodak camera in 1888. (Roll film, incidentally, also made the discovery of practical motion pictures possible.) Until the inventions of Edwin Land’s Polaroid instant camera and the digital camera, subsequent developments were mostly a matter of camera size, shutter speeds, and the like. There is a large repository of useful supplementary information, including technical definitions, at Robert Leggat’s History of Photography site.

PHOTOMONTAGE: A mixing of imagery through means peculiar to photography to achieve collage-like effects, not always precisely distinguished from photocollage.

PLAISIR: French for pleasure. See jouissance, pleasure of the text.

PLAN AMERICAIN: In film studies, compositions which close in on figures so they are framed only from the midthigh or waist up. It is sometimes also called the “American foreground.”

PLAN FRANCAIS: In film studies, compositions which close in on figures so they are framed only from the ankles up.

PLAN SEQUENCE: In film studies, compositions which obscure and disclose details of the scene sequentially in order to manipulate the viewer’s attention.

PLANE OF CONTENT, PLANE OF EXPRESSION: In Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, Louis Hjelmslev distinguished between the actual content of an utterance and the manner in which that content is expressed. (“Content” here is conceived of as only the primary and secondary types described under the heading content.) While early visual semiotics (e.g., Umberto Eco, “Sémiologie des messages visuels,” Communications 15 [1970]: 11-51; and René Lindekens, élements pour une sémiotique de la photographie [1971]) saw simple enough parallels between verbal content and visual iconography, it noted that the visual plane of expression differs markedly from the verbal one. This necessitated a revised description of the plane of expression, one which differed from verbal syntactics. Although this led Eco to conclude that the icon could not serve as the true basis for a visual semiotics (A Theory of Semiotics), he offered no compelling solution. In Semiotics of Visual Language, Fernande Saint-Martin offered a solution with her conception of “spatiality,” which she defined as “the apprehension of a simultaneous coexistence of multiple elements in an autonomous form of organization, which is considerably different from that of the temporal order of these elements.” Spatiality, she argued, was peculiar to the visual in a way that did not occur in the verbal and was therefore more appropriate in describing a truly visual syntax. Spatiality in turn led her to her conception of the coloreme.

PLANE OF EXPRESSION: See plane of content, plane of expression.

PLANIMETRIC: Heinrich Wölfflin’s term for a clothesline type of composition which arranges figures on a plane parallel to the surface of the object, rather than on diagonals receding into depth.

PLASTIC: “Plastic” does not mean polymer, in an artwriting context. It simply means that which can be molded or modeled. Typically it refers to sculptural works, especially in the German tradition, but in some contexts it means any type of visual art, before the era of photographic and electronic imagery, especially if it has 3D properties. Nothing more obscure than that.

PLAUSIBILITY: In Philosophy Looks at the Arts, Joseph Margolis replaces the closure and determinacy of right and wrong interpretations with the more flexible notion of plausibility. The criteria include such things as whether a conclusion is reasonable or unreasonable, appropriate or inappropriate, and the like. The process of rendering interpretation more flexible consists in part of exposure to a wide variety of modes. See also falsification, misprision, validity, verification.

PLEASURE: See jouissance.

PLEIN AIR: En plein air simply means that the artist painted outside, literally “in empty (or open) air,” instead of in the studio. Occasionally one also sees the derivative term pleinairisme, which is nothing more than a grammatical inflection of the same idea. For example, Monet (or whomever) painted en plein air during the period in which pleinairisme was in fashion.

PLURALISM: 1. A near synonym of multiculturalism, which entails a lack of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, creed, class and the like. For an antonym, see particularism. 2. In artwriting, the term is also used simply to describe the late 1960s to the 1980s, when no one style predominated and a variety of options was seen as a sign of cultural health and diversity. See, for example, Corinne Robins’ The Pluralist Era, which offers relatively little multiculturalism per se.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: Originally used by the political left to describe approvingly those who subscribed unswervingly to party policy. Since the early 1990s, however, the phrase is taken to be an ironic condemnation of anyone — particularly one educated in the highly politicized 1960s (although even this is a matter of debate) — who seeks to effect a social transformation through various practices in post-secondary education. The practices range from challenges to the traditional curriculum (i.e., the canon of so-called DWMs) to the censure of public language that might be offensive to ethnic minorities. It is important to note that the transformation of the sense of the phrase was undertaken almost entirely in the popular press, leading to many misunderstandings on both sides. In fact, it may not be correct to say that there are “sides,” since many of the participants seem to disagree on things that evaporate under close scrutiny. For example, some people are called “politically correct” simply because they abjure social ills like ethnic discrimination, imperialism, violence against women, and other things which nobody in their right mind would condone. Other kinds of political correctness have a less visible agenda, like the replacement of absolutism in interpretation with relativism, or critical theory’s rejection of scientific disinterestedness and value-freedom. Whether or not such partisans are as demagogic (see demagogue) as they are often described is a matter to be discussed carefully on an individual basis. Paul Berman’s anthology Debating P.C. would make a useful starting point.

Michael L. Hoover (McGill) adds the following: “As leftie grad students in New York in the late 70s early 80s, we used the term ‘political correctness’ often and never approvingly — it was used to refer to a slavish and unthinking adherence to some political line (Maoist in the beginning, then any line), with the sense that the ‘politically correct’ person was mouthing some correct phrase as though that was the answer to whatever issue was at hand. Using the phrase originally had the clear implication of rejecting Mao’s cultural revolution (where ‘correct thought’ figured highly). The phrase was used throughout the eighties by leftists to refer DISAPPROVINGLY to — especially — undergraduate proto-leftists who thought that by using the right words and phrases, they were actually making political change. Just thought I’d let you know — love the web page by the way “

POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS: Along with many other postmodern (see postmodernism) writers, Fredric Jameson feels that an audience never encounters a text innocently, as a unique, unmediated thing (see mediation). Texts appear instead as the always-already-read, something composed by a writer in response to previous texts, something discovered by a reader only through layers of previous interpretations or through inherited habits and traditions of reading. Any interpretation thus constructed is inherently ideological (see ideology), but since readers are usually unaware of the operations of ideology in their habits of mind, the term “political unconscious” is apt. The subtitle of Jameson’s most famous book is telling: The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.

POLITICALLY CORRECT: See political correctness.

POLITICS OF IDENTITY: An umbrella term for political and/or critical agitation by specific social groups, including black nationalism (see afrocenticity), women’s rights (see feminism), gay and lesbian liberation, diverse ethnic revivals, and so on.

POLITICS OF INTERPRETATION: An umbrella term for a variety of types of critique of the act of interpretation as a thinly-veiled ideological activity (see ideology).

POLITICS OF THE TEXTBOOK: An umbrella term for a variety of types of critique of the textbook writing and publishing as thinly-veiled ideological activities (see ideology).

POLYPTYCH: See polyptych.

POLYSEMY: From the Greek for “many signs,” the hypothetically infinite range of meanings which results when determinacy is replaced by indeterminacy. The term has become so commonplace that it is impossible to attribute to a particular writer. For other applications, see illustrement, linguistic inflation.


PORTRAITURE: A word picture of a person’s appearance and character

POSSIBILITY (OF MEANING): See inexhaustibility by contrast, meaning.

POST HOC, ERGO PROPTER HOC: Latin for “after this, therefore on account of it.” It is a common error in argument similar to the genetic fallacy. That one thing habitually follows another thing does not ensure that the latter caused the former. A specific application of the principle is Hume’s constant conjunction.

POSTCOLONIAL: Characterizing a society moving away from cultural, economic, psychological, social and other dependence on the subordination of another social group. Cf imperialism.

POSTINDUSTRIAL: Characterizing a society moving from economic dependence on heavy manufacturing (and its concomitant problems, like waste and pollution) to one more interested in information exchange, recycling, cultural democracy, and a number of related things.

POSTMODERNISM: It is something of a gross oversimplification, considering that modernism and postmodernism are difficult concepts circulating in disputed territory, but it is safe to say at least that modernism tended to have faith in the perfectibility of mankind through technology and rationalistic planning. It is now felt that these were instruments of white European males interested only in maintaining their own hegemony, so the result was a certain homogeneity which disallowed cultural differences. Art which seemed to illustrate, foster or otherwise exemplify values like faith in perfectibility and rationalism was modernist art. In contrast, today’s emphasis on the cultures of women, peoples of colour, and gays and lesbians might be seen as postmodernist by default. Examples of modernism include such things as Le Corbusier’s house designs and Piet Mondrian’s geometric abstraction, both of which were supposed not only to be aesthetic but, more importantly, to affect viewers in salutary ways. That the world could always supposedly be improved upon also led to two other characteristics of modernism in the arts: that art could progress, suggesting that the worst thing one could do would be to repeat something which had been done before, and that the way to progress in art was to focus on its only essential characteristic — i.e., that painting would only be about painting, sculpture would only be about sculpture, etc., as in formalism. In contrast, postmodernism seems gleefully to assert that there is nothing new under the sun and that works which speak only about their essential characteristics really say nothing at all about the human condition. Colloquially, what is often simply described as “modern art” included types of work which actively critiqued modernist values, so while it might have been chronologically modern it was not modernist. In fact, what might be called anti-modernist art bears many of the characteristics of what we now call postmodernism. For example, neither Dada nor Surrealism had any faith in reason, preferred uncertainty, adapted imagery from other cultures and eras, and exploited irony, mockery and humour. (Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q, a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and those letters applied summarily, is a prime example.) All of these traits appear in postmodernism. For example, in postmodern architecture we find allusions to illogical mixtures of historical building styles, many of the references turning the source on its ear in the same way as historical mannerism. See, for example, the use of the unexpected in James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart or Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans. Because of its critical stance towards the certainty and homogeneity of modernist tradition, postmodernism is far too complex to characterize with one simple set of stylistic criteria. In any case, it is more a matter of any attitude which invokes an unconventional fusion or overt diversity of historical and/or cultural styles (e.g., David Salle), with particular emphasis on critique, irony or mockery (e.g., Guerilla Girls). Charles Jencks, for example, describes it as “characteristically double-coded and ironic…, [emphasizing] conflict and discontinuity of traditions, because this heterogeneity most clearly captures our pluralism.” Linda Hutcheon asserts that postmodernism and parody are nearly synonymous. Warren Montag argues that “We act within a specific conjecture only to see that conjecture transformed beneath our feet, perhaps by our intervention itself, but always in ways that ultimately escape our intention or control, thereby requiring new interventions ad infinitum” (see Postmodernism and Its Critics, ed. E. A. Kaplan, for these and many other explanations). One of the better known proponents of postmodernism is Jean-François Lyotard, whose Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge offers lengthy meditations on the subject. In the introduction, for example, he defines it simply as “incredulity towards metanarratives,” where “metanarrative” means the set of values and expectations underlying faith in reason and science. Elsewhere he argues that a postmodern work is not made according to preestablished rules and cannot therefore be judged by applying familiar categories of analysis; in fact, the very purpose of the work is to search for and create new sets of rules and categories. See also culture jamming, death of the author, Derridean, prolepsis, skepticism.

POTBOILER: Formulaic works of art produced cheaply and quickly produced to satisfy a market demand — usually for genre paintings — and to make a modest income (i.e., to keep soup boiling in the pot). By extension, the term has come to mean any work considered to lack distinctive quality or originality. Almost every continent has a maker of potboilers, although many of them are also well-known for more important works: in Canada, Cornelius Krieghoff; in Europe, Carl Spitzweg; in the United Kingdom, David Wilke, and so on.

POWER: One of the more crucial conceptions of much postmodern is that things we used to take for granted as given — things like nature and truth — do not have objectively verifiable existence because they are nothing more than paradigms created, unwittingly or not, by broad, impersonal forces in society. For Foucauldians, these forces are determined by epistemes, habits of knowing peculiar to given social groups who have managed to suppress rival groups in practice and who continue to maintain power by instituting (see critique of institutions) symbolic mechanisms which masquerade as disinterested knowledge, but which are really systems intended to keep subjugated those peoples who are uninitiated or excluded. A British lecturer on photography from the University of Derby, John Roberts, defines power more succinctly as the viewer’s right of reply, which thus invites comparison with Susanne Kappeler’s critique of pornography. All sorts of things have been challenged as instances of this kind of power: academic standards like the traditional canon, certificates/diplomas/degrees, the “King’s English,” logic, and standards of pronunciation; and the general cultural attitudes described under the headings ageism, classism, homophobia, lookism, racism, sexism and so on. See also hegemony.

PRAGMATICS, SEMANTICS, SYNTACTICS: Charles W. Morris developed a three-part structure to clarify the nature of language. “Pragmatics” he defined as the study of the circumstances in which a communication takes place, ranging from purely material conditions like the presence or absence of noise to more intangible conditions like personal motivations or the relations between speaker and audience. Pragmatics is thus very close to context. “Semantics” he defined as the study of meaning in signs prior to their use in a particular statement. While this might suggest that a parallel can be drawn between semantics and iconography, Morris’s term is more abstract and closer in meaning to interpretant and paradigm (sense 3), both of which can be embraced within the term content. “Syntactics” Morris defined as the study of rules of syntax or grammar (see also code [sense 2]), which to some extent is embraced within the term form.

PREJUDICE: In common speech, bias or unfair treatment. In Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory — most notably in Truth and Method – – one cannot achieve an objective understanding of the meaning of a work produced under culturally, geographically, historically and/or socially alien circumstances. One can, however, achieve a balanced understanding (and a sort of dialogue between past and present that goes beyond superficial perspectivism) by making oneself fully aware (via a hermeneutic circle) of the conditions and assumptions underlying one’s own point of view, as well as those of the author. These conditions he called prejudices or prejudgements.

PRESENCE: The fact or condition of being present — i.e., of being at hand or before one, of actually existing. In postmodern contexts, presence is caught up in the discussion of determinacy in the sense that there must be something lurking behind a sign in order to guarantee that it will signify. In that sense, a determinist would believe in some sort of presence (if only metaphorically). In contrast, deconstruction would argue that there is no such metaphysical guarantee. See, for example, metaphysics of presence.

PRESENTATIONAL SYMBOL: Professor Dale Cannon gives this: “A religious symbol that serves not only to represent some aspect of what is taken to be ultimate reality but which in the appropriate circumstances serves for participants to render it present and enable direct participation in it. In that respect they are sometimes called sacramental symbols. All presentational symbols are in the first place representational symbols, but the reverse is not true.” Professor Cannon’s site is the (R204: Glossary for his Western Religions course at Western Oregon University.

PRESENTIMENT: Foreboding. Giorgio de Chirico said that an ominous feeling of something about to happen was a characteristic of good metaphysical art. It has been argued that he was directly influenced in this by Freud’s uncanny. The idea appears frequently in aesthetic theory, albeit in slightly different forms. Another example is in Jung’s notion of the visionary mode of artistic creation.

PRESENTMENT: Not a common word, but Edward Bullough (see aesthetic distance) used it to denote the manner of presenting something, as distinct from “presentation,” which he understood to mean that which is presented. The word is not to be confused with presentiment either.

PRESTATION VALUE: The conventional prestige value of a sign in an otherwise valueless Baudrillardian world of simulacra. See Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in Arts (September 1986).

PRIMARY COLOURS: The basic hues of the spectrum from which all of the other hues can be mixed. 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. One of the curious optical phenomena attending this observation is that a hue will always seem its most vibrant when accompanied by its complementary. This is very easy to test with combinations of squares of the sort often reproduced in pyschology survey texts: several small squares of an identical red will appear quite different when sent into larger squares of different hues, and the apparently most vibrant red will be the one surrounded by the hue closest to its complementary green. Painterly artists from Titian to Matisse have long known and exploited this effect, although it was not theorized coherently until the nineteenth century publication of the works of Eugène Chevreul and other colour theorists. There are, of course, further admixtures of hue one could call tertiary and quaternary colours, and so on down the line, but there are diminishing returns in terms of usefulness. Correspondent Zachary Stadel offers an interesting corrective under the heading colour theory.


PRIMORDIAL IMAGE: The term was coined by Jakob Burckhardt, but it is now most closely associated with C. G. Jung’s notion of the archetype. See visionary mode of artistic creation.

PROBLEMATIC: Some writers use this conventionally as an adjective meaning “ambiguous, capable of creating a problem, doubtful, questionable.” Writers of Marxist inclination tend to use it more specifically as a noun meaning the ideological framework within which a particular issue is discussed (see ideology). For example, the Marxist critique of the art of Gustave Courbet in the early 1850s is driven by the problematic of class struggle. For “problematic,” see Louis Althusser and E. Balibar, Reading Capital (1968). For Courbet, see T. J. Clark, The Image of the People (1973).

PROCESS: In some current writing there is a greater emphasis on the mechanisms of creating meaning (the “process”) than on meaning (the “product”) itself, especially when the writer is particularly concerned with ideology. See, for example, signifying practice.

PRODUCT: See process.

PRODUCT SEMANTICS: Phrase coined by Reinhart Butter to indicate loosely the semiotics of advertising, for the producers of such products. It was used as the title of a conference at the University of Industrial Arts in Helsinki in 1989.

PROFONDEUR DE CHAMP:In film studies, compositions which emphasize deep space, rather than so-called planimetric compositions. The phrase is often translated as “depth of field.”

PRO HOMINE: A tactic in informal logic where conclusion X should be accepted because it is held to be true by person Y, who is ostensibly knowledgeable, trustworthy, and free of bias. Rarely identified as such, the tactic appears with alarming frequency in some writing about art — alarming because the alleged authority is frequently not above suspicion. An instance which casts connoisseurship in a poor light is a story in which the famed connoisseur Bernard Berenson gave a painting a highly desirable attribution — or, to be more charitable, he did not deny it the attribution — because he was pressured to do so by the works’ owners. To challenge such an attribution principally on the grounds that Berenson was allegedly untrustworthy, rather than some material evidence about the work itself, is an ad hominem argument, the opposite of pro homine.

PROLEPSIS: An anticipation, as in foreseeing possible objections to an argument in order to answer them in advance. In a different form, this concept is fairly common in current thought, but it is rarely addressed as such. For example, we see in Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition the statement that artists work “without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done” (author’s stress). See also always-already-read, woman as the not-yet.

PROTAGONIST: In narrative analysis, the principal character, hero(ine) or leading role. In Angelica Kauffmann’s Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, the protagonist is Cornelia. In David’s Le Sacre, it is Napoleon.

PSEUDO-STORY: See narrative analysis.

PSEUDOTRANSHISTORICAL: It is a commonplace in popular culture for people to assume that certain great works of the past do not really belong to the past but to a perpetual present. Accordingly, for example, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa appear to be timeless (see timelessness), giving the viewer the opportunity to read into them any meaning they choose. While one component of this enterprise — the undermining of exclusive authorial responsibility for the production of meaning — is generally applauded in postmodernism, it also creates the illusion that the artist intended the work to exist outside of his or her particular historical moment, which is, according to postmodern thought in general, quite impossible. Mieke Bal (Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word/Image Opposition) has added “pseudo” to show that the impression of timelessness is false. See also greatness, masterpiece, transcendental.

PSYCHIC EMBED: Mary Daly’s term (in Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy) for basic structures of or practices within the female psyche which usually function without the subject’s being aware of them. One such is what Demaris S. Wehr called internalized oppression.

PSYCHOANALYTICAL CRITICISM: Practitioners have included writers from both artwriting and professional psychoanalytical fields. Examples of the former include Jack Spector, Adrian Stokes, Mary Mathews Gedo, and Donald Kuspit. Examples of the latter include Milton Viederman.

PSYCHOLOGICAL MODE OF ARTISTIC CREATION: See visionary mode of artistic creation.

PSYCHOPHYSICAL PARALLELISM: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s response to the mind-body problem was similar to occasionalism in that both denied the direct interaction of mind and body. Leibniz, however, did not conclude that the only will was divine intervention, preferring to believe that the mind and the body were ordained to be separate but parallel to one another.

PUN: The opposite of double entendre. Where a double entendre is a play on a single word with two or more meanings, a pun is a play on different words with the same sound. When the doctor told the patient who dreamt on alternate nights that he was a wigwam and a teepee that he was “too tense,” the doctor used a pun (one sound, two words). If the doctor had said the patient would feel a prick as soon as he bent over, he would have used a double entendre (one word, two meanings).

PURITANISM: Beginning in sixteenth century England as a programme of religious reform, but now associated with any particularly zealous austerity, discipline, frugality, industry, and the like. One can discern a Puritan sensibility in most art which favours austerity, and it is particularly common in Dutch art, from Baroque-era paintings of plain church interiors to Mondrian’s mature works. Most recently, the term has been applied to both sides of the debate on political correctness to explain fairly high degrees of intolerance.

Paralogue – a term invented by Lynn Hoffman. A paralogue is a written format that maintains the voices of the individual authors but connects them in such a way that they read each other’s contribution and influence each other so as to yield a sense of paralogical progress. return

Paralogy– Lyotard introduced the term “paralogy” in the last chapter of his influential book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature) (p.60) Paralogy is a kind of conversation in which the speakers talk to each other in inventive ways, making conversational moves in an ongoing process. Such paralogical conversation evokes new ideas and stimulates social bonding. In this last chapter of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , Lyotard also argues that paralogy can provide a way for conversationalists to evaluate the legitimacy of their ideas and beliefs..

Pathologize – to take a particular way of reacting, feeling, or being and treat it as a disease, or the manifestation of a disease. For example, homosexuality was for centuries thought to be an “unethical” action in the western world and then in the early part of the twentieth century it was “pathologized” and treated as a form of mental illness. return

Performative utterance – a statement that, in being made, produces a change in the way things are no matter what the response to it. For example, when someone says, “I promise you that I will do X” then results in a changed obligation regardless of whether that person actually does X. This concept was introduced in philosophy by J. L. Austin. See chapter 10 of his book, Philosophical Papers (Clarendon Paperbacks).

phenomenology – The study of conscious experience.

Picture theory of language – a theory of early Wittgenstein (as written about in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.) The theory says that all objects are either simple (without parts) or made up of simples. Language represents the relationship of these simples to each other as a kind of picture, and the atoms of the picture correspond to elements in the world that are pictured. (See the Philosophical Investigations) Click here here to look into the relationship between the picture theory of language and artificial intelligence research. return

Play– “play” is the infinite substitute of meanings. Every term, every phrase,has a certain range of meanings and these substitute for each other indifferent contexts. That is the “play” of language. return

Posit – (as in “de-posit) A common term in modern philosophy. To posit is to treat a situation as being true for the purpose of studying such a situation or reasoning about it

Positivism – the form of positivism that is most relevant to postmodernism is the positivism of the early twentieth century which is often called “logical positivism” but also includes other branches of positivism. A positivist theory is one that defines its terms precisely and tries to invent ways to talk and think that don’t get lost in obscurities in the hopes of discovering a more powerful and accurate language calculus. Traditional social science research, with random samples, operationally defined variables, and statistical analysis, is positivist. Early Wittgenstein was a positivist. Later Wittgenstein was a postpositivist.

Positive connotation – for a term to suggest that the situation it names is a positive state of affairs. In the statement “Jack is easy-going,” the term “easy-going” has a positive connotation, suggesting that this attribute of Jack’s is a positive state of affairs. The same quality might be described with a term that has negative connotation, as in “Jack is lazy.” Milan family therapy, at one time, used a technique of “positive connotation” using language to suggest that everything about the family was positive, and somehow beneficial to the family. Even the symptoms were described as positive. See Milan Systemic Family Therapy: Conversations in Theory and Practice .

Postpositivism – is a philosophy that rejects the project of positivism (that is, rejects the project of trying to clean up language to make it more logically tight). Postpositivism remains powerfully influenced by positivism, however, in that it sees langauge as critically important in all philosophical projects. Neverthless, it studies language as it is and does not engage in the project of making it more logically tight. return

Postmodern – Perhaps the most prominant definition of postmodernism comes from Jean-Francois Lyotard. According to Lyotard, the “postmodern” (see his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, p.xxv) is an incredulity towards meta-narratives. This means the postmodern is one who is skeptical of theories that speak in grand generalities and that universalize their conclusions by pretending there are no exceptions. Translated into therapy theory this often means that the postmodern therapist works to avoid dogmatic posturing and claiming to state the “Truth” of the client’s situation. In postmodern discussion forums this means that the common quest is not for consensus to emerge around some grand statement but for paralogical conversation to emerge. For many people, especially in postmodern therapy, “postmodern” means disillusionment with the standard way of understanding things. In this case, the therapist tries to offer a less “pathologizing” way of thinking about the client’s issuesSome disillusioned postmoderns, however, are nostalgic, and see no path forwards, whereas other postmodern therapists are visionary . Even the most visionary, however, are likely to be tolerant of alternative and multiple points of view on an issue, all a consequence of learning to live without faith in metanarratives, to live with uncertainty and not-knowing.

Postmodern imagination – Numerous authors have sketched out a philosophy of postmodern imagination including Richard Kearny in The Wake of Imagination, and also Walter Brueggeman. Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. If postmodernity deconstructs the modern understandings than what is needed is imaginative innovation to replace and improve on past traditions. How we spark postmodern imagination is a topic worthy of consideration. In the Postmodern Condition, Lyotard also talks about paralogy as a source of postmodern imagination.

Post-foundationalism – philosophers who reject foundationalism. return

Poststructruralism – a school of thought that critiques structuralist thinking, generally such as Deconstructionism.Derrida, the father of deconstrucitonism, is a key poststructuralist thinker. return

Praxis – the practical or customary application of a branch of learning. return

Premodern – The premodern is what came before modernism. The premodern is one who has unquestioning faith in a revealed truth, a religious truth, a superstitious truth or a truth passed along by word of mouth. return

Punctuation – In postmodern therapies, to punctuate is to treat a certain element in a causal sequence as the originating cause even though it may have, itself, have been caused by something else.

QUADRIVIUM: (Middle Ages) a higher division of the curriculum in a medieval university involving arithmetic and music and geometry and astronomy

QUALITY: A degree of excellence or superiority, whether of form or content. Quality in a work of art has become a highly problematic concept from a postmodern point of view, since any notion of what constitutes quality by definition excludes other possibilities, leading some to charge that it is little more than an instrument of imperialism, racism and other forms of oppression. And yet, however vaguely it is defined, some types of criticism — especially connoisseurship and formalism — have relied on it very heavily. (For a complaint in this regard, see Hilton Kramer’s “The Prospect Before Us,” in New Criterion [September 1990]). See also cultural selection, genius, masterpiece.

QUANTOHISTORY: The historical study of patterns of cultural change with the tools and methods of statistical analysis. The approach has made very few inroads into artwriting.

QUOIN: Corner stones in architecture lending strength or other emphasis, distinguished from the rest of the surface by greater size, different colour, and/or rustication, or the imitation of same in brick or paint.

QUOTATION: The presentation, within one’s own work, of a selection or brief passage from another’s work and the acknowledgment thereof. This is usually restricted to verbal excerpts from another’s work, but it is easily extendable to visual culture, especially in instances of allusion, appropriation, and citation. See also source analysis.

Queer – in the nineteen-fifties the term “queer” was a slur, a term of condemnation for people identified as homosexual. Today, the term usually represents stance towards homosexuality that does not fix it within a particular gender identity. A “queer” is a person who, at least in theory, is willing to be lovers with either men or women. return

Queer theory – theorizes that gender and sexual identities are not fixed. See Butler in ( Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity) return

QUADRIVIUM: (Middle Ages) a higher division of the curriculum in a medieval university involving arithmetic and music and geometry and astronomy

QUALITY: A degree of excellence or superiority, whether of form or content. Quality in a work of artpostmodern point of view, since any notion of what constitutes quality by definition excludes other possibilities, leading some to charge that it is little more than an instrument of imperialism, racism and other forms of oppression. And yet, however vaguely it is defined, some types of criticism — especially connoisseurship and formalism — have relied on it very heavily. (For a complaint in this regard, see Hilton Kramer’s “The Prospect Before Us,” in New Criterion [September 1990]). See also cultural selection, genius, masterpiece.

QUANTOHISTORY: The historical study of patterns of cultural change with the tools and methods of statistical analysis. The approach has made very few inroads into artwriting.

QUOIN: Corner stones in architecture lending strength or other emphasis, distinguished from the rest of the surface by greater size, different colour, and/or rustication, or the imitation of same in brick or paint.

QUOTATION: The presentation, within one’s own work, of a selection or brief passage from another’s work and the acknowledgment thereof. This is usually restricted to verbal excerpts from another’s work, but it is easily extendable to visual culture, especially in instances of allusion, appropriation, and citation. See also source analysis. has become a highly problematic concept from a

RACISM: Systematic discrimination and other forms of oppression directed at members of other races. The problem has appeared in art and artwriting in a variety of forms, ranging from descriptions of simple illustrations of the problem, both pro and con, to thorough investigations of whether the canon of mostly DWMs is part of a larger conspiracy to exclude non-whites.

RADIAL BALANCE: A “pinwheel” balance achieved by contriving parts of an image to spin more or less from a central point. The classic example is Rubens’ Rape of the Dauighters of Leucippus.

READ INTO: Colloquial expression referring to the practice of producing meanings in the reverse of what had been thought to be the normal pattern, prior to postmodernism, from artist to work to audience. That is, the viewer tends less to extract what is thought to be “genuine” meaning from the work in favour of pushing meanings of his or her own back into it. While this phrase has most often been used rather dismissively (as in “you’re just reading into it what you want it to be”), the practice has become commonplace — even valorized — in postmodernism, albeit on a more complex level.

REAL: Lacanian term, originally for what might be expected, the actual and verifiable, as opposed to the imaginary and the symbolic. In later writings, the term has taken on a slightly more developed sense: since everyone operates psychologically within the realm of the symbolic, no-one can ever truely gain access to the real, meaning that it is forever just out of reach. In that sense, then, it is not “verifiable.” Since art can only deal with the imaginary and the symbolic, then, the real in this sense has little utility in artwriting.

REALISM: A highly problematic word with different connotations in different contexts. 1. In popular parlance it means a generic species of representation that looks real, in the sense that some art historynaturalism. In this sense, realism is the representation of a putatively unmediated world, by whatever means (see mediation). One of the common themes of postmodernism is a challenge of this still-popular notion. See, for example, discursive activity, énonciation, perceptualism. 2. In traditional art history, Realism (with an upper case “R”) denotes the type of realism practiced in the nineteenth century by Gustave Courbet and his successors, often involving some sort of sociopolitical or moral message, if only by virtue of context. 3. Philosophy provides the third and fourth senses: in scholastic philosophy, realism means what most people understand as “idealism,” i.e., that (more or less Platonic) universals have a genuine, tangible existence; 4. in more modern philosophy, realism is very nearly the exact opposite, the “common sense” attitude that real objects exist independently of their being observed. Sometimes called “metaphysical realism,” this latter position is cast in doubt by much postmodernism as well. Notable examples are Thomas Kuhn’s uses the word Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Both assert that claims to have discovered objective truth, in science and philosophy respectively, cannot be substantiated and must be replaced by conceptions akin to paradigm shift.

REALITY ART : Art based on images copied from newspapers, television or any form of media without any alliterations.

RECEIVED OPINION: A relative consensus about something. Received opinion varies widely, depending upon which group is being investigated. For example, the received opinion about Vincent Van Gogh in the popular imagination is that his art looks the way it does entirely because of (what is thought to be known of) his state of mind. In such instances, received opinion usually arises without debate or reflection. This is less true of special interest groups. For example, within the art history community, the received opinion about Van Gogh would be more likely to take into account his artistic influences, current art theory, his religious upbringing, etc. Unless qualified in some way, “received opinion” usually connotes more of the former than the latter, and thus says something about the attitudes developed by posterity.

RECEIVER: In information theory, the audience or target towards which a communication is intended.

RED HERRING: Any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue

REDUNDANCY: In information theory, the desirable repetition of the same message in different codes, so that the receiver can still get the message in spite of noise. (The same principle is behind the use of oversampling in compact disc players). In art, one might argue that form and content should harmonize in some way so that, say, expressive brushwork could convey the sense of unease as effectively as a particular choice of subject matter — especially important in an era when audiences seem increasingly unlikely to have had the education or inclination to recognize something specific about the latter. (For example, how many viewers of Anselm Kiefer’s paintings have really read any epic poetry about Shulamith and Margarethe? And how many readers of current art magazines have actually read all of Derrida’s Truth in Painting?) However, it is important not to lose sight of the idea that a lack of redundancy — that is, a supposed failure-contexts, the word simply means an undesirable repetition.

REFERENCE: Words are thought to take on meaning in a variety of ways. A common sense approach is that words have some sort of direct relation to the thing they signify, their referent, but only onomatopoeiaSaussurean semiotics, all words are thought to have meaning strictly because of the paradigms in which they find themselves and not because of some imagined reference to the world outside language. Genuine reference, in fact, is denied altogether, which is what makes it possible for deconstruction to exist. Peircean semiotics, in contrast, argues that an icon and an index have meanings determined by their relation to their referents: i.e., if the sign resembles the referent, it is an icon; if the sign has some existential relationship with the referent, it is an index. For Peirce, only the symbol has as purely arbitrary a relationship as that imagined by Saussure.

REFERENT: The thing (event, object, person, etc.) to which an icon, index, symbol or other signifierreference.

REFUSAL: Occasionally used as a near synonym of subversion. See, for example, Dick Hebdige’s of form and content to harmonize — could have a very desirable effect as well. In many other actually has anything like a direct relation. In refers. See Subculture: the Meaning of Style (1979).

REGIONALISM: Loyalty to the interests of a particular region

REIFICATION: The act of making something abstract into something concrete. In Marxist terminology, reification usually means treating human actions, characteristics and relations as if they were objective things with an independent existence. Religion, for example, is treated as something given to humankind, rather than created by it. In some Marxist writings, reification also means treating humans more or less as things without independent will, responding passively to the dictates of a world of objects. See false consciousness.

REINFORCEMENT: (psychology) a stimulus that strengthens or weakens the behaviour that produced it

RELATIVE: The opposite of absolute; that which has a connection to, dependence upon, or relation with something other than itself. In formal terminology, e.g., “relative scale” means the apparent size of a thing in a given context. An awareness of relative scale is especially important in slide lectures, which show students works of art as if they were all about the same size as the screen.

RELATIVISM: The philosophical doctrine that perceptions of things vary with circumstances, especially the social formation and its hypothetically infinite diversity, but also embracing most conceptions of subjectivity. The upshot of the idea is that there are no universal standards of such things as human nature, for the nature of the humans of one era or region have differed so fundamentally from that of another era or region that any attempt to prove human nature “A” more essential than human nature “B” will be little more than a statement of preference (see boo-hooray theory). There are various relativist approaches: Marxism, for example, would argue that meaning is dependent upon the class system at a particular point in time, whereas feminism might argue that meaning is dependent upon one’s gender. Postmodernism in general is relativistic in its denial of the existence of any standards of objective truth (see objectivity). Accordingly, some traditional artwriters see relativism as a threat to the very idea of humanistic education (see humanism). One such is E. H. Gombrich, who uses the phrase “cultural relativism” in Topics of Our Timeanalogyartwriting and the hypothetical objectivity of science. See also absolutism.

RELATIVITY: The quality of being relative and having significance only in relation to something else

RELAY: See anchorage and relay.

RELEVANCE: 1. Generally used to indicate practical usefulness and social applicability or responsibility, as in so-called politically correct demands for university courses that are “relevant” to marginal groups in society. 2. A more specific sense pertaining to informal logic, that in an argument a premise must increase the probability of the claim it is intended to support. For example, if the goal were only to demonstrate that Georgia O’Keeffe is internationally famous, it would be irrelevant to point out that she taught in Texas and Virginia. The latter point is true, but it contributes nothing to the claim. A multilingual, multinational bibliography would be considerably more relevant. See irrelevance.

RELIEF: Sculpture consisting of shapes carved on a surface so as to stand out from the surrounding background

REMINDS: A useful metaphor when considering meaning and validity of interpretation. Anyone can say “that person to describe the danger inherent in, for example, the assumption that a German physics will differ inherently from a Jewish physics. His objection, however, simply indicates that he believes there is still a valid to be drawn between reminds me of so and so,” and the statement cannot be logically evaluated because reminding is often quite irrational. Moreover, that the statement is made at all is evidence that it is true, unless the speaker is deliberately misleading the listener. In contrast, the statement “this person looks like so and so” can be evaluated according to relatively objective criteria, like actual measurements of the features, body types, bone structure, etc. One measure of an interpretation’s validity might be the degree to which the object “reminds” or “looks like” something for the artwriter. See interpretatio excedens, meaning in and meaning to, read into.RENAISSANCE: The period of European history at the close of the Middle Ages and the rise of the modern world; a cultural rebirth from the 14th through the middle of the 17th centuries

REPETITION: The repeated use of the same word or word pattern as a rhetorical device

REPORT-TALK: Deborah Tannen characterized male speech patterns as delivering information in the manner of a report, whereas female speech patterns are less so, aimed more at personal intimacy in the manner of establishing a rapport. Her conclusion is that language is inevitably caught up in what she calls genderlect (i.e., gender-based, socialized language characteristics). A useful slide show about these ideas is available at Genderlect Styles of Deborah Tannen

REPOUSSOIR: “Repoussoir” is based on the French verb répousser, which means “to push back.” A repoussoir, whether it is a person or an object, is placed usually in the margins of the foreground and often shadowed so as not to draw too much attention to itself. Sitting at the margin, it implies the viewer’s position outside the space of the painting. In the other direction, the scene of the painting, usually in brighter light, is “pushed back,” in effect. The repoussoir is therefore first and foremost a formal device for creating an impression of space. Occasionally repoussoirs have a narrative or symbolic function too, but it isn’t their defining role. The figures standing at the lower left of Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda and those at the lower right of David’s Coronation of Napoléon function in part as repoussoirs.

REPRESENTATION: An activity that stands as an equivalent of something or results in an equivalent

REREDOS: An altarpiece. A painted or carved screen placed above and behind an altar or communion table

: Sometimess also called “reserve light,” in watercolour painting, an area of untouched paper, usually white, which functions as a highlight relative to the colour areas around it.

RESIST: Elude, especially in a baffling way

RESOLUTION: A statement that solves a problem or explains how to solve the problem

RETARDATAIRE: The perpetuation of styles and motifs after they have passed out of fashion, often used pejoratively.

RETINAL: Visual; pertaining to the sensory membrane in the eye that receives imagery focused by the lens, communicating with the brain via the optic nerve. Marcel Duchamp’s famous turn to a more conceptual type of art was precipitated by his resentment of the popular conception of artists as merely retinal beings (that is, that they were interested only in vision and not in ideas).

RETINAL LAG: The amount of time required by receptors in the retina to recover from a stimulation. If recovery were instantaneous, motion pictures and the phi phenomenon could not be experienced as continuous movement. See also afterimage, persistence of vision.

RE-VISION: Hyphenated word intended to put a postmodern spin on the conventional word “revision.” Unlike some hyphenated neologisms which successfully draw attention to radically suppressed word origins, this one adds little, raising the question of whether or not hyphenation is a useful critical tool or a superficial fashion. (It is probably both.) Adrienne Rich appears to have invented the term, but it is now used everywhere. See, for example, Howard Smagula’s anthology of theory and criticism entitled Re-Visions.

REWRITE RULES: See generative-transformational.

RHIZOME: A root-like plant stem that usually travels horizontally, producing buds above ground and roots below. In the writings of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, the term is used as a metaphor for an epistemology (and/or simple intellectual curiosity) that spreads in any number of directions, without the usual academic or disciplinary straightjackets requiring it to travel in a pre-ordained direction. Any truly democratic type of multiculturalism must involve something along this line.

RIGHT AND WRONG INTERPRETATIONS: See plausibility, testability, and validity.

RISING ACTION: See complication.

RITUALISTIC: Of or characterized by or adhering to ritualism

ROCOCO: A term of disapprobation when first coined, “rococo” describes the last gasp of the baroque, especially in the eighteenth century in France. In choice of subjects, it emphasized what seem now to have been the unreflective and indulgent lifestyles of the aristocracy rather than piety, morality, self-discipline, reason, and heroism (all of which can be found in the baroque). Rococo form is characterized by delicacy of colour, dynamic compositions, and atmospheric effects. Because there is a tendency to preciosity and frivolousness (although this reputation over-simplifies what was going on), one might think of the rococo as “baroque-lite.”

ROLE-PLAYING: Increasingly popular approach to parody, in which the artist acts out the part of some cultural stereotype by mimicking it ironically. Cindy Sherman’s work involves a good deal of this in a generic form. It is much more specific in Canada, with Vincent Trasov running for mayor of Vancouver as Mr. Peanut, Tanya Mars portraying Mae West in the performance video Pure Sin, etc.

ROMANTICISM: ArtLex gives the following, along with numerous thumbnailed examples. “Romanticism, and the Romantic school – A style of art that flourished in the early nineteenth century. It emphasized the emotions painted in a bold, dramatic manner. Romantic artists rejected the cool reasoning of classicism — the established art of the times — to paint pictures of nature in its untamed state, or other exotic settings filled with dramatic action, often with an emphasis on the past. Classicism was nostalgic too, but Romantics were more emotional, usually melancholic, even melodramatically tragic. Paintings by members of the French Romantic school include those by Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863), filled with rich color, energetic brushwork, and dramatic and emotive subject matter. In England the Romantic tradition began with Henry Fuseli (Swiss-English, 1741-1825) and William Blake (1757-1827), and culminated with Joseph M. W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837). The German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) produced images of solitary figures placed in lonely settings amidst ruins, cemeteries, frozen, watery, or rocky wastes. And in Spain, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) depicted the horrors of war along with aristocratic portraits.”

Postmodern terms – Lacanian to Novelty

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.

Postmodern Terminology: A-C D-G H-K L-N O-R S-T U-Z

LACANIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (in écrits and particularly The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis) and his followers in the arts community regarding the functions of language in the construction of consciousness and unconsciousness. See anamorphosis, counterpart, desire, drive, enunciation, gaze and glance, Imaginary, jouissance, knowledge, lack, lure, manque-à-être, méconnaissance, name-of-the-father, objet petit a, other, phallogocentric, phallus, privileged signifier, Real, Symbolic. See also ideology.

LACK: Deficiency or absence of something. In psychoanalytical contexts, this usually entails castration anxiety, but any number of other lacks have been proposed. The French ” manque” means “lack” in most expressions except for Lacan’s manque-à-être.

LAMENT: In literary jargon, a poem expressing deep grief. It is usually more personal in nature than a complaint, just as Edvard Munch’s various portrayals of bedside sorrow are more moving to today’s sensibilities than Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates.

LAMPOON: A particularly harsh type of satire. Daumier’s notorious depiction of Louis-Philippe as Gargantua is a clear example.

LANGSCAPE: A neologism coined by Gaile McGregor to indicate the way conceptions of the world (formulated within language) actually alter perceptions of the world (expressed in the landscape). The notion is developed at length in her book Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape.

LANGUAGE: Adherents to formalism held that language and visual art were completely incompatible. For example, one of the more quotable quotes of the minimalist generation was, “If I wanted to send a message, I’d call Western Union.” The implication, of course, is that mere message-sending was beneath the dignity of formalist reductivism. Since the advent of postmodern thought, however, virtually every advanced discussion of art treats it as having very strong similarities with language, if not exact parallels. This is especially true of discourses influenced by deconstruction, Lacanian thought, linguistics, and semiotics. The idea actually predates postmodernism by decades. John Dewey said in Art and Experience in 1934, “Because objects of art are expressive [see expression theory, expressivity], they are a language. Rather they are many languages.” Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art, first published in 1969, proposed four language functions for art — representation, description, exemplification and expression — which collectively prove that art had some cognitive merit. (See also nominalism.) It has been objected that visual art does not have anything like the set of grammatical rules that systematizes language, as is required in Iouri Lotman’s definition of language as “any system of communication which uses signs arranged in a particular way” (La Structure du texte artistique). Some writers clarify the relationship with the notion that visual culture is “language-like,” rather than a language per se. This allows John Gilmour, for example, to say in Picturing the World that an artist is a creative agent whose medium is really forms of cultural meaning and practice, not a subjective self simply unloading expression on the world. Following the lines of argument in Joseph Margolis’s Art and Philosophy and Culture and Cultural Entities, Gilmour also points out that even language is only language-like, for the rules of grammar are only a sort of statistical common denominator of current practice. These rules become institutionalized and used as a mechanism of social control (see critique of institutions, power). Here, Gilmour’s theory is analogous to some of the assumptions about language current in l’écriture féminine. For a different sense of “language,” see langue and parole.

LANGUAGE-LIKE: See language.

LANGUE AND PAROLE: French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (see Saussurean) coined these words, sometimes translated “language” and “speech,” respectively, to differentiate language conceived as a comprehensive abstract structure from language conceived as the actual performance of an individual. Noam Chomsky’s terms “competence” and “performance” are nearly synonymous but are not as fashionable in contemporary discourse (see generative-transformational).

LATE CAPITALISM: Writers who have a common interest in Marxism will often nevertheless have slightly different things in mind when they use the phrase “late capitalism.” For some, it means rather generally the nature of capitalism after the second industrial revolution, or capitalism of the twentieth century. Lenin had a narrower range of reference, explicitly associating the twentieth-century development of dominant monopolies with imperialism, which he regarded as the logical result of the merger of bank capital with industrial capital into a financial oligarchy of sorts. More recent writers seem to have aligned late capitalism even more narrowly with the notion of a postindustrial economy.

LATERAL THINKING: See vertical and lateral thinking.

LATENT CONTENT: In the Freudian analysis of dreams (see dream-work), the underlying or repressed material which is only expressed in disguised, symbolic form. The symbolic form is the manifest content. If one were to dream of a train speeding into a tunnel, the manifest content would be the literal imagery: a train, a tunnel, railroad tracks, etc. Once the psychoanalysis commenced, the images would be interpreted as figurative emblems of sexual intercourse (the phallic train, the vaginal tunnel). The presumption is that although the dreamer is unwilling to acknowledge his or her real thoughts and feelings, they must find expression, even if only in disguised form. This principle makes it possible to interpret artworks from a psychosexual perspective even when they have been produced by individuals who have no knowledge of Freud (e.g., R. Liebert on Michelangelo, Mary Matthews Gedo on Picasso, etc.) or by individuals who resist specific interpretation as hostile to the poetic spirit (e.g., René Magritte, whose Time Transfixed features a train speeding out of a fireplace). Most of the Surrealists are a special case because they were quite conscious of and familiar with Freudian thought.

LAWS OF THOUGHT: In informal logic, there are three basic principles which govern whether or not an argument is reasonable. 1. The law of identity: X is X at the same time and in the same respect, regardless of change of name or order of presentation. E.g., “Mulroney was the Prime Minister of Canada in 1991” = “the Prime Minister of Canada in 1991 was Mulroney”; or “Kingston is the city in which Sir John A. MacDonald lived in 1844” = “the city in which Sir John A. MacDonald lived in 1844 is Kingston.” Compare the general predication, however, of “Kingston is a city,” and note that it is not reversible without qualification. 2. The law of non-contradiction: a conjunctive claim (i.e., one that uses “and”) cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect, for that would be logically inconsistent. E.g., “p and -p” is false; one cannot be both a painter and not a painter at the same time. 3. The law of the excluded middle: for any statement “p,” the related disjunctive claim (i.e., one that uses “or”) “p or -p” must be true. E.g., one must be either a painter or not a painter. These laws are clearly related: “p is p”; “p and -p” must be false; “p or -p” must be true.

LEGEND: 1. A specific instance, usually in the form of a short tale, of folklore. Legends often appear in visual art, as in Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. 2. A caption or illustrative remark superimposed on charts and maps.


LEIPSOMENA: Remainders. In Derridean deconstruction, one can never account for all of the interpretive possibilities of a particular text, preventing the interpreter from invoking closure. That is, a particular metaphor, for example, can never be said to mean such and such and nothing else because “metaphor is never innocent,” as Derrida said, and always has some remainders — some strings attached, as it were. Sometimes these leipsomena lead into new interpretive dimensions, and sometimes they just sit there, resolutely refusing to contribute in any holistic way to the apparent meaning of the work.

LEITMOTIF: In literature, the reappearance of a verbal image, a concept and/or a situation to create the impression of a unifying theme. Max Ernst’s frequent use of the word “perturbation” in the captions of his La Femme 100 têtes and his frequent use of images of fingers touching eyes could be so considered.

LEXEME: Term used in some linguistics to identify the fundamental reference which underlies and thus unifies the varying inflections of a word (compare agglutinating, inflecting, isolating). E.g., “run, runs, running, ran” are variants of the lexeme “run.” In The Conflict of Interpretations, Paul Ricoeur uses the idea to help establish the isotopy of an utterance.

LIBERAL ARTS: From the Latin for “work befitting a free man,” as opposed to the ” vulgar arts,” understood as menial trades suitable only for serfs and other undesirables. The phrase was is in use in ancient Greece, but it was systematized in the Middle Ages into the “trivium” (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the “quadrivium” (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music). Neither the antique nor the medieval conceptions of the liberal arts held the actual practice of art-making (in whatever form) in high esteem. This only changed in the Renaissance, when the intellectual aspects of art-making were emphasized, enabling fine arts to be considered one of the humanities. Although this foregrounding of the artist’s intellectuality was gradually repudiated in the Romantic era (see bohemianism), the connection between visual art and academic or scholarly pursuit has remained strong, particularly since the rapid growth of liberal arts colleges in the 1960s.

LIBERALISM: Originating in eighteenth-century political philosophy, the still-current notion of basic civil rights, including such things as freedom of the individual, freedom of association, freedom of religion, free enterprise and free trade. In the 1960s, liberalism was associated with permissiveness. In some contemporary postmodern contexts, liberalism is associated with disinterestedness and value-freedom and all three are dismissed as unattainable, fantastic goals (see political correctness).

LIBIDINALLY DRIVEN: Friedrich Nietzsche once asserted that Raphael’s Madonnas were the products of an overheated sexual imagination which could not find literal expression. Sigmund Freud (see Freudian) added further momentum to this notion of unconscious motivation by describing it as a drive fueled by the libido. In some current writing, the conception is applied to everything from the act of interpretation (see erotics of engagement) to relations between teachers and students (see iatrogenic disease).

LIBIDO: Although Freud had something in mind rather broader, “libido” is usually used to indicate the sexual instinct or drive.

LICENSED REBELS: The conservative art critic Hilton Kramer feels that alternative galleries and artist-run centres were invented in an economic heyday which sought to give expression to the individualistic American spirit, implying that their essentially adversarial stance was once the unique characteristic of mainstream American culture. As such, they were “licensed rebels,” a notion which was once held not to be contradictory. But since these spaces were the creation and permanent wards of government patronage, their adversarial stance means that they always were a sort of “negative cultural luxury” which American society can no longer afford to support. Many of Kramer’s essays in New Criterion in the early 1990s offer a variation on this theme.

LIMEN: A threshold. See liminality, subliminal.

LIMINALITY: The condition of being on a threshold or in a “betwixt and between space” (Victor Turner, Forest of Symbols). Inspired by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s use of liminality in his studies of social rites of passage, Claude Gandelman has used the concept to analyze the imagery of doors in pictorial art (Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts). Gandelman does not cite Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday, which features a self-portrait standing beside a winged lemur on a landing between many doors, but in his scheme its liminality would be a metaphor for the Surrealist condition, which is liminal by definition (the resolution of the states of waking and dreaming). Straightforward limens include doors, passages, windows, and window-sills, and it has even been argued in literary studies that the seashore is a prime signifier of liminality. If so, then everything from Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea to John Constable’s Haywain can be vigorously reconsidered. For an application in contemporary artwriting, see Scott Ellis, “Genital Embryogenesis.” C 28 (Winter 1991): 50-51. Among the various related terms are “multiliminal” (having many thresholds) and subliminal.

LINGUISTIC INFLATION: The progressive deterioration of a language’s ability to convey certain meanings with appropriate force. E.g., where “terrific” once meant the defining characteristic of something truly frightening, it now means something “very good.” Similarly, where “tremendous” once meant “causing one to shake with dread,” it now means “very big” or “very intense.” This process is exacerbated in contemporary culture by advertising, which typically chooses words whose original meanings far exceed the properties of the products they are designed to sell. A soap powder, for instance, is “wonderful,” even though it is hardly “awesome” or “miraculous.” We no longer “sign” a document, we “sign off on” a document. Processes no longer produce a “result” but an “end result.” (For another instance, see literal.) To get the same effect that a single word once conveyed, we now have to add adjectives, qualifying phrases, and/or unnecessary prepositions, just as we spend more money to buy the same products that less money once bought. As such, linguistic inflation is a seldom recognized contributing factor to indeterminacy and polysemy.

LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY: See Whorf hypothesis.

LINGUISTICS: Any of a variety of scientific approaches to the study of language. Linguistics concerns itself with the use, meaning and structural relationships of words (see pragmatics, semantics, syntactics), and it has had far-reaching impact on other fields ranging from anthropology (Claude Lévi-Srauss) to artwriting. Of particular importance are the basic Saussurean concepts employed in semiotics and their influences on deconstruction and Lacanian thought. Also influential are the diverse BarthesianPeircean ideas, despite the latter’s greater applicability to pictorial signs. Also important, but very nearly ignored in artwriting, are the Chomskyan investigations of linguistic principles. Linguistics in general may be “diachronic,” studying the historical changes of language over time, or “synchronic,” studying the state of language at a given time. One encounters both terms in current artwriting. See also agglutinating, inflecting, isolating, extralinguistic, hermeneutics, intrasignificant, paralinguistic.

LISIBLE: French for “legible” or “readable.” See text. The term is problematic, since “legibility” implies something is there to be read. Some theorists, especially those influenced by deconstruction and indeterminacy, deny that this is the case. Cf anamorphosis, panopticon.

LITANY: A ritualistic speech, chant or petition, as in the long, formal incantations of the organized churches. Some dictionaries simply give “a long and boring speech,” which is probably what Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard had in mind when they gave their anthology applications of linguistic ideas. These remain more popular for contemporary artwriting than Feminism and Art History the subtitle Questioning the Litany. In this use, “litany” refers metaphorically (see metaphor) to the canon, which is the ritualistic invocation of the “saints” of art history (see hagiography).

LITERACY: The ability to read and write and/or having the ability to demonstrate accomplishments, education, knowledge, etc. The idea has been transposed and disseminated across a wide variety of disciplines, but not without contradiction and complexity. Music literacy is generally understood to be the ability to read music in printed form, whereas common conceptions of visual literacy range from little more than art appreciation to more sophisticated analyses based on the principles of linguistics. Mathematical literacy is sometimes called numeracy, while mathematical illiteracy is innumeracy. One of the more contentious variations on the theme is cultural literacy. See also interpretation.

LITERAL: “According to the letter,” the actual, non-metaphorical or primary sense of an utterance, as opposed to a figurative expression. Taken literally, a figurative statement like “she was on cloud nine” is immediately recognized as absurd. Strangely, visual images are often taken to be literal in spite of their figurativity (compare perceptualism). Only the most familiar conventions, like a personification of justice as a blind woman, immediately escape the literal level of meaning. (The word “literally,” incidentally, is very frequently misused these days as an intensifier. Someone who just saw a particularly exciting movie might say “I was literally blown away,” which is a ridiculous instance of linguistic inflation.)

LITOTES: A subspecies of irony or understatement in which something is said by negating its opposite. In vernacular speech, for example, “not bad” means “good,” and a more refined version of the device is common in English poetry. The conception might be of some use in discussions of indulgence or indictment. Since negation of this sort is not common in visual art, the idea is more likely to be found in the form of meiosis. Compare bathos, hyperbole.

LIVRET: A small handbook used to identify and explain works of art hung in academic Salons in the nineteenth century, often with much longer titles than those by which the works became known. The livret is a forerunner of the modern exhibition catalogue.

LOCALE: The actual geographical and/or physical setting of a narrative, as opposed to the immaterial aspects of setting, like the protagonist’s state of mind or the topos of the work. In David’s Oath of the Horatii, for example, the locale is an atrium in a Roman house, whereas the setting includes the locale along with other background information like the characters’ determined state of mind. The topos would be the exemplum virtutis.

LOGIC: See informal logic.

LOGICAL POSITIVISM: A branch of modern philosophy that demanded empirical verification of statements, on the one hand, and rigorous examination of the logic used to prepare observations and make statements about them on the other. Any statement that is unverifiable by any observation cannot be determined to be either true or false. As a result, it is simply meaningless — an exclamation of preference or emotional response (see boo-hooray theory). Since metaphysical philosophy is by definition unverifiable, logical positivism displaced it with examinations of the nature of meaning. The most famous practitioner was probably Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose interesting remarks on colour have recently been published in a slender anthology.

LOGO: A modern abbreviation of “logotype,” originally meaning a single symbol that represented an entire word, as in the ampersand “&.” By extension, a logo is now any simple motif or symbol which can be immediately recognized, as in innumerable commercial applications and virtually all instances of corporate sponsorship. The simplest examples are visual devices like the CBS eye and the NBC peacock.

LOGOCENTRIC: Pertaining either to the notion that words have a necessary relation to the things they designate or to the notion that words have determinate meaning. Any world-view that considers words as objects rather than as social relations implies a certain presence hovering just behind the word itself, giving deconstruction a toe-hold in its struggle against logocentrism. Paul Berman’s Debating P.C. puts it more succinctly: “the intellectual tradition of Western civilization that has led to the errors of rationalism and humanism.” See also phallogocentric.

LOOKISM: Discrimination on the basis of one’s appearance.

LOOKS LIKE: See reminds.

LOW ART (CULTURE): See high art (culture).

LUDIC: Pertaining to play.

LURE: Under construction. Suggestions anyone? Send to

LYRIC: Originally linked to lyric poetry, as deriving from the traditional image of the poet as a single figure expressing his or her emotions to the accompaniment of a lyre. The term is now used to describe any type of expression in words, images, movements, etc., which emphasizes subjective states, marked use of the imagination (see fancy), and “musical” forms. Matisse’s more graceful, curvilinear works are often called lyrical. One artist of the middle 1970s even tried to start a movement called lyrical conceptualism.

MACABRE: The principal, defining characteristic of a work emphasizing the gruesome or morbid. Alfred Kubin’s prints, like Butcher’s Feast, are notorious examples.

MACHINE: Deriving from the same sense of “contrivance” that underlies “machinery” and “machination,” certain grandiose works of (particularly academic) art that have a rather obvious allegory or other special significance are sometimes called “machines.”

: Antonym of microhistory — i.e., the historical study of very broad patterns of cultural change.

: A blemish, spot or stain. (Compare “immaculate,” meaning spotless.) Jacques Derrida (see Derridean) uses the term as one of his many metphors for an aporia in a text.

: A Maestà is a painting of the Madonna with Angels and Saints, the most famous of which are arguably Duccio’s and Simone Martini’s (see, for example, Duccio’s). The word itself means nothing more than “majesty.”

: The defining characteristic of art presumed to have had a ritual purpose, whether directed at spiritual ends or purely practical ones. Much paleolithic art, like the Lascaux cave paintings, is thought to have been magico-religious in order to ensure success in the hunt. Some of these practices may actually have succeeded coincidentally, rather than due to some effective communication with supernatural forces (compare shaman). E.g., one practice of divination in the Arctic far north was to heat deer scapulas until they cracked. The hunters would then follow the direction of the cracks, believing that the gods had shown them the way. What success they had was certainly due instead to the randomization produced by the practice, thus ensuring that they do not exhaust the supply of game in one area.

MAGISTERIAL DISCOURSE: An approximate synonym for metanarrative.

MAKING SPECIAL: The valuation of something as distinctive and exceptional. The term is directly used in ethology, which concludes that the evolutionary value of art as a human behaviour has nothing to do with expression, history, investment, meaning, etc., but has something to do with “making special.” Exactly how this might be the case is not very clear. The concept also operates implicitly in such things as the “is” of artistic identification.

MALAPROPISM: The erroneous use of an inappropriate word in the place of a similar but appropriate one. The term derives from Mrs. Malaprop in R. B. Sheridan’s The Rivals, who erred humorously with phrases like “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” One wonders if there is not some visual analogy to this, as in Magritte’s exchange of the features of a torso for those of a face in Le Viol.

: The literal imagery of a dream or, by extension, of an artwork. See latent content.

MANNERISM: Emphasis on the manner of presentation rather than the substance of the presentation, as in the cliché “all style and no substance.” This includes departures from normal appearance via distortion, eccentricity, exaggeration, stylization, etc. The most immediately recognizable type of mannerism is characterized by abnormally elongated but nonetheless graceful figures, ranging from Parmigianino’s elongated madonnas to Ingres’s various odalisques, Modigliani’s attenuated figures and beyond. Architectural mannerism is thought of as a playful misuse of the classical vocabulary of forms, as in the famous slipping keystones in the arches of Giuliano Romano’s Palazzo del Tè. In this respect, a good deal of architectural postmodernism is mannerist (e.g., Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans).

: See lack.

: Lacanian term for what he called a “want-to-be,” a species of desire in which the individual wants to be the other which he perceives as lacking in himself.

: Maps and mapping often enter postmodern discourse in their senses of representations or detailed surveys of a particular field. Influenced by linguistics and the notion of différance, however, artwriters usually implicitly accept a dictum of general semantics: “the map is not the territory” — i.e., the signifier is not the signified but only a representation, a social construct. For a related application, see mediation.

MARGINAL: The opposite of central: in the margins, peripheral or non-essential. Visible minorities and other oppressed groups are often described as marginal. To make others feel less important by associating them with what one considers dispensable or superfluous is to marginalize them. A classic example is the typical exclusion of women and non-white artists from the art-historical canon.

MARGINALIA: Not to be confused with marginal, except in the literal sense of “in the margins.” Marginalia is material written in the margins of a book as a running commentary by a reader. The most famous verbal example in art history is William Blake’s marginalia to Sir Joshua Reynold’s Discourses, wherein Blake says such things as “The following ‘Discourse’ is particularly Interesting to Blockheads….” Quick sketches in the nineteenth-century Salon livrets are the visual equivalent of marginalia.

MARXIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of economist/sociologist Karl Marx, whose conceptions of base and superstructure, commodity fetishism, dialectic, historical materialism, and ideology have been elaborated into Marxism by his many followers. Some, but not all writers maintain a very strict distinction between “Marxian,” the adjectival form of Marx, and “Marxist,” pertaining to the political system subsequently embellished by followers.

: Any of a variety of theories and critical practices deriving from the principles of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and a number of followers. The chief principle is historical materialism, which, when applied to the criticism of the arts, holds that meaning is determined by the economic, historical, material and social circumstances of the era in which the work was produced, rather than by an abstract, isolated genius supposedly residing within the visionary artist (see visionary mode of artistic creation). It is thus fundamentally opposed to the pseudotranshistorical. Some writers maintain a sharp distinction between “vulgar Marxism” and “authentic Marxism” (see vulgar [sense 3]). Given that artistic value is thought by Marxists to be the result of impersonal, historical determinants, it is curious that many celebrated Marxists have had a relatively traditional attitude towards the canon. Leon Trotsky, for example, argued in Literature and Revolution against treating classic works (see classic, classical) as “mere historical documents,” preferring that there should be “a directly aesthetic relationship” and that art shold be evaluated according to “its own laws.” Georg Lukács noted Marxism’s “respect for the classical heritage of mankind.” In artwriting, the most well-known Marxist critiques are arguably T. J. Clark’s of Courbet and Serge Guilbaut’s of abstract expressionism. John Tagg’s Grounds of Dispute comes the closest to dispensing with the canon, but, like the others, it says little about why hypothetically identical circumstances of production would produce radically different types of art. See also dialectical materialism.

MASCULINITY: The body of characteristics conventionally understood to be desirable in men — i.e., manliness, self-sacrifice, strength, virility, etc. The new masculinity argues that most of these characteristics are social constructs which oppress men as much as patriarchy oppresses women.

: By analogy with feminism, this word is occasionally used as a synonym for the new masculinity and therefore as the antithesis of the traditional connotations of masculinity and patriarchy.

MASQUE: A subspecies of the carnivalesque; a pageant, procession or other form of spectacle involving masked figures and general revelry. Masques are thought to have begun in pagan rituals, but by the seventeenth century they had evolved into extremely expensive and highly organized entertainments for aristocratic audiences.

: Occasionally used in the context of discussions of ideology, which operates unconsciously (i.e., masquerades) and therefore makes something historically specific appear to be timeless and universal. Althusser (see Althusserian) called this the “false obviousness of everyday life” — false because what is taken to be self-evident is in fact dependent upon ideological control.

: Constituents of culture that evolve in similar patterns across diverse components of large societies as a consequence of common exposure to the mass media. See high art (culture).

MASS MEDIA: Any form of communication reaching very large numbers of people, including movies, newspapers, radio, television, and popular books and periodicals. The mass media are characteristic of complex, industrialized societies with a broad middle class (see bourgeois).

MASTER NARRATIVE: See metanarrative.

MASTERPIECE: This word is currently thought to indicate something of such superior quality and genius that it can transcend the historical circumstances of its production and enter a supposedly universal plane of timelessness (see greatness, posterity, pseudotranshistorical, timelessness). Originally, however, it only meant the piece which a maturing student artist would make to demonstrate his competence to take on students of his own, hence becoming a master. Because of this rather obvious corruption, postmodern thought in general views the current meaning with strong suspicions.


MATERIAL: See evidence.

MATERIAL HISTORY: The historical study of the material artifacts of a culture, regardless of the identity of those objects and without significant distinctions between high art, low art and utilitarian articles. Studies of folk art are usually informed by the practices of material history, which commonly lack the advanced vocabulary of newer art criticism.

MATERIALISM: The philosophy that only tangible and perceivable things, material in nature, or the byproducts of such things, constitute what actually exists. See determinism, dialectical materialism, epiphenomenon, historical materialism, mechanistic materialism.

MATRIARCHAL AESTHETIC: See feminism, matriarchy.

Literally, the rule of the mother. A social organization in which women are the heads of their families and descent and inheritance are reckoned in the female line. Matriarchy is usually conceived as the polar opposite of patriarchy. Because the latter, in the discourse of feminism, is almost universally construed as a negative phenomenon, matriarchy has come to be understood, rather uncritically, as inherently positive.

: Having the mother, maternity, matriarchy or any environment of caring, nurturing, and the like as a centre of interest or focus.

: 1. The contemporary interpretation of culture in general and artwriting in particular are preoccupied with the nature of meaning and how it is produced. The discussion has become so complex that even to define the word entails critical argument, sometimes heated dispute and the exposure of political convictions in circumstances once consider to be essentially apolitical. Standard dictionaries do not really help, because they usually begin with such things as “that which is intended to be expressed or which actually is expressed.” For the newer artwriters, this is fence-sitting from the very start, for the definition does not differentiate between intentions and the accrual of accidental and other meanings. Meaning can also be the end or purpose of something, as in the meaning of life, and the more vague notion of unspecific expressiveness or significance, as in a meaningful glance. One frequently finds writers distinguishing between denotation and connotations. I. A. Richards has gone further, discerning four different facets of meaning: “sense” (denotation), “feeling” (the audience’s response towards sense), “tone” the author’s attitude toward the audience), and “intention” (the effect of the other three, whether conscious or not). 2. In Validity in Interpretation, E. D. Hirsch attempted to stipulate a narrower definition of the word in order to lay the debate to rest: he distinguished “meaning,” the discovery of the author’s intentions, from “significance,” any imaginable subsidiary meanings, not necessarily intended by the author but construed by an audience. For example, both David’s Oath of the Horatii and Courbet’s Burial at Ornans were understood to carry political messages. Since it is not clear whether these messages were what the artists originally had in mind, the works can only be said to have had “significance,” rather than meaning per se. In these instances, however, both artists subsequently became consciously involved in the significances they had engendered. That this is not always the case was clearly recognized by Marcel Duchamp in his short essay “The Creative Act” (see posterity). Hirsch anticipated current writers’ frequent references to “possibilities of meaning” by saying that a possibility, after all, is only that, while the meaning is actually what is meant. See also meaning effect, meaning in and meaning to.

MEANING EFFECT: See isotopy.

TO: Phrases used by E.D. Hirsch to clarify his distinction of meaning from significance. What an image or text means for a particular audience may be less a matter of what is actually in the object than what is in the audience. “Meaning in” is thus what the work means according to the intentions of its creator, whereas “meaning to” is simply what it signifies to someone else, however invalid that might be. See also interpretatio excedens, read into, reminds.

MEANING TO: See meaning in and meaning to.

: A type of determinism which argues that causes create effects in a straightforward, predictable, and irreversible fashion. In the context of political criticism, it is associated with vulgar Marxism.

: Alan Sheridan, translator of Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, put this as “failure to recognize” or “misconstruction,” and Lacan himself aligned it with scotoma (a blind spot) in his description of the mirror stage. The gist of it is that the subject does not recognize what is Real but only what is Imaginary. See also knowledge.

: An award, commemoration or decoration, usually in the form of a badge, coin, medallion, or shield, usually made of metal and ornamented with a variety of techniques — most commonly types of low relief, embossing and engraving — and a variety of subjects, though portraits and symbolic attributes are the most common. The Canadian Portrait Academy offers these examples of Academicians of the Canadian Portrait Academy: Dora de Pedery Hunt and Christian Cardell Corbet.

MEDIA: 1. The plural of “medium,” the material or technique with which an artist works. 2. An abbreviation of mass media.

: Any critique of institutions or critique of representation directed at the mass media. For examples, see culture jamming.

: A fundamental conception in postmodernism is that nothing exists in an innocent state and that nothing can be understood objectively because everything is mediated by all manner of intervening mechanisms. Social behaviour, for example, cannot be objectively assessed because the observer is either a member of the observed group, in which case s/he is subject to the same taboos of collective consciousness, or s/he is not a member of the observed group, which thus pollutes the observed behaviour. Similar assertions are current in quantum physics, where the presence of an observer or an observer’s instrument affects the result of the investigation. The analogy in artwriting is that the meaning of an artwork is in part determined by the institutional mechanisms which mediate our experience of it (see critique of institutions). Native artists, for example, have drawn attention to the mediation of museums, which rip ethnographic artifacts from their original context and replace their genuine social meanings with depoliticized aesthetic ones. Mediation is now discussed in nearly every discipline. Even in works directed at popular audiences, one can find acceptable definitions of mediation: “I want to make readers aware that maps [see map, mapping], like speeches and paintings, are authored collections of information and also are subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice” (Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps). See also frame.


: A type of satirical understatement, as in litotes. Goya’s Family of Charles IV and The Junta of the Philippines might qualify, since both diminish their ostensible subjects (and since litotes derives from the Greek for “diminution”).

: A narrative which seeks primarily to evoke strong feelings in the audience by portraying sensational events in an often excessively passionate manner and usually without sincere regard for ennobling sentiment, ethics, motivation, etc. Melodrama can appear in any style, in any era. Examples are more likely to be found in the work of artists traditionally considered of second rank or lower, like J.-P.-A. Antigna’s The Fire. Occasionally, artists traditionally given first rank exhibit melodramatic tendencies in works produced in the years before or after their major period, as in the turbulent early works of Cézanne (e.g., The Rape).

: Under construction, but see mytheme for now.

MEMOIR: A type of autobiography (compare autobiographical art) in which the principle interest usually resides in significant events or persons other than the author him- or herself, although s/he was a witness to them.

META-: A prefix meaning “above,” “after,” “beyond,” or “superior” when used in critical discourse, as in metacriticism, metafiction, metalanguage, metanarrative, metathesis, etc.

METACRITICISM: The critical examination of the premises and processes of criticism itself, independent of the particular objects of its investigations, or the criticism of criticism. For example, an evaluation of a work by Niki de Saint Phalle would constitute an act of criticism. In contrast, an analysis of the premises enabling one to make such judgements in general would be part of a metacritical project. Much postmodern thought involves metacritical activity. See also theoretical criticism, theory.

: See metanarrative.

META-ETHICAL: Where ethics is popularly understood as the study of what constitutes appropriate behaviour, etc., meta-ethical thought studies the logical and other mechanisms which enable any type of ethics to be formulated. In other words, meta-ethical writing is not concerned with the specific contents of a particular branch of ethical philosophy but with the way in which that philosophy is constructed and how it relates to other constructions.

: Also called “surfiction,” this is a type of fiction that draws attention to itself as such, severing the traditional mirror-like connections between art and life (see Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction). The term is usually used of literature, as in Linda Hutcheon’s “historiographic metafiction,” or historical writing which draws attention to its own fictionality (see her Canadian Postmodern). An analogous application might be made to history painting which draws attention to its own fictionality through devices like deictics or overt anachronism, as in Mark Tansey’s Triumph of the New York School. An application of the same idea in history-writing is called metahistory. See also perceptualism, realism.

1. Generally, the philosophy of history, which considers the principles giving rise to the notion of historical progression and to the narratives which describe it. 2. More specifically, the title of a Hayden White book describing historical writing in terms analogous to those of metafiction and metanarrative. Very simply, White’s thesis is that an objective history is impossible: “the very claim to have discovered…formal coherence in the historical record brings with it theories…which have ideological implications” (see ideology). Accordingly, postmodern metahistory must self-consciously raise questions of power and control in the act of writing. Cf historiography.

: Language about language. In various types of semiotics, the language under investigation is the “object language,” while the language used to perform the investigation is the “metalanguage.” For postmodernism influenced by relativism, the very notion of a metalanguage carries a disagreeable connotation, possibly because it seems to be an impossibility: looking at language through language might appear to be analogous to using a magnifying glass to examine itself. To achieve a state of objectivity, the metalanguage would have to stand outside history. This not be the case, for true objectivity is not necessarily assumed in practice. For example, in a hypothetical American article about the German language, the object language would be German and the metalanguage English. There is not normally an assumption that English somehow stands outside history.

A literary term indicating an extreme type of mixed metaphor — the extreme compression of a sequence of allusions, tropes or other figures into an image or space normally too small to accommodate them all without sacrificing a degree of sense. (“Lepsis” derives from the Greek for “seizure.”) C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon’s Handbook to Literature gives as an example these lines from Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”: “A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.” The first line alludes to Zeus raping Leda, resulting in the birth of Helen of Troy, who was the principal cause of the Trojan War alluded to in the second line. Agamemnon, mentioned in the third line, was the leader of the Greek armies in that war, but he died at the hands of his own wife Clytemnestra, who was the half-sister of Helen. The poetic seizure is that the “shudder in the loins” does not logically cause the death of Agamemnon. Because complex visual images involve the simultaneous presentation of allusions, tropes, and other figures, even more intricate convulsions of meanings might take place. A case in point is the plate entitled “Quiétude” in Max Ernst’s La Femme 100 têtes. A simple description evokes multiple allusions to metaphors developed in contemporary Surrealist literature: it shows a sleeping man, recalling the narcotic of the unconscious image described by Aragon (Paris Peasant), while his comfortable recliner suggests the receptive state of mind advocated by Breton (Manifesto of Surrealism). His immersion in the sea evokes a Surrealist sense of dislocation, like the aquarium-world of Aragon’s Passage de l’Opéra (Paris Peasant) and the immense, unknown labyrinth beneath Breton’s Place Dauphine (Nadja). The arm in the sea below the chair indicates that Woman is at home in this mysterious element. The periscope allows her a role as either a prostitute with a provocative glance (Leiris, Manhood) or a seer of occult marvels (Nadja), but it also keeps her from breaking the surface and becoming a conscious, cultural being. It also isolates her eye as a signifier of sexuality, as in Bataille (The Story of the Eye). The building on the promontory suggests Aragon’s description of bath-houses as erotic temples (Paris Peasant). André Masson also exploited the motif, linking it to the nature of thought. This might explain why there is also a water spout around it, for a similar fountain, deriving from Bishop Berkeley, appears as a metaphor of thought in Breton’s Nadja. Berkeley’s philosophy of subjective idealism (see idealism [sense 2]) is thus invoked and enlisted in the form of catachresis to build an image of continual sexual excitation of a near-religious sort that occurs only in the mind of the Surrealist.

: The investigation of the relations between language and its cultural context.

METANARRATIVE: Any narrative formed by putatively scientific, determinate knowledge. For example, a standard art history textbook is published with the tacit assumption that it is a fair and accurate representation of the truth, but it is easy to imagine how it could also be a mediation of the material it describes. (E.g., it buys into the myth of the masterpiece, or it automatically excludes women’s art as insufficiently influential or important). The real usefulness of the term is found in rejections of its pretension to objectivity. See also metahistory (sense 2) and the material on Lyotard under postmodernism.

A trope consisting of a comparison without using the words “like” or “as,” as in “a mighty fortress is our God” or “my love is a rose.” Generally, a metaphor poetically conveys an impression about something relatively unfamiliar by drawing an analogy between it and something familiar. In the preceding examples, God and love are unfamiliar, but the respective impressions of strong/inviolable/protective and beautiful-but-short-lived/sweet-but-thorny are effectively conveyed. Metaphors are extremely common in visual images: e.g., Ingres’ various Odalisque paintings draw comparisons between the intoxication produced by hookah pipes and that produced by women socially constructed first and foremost to be sensual. The familiar thing is sometimes called the vehicle (i.e., the means by which the new impressions are conveyed), while the unfamiliar idea being expressed is sometimes called the tenor (sense 2). Conservative analysis of metaphor used to lead to conclusions about determinate meaning, but Jacques Derrida maintained that “metaphor is never innocent,” implying that unforeseen meanings accrue (see indeterminacy). As a result, discussion about metaphor has reached new heights in postmodernism (see, for example, Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor). See also concatenation relation, metonymy, mixed metaphor, selection relation, vehicle shift.

The state or condition of being metaphor.

: Pertaining to metaphysics, originally the section of Aristotle’s writings that came after (meta) his discussions of the physical world (the physics) for the purpose of discussing such things as the ultimate nature of existence. As a result, any branch of philosophy that deals with something beyond verifiable physical experience (see verification), like the soul or the existence of God, is metaphysical. For most postmodern thinkers, “metaphysical” is a term of opprobrium, as in metaphysics of presence. See also metaphysical realism.

: See realism.

: Deconstruction argues that certainty about determinate meaning is an impossibility founded upon the unverifiable notion that there is some sort of absolute ground of signification. Practitioners of deconstruction see this hope for a guarantee of meaning as utopian (see utopia) and metaphysical. Since presence indicates the hypothetical guarantor, “metaphysics of presence” simply means the delusion that words are objects and that they have stable meaning, instead of the absence and indeterminacy recognized by deconstruction or the unstable social relations studied by Marxism and feminism. See also interpolation, logocentric.

METATHESIS: Transposition, as in the switching of sounds in the pronunciation of a word, as in “aks” for “ask,” “nucular” for “nuclear” or “purdy” for “pretty.” Dada collages, like Hoch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife, often involve metathetical elements — body parts switched within a figure (like an eye for a head), body parts switched between figures (like a baby with a beard), and body parts transposed with the parts of the machinery the figures are using.

Feminist philosopher and theologian Mary Daly uses the word “methodolatry” to denote an idolatrous worship of supposedly objective methodologies (see methodology) leading towards determinacy. As such, it rejects scientific disinterestedness and intellectual neutrality.

: A system of methods, principles, rules, etc., organizing an inquiry and guiding the practitioner as to the appropriate means of carrying out an analysis, evaluation, investigation, etc. “Methodology” itself does not connote any particular sort of approach in criticism, but some feel the conception in general has a connotation of scientificity which they find disagreeable. See, for example, methodolatry.

METONYMIC SKID: Barthesian image of the way in which any utterance can generate a hypothetically infinite number of connotations by way of metonymy. A classic (see classic, classical) piece of writing supposedly works by placing limitations on the range of the metonymic skid, whereas many modern works do not bother to do so.

METONYMY: A trope in which the literal name of the thing meant is replaced by the name of another thing with which it is closely associated, as when “What is the word from the throne?” means “what does the king or queen have to say about such and such?” In visual images, metonyms can be as simple as the use of an attribute, as a crown of thorns signifies Christ when He is Himself absent. However, metonymy is currently being reinterpreted in the light of the investigations of Roman Jakobson, who aligned it with the concatenation relation.

Antonym of macrohistory — i.e., the historical study of very minute patterns of cultural change.

: Synonym for context, particularly that of the secondary sort.

MIMESIS: Mimesis is a species of imitation, although the word has specialized uses ensuring that it is not a straightforward synonym. Mimesis is the enactment of the elements of a text as opposed to the imagination of them — in other words, the showing of things as opposed to the telling of things (diegesis). An actor performing a play engages the text mimetically, whereas a reader of a play engages it diegetically. See mimetic theory.

Any theory stressing the artwork as an unmediated (see mediation) representation or close imitation of reality. Mimetic theory is challenged in the thinking of Michael Riffaterre (Semiotics of Poetry). In such a theory, the elements of the work are considered literal, since they purport to be in actuality what they appear to be. Any stress on figurative meaning is, therefore by definition, a shift from mimesis to semiosis. Contrast also expression theory.

: Occasionally used as a near synonym for any of camouflage, imitation, or simulation, all of which have slightly different senses.

MIND: See mind-body problem, self.

MIND-BODY PROBLEM: The traditional metaphysical problem of how the mind and body are related to one another, of what respective substances they are comprised, of how consciousness relates to matter, of how something incorporeal like consciousness can cause something physical like the body to perform an act, etc. Among the more important positions in the debate are the following: René Descartes argued that the mind and body were quite separate substances that somehow interacted with one another (see cartesian interactionism). Nicolas Malebranche disagreed, asserting that there was neither interaction nor causal relation between mind and body, only the divine intervention of God (see occasionalism). Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz asserted the theory of psychophysical parallelism, which is like occasionalism in its denial of interaction and causation, but which differs from it on theological grounds. Curt John Ducasse and other epiphenomenalists (see epiphenomenalism) described the mind as a by-product of sorts of the body’s physical processes. See also homo duplex.

: An inclination or disposition. In traditional art history, mind-sets are characterizations of the disposition towards art of a whole society defined usually by geographical or temporal parameters. For example, ancient Egyptian art is thought to be conceptual, whereas later nineteenth-century art is thought to be perceptual (see, however, perceptualism). The most frequently cited mind-sets are “emotive” (determined by the desire to express things passionately, leading to distortions of forms, as in German art from the Gothic Roettgen Pietà through Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece to early modern expressionism); “perceptual” (determined by the desire to transcribe natural appearance, as from Giovanni Bellini’s Esctacy of St. Francis to the photo-realism of the contemporary world), “rational” (particularly common in periods with classical tendencies, like ancient Greek art [see classic, classical]), and “ritualistic” (as in magico-religious art). All attempts to see art solely in terms of hypothetical mind-sets are bound to encounter data that will not fit the preconceived scheme. A case in point is the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo, whose sculptures depict the expenditure of energy of a sort that is more Baroque than Renaissance despite his life and death dates.

: Under construction. In the meantime, try this.

: Lacanian term denoting the point in a child’s development when the psychological experience of undifferentiated union with the mother is replaced with a conception of separated self. The experience of seeing oneself in a mirror, literally or figuratively, generates anxiety because one anticipates one will be homogeneous, a total being over which the ego has mastery. However, this totality is never achieved, so that one’s specular ego comes to feel inadequate. Put thusly into words, the process seems to take place over a period of time, but Lacan’s circuitous writing implies that it can always already have happened. A political application of the idea can be found under the heading ideology, and it has been used effectively in feminist and post-structuralist critiques. Notable examples of the former are Jane Gallop’s Reading Lacan and her essay on the erotics of engagement. Notable examples of the latter are Rosalind Krauss’s essays in L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism. See also psychoanalytical criticism.

: Literally, “placement en abîme,” where “en abîme” itself refers to the habit of representing a small shield inside a larger one in traditional heralds and coats-of-arms. By extension, most any “story-within-a-story” situations can be called an example of mise-en-abîme. The device is especially common in modern literature, television and films, but it occasionally appears in art. Some of Velázquez’s bodegones show religious scene tucked into the background of a genre scene with very different kinds of activity (e.g., Old Woman Cooking Eggs).

: In theatre and film, the stage setting, including all props, lighting effects, costumes, etc., but excluding the narrative proper. The mise-en-scène of David’s Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Dead Sons would thus include the antique costumes and furniture which determine the setting, the light falling on the women as opposed to the shadow enshrouding the father, the general disposition of the Doric columns both to provide rational spaces for the figures but also to separate the functions they serve within the narrative, etc. Mise-en-scène is especially critical in film studies, where it implies the orchestration of all the seen elements, with special reference to composition, visual weights, the function of the frame, and staged movements within the scene.

MISANDRY: Hatred of men. The antonym is misogyny.

: Hatred of women. The antonym is misandry.

: Hatred of reason. See anti-intellectualism.

1. Misunderstanding. 2. Violation of official duty by one in office. 3. Sedition or contempt, as in contempt of court. To some degree, these senses are all embodied in the use of “misprision” in contemporary literary discourse, which derives from Harold Bloom (see anxiety of influence). For further discussion, see misreading.

MISREADING: Harold Bloom (see anxiety of influence) suggests that because of indeterminacy we can never be entirely certain that a given reading of a text is the correct one. As a result, all readings are misreadings (or misprisions). He does allow, however, that some misreadings might be more compelling than others.

: A figure in which two metaphors are illogically or incongruously combined, often producing an unexpectedly humorous or grotesque effect, as in “Napoleon III hastened to put the ship of state back on its feet.” While mixed metaphors are easiest to recognize in their verbal form, they can be found in visual images, especially those which employ a richly metaphorical iconography from the outset, as in seventeenth century still-life painting or Surrealist images.

: A usually spidery construction made of objects hung on vertical strings from various points on horizontal wire arms so that it is both balanced and capable of free movement. Alexander Calder is the most noted practitioner, although the term itsefl was coined by Marcel Duchamp in the early 1930s. Calder’s approach was to hang biomorphic abstractions like snippets from Joan Mirò paintings. Now anything can be found on a mobile, and their popularity for hanging over baby cribs has never declined.

MODELING: In two dimensional work, modeling is a means to create the effect of light on a virtual three-dimensional form by manipulating the values of light, shadow, and color. See also chiaroscuro, tenebrism. In three dimensional work, modeling refers to the additive method — i.e., building up a form by progressively shaping a malleable material like clay. (Making a sculpture by carving is a subtractive method and is therefore not routinely referred to as modeling.)

: Under construction. For the time being, see postmodernism.

Occasionally used as an antonym of multiculturalism, i.e., the practice of making one’s own culture central and ignoring or oppressing all others. Typically, a Eurocentric person is thought to practice a type of monoculturalism. (Such an assertion conveniently ignores the multitudes of cultural sources that make up the “European” mindset, of course. See Cornel West’s “Diverse New World,” in Democratic Left [July 1991].) Note, however, that the terms are not interchangeable, for many ethnic, social or other groups practice monoculturalism.

: In film studies, the type of editing (usually associated with early Russian filmmakers like Eisentein, Kuleshov and Pudovkin) that creates a scene without any establishing shot or, indeed, any basis in a real space. Kuleshov’s famous example, perhaps apocryphal, was the impression of two people meeting in Washington by filming two actors in different Moscow locales and intercutting two other actors’ close up handshake, followed by concluding shot of the White House. Montage is effectively the opposite of découpage.

: A meaningful linguistic unit that contains no smaller meaningful parts. A morpheme may exist in a free state, as in the word “box,” or it may be bound to another unit, as the “es” of “boxes.” One of the problems of early visual semiotics was whether or not there were any true visual equivalents for morphemes. That problem was solved by a judicious reworking of principles of iconography, but the problem of syntax remained (see plane of content, plane of expression). More recently, the term coloreme has been suggested to denote a similarly basic unit for the visual. For another application, see grammatology.

: See hegemony.

: In Canada, where it is a formal governmental policy, multiculturalism means the appreciation, tolerance, understanding, and above all celebration of difference in cultural practices, ethnicity, language, religion, and the like. In the United States, the term is more likely to be encountered in discussions of university curricula and the political urge to dismantle the canon. For example, in “The Statement of the Black Faculty Caucus” (in Paul Berman’s Debating P.C.), professors Ted Gordon and Wahneema Lubiano offer the following operating definition: “Multiculturalism…is understood at its most simplistic to mean exposure to different cultures. Simple exposure, however, is absolutely meaningless without a reconsideration and restructuring of the ways in which knowledge is organized, disseminated, and used to support inequitable power differentials.” The antonym is monoculturalism.

: More or less a synonym of interdisciplinary.

MULTILIMINAL: See liminality.

MULTIMODAL: Using more than one mode of critical, historical or other discourse.

MULTIPLE DRAFTS: A recent theory about the structure of consciousness, prmulgated by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained.

MULTIPLE LOCATEDNESS: See inexhaustibility by contrast.

MUSEOLOGY: The study of the history, functions and classification of types of museums, as well as their roles in society, their systems for research, conservation, education and organization, and their relationships with their physical and social environments. (Submitted by Cristina Pimentel.)

MUSEUM: A non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits for the purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment. (Submitted by Cristina Pimentel.)

MYOPIA: Nearsightedness. Art-for-art’s-sake had a specific historical moment — a finite lifespan and currency. So does everything else, including postmodernism and every traditional approach. Those who cannot “see” beyond their immediate moment suffer from myopia. As such, the term applies to parties on both sides of the political correctness debate.

MYSTICISM: Immanuel Kant (see Kantian) argued that because the mind begins with separate perceptions and not with things in themselves, we can never entirely understand either phenomena or the world. Similarly, our separate senses can never perceive God. However, Kant also maintained that the mind’s integrated intuitive faculties can transcend mere sensuous perceptions. The intuition can suspend these categories of the individual senses as separate unrelated entities and experience them all together as a single unified totality; and, in this manner, we can “know” the experience of God. The experience itself goes by many different names, including conversion, cosmic unity, ecstasy, enlightenment, epiphany, God, immanence, infinitude, numinousness, peak experience, presence, religious experience, revelation, Satori, spirituality, state of grace, the sublime, the transcendental, transformation, ultimate reality, the universal pool of consciousness, and so on. “Mysticism” is the generic term to describe various approaches to the generation of this type of intuition, which is unlike any other experience. Throughout history, religious mystics and artists alike have seldom spoken directly about the experience itself, which may be one of the reasons that mysticism is popularly associated with Romantic nebulousness and obscurity. Walter T. Stace, however, maintains that the mystical experience is not foggy, vague, sloppy, or misty (The Teachings of the Mystics [New York: New American, 1960]): p. 10.). (The similarity in the sound of the words “misty” and “mystical” has no relevance whatsoever.) Nor is the mystical experience related in any way to occult or parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, hallucinations and visions. Some mystics did have visions, but they did not regard the visions themselves as mystical experiences. Saint Teresa of Avila, for instance, thought God sent some of them to encourage her to pursue mystical consciousness. But she believed the devil might have sent other visions “in order to confuse her and distract her from the true mystic quest” (Ibid., p. 11). Some believe that art is the most effective means of accomplishing this state of mind or spirit. Philosopher John Dewey’s Art as Experience has had a lasting effect on the view that critics and artists hold about the relationship between art and the aesthetic experience, which Dewey likened to confronting a divine presence. One frequently finds related concepts in artwriting. Bernard Berenson’s “ideated sensation,” Roger Fry’s “disinterested intensity of contemplation,” and Susanne Langer’s “symbolic form” are are among the nearly numberless phrases that have been used to describe the mystical (or transcendental) experience in art. Clive Bell often mentioned the aesthetic experience, and he too equates it with religion — as had those who wrote about aesthetics from Gautier to Wilde and Whistler: “The physical and material, for artists and mystics alike, served only as a ‘means to ecstasy'” (Beverly H. Twitchell, Cézanne and Formalism in Bloomsbury [Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987], p. 81). And artists are no exception: Joseph Stella, describing his experience of a painting in remarkably similar terms to those used by Dewey, said he “felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new Divinity” (Quoted in Twentieth-Century Artists on Art, Dore Ashton, ed. [New York: Pantheon, 1985], p. 105). Kasimir Malevich claimed he saw the face of God in his black square (Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? [New York: Thames, 1984], p. 21). There are innumerable other examples. (Submitted by Vance.)

MYSTIFICATION: The result of an attempt to bewilder rather than to clarify. Mystification can be either conscious or unconscious, although few would admit to it as the former. Mystification is often thought to be simply a matter of obscure vocabulary, like much of the terminology in this glossary. There can be little doubt that some artwriters have used mystification to situate themselves in what they think of as a more prestigious plane of intellectuality. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing offers a slightly different opinion: he sees mystification as “the process of explaining away what otherwise might be evident,” a process he finds particularly common in formalism and other critical approaches which downplay the social formation. He gives as an example this passage from Seymour Slive’s monograph Franz Hals: “Hals’s unwavering commitment [is] to his personal vision, which enriches our consciousness of our fellow men and heightens our awe for the ever-increasing power of the mighty impulses that enabled him to give a close view of life’s vital forces.” What such a passage leaves out is any sense of historical specificity, creating the illusion of timelessness.

: In Ulmer’s teletheory, a method of teaching that acknowledges subjectivity and a postmodernist distrust of authority and metanarratives.

MYTH: In addition to the usual connotations of fable, folklore, legends, superstitions, etc., “myth” has taken on several implications in postmodern thought. For example, in the work of Roland Barthes (see Barthesian), myth is the result of ideology’s dehistoricizing of cultural phenomena, of lifting them out of their historical specificity, as in timelessness. All forms of culture, both the putatively high and low, are subject to a process which disguises the ideological character of the phenomena so that they appear natural and commonsensical. The meanings of these phenomena are precisely not natural, however, for they are imposed by particular sectors of the population who maintain power by duping disempowered sectors into thinking that the meanings are universal. Innumerable examples could be cited, but arguably the most basic one in artwriting is the canon of masterpieces, which in this view is little more than a celebration of empowered patrons of the past for their taste and economic success. The unraveling of this state of affairs is intervention. See Barthes’ Mythologies (1972).

E: Term used occasionally in a structuralist context. Levi-Strauss used the word “mytheme” to indicate the smallest unit of myth (by analogy to the phoneme being the smallest unit of speech that can distinguish one statement from another statement, like the “d” versus the “b” in dog/bog). It’s a faulty but useful analogy. It’s faulty because a phoneme is itself meaningless, whereas a mytheme (understood as a sort of primary element of the mythic story) can be an event, for example, which is not meaningless in itself. It’s useful because once the mythemes are identified, they can be aligned with other mythemes in particular kinds of arrangements (to other mythemes in time [diachronic] or to other mythemes in the same myth [synchronic], and so on). These arrangements are structures, hence the term “structuralism” to describe the overall process. Isolating the structures can reveal interesting things that have to do with many things from sociology to psychology. Levi-Strauss’s famous article on the matter is “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, translated by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf (Doubleday, 1967). The notion is now a little bit dated because there is a potentially much more wide-reaching theory just beginning to be discussed that swallows the idea whole. It is, however, so new as to be very controversial. I am referring to memetics, the study of memes (the smallest unit of something that can be replicated by imitation), which by definition includes all mythemes within its theoretical orbit. A good general introduction to memes is Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, but it has virtually nothing to say about art. That methodological appropriation has yet to happen.

MYTHIC CRITICISM: Criticism which chooses to search for a text’s formative influences and constitutive elements in the realm of myth.

: A deliberate creation of myth by aping archetypes and other folkloric characteristics (see folklore). It can be found in the work of many artists of a generically Romantic sensibility, ranging from William Blake’s rewriting of the Old Testament to Leonora Carrington’s Jungian-inspired depictions of a prelapsarian world. Mythopoeia is considered a characteristic of self-conscious (read: Western) cultures and is therefore almost invariably Eurocentric.
manualized therapy – A therapy is one that has been systematized and written down into a manual. Each therapy session is thereby standardized in its procedures and sequences and has a consistent look and feel no matter who implements it or who the client is.

marginalize – to leave out of the center of the text and (metaphorically) to put in the margin. Minority voices are often marginalized in this way. But the term can also be used more broadly to include the voices of people who are to shy or insecure to bring their concerns to center stage. Often this term is used in the phrase marginalized voices. return

marginalized voices – people whose words are not given much weight. See marginalizereturn

meritocracy – a value which privileges the hardworking over the less driven. return

meta-narrative – Lyotard’s term. It means a story or narrative that is presumed to have great generality and represents a final and apodictic truth. Modernists, Lyotard tells us, believe in metanarratives whereas postmoderns are incredulous of metanarratives. Postmoderns, in this sense of the term, are eclectic and gather their beliefs from a variety of sources while treating the resulting compilation as tentative. return

metaphysics of presence – the belief that the thoughts we have in the present are more real than the thoughts that we read that were written elsewhere and in the past. The metaphysics of presence tells us that if I have this thought and write it down, it is forever mine. return

mftc-l – mftc is a listserv. The pmth listserv was initiated late in 1998 when a schism occurred on the mftc list. The causes of that schism are complex, but pmth became a list for more scholarly and philosophical discussion while many members continued on both lists. return

modern – Also called “modernist.” In the context of a postmodern vocabulary, the “modern” does not mean “contemporary.” In fact, the “modern” or “modernism” is seen as out-of-date. The “modern” is understood to have emerged during the 18th century Enlightenmentwhen philosphers were challenging superstitions (which often included religion) of premodern beliefs. They replaced faith in superstition with faith that science and objectivity could build us a better world. Moderns prefer objective and factual language. “Modern” therapies (as postmoderns use the term) are therapies that pretend to be scientific when they are not by using scientific sounding terms are methods. return

monologic – like a monologue. An essay is monologic if it does not bring in other views. Monologic is contrasted with dialogic. return

myth of physical objects – Quinereturn

NAME: In his Principles of Semantics (1957), Stephen Ullman uses the word “name” in a sense analogous to signifier, while Ullman’s “sense” corresponds to signified.

NAME-OF-THE-FATHER: English translation of the Lacanian expression nom-du-père, by which Lacan meant any allusion to the father as he appears in the Symbolic realm. Whereas the Real father is simply a biological entity and the Imaginary father is the paternal imago (the idealized image of the father, with ramifications ranging from the anxiety of influence to castration), the symbolic father is the psychological principle of father as authority or Law, something to which the subject binds himself. In contrast, some feminist writers have trangressed (see transgression) the Law of the father — i.e., structures of thought usually associated with patriarchal society, like disinterestedness and rationalism — in order to create alternatives like l’ écriture féminine, equally within the symbolic but of a wholly different order.

NARRATION: One of the four classic types of written composition, the others being argumentation (compare argument), description and exposition. The function of narration is to deliver a narrative, although it may also include descriptive or other elements that are not narrative proper. In a simplistic distinction, the narrative is comprised of the events of a story, whereas the narration consists of the way(s) in which the story is presented, ranging from the implied author’s tone to such things as the actual order of events.

NARRATIVE: A story of events and experiences. See narration, narrative analysis, narrativity, narratology, narrator. Note that the phrase “master narrative” (see metanarrative) has very different connotations. See also J. Hillis Miller’s essay “Narrative,” in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study. See also Jim Walker’s Visual-Narrative Lexicon.

NARRATIVE ANALYSIS: Critical writing aimed at narrative and/or narration. It has become fashionable to apply the principles of narrative analysis to visual images. A case in point is the dialogic (see dialogism) narrative analysis of William Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience in Karl Kroeber’s Retelling/Rereading: The Fate of Storytelling in Modern Times: Kroeber maintains that the work’s overly insistent narrativity, manifest in the abundance of symbolic details, prevents the audience from sharing in the apparent production of meaning, reducing the image to a non-interactive product, which he calls a “pseudo-story.” Although the symbolic details must also function in the domain of description, which is not narrative per se, the isomorphism between every detail and the meaning of the whole image deadens the possibility of dialogism. In other words, if absolutely everything has a meaning, nothing is contingent (see contingency) enough to allow the audience to have a role in the production of meaning. See also dramatism.

NARRATIVITY: The state of having a narrative; the storytelling character of a text.

NARRATOLOGY: Under construction. See also climax, complication, conflict, crisis, discovery (sense 1).

NARRATOR: Under construction.

NATURALISM: The representation of something in a manner thought to be consistent with natural appearance, as opposed to stylization. See, however, perceptualism, realism.

NATURE: Supposedly the opposite of culture — i.e., the world and all its phenomena as they exist without human intervention. However, since the boundaries of “human intervention” have changed over the centuries, recent writers suggest that “nature” itself is a cultural construct.

NEED: See desire.

NEGATIVE: Under construction. See also photography.

NEGATIVE CULTURAL LUXURY: See licensed rebels.

NEGATIVE THEOLOGY: In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that the traditional artworld was essentially ritualistic and functioned by distancing society at large from works of art by emphasizing their ostensible uniqueness and aura. Benjamin saw the advent of photomechanical reproduction as coincident with the rise of socialism, leading to a more democratic consumption of imagery (cf cultural democracy). This presumably threatened the artworld elite, who responded by proclaiming the existence of a “pure” art which had no social function and no categorizable content. This was the famous nineteenth century doctrine of art for art’s sake. Benjamin characterized this move as a deliberate act of cultural mystification, which he further described as a “negative theology” — that is, as a kind of ritual fantasy (i.e., a theology) determined by what the object is not, rather than what it is. He maintained that this was a doomed project: with the widespread use of technology, “aura” would evaporate and, instead of ritual, art would be based on politics.

NEOLOGISM: Under construction.

NEW CRITICISM: Under construction.

NEW NEW CRITICISM: Term sometimes employed to indicate deconstruction and to characterize it simply as a fashionable alternative to new criticism, which was itself once a fashionable alternative to something else.

NEW HISTORICISM: Where the older historicisms tended to emphasize broader patterns of historical change, the new historicism places greater stress on economic, ideological, political, and social phenomena in the interpretation of culture. The phrase is closely associated with Stephen Greenblatt, whose essay “Culture” (in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study) outlines the principles involved. Much new artwriting, particularly that of a Marxist inclination (see Marxism), exemplifies the new historicism.

NEW MASCULINITY: A growing discourse which treats patriarchy as the social and institutional oppression of both women and men. Like feminism, the new masculinity is a heterogeneous field. It ranges from pop-psychological, ritual drumming inspired by Robert Bly’s mythopoeic Iron John (see mythopoeia) to more sober sociological studies like Robert W. Connell’s Gender and Power, cultural analyses like Kaja Silverman’s Male Subjectivity at the Margins, and popular books like Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power. Connell was one of the first writers to use the term “hegemonic masculinity,” by which he meant a “stylized and impoverished” form of masculinity “constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities [for example, gay men] as well as in relation to women.” In other words, patriarchy requires that men must submit to the roles defined for them, just as women must. While this oppression is most marked in men who do not fit the mold because of appearance, effeminacy, lifestyle, and the like, it affects all men in varying degrees. The new masculinity generally holds that feminism’s various forms are all worthwhile critiques of this state of affairs, but it insists that women are not the only oppressed group nor even necessarily the most oppressed group. For example, it is often said that the patriarchal medical establishment pays insufficient attention to women’s medical concerns. Warren Farrell questions this idea, noting that the difference in life expectancy has increased in women’s favour over the years. For example, men lived one year on average less than women in 1920, and now they live seven years less. Among the reasons: U.S. medical funding on women’s issues constitutes ten percent of the research budget, whereas men’s issues receive five percent; twenty-three articles on women’s health are published for every one on men’s health; breast cancer research funding is 660 percent greater than prostate cancer research, although women’s likelihood of dying from breast cancer exceeds men’s likelihood of dying from prostate cancer by a much lower fourteen percent; and so on. It is important to note, however, that this is not a competition but a call for a more equal distribution of resources. It is also important to note that the new masculinity is usually much more disciplined and statistically responsible than the simple nay-saying of those who use words like femi-nazi.The new masculinity is just beginning to enter artwriting, although there are many artists whose work is susceptible to such approaches, including Andy Fabo, Micah Lexier, and Kim Moody. Sympathetic discussions of the difficulties experienced by contemporary gay artists are almost new masculinity by default. See also bi-sexism, victimarchy.

NOISE: 1. In information theory, any sort of interference between the sender of a message and its receiver. 2. In informal logic, any material not relevant to the matter under investigation. 3. In the work of some sociologically inclined writers, an intervention or challenge to a dominant symbolic order (as in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture [1977]).

NOM-DU-PèRE: See name-of-the-father.

NON-OBJECTIVE: Without representation; arrangements of ostensibly autonomous (see autonomy) formal features which make no reference to something else by virtue of resemblance.

NON-REPRESENTATIONAL: See non-objective.

NON-TRADITIONAL MEDIA: See extended media.

NOT-YET: See woman as the not-yet.

NOVELTY: Conventionally, a state of newness and/or the essentially transitory amusement value of something which is novel. Since much of what historically has constituted the avant-garde has depended upon novelty — bear in mind the modernist admonition “it’s been done before” — might it be legitimate to assert that one of the unexplored ramifications of avant-gardism is a certain recreational triviality? See also innovation.

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Postmodern terms – Decenter to Gynophobia

These Postmodern definitions are a useful gauge to see how academics construct their sentences. 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.


Decenter – to look at the world through another’s eyes or to include the other’s perspective within one’s own vision of things.

Deconstruction – A term that, for all practical purposes, was introduced in the literature by Derrida. It means to undermine the conceptual order imposed by a concept that has captivated our imaginations and ways of seeing things. (See Shawver, 1996) see “deconstruction quilt” return

Deconstruction quilt – a visual representation for deconstruction and differAnce. Click here to see an image of the deconstruction quilt and read a related article. return

Deductive logic – a way of reasoning from one set of statements to another. It has the form: If this is the case and this other thing is also the case, then we can conclude, without direct evidence, only our reasoning, that this third thing is the case, too. People use deductive logic in a loose way when they think and talk, but it is used in a highly formalized way in philosophy circles. There, in the last century especially, the rules of logic become quite complex and the deduction (the reasoning leading to the conclusion) follows rules that are so formal that they are often thought to be, or hoped to be, a kind of mathematical calculus. Note that deduction does not require any factual or observed information. One can deduce something false if one reasons with false ideas or premises. Contrast “deductive logic” with “inductive logic.” return

Deduction – in ordinary language, a deduction is just reasoning your way to a conclusion. In philosophy, however, it has a more technical sense, and means that the reasoning conforms to the rules of deductive logic.

DifferAnce – This is a term coined by Jacques Derrida, father deconstructionism. (However, Derrida does not capitalize the “A”.) Derrida explains “differance” as that which is different and deferred (put out of mind). It’s a philosophical term that causes many people headaches and Derrida does not explain it in an introductory way. However, in many contexts, you will have a rough understanding of what is said if you think of the differAnce as the shadows of our understanding, something we know but forget and need to be reminded. Or, you might think of it as the cultural Unconscious, something that the whole culture puts mostly out of mind. Click here for an article on differAnce. Click here to see the deconstruction quilt, which will also help clarify the meaning of differAnce. Arguably, the differAnce is a source of our creativity. Mostly we forget it, but sometimes people think of these largely unconscious aspects of life and weave them creatively into new moments of understanding. return

Dialectic – In classical Greece, a process of discussion that is illustrated in Plato’s dialogues was called

Dialectic. It is a way of questioning and conversing and reasoning. Kant referred to the “transcendental dialectic” as metaphysical reasoning that tried, without success (or possible success) to figure out what the truth was beyond our senses. The German philosopher, Hegel, applied the term to a process of development in which one idea (the thesis) begets its opposite (the antithesis) and the two come together to form a synthesis. Marx built on this Hegelian notion of dialecic in his version of dialectical materialism. return

Dialogic – having to do with dialogue. A dialogic theory of therapy would be one which emphasized the importance of there being room for different opinions to be expressed. return

Discourse analysis – inquiry that leads us to reflect critically and creatively on our common ways of life. return

Differend – Lyotard’s term for a dispute resulting from the fact that one party cannot voice her complaints (or points) because the other insists on speaking within a different language game or genre of discourse (such as one person speaking within narration and the other within speculation). People who are caught in differends find themselves in difficult conversations. Such difficult conversations result from people using terms in different ways while presuming they are using terms in the same way. return

Dominant discourse – A Foucaultian term that indicates a certain way thinking and talking is the most common and most accepted way. Often it implies an institutionalized way of thinking about things. return

Dominant narrative – a term that Michael White and David Epston seem to have picked up from Jerome Bruner. return

Discourse – sometimes this term refers to any kind of talk, but often it refers to particular unified ways of talking that represents a kind of conversation scroEss texts from different but related communities. return

DANDY: See flâneur.

DAGUERROTYPE: See photography.

DASEIN: Literally “being there,” Dasein is Heidegger’s term for the manner in which beings relate themselves to the world around them, but from which they are existentially alienated (see alienation, existentialism). Dasein is divided into three modes of possible existence — factuality, existentiality and fallenness. The first of these needs no explanation. The second refers to the state in which beings achieve knowledge of their purpose in life and the resultant authenticity. The third refers to the inauthentic existence of those who do not realize their purpose. The usefulness of art in this scheme is a function of the drive towards existentiality. For further explanation, see aletheia, open.

DATE STAMP: Freud’s analogy between day-dreaming and poetic invention did not presuppose that a given fantasy always had the same latent meaning. Instead, it could be marked with a date-stamp of sorts which would indicate the cuurent impressionism to which the fantasy was linked. In the past or the future, the same manifest fantasy could have some other significance altogether. See psychoanalytical criticism.

DAY-DREAMING: In an important essay entitled “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” Freud argues that art and fantasy have a similar function, to give expression to desires and impulses that cannot be satisfied in a straightforward way because of social norms, personal repressions, or what have you. Those interested in the idea would be well advised to consider how a work of art differs in significant respects, if any, from other symptomatic expressions of psychic life.

DEAD METAPHOR: A metaphorical (see metaphor) cliché which, through age or frequency of use, is understood as literal, with its figurative level forgotten or unrecognized. See, e.g., touchstone. The history of art is riddled with dead metaphors. The average viewer rarely thinks of the vanitas theme when regarding a still-life, and the photographs of authors on book-jackets frequently exploit poses derived from standard portrayals of ancient philosophers. One of Karsh’s portraits of Pierre Elliott Trudeau plays very cleverly with the latter example.

DEATH OF ART: See teleology.

: The term derives from an essay by that name in Roland Barthes’ celebrated Image Music Text, where he presented the notion of a text as something without a fixed meaning apart from that produced by readers in the act of reading. Other notable challenges of unique and stable authorship appear in the writings of Walter Benjamin (“The Author as Producer,” in Understanding Brecht) and Michel Foucault (“What is an Author?” [reprinted in many anthologies, among them David Lodge’s Modern Criticism and Theory]). The notion has become an orthodox expression of most postmodern criticism, especially that falling under the headings of reader-response. See also aura, Derridean, dialogism, discursive practices, Kristevan, interpretive ingenuity, power.

DECODING: The discovery of latent meaning behind manifest meaning. See code.

DECONSTRUCTION: Jacques Derrida’s extraordinarily influential critical (see criticism) practice which begins by acknowledging, along with Sausserian linguistics, that language — a category which now includes visual art — does not consist simply of names applied to determinate things. It is instead a series of signifiers and signifieds creating relations that we understand to be things. Because these putative things are really relations, there is nothing present “behind” a sign to guarantee its legibility — i.e., certifying that one will understand its meaning without ambiguity (see metaphysics of presence) — preventing any possibility of achieving a determinate, definitive reading of a text. In fact, since the meaning of a text is often metaphoric, there is no point in even attempting to distinguish between denotations and connotations, with the result that close inspection of the possible significances of a text will generally reveal an aporia, a moment at which the illusion of determinacy collapses because of some internal contradiction. This moment of collapse is the point at which the text supposedly deconstructs itself. Many postmodern artists certainly use these ideas quite consciously (e.g., David Salle as a general theme, Micah Lexier specifially with reference to the new masculinity, etc.), or they can be said to operate with deconstruction as part of their horizon of expectations. Frequently, however, the practice is applied to earlier artists (e.g., Van Gogh in Derrida’s Truth in Painting), which thus demands very precise articulation, lest one give the anachronistic impression that those artists intentionally foresaw Derrida. The loophole is that deconstruction is a condition of language, so it doesn’t matter if a given artist was aware of it. Paul Berman’s Debating P.C. offers a more succinct, if somewhat belittling definition: “interpeting literature in order to show the impossibility of a definite interpretation.” See absence, différance.

DECORUM: An academic principle that a given subject should be presented in a suitable style. E.g., noble figures should be presented with a dignified mien in stable compositions, while revellers can be depicted in more dynamic settings. The conception was especially important to the French academic neoclassicism of Poussin’s era.

DECOUPAGE: In film studies, an occasionally used synonym for the type of editing that analyzes a setting by first showing an establishing shot and then breaking it into a succession of closer views. It is effectively the opposite of montage.

DEDUCTION: A valid argument in which one cannot assert the premises and deny the conclusion without violating the laws of thought, particularly that of non-contradiction. For example, in the categorical syllogism “All humans are mortal; Michelangelo was human; therefore, Michelangelo was mortal,” one cannot deny Michelangelo’s mortality without contradicting one or the other premises. Cf induction, interpolation.

DEEP STRUCTURE: See deep structure and surface structure.

DEEP STRUCTURE AND SURFACE STRUCTURE: A basic problem in linguistics is how speakers can recognize meaning in utterances which they have never heard before and how they can recognize identical meanings in different structures (e.g., “Bonheur painted this picture” and “This picture was painted by Bonheur”). The Chomskyan answer is that all competent speakers have an innate (see innateness hypothesis) understanding of a finite set of abstract rules which determine all basic structural relationships. Combining this deep structure with a set of transformation rules and any new information allows the speaker to produce new surface structures (i.e., sentences which can be understood even though they contain information which is entirely new to the listener). See generative-transformational.

DEFAMILIARIZATION: According to Russian literary formalism, defamiliarization is a key device with which art prevents us from simply indulging in mental habits. It does this by refusing verisimilitude, drawing attention instead to alienated or estranged aspects of a thing which closure causes us to overlook or suppress. The practice was especially prevalent among early twentieth-century photographers and the painters in their circles (e.g., Edward Weston, Georgia O’Keeffe; in Canada, some Bertram Brooker, Edwin Holgate). Cf baring the device.

DEFICIENCY: Disadvantage, loss, and the like. The term is used frequently in neurology, where it might offer an analogy to certain types of deficiency in interpretation. For exploratory examples, see excess, interpretive agnosia.

DEFINITION: See definitional rules, extensional definitions, intensional definitions, stipulative definitions.

DEFINITIONAL RULES: In informal logic, those rules which enable one to determine meaning. It is presumed that a competent speaker will (1) specify the essential characteristics and/or indispensable traits of the thing being defined, (2) will provide sufficient material — i.e., will include neither more nor less than the term being defined, and (3) will avoid emotive load. E.g., as a definition, “Abortion is murder” is insufficient (2) because it tells us nothing about the characteristics of abortion (1), and it is clearly emotively loaded (3). Though nothing is certain, the best way to prepare a definition is through genus and differentia (see intensional definitions) — i.e., to identify the class of things to which the object belongs (see extensional definitions) and then to characterize meaningful differences between it and other members of its class. E.g., Maurice Denis’s frequently paraphrased aphorism “a painting is a flat surface covered with colour” is not sufficient because there are other flat surfaces covered with colour that are not paintings. A better definition would first say that painting belongs to the class of fine arts (the exact nature of which is itself currently under dispute) and that it differs from sculpture or dance or theatre in such-and-such ways.

DEFINITIONS OF ART: Ellen Dissanayake’s What is Art For? (a shorter version of which appeared in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism [Summer 1980]), tries to avoid partisanship by simply listing the various ways art has been understood through history: (in no particular order) the product of conscious intention, self rewarding activity, a tendency to unite dissimilar things, a concern with change and variety, aesthetic exploitation of familiarity and surprise or tension and release, the imposition of order on disorder, the creation of illusions, indulgence in sensuousness, the exhibition of skill, a desire to convey meanings, indulgence in fantasy (cf day-dreaming), aggrandizement of self or others, illustration, the heightening of existence, revelation, personal adornment or embellishment, and so on. In a brief review of new cave paintings discovered in France in 1995, critic Robert Hughes wrote: “art — communication by visual images — … is, at its root, association — the power to make one thing stand for and symbolize another, and to create the agreements by which some marks on a surface denote, say, an animal, not just to the markmaker but to others” (“Behold the Stone Age,” Time [February 1995]: 42). See also art, functions of art.

DEICTIC: A word which shows or points out directly another part of the statement in which it occurs. In “The artist dropped his brush; his hands shook…,” “his” is a deictic. Similarly, “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” are deictics. In the form deixis, the term is used in Norman Bryson’s Vision and Painting to designate a painterly surface signifying the activity of the artist, which he sees as a satisfying refutation of perceptualism.

DEIXIS: See deictic, expanded field.

DÉJA LU: French play on the phrase “déja vu” meaning what is described under the heading always-already-read.

DÉJA VU: The illusion of familiarity in a strange place or the feeling of having “already seen” something which one is supposedly encountering for the first time. The idea has been extended into the act of interpretation as the always-already-read. See also political unconscious.

Aristotelian term for that type of rhetoric used chiefly to persuade an audience. See also epideictic, forensic.

Anyone who uses false claims, fallacious reasoning (see fallacy) or cultural prejudices in a bid for fame or power. The term is sometimes used by both sides to describe their opponents in the debate over political correctness.

: From the French demande. See desire.

DEMOTIC: Northrop Frye’s term for the style of ordinary speech, as opposed to conventionalized hieratic style. The term has potential usefulness in discussions of folk culture, popular artifacts, and the putatively high art influenced by them. An instance of the latter is Courbet’s Bonjour M. Courbet, deriving in part from an image d’Epinal.

DEMYSTIFICATION: Removal of the mystery; rendering less obscure; decoding. In postmodern contexts, the term has a spin that ranges from correction of social injustice to empowerment of those who have been traditionally suppressed.

DEMYTHOLOGIZE: Near synonym of “demystify” (see demystification).

DENATURALIZE: To deconstruct (see deconstruction) familiar notions which we take for granted or unreflectively consider “normal” or “natural.” This is a basic procedure in much postmodernism.

DENOTATION: The literal meaning of a word, as opposed to its connotations. Roland Barthes (see Barthesian) maintained that denotation was simply the last of a series of connotations, enforced as a closed meaning (see closure) by more or less political interests.

DÉPENSE: Basically, a Bataillean term for expenditure.

DEPOLITICIZE: When one discusses an artwork or any other thing without reference to the political and social circumstances informing its creation, one depoliticizes it. This is a particular problem when the artwriter’s only concern is aesthetics. See critique of institutions, mediation.

DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY: The scientific study of human behaviour as the result of largely unconscious processes, as in Freudian and Jungian thought. See psychoanalytical criticism.

DERRIDEAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Jacques Derrida. See deconstruction, différance, four term fallacy, frame, hymen, leipsomena, metaphor, metaphysics of presence, supplement, trace.

DESCRIPTION: Discourse intended primarily to produce a mental image of something experienced, as opposed to explaining it (see interpretation). See also ekphrasis, illustrement, language.

DESIRE: An urge towards the acquisition of some object (or experience) that appears to promise satisfaction of the urge or enjoyment in general. The role of desire in the creation of art and in supposedly objective artwriting has been under investigation since at least the time of Nietzsche, who asserted that unfulfilled desire was behind the creation of even the virtuous Madonnas of Raphael. Paradoxically, while some feminist camps are therefore highly suspicious of it, those who espouse (l’)écriture féminine find it a good strategy for challenging patriarchy. Desire appears in Lacanian writing as a unremitting drive, rather than as individual acts of wishing, which he characterized as “demand” (demande, in French). Biological need occurs in all organisms. In humans, a demand may or may not be satisfied in the instance at hand, but the basic drive — the desire — is never satiated and will always recur. Language, as the primary mediator between individuals in the realm Lacan called the symbolic, is thus a ceaseless articulation of desire rather than demand. See also appetitive drive, libidinally driven.

DESTABILIZE: A near synonym of denaturalize, with additional spin in the direction of active dismantling of oppressive institutions like canons. See also critique of institutions.

DESUBLIMATION: Herbert Marcuse’s once influential The Aesthetic Dimension argues that aesthetic form allows a given (social) reality (or the reification thereof) to be sublimated and thus transcended. In turn, this process engenders in an audience a rebellious subjectivity — a desublimation of the audience’s perceptions, creating a potential indictment of the dominant ideology. Art is thus a dissenting force.

DETERMINACY: The state of having defined limits or of having such an unequivocal, irreducible meaning that all objective members of an audience will come to the same conclusion, regardless of differences between their emotional responses. Still worthy of consideration in this regard are the writings of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (see meaning), Giovanni Morelli (see connoisseurship), Stephen Pepper (see appetitive drive, consummatory field), Meyer Schapiro, and so on. The idea is challenged strongly by all postmodernism critical approaches. Cf indeterminacy.

DETERMINANT: A cause (see causality). Determinants may be further described as organismic, environmental, or situational to indicate where the determinant comes from — the organism itself, its environment, or some antecedent condition that stimulates behaviour. These terms, derived from psychology, are clearly analogous to the subcategories of context.

DETERMINATE: Having set limits; established; definitely settled. See determinacy. Cf indeterminacy.

DETERMINISM: Any of a number of beliefs, both religious and philosophical, that behaviour is predestined or driven by antecedent causes to such a degree that free will is largely an illusion. Cf indeterminism.

DETOURNEMENT: Sometimes translated as “diversion,” which has unfortunate connotations, détournement is the process of turning something aside from its normal course or purpose in an artistic context. While it is typically used as near-synonym of assemblage or collage in a Situationist context, it also describes any process of reinvention, reuse, or reinscription of meaning. As a result, outside of Situationist contexts, détournement means any move from the literal to the figurative. See for an essay on the Situationist context.

DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: The branch of psychology which studies the growth and maturation of human behaviour, theoretically at all stage of life. The one extended attempt to apply related ideas to artwriting was Suzi Gablik’s Progress in Art, the reception of which was mixed.

DEVIANCE: See inexhaustibility by contrast.

DIACHRONIC: Pertaining to change over a period of time, as in linguistics. For example, a diachronic art history is one which follows developments from decade to decade or century to century. In contrast, a synchronic study would examine the constellation of events surrounding a given object of study (i.e., context), ignoring antecedents and consequences.

DIALECT: A regional variety of a language, distinguished by accent, grammar, pronunciation, and/or vocabulary. Not to be confused with dialectic or dialogism. Cf idiolect.

DIALECTIC: In Socrates (via Plato), dialectic (also “dialectics”) simply meant argument in the form of question and answer. After slight variations proposed by Plato, Aristotle and Kant, Hegel reframed dialectic in the form still familiar to us today — the process of reasoning by argument and counterargument, or contradiction and reconciliation: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Marxist thought took this one step farther, distinguishing between objective dialectic (that which holds true of nature) and subjective dialectic (the reflection of objective dialectic in human thought). More loosely, dialectic means any systematic reasoning that attempts to juxtapose and resolve contradictory ideas.

: A book contains things that are spoken in the past, as it were, and because it cannot be actively questioned, it is always construed as authoritative. This is why it is necessary, from time to time, to ask audiences if they believe everything they read. In a similar spirit, Susanne Kappeler’s Pornography of Representation argues in favour of dialogism over monologue. As part of an ongoing feminist critique of representation, this process would entail replacing the traditional, one-way path of a message from sender to receiver (cf information theory) with an anti-authoritarian dialectic in which more than one voice could be heard. None of the participants would be a subject presumed to know — i.e., an unquestionable authority — so objective knowledge would be replaced with shared subjectivity (see intersubjectivity). There are striking similarities between this and the genderlects identified by sociolinguists. See also pornography.

: In Marxist thought, dialectical materialism was conceived by Friedrich Engels as an extension of the principles of historical materialism beyond historical and social circumstances into human thought. It was named by Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov and further developed by Lenin into the idea that the universe evolves in a manner analogous to revolutionary thought.

: An increasingly popular idea, often understood simply as multivocality, but actually introduced in Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination as part of a critique of Saussurean linguistics. Bakhtin thought Saussure’s rather abstract system was devoid of social context, and he argued that a speaker’s utterances were always directed at others, who in turn would produce countering utterances, as in a dialogue, hence dialogism. Rather than having a relatively fixed significance, a sign was more of a changing field, a centre of contention between speakers in different voices (see heteroglossia). Further, because these voices are produced by different social conditions, the dialogue is profoundly ideological. There are all sorts of artists whose works could be discussed in related terms (see carnivalesque), and the ideas are sufficiently fashionable that a session was devoted to it at the 1993 College Art Association conference in Seattle. See also contingency, narrative analysis.

Division into two, especially in matters of classification, although many use it as if it were an exact synonym of binary oppositions. The latter, however, entails polar opposites, whereas the former does not have to.

DIDACTICISM: Any practice the principal motivation of which is to teach. It might be useful to ask oneself if the purpose of a particular critique is to make a description, an interpretation, or a didactic message. If it is the latter, it might further be useful to ask if the message is that of the work (as in, say, environmentally conscious art) or of the critic. While some schools of thought find didactic work to be overbearing and self-righteous, others demand it as a component of “good” art (e.g., some types of Marxism). See also post-pedagogy.

DIEGESIS: An old term for an utterance, in whatever form (descriptions, narratives, propositions, etc.) that makes no evaluation and draws no conclusion. Roland Barthes reintroduced the word in The Responsibility of Forms and elsewhere to distinguish what is shown ( mimesis) from what is told. See also story. The adjectival form is “diegetic.”

: General guides usually begin by saying this is an untranslatable French neologism, and then they immediately translate it by saying that it combines connotations of difference and deferral, and sometimes other things as well. The term is Jacques Derrida’s, and although he claims it is “neither a word nor a concept” in the seminal essay “Différance” (in Speech and Phenomena and frequently elsewhere, it is abundantly clear that it has become both in contemporary discourse. Central to deconstruction, différance begins with Saussure’s acknowledgement that signification can only proceed if there is a difference between signifier and signified. If there were no difference, there would only be redundancy, not signification. Paradoxically, because there is difference, there is always a space — Derrida sometimes says spacing — of sorts between signifier and signified — a gap, an aporia — which means that while one meaning or set of meanings is currently foregrounded, another is temporarily put on hold — i.e., deferred. If we conceive of the foregrounded meaning, to use another’s terminology, as only a meaning effect produced by a filtering process, différance simply demands that we also consider what has been filtered out, thus opening interpretation to all sorts of possibilities denied by positivism. While Derrida holds his interpretive ingenuity in relative check, some of his followers leap quickly from deferral to confabulation. In any case, the notion has become so fashionable and influential in current artwriting that few ask whether it is valid. In evolutionary terms, refusal to let go of the deferred meanings could be seen as a flaw in cognition (cf interpretive agnosia), inasmuch as it could entail distortion and great confusion. We answer this criticism by remembering that Derrida is a philosopher, not a practical critic, and as the heir to Nietzsche (see Apollonian, Dionysian) and Heidegger (see Dasein) he is addressing issues which go beyond normal cognition. This would explain why traditional thinkers see his decision to place difference and deferral on equal grounds as both willful (see will-to-power ) and more telling of Derrida himself than of the object of inquiry (see authentic, existentialism). See also absence, dissemination, hymen, macula, metaphysics of presence, trace.

: Contrast, dissimilarity, distinction, variability, etc. The term is important in postmodern thought for two specific reasons: first, it is a central concept in Saussurean linguistics — Saussure’s most quotable quote is “in language there are only differences without positive terms” — and second, it represents that which androcentrism, Eurocentrism, and so on fail to recognize — i.e., the possibility of the other to whom the “norm” does not apply. E.g., men oppress women because men fail to recognize sexual difference; Protestants oppress Jews because Protestants fail to understand cultural difference; etc. See also alterity.

: See definitional rules.

: Adversity, complication, inconvenience, obstacle, etc. Once considered completely undesirable, since George Steiner’s On Difficulty and Other Essays, it has been seen as appropriate in certain literary contexts, chiefly for the generation of a sense of involvement, even complicity, in the audience. Some artworks exploit difficulty for a variety of related effects (e.g., installations by Ian Carr-Harris, paintings by Mary Scott), but whether it really works this way on the level of theory and criticism is something to be debated.

A momentary turning aside from the main topic, thus disrupting the sense of narrative unity. Digressions have a lengthy history in literature, but the term is rarely used of the visual arts. Nonetheless, it might be applicable to images which have a similarly violated unity, like the abrupt transitions in both space and iconography in Spanish Baroque paintings which feature genre in the foreground and religious content in the background. One might say that digression appears as the central theme of the work in certain contemporary productions which splice a variety of images together quite arbitrarily (e.g., James Rosenquist, David Salle).

DIONYSIAN: Friedrich Nietzsche’s designation for the disorderly, irrational, orgiastic and unconscious side of human nature.

Two vertical panels hinged together in the centre. Ivory carvings with religious motifs so arranged were common in late Roman times, as were panels with Christ facing his mother in the late medieval era. For more complicated multi-panel works, see altarpiece.

: A. D. Coleman’s article of this name (in Artforum [September 1976]) identified an approach to photography in which the photographer was more like a film director or theatre designer than a traditional photographer. Emphasis was put on making, rather than taking photographs. To some extent, the principle is akin to auteur theory. Examples are widespread, including Cindy Sherman, Sandy Skoglund, William Wegman, Laurie Simmons, Laura Simpson, and innumerable others.

: See suspension of disbelief.

: Generally, a discussion or conversation. More specifically, a mode of expression — originally verbal, but now applied by analogy to other forms. In postmodernism, a discourse is usually the manner of discussion peculiar to a political party, a profession, a scientific method, and/or a social group. In other words, discourse is not an absolute, but a relative term which means “the language with which this particular group describes (evaluates, etc.) its conception of truth as seen through a particular ideology.” Thus “the discourse of power,” for example, would mean to a Foucauldian “the way language and linguistic structures are used to keep political power in the hands of dominant institutions.” Similarly, “the discourse of orientalism” would mean “the way language is used by Eurocentric interests to displace its own racism, sexism and displacement. See also discursive practices.

: See rhetoric.

1. The exposure of unknown facts to change the unfolding of events in a narrative. See also narratology. 2. A legal term indicating the systematicgathering and exposure of the facts about a case. The systematicnature of the procedure should be emulated in verifiability, although it rarely is, except in the works ofparticularly thorough DISCURSIVE: This means both “pertaining to digression” and “pertaining to discourse.” It can thus mean either meandering thought or analytical reasoning. “Discursive thought” usually means propositional thinking in contrast to feelings orunreflective thought driven by emotion. For a description of thecontrast between discursive thought and presentational symbol.

Timothy J. Reiss’s Discourse of Modernism argues that discursive activity — the flexible, complex and contextually-relative conceptual processes involved in the writing and reading of a text — has been suppressed by what he calls “analytico-referential” discourse, a dominant cultural model of putative objectivity and realism. An example in art is the notion that a painting’s apparent realism implies that it is the real, rather than the product of a particular artist in a particular social formation (see perceptualism). Analytico-referential discourse thus eliminates what other linguistic theorists call enunciation.

Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction presents an image of literature as “a name which people give from time to time for different reasons to certain kinds of writing within a whole field of what Michel Foucault (see Foucauldian) has called ‘discursive practices’.” He then goes on to say that the purpose of literary criticism is to discover the “kinds of effects which discourses produce, and how they produce them.” For example, reading a textbook to learn about giraffes is one thing; discovering the practices by which discourse is structured and organized is quite another. Analysis of discursive practices is rhetoric by another name. For an application and complaint relative to artwriting, see textbook.

DISFIGURING: Title of a 1992 book by a/theologian Mark C. Taylor (see a/theology) concerning a postmodern aesthetic strategy that involves radically refiguring and disfiguring modernist works in order to point to their absence of secure signification (see indeterminacy). Taylor discusses numerous artists and architects (e.g., Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Moore, etc.) in this regard, but his real motive is to expose an unnameable aporia which represents God in some inexplicable way.

Impartiality, objectivity, a lack of bias, and the like. Not to be confused with a lack of interest, disinterestedness implies that an investigator has no personal interest in whether the result of, say, an experiment turns out to be true or false. Whether it is due to a general tendency towards anti-authoritarian positions or a distant recognition of the indeterminism of quantum mechanics, postmodern thought is usually suspicious of disinterestedness, for reasons given under subject presumed to know.

DISPLACEMENT: The removal of something from its normal position and/or its replacement. There are three variations on the idea in contemporary discourses. First, Freud saw it as one of the basic processes of dream-work, in which, say, an intolerable desire is displaced from the literal to a figurative expression (cf latent, manifest). For example, a desire to kill one’s father (see Oedipus complex) might be displaced into a dream of insulting him or doing him less drastic harm. This sense of displacement is still used in psychoanalytical criticism; a typical example is Liebert’s study of Michelangelo, in which the sculptor’s putative desire for his mother is displaced to images of the Madonna. Developing from this is the second variation, displacement as the psychic origin of metonymy (see concatenation relation, selection relation). A third variation is the cultural displacement suggested by Edward Said, in which one culture projects what it is unwilling to recognize in itself onto another, “lesser” culture (see orientalism and cf colonialization).

Any of a variety of approaches desiged to forestall closure and maintain open-endedness. The term is often applied to Roland Barthes (see plaisir) and Julia Kristeva (see jouissance), but it is as easily applied to Norman Bryson (see gaze and glance).

: Dispersion, derived from the sowing of seeds. Derrida has made special use of the term, punning on semen (seed) and sema (sign [see seme]) to evoke the idea that signification is a relatively loose scattering of seed/signs, rather than a determinate endeavour. Linking sema to dissemination is, of course, a species of folk etymology.

DISSONANCE: See cognitive dissonance.

DISTANCE: See aesthetic distance.

DIVERGERS: See convergers and divergers.

DIVINE AFFLATUS: Poetic inspiration of an ecstatic sort. The idea was taken very seriously from Plato onward, but postmodernism generally regards it disdainfully, for reasons analogous to those under the heading genius.

: Ruled by rigid principle, dogmatic, unreasonably adherent to the canon, biased, narrow-minded, and the like.

: In literary studies, “document” refers pretty much to anything in print; as Holman and Harmon’s Handbook to Literature puts it, “from this perspective the first edition of Paradise Lost is on a par with a telephone directory or a speeding ticket.” In artwriting the reverse is more likely to be true: where a monument is the work in and of itself, in its physical uniqueness (thought not necessarily autotelic), a document of necessity refers to something other than itself, as in documentary art.

: Any artwork (particularly documentary film and documentary novels) the purpose of which is to record and/or comment on some content, often political or social, by accumulating factual detail. Many conceptual art installations of the 1970s were overtly documentary — e.g., Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Project, Joseph Kosuth’s various Reading Rooms, Hans Haacke’s Guggenheim Trustees.

DOGMA: Beliefs held to be true and beyond question or debate. Originally the term meant religious truth, but it is now mostly used as a pejorative.

DOME: A vault, usually with a circular plan and approaching a hemispherical shape, as if one spun an arch three hundred and eighty degrees about its centre. The evolution of the various attempts to resist the thrust of a dome constitutes one of the more important threads in architectural history. The most famous domes in history are probably the so-called Treasury of Atreus, the Pantheon, Hagia Sophia, and St. Peter’s, although there is no shortage of fascinating and eccentric domes — especially when they are neither circular nor hemispherical, as in S. Ivo della Sapienza or the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Turin.

DOMINANCE: Ascendancy, centrality (see central), forcefulness, power, priority, a higher (or the highest) stage in the social hierarchy.

DOMPTE-REGARD: Literally, “tame-gaze.” Jacques Lacan invented the phrase to describe how his conception of a picture functions psychologically. For further details, see gaze and glance.

DONNÉE: The given. Henry James introduced the term to indicate the raw material, by analogy with raw data in science, with which any author must start. The presumption is that a donnée is a fact. Some writers seem to present as given instances of folk etymology and sheer confabulations.

In linguistics, one of the principle characteristics of most languages is a two-fold structure, the first being the level at which phonemes (sounds, meaningless in themselves) are brought together into morphemes (arrangements of sounds into the small meaning-bearing components of words), and the second being the syntactic level at which relations between words are produced. One of the problems facing early attempts at a visual semiotics was whether or not visual language possessed a true double articulation. Fernande Saint-Martin’s conception of the coloreme was in part an attempt to by-pass the problem.

DOUBLE ENTENDRE: The reverse of a pun. Where a pun is a play on different words with the same sound, a double entendre is a play on a single word with two or more meanings. Double entendres usually have a suggestive or off-colour connotation. Cf ambiguity.

DOUBLING: According to Rosalind Krauss (“Corpus delecti,” in L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism), a duplication of a particular signifier, less to allay the consequences of the signified than to point out that language is a social construct. The idea derives from a famous essay by Freud on the head of Medusa, where it means that one counters the anxiety of a castration threat by displacing it (see displacement) with multiple (i.e., doubled) phallic symbols veiled in a variety of other forms. Krauss moves from there along lines suggested by Bataille and Derrida (see Bataillean and Derridean). Cf l’écriture féminine.

DOXA: Greek for “opinion” but now generally understood to mean consensus shaped by ideology. In Outline of A Theory of Practice, for example, Pierre Bourdieu defines doxa as “theses tacitly posited on the hither side of all inquiry.” Cf folk etymology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy.

: In the theatre, conventions representing real details that would be too difficult or costly to produce onstage or simply as shorthand devices to propel the narrative forward. The audience recognizes these details as conventions but suspends its disbelief (see suspension of disbelief). Standard examples range from groups in situation comedies of four or more people awkwardly seated on only three sides of a table to science fiction aliens who speak English and Madonnas who look Florentine instead of Jewish (cf enallage). Similar conventions operate in art and art history — to the extent that both employ narrative development — but they are rarely articulated as such. Examples for art, just as in television and the theatre, include the illusion of a character contemplating him- or herself in a mirror when the sitter had to have seen only the reflection of the artist (cf Velàzquez’s Rokeby Venus) and the aside (and potentially the now-diluted desire to épater le bourgeois). See also artwriting, rhetoric. See also dramatic propriety.

DRAMATIC IRONY: Ironic (see irony) meanings recognized by an audience but unrecognized by one or more of the characters in a narrative. This is standard fare in television sitcoms, with the audience laughing at the witlessness of one character or another. In art, the term could be applied to examples ranging from Caravaggio’s various Cardsharps and Fortune Tellers to Margaret Bourke-White’s At the Time of the Louisiana Flood.

DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE: Originally a poem in which one speaker addresses a silent listener in terms calculated to give insight into the speaker’s experience and spirit. It is fairly uncommon now because it seems rather stagey, although one recent example in film is The War of the Roses, in which Danny De Vito tells the whole story to a wordless Dan Castenellata. Although Suzi Lake described her Are You Talking to Me? — a series of large-scale photographs of her head, some slightly twisted and distorted — as an attempt to establish a dialogue (cf dialogism), it amounts to a monologue in which the viewer has become the silent listener. One might be able to say much the same of Cindy Sherman’s work.

DRAMATIC PROPRIETY: A type of decorum in which an action, a thing, or an utterance is judged only by whether it fits the context (i.e., whether it is in character) and not by reference to some external criterion. Courbet’s oft-quoted “Show me an angel and I will paint one” is the rejection of the propriety of a supernatural being in an era of increasing empiricism.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE: The characters in a narrative (or a list thereof). For example, the dramatis personae of Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio would be Baudelaire, Buchon, Champfleury, Courbet himself, Napoléon III, Proudhon, and so on. In old salon guidebooks (livrets), descriptions of academic paintings were often so lengthy that they effectively constituted a dramatis personae as given at the front of a printed play.

DRAMATISM: Kenneth Burke’s name for his relation of the patterns in literature to those of Western language. In doing so he came up with the idea that narrative is inherently like sentence structure: it always involves a subject, a verb, an object and/or an indirect object — i.e., an agent does something to someone. He supplemented this with a simple five-part structure which was thought to characterize all developments: act (the deed), agent (the doer), agency (how done), purpose (why done), and scene (where done). This could clearly be applied to painting, especially genres like genre, history painting, and mythological painting.

DRAME BOURGEOIS: A slightly more recherché version of bourgeois drama.

DREAM-WORK: The processes by which unconscious desire (i.e., repressed wishes) is “translated” into acceptable content in a dream. Freud distinguished three such mechanisms: condensation, displacement, and secondary elaboration. Dream-work is central to psychological criticism, and the first two have been developed further as the psychic mechanisms making conscious, creative metaphor and metonymy possible (see also concatenation relation, selection relation).

DRIVE: Translation of the French pulsion, as it appears in Lacan’s work. Following Freud, Lacan distinguished between “instinct,” a complex of usually unlearned (i.e., biologically encoded) behaviours characteristic of a species, and “drive,” meaning an analogous, but entirely psychosocial phenomenon. The mainstream psychological community uses the terms “primary drive” and “acquired drive” to indicate these senses of “instinct” and “drive,” respectively. For a specific instance, see scopic pulsion.

DUALISM: 1. The Platonic doctrine that the universe is composed of two basic substances, mind and matter. 2. The subsequent philosophical and psychological positions that mind and body are separate entities and/or processes. See Cartesian interactionism, consciousness, homo duplex, monism, psychophysical parallelism.

DUALITY OF STRUCTURE: Synonymous with double articulation.

DUMB SHOW: Pantomime, originally in the context of a play, but extendable to many early Christian and medieval representations in which religious narratives are acted out, as it were, by figures in conventionalized poses and exaggerated, stereotypical facial expressions. Although virtually all paintings are pantomimic, in a sense, certain later images of theatrical groups and situations — including acrobats, commedia dell’arte figures, harlequins, and the like — could also be so described. See, for example, Gillot’s Quarrel of the Cabmen.

DUOLOGUE: A play with only two speakers. There is no reason why paintings like Overbeck’s Germania and Italia or Broc’s Death of Hyacinth — both of which feature two figures — could not be so described.

DURÉE: Henri Bergson claimed that experience of the world was a flowing, inseparable continuum that could not be divided into a sequence of individual moments of apprehension. As such, reality was experienced as duration, or durée, which could be grasped best by intuition, rather than the rational intellect. In a superficial way, the idea is illustrated by some of Cézanne’s paintings and those of the analytical cubists. Some of the time-based video pieces of Allan Kaprow and others might also be discussed with reference to the idea.

DWM: Dead white male. (Sometimes also dead white European male.) This is a derogatory reference to the study of the humanities as a Eurocentric canon made up only of the privileged and the powerful. People oppose this by calling for the inclusion of women, non-whites and the dispossessed.

DYNAMIC CHARACTER: A character who changes within a narrative.

DYNAMIC EQUILIBRIUM: Piet Mondrian’s term to characterize the universal balance achieved by forces in motion. The idea is rather like the yin-yang of Eastern thought, in which all imaginable things can be reduced to paired relations, like light/dark, male/female, good/evil, all of which exist by virtue of their opposite. Mondrian’s choice of elementary pictorial language, however, is clearly quite different from the yin-yang’s apostrophes chasing each others’ tails.

DYSFUNCTIONAL: Impaired or abnormal functioning. One hears often of dysfunctional families, for example.

DYSPHEMISM: The opposite of euphemism; conveying a message in a manner that is disproportionately negative. E.g., “piss off” frequently replaces “go away.” Images that place great emphasis on negative aspects might be so described, as in Otto Dix’s The Trench.

DYSTOPIA: The opposite of utopia; an extremely disagreeable place (construed as an era, a political state, or even a state of mind). Dystopias are usually obvious, as in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, but there is something more suggestively dystopic about Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street, Berlin paintings or Margaret Bourke-White’s At the Time of the Louisiana Floods.
ECHO: See visual rhyme.

ECLECTICISM: The composition of something by selecting details and stylistic features from a wide variety of sources. Nineteenth-century architecture, for example, was eclectic in its rather derivative adherence to the manners of bygone eras, as in Classical Revival, Gothic Revival, and the like. Postmodern architecture is more ironically eclectic, as in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans.

ECONOMY: The organization, structure or mode of operation of a group; more specifically, the system of exchange within an identifiable group, whether the exchange be of money (economy in the widest sense) or of some more ephemeral thing, like meaning (see signifying economy). When some reference is intended to a smaller, marginal or veiled system of exchange within a dominant economy, it is often designated a sub-economy. See also general economy.

(L’)ÉCRITURE: “Writing,” but with connotations taken over from the death of the author to the effect that what is written is an open-ended (see open-endedness) text, with multiple possibilities of meaning beyond those intended by the author. Some writers use the word “scription” to indicate much the same idea.

(L’)ÉCRITURE FÉMININE: A type of writing which rejects intellectual paradigms of logic and logocentrism — such as intellectual neutrality, disinterestedness — and so on, in favour of allusive, divergent, and expressive associations — like the body, desire, and a sense of connectedness. Although Hélène Cixous’s “Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs (Summer 1976) is considered the key source, Chantal Chawaf put it this way: “Isn’t the final goal of writing to articulate the body?… Language through writing has moved away from its original sources: the body and the earth.” See language, thinking as yet not thinkable. Cf fleshless academicism.

EFFECT: Something that invariably follows a cause (see causality); the consequence of inflection; and/or the overall emotional or dramatic impact or tone of an artwork. See also meaning effect.

EFFECT OF THE REAL: In art and literature, the creation of a fictive world that appears to be seen through a transparent window, rather than as the result of a particular individual’s creative behaviour or the processes of an audience’s enunciation. The basic challenge offered to this position in artwriting is described under the heading perceptualism. The phrase itself derives from Roland Barthes’ essay by that name in the journal Communications (1968).

EGO: Generally, one’s conception of the self. More specifically, in psychoanalytical thought, one of three main divisions of the psyche. The ego makes distinctions between the self and the not-self (i.e., the environment) and in the process mediates between the primitive, infantile mind ( id) and the moral mind ( superego).

EGOCENTRIC: Considering the ego as central, as in simple selfishness or in developed philosophies or ethics which give priority to self-interest.

EIDETIC IMAGERY: Mental images with extraordinary vividness, as if actually perceptible.

EIDOS: Term for the Platonic conception of the essential (see essentialism Forms or Ideas underlying all experience.

EKPHRASIS: Synonym for description.

ELABORATION: A tactic in rhetoric by which a theme is progressively argued by gradual repetition with emendations, alterations, and the like. Visual equivalents are easy enough to imagine. See also secondary elaboration.

ELEGY: A solemn meditation on death and the like, particularly when presented in a gravely formal manner. Antonio Canova’s Tomb of the Archduchess Maria Christina in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche is notably elegaic.

ELEMENTAL: Pertaining to the four basic elements (air, earth, fire, and water) and, by analogy, anything fundamental, rudimentary, or expressive of the basic forces of nature.

ELISION: Omission of a component, usually of a word or a part thereof (as in contractions like can’t). In medieval imagery, illuminated texts frequently had elisions signalled by a short line above the contraction.

ELITE CULTURE: See high culture.

ELLIPSIS: The omission of one or more words whose sense can be easily supplied. For example, in “Bernini’s sculpture reached the zenith of Baroque exuberance, his painting the nadir,” the identity of the missing word in the second clause is signalled by “reached” in the first. Discussion of the mechanics of ellipsis might clarify how a specifically visual trope works.

EMBLEM: A picture associated with a motto, usually moralizing in tone. An example is a popular print showing King Midas, unable to eat because his touch turns everything to gold, accompanied by the words “both rich and poor.”

EMBOURGEOISEMENT: The suppression of difference in class by attributing to all members of a society the values of the middle class (the bourgeoisie). See hegemony, ideological effect.

EMOTION: Psychological and/or physical reactions to stimuli subjectively experienced as feelings. See betraying versus expressing emotion, unique aesthetic emotion.

EMOTIVE: See mind-set.

EMOTIVISM: Also known as emotive theory, emotivism holds that value judgements are neither good nor bad but simply expressions of emotion, like laughing or fear. Where simple subjectivism offers a statement like “Walter De Maria’s Earth Room is good art” when what is really meant is “I like it/esteem it/approve of it,” emotivism sees “Walter De Maria’s Earth Room is good art” as an honest (or dishonest) and appropriate (or inappropriate, etc.) statement of the speaker’s feelings, but it cannot be either true or false. Ayer started the idea in Language, Truth and Logic (see also boo-hooray theory) and it was further developed by C. L. Stevenson in Ethics and Language, where it was linked with the rhetorical desire to persuade with or without valid argument. Given that so much popular talk about art includes often wooly value judgements, some consideration should be given to these issues.

EMPATHY: Now loosely the same as “sympathy” – – i.e., identification with another’s feelings — but careful users usually stipulate empathy as an imaginative projection of one’s own feelings into an event or object. One should perhaps be suspicious of the latter, inasmuch as it can easily produce meanings that are read into an artwork.

EMPHASIS: Any of several means of drawing special attention to some feature(s) of an artwork for aesthetic impact.

EMPIRICAL: Derived from observation, whether through anecdotes or through controlled experiment. See empiricism.

EMPIRICISM: Popularly understood as the philosophy that all understanding must derive from or be indebted to actual experience. Empiricists assert that the mind is not invested with a priori categories or concepts (see Kantian, platonic) from birth but is instead a blank, receptive surface, as it were. The prime movers were Berkeley (see immaterialism), Hume (see constant conjunction) and Locke (see tabula rasa). Cf logical positivism, positivism.

EMPOWER: To enable; to give recognition to; to facilitate self-expression, particularly of marginal groups within a dominant culture.

EMULATION: Thus can mean either “imitation” or the “striving to equal or exceed.” As a contemporary technological term, it also means a device allowing a program written for one computer to be run on another computer or a musical instrument which records sounds digitally for playback, manipulation, etc. See sampling.

ENALLAGE: A figure in which there is an exchange of grammatical forms, as in instances when nouns are used as verbs — e.g., “toe the party line” — or when past and present tenses are switched. The application of the latter idea to visual imagery should be obvious to those who have always found peculiar the representation of, say, the Madonna and Child as if they belonged to the race and era of the painter, rather than to history.

ENCLOSED RHYME: A rhyme in the form “a.b.b.a.” Rudolf Wittkower has pointed out similar structures in Italian architecture.

ENANTIOMORPHS: Mirror images, in effect, as a left hand is to a right. As simple as the idea seems to be, it has been used in such difficult Kantian philosophical questions as “is space relative or absolute?” Students of visual art might care to examine a once-popular conception — similar to some aspects of information theory — that whatever a viewer experiences before an artwork is the exactly reconstituted emotional expression of the artist.

ENCODING: In information theory, the conversion of a message into a form that can be transmitted along a channel. In postmodernist artwriting, the idea is discussed more frequently from the point of view of code and decoding.

ENCOMIUM A class of art (or artistic endeavour) having a characteristic form or technique In Greek literature, enthusiastic praise, delivered in soberly formal terms, of anyone or anything aside from the gods. Any decidedly glorifying treatment of a subject’s visual representation could be described as encomiastic. Sometimes it backfires, as in the rather absurd sculptural cases of Canova’s Napoleon and Greenough’s George Washington.

ÉNONCÉ: See enunciation.

ÉNONCIATION: See enunciation.

EN PLEIN AIR: See plein air.

ENTELECHY: The actuality or truth of a thing, rather than its potentiality. In Aristotelian thought, entelechy was used to distinguish the soul from the body (see mind-body problem). In vitalist thought, entelechy is an unobservable, hypothetical agent that directs organic processes. Bear the idea in mind while considering holism, possibilities, and teleology.

ENTHYMEME: A syllogism with a hidden premise. For example, in “Artists should be seen and not heard. Be quiet, Pablo,” the minor premise that Pablo is an artist is suppressed but understood.

ENTROPY: Originally from the study of thermodynamics, entropy has been used in a variety of ways in other disciplines. In certain sociological circles, for example, the original definition of entropy as the degree to which energy in a system is available to do work becomes a description of how social progress slows and finally stops because social change uses up energy which cannot then be retrieved for reuse in further change. Related is the psychoanalytical usage, in which psychic energy cannot be transferred from the object in which it is originally invested. A more straightforward application of entropy as the tendency of ordered systems to degrade into a state of inanimate uniformity can be seen in the writings of artist Robert Smithson. Related to this is the usage in information theory, where entropy is a measure of the apparent disorder of a system, so that the more there is known about it, the less entropy it seems to have. I.e., entropy is understood as the number of possibilities, which decreases as knowledge grows.

ENUNCIATION: In theories as diverse as Lacan and speech-act theory, an énoncé is the thing uttered (e.g., a statement), whereas an énonciation is the act of uttering it. In some contexts, enunciation is construed as the interpretation or performance of a text conceived of as a discursive activity, rather than as the isolated act of a single individual. Enunciation is neither the writer producing an unequivocal meaning nor a reader understanding an unequivocal significance. It is the network of conceptual processes involved in the production and reception of a text, including the effects of contextual factors. The term is most clearly defined by Tzvetan Todorov in Les Genres du discours: “A discourse is made not of sentences, but of enunciated sentences, or more simply, of énoncés. Now the interpretation of this énoncé is determined on the one hand by the sentences enunciated, and on the other, by the énonciation itself. This énonciation includes a speaker who enunciates, a listener whom one addresses, a time and a place, a discourse that precedes and follows; in brief, a context of enunciation.” See also reader-response.

EPAGOGE: Greek for argument from induction.

éPATER LE BOURGEOIS: To shock the bourgeois audience, to flout conventional moral or aesthetic norms, to startle through unconventional behaviour. This is a basic component of anti-art, but it has lost much of its force. See avant-garde, bohemianism, dramatic conventions.

EPHEMERA: Published matter intended to last only for a very short time (from the Greek ephemeros, “lasting a day”), like broadsheets, leaflets, pamphlets, and all manner of cheaply produced visual materials. Museologists and art conservators rack their brains over how to preserve visual art produced without high technical standards, serving to meet ephemeral needs, as in some Dada, say, or in preparatory drawings.

EPIC: A long narrative, usually in the form of a poem or film, in which the stories of a number of characters are traced against a background of sweeping historical importance, as in Leon Uris’s novels. The term is only rarely applied to the visual arts.

EPIDEICTIC: Now rarely used Aristotelian term for the type of rhetoric used chiefly to please an audience, as in encomium. See also deliberative, forensic.

EPIGRAM: A concise aphorism with moralizing overtones, which ensures that they will have a rich history in visual illustration. A notable example is Landseer’s Man Proposes But God Disposes.

EPIGRAPH: The inscription of a motto or similar on a coin, relief, titlepage and the like. The study of such things collectively is called epigraphy.

ENCOMIUM: A sudden manifestation of divine insight, as in Bellini’s Ecstacy of St. Francis. When the term is used figuratively to indicate a sudden intuitive insight, especially in popular criticism, readers should cautiously note whether the writer is seeking to persuade through emotional rhetoric.

EPIPHENOMENALISM: The doctrine that consciousness is a product of neural activity in the nervous system (i.e., an epiphenomenon of material existence). See mind-body problem.

EPIPHENOMENON: An accessory or accompaniment to some phenomenon, but considered incidental to it and not a causal factor in its development. It might be worth considering whether certain types of art criticism really consider specific artworks basically ignorable epiphenomena of the systems under examination. For example, one of the commonly repeated complaints regarding Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art was that it said virtually nothing about art per se (cf interpretive agnosia). In Grounds of Dispute, John Tagg defends himself against Donald Kuspit’s similar objections by stating that criticism has lost its object — i.e., that as criticism is socially marginalized, it loses its institutional security and its privileged methods and soon comes to realize that its object never had an independent existence but was constituted by criticism itself (see constitutive). While this is certainly an important issue, it places sole emphasis on context and tends to treat the artwork as an epiphenomenon instead of as autoptic evidence. See also insufficiency.

EPISODE: An incident which, when taken as a step in a sequential series of incidents — regardless of the order of the sequence — constitutes a narrative. The individual scenes in the iconographic programs of medieval churches could be so described. The word is also used as a loose synonym for “installment,” as in an episode of a sitcom.

EPISODIC: A literary term applied to structures of stringed episodes which do not necessarily follow a logical pattern or even seem to develop the plot. The Fragonard Progress of Love paintings in the Frick Gallery could possibly be described as episodic.

EPISTEME: A Foucauldian term, deriving from epistemology and “-eme” (the smallest significantly distinctive unit of a structure, like a morpheme, phoneme, seme or sememe), to mean something along the lines of “distinctive units of the social institutions (e.g., relations of power) which give shape to what we think of as knowledge.” Foucault himself wrote more allusively in The Order of Things: “what I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field, the episteme in which knowledge … manifests a history … of its conditions of possibility…. Such an enterprise is not so much a history … as an ‘archaeology’.” John Tagg’s Grounds of Dispute reads much as a series of essays exploring one such episteme, the discursive field (see discursive practices) created by the intersection of art history and cultural politics. See space.

EPISTEMOLOGICAL HEDONISM: In the first issue of Swift (1997), a newsletter of skepticism and debunking of claims of the paranormal, professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss characterized credulity and uncritical acceptance of unrepeatable and unprovable phenomena like astrology, spoon-bending, UFOs, etc., as “‘epistemological hedonism,’ i.e., if it feels good, believe it.” Needless to say, this is anathema to skeptics.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Philosophy concerned with theories of knowledge — i.e., what knowledge is, how it is obtained, how reliable it is, and so on. The basic opposition is between rationalism and empiricism, but there are all sorts of intermediary positions. Not the least of them is Kant’s synthetic a priori, which allowed for an account of art, among other things. Cf skepticism.

EPISTROPHE: See palilogy.

EPITAPH: Inscriptions and the like marking a burial place.

EPITHET: A characterizing word or phrase appearing with or in place of a name or thing, as in Homer’s “rosy- fingered dawn.” They need not be disparaging, although they often are in satire. See transferred epithet.

EPITOME: A summary or typical example of something. Chartres Cathedral might be called the epitome of Gothic church design, which would mean not that it represents the best of what was available, but that it is typical of what was available.

ÉPOCHÉ: Suggestions anyone?

EPONYM: A name so closely linked to a characteristic, a place, or some other general thing that it comes to stand for that. Examples are Machiavelli (deceit, treachery), Romulus (Rome), Bowdler (bowdlerize), and so on. The principle operates when artists’ names are used to characterize general tendencies in the arts.

ERISTIC: Fond of wrangling, as in people who argue for the sake of argument. The word is sometimes used in place of polemics.

EROTIC: Pertaining to sexual love or desire. Although one commonly finds “erotic” ditsinguished fundamentally from pornography, the dividing line between the two is by no means as clear as etymology would suggest (i.e., erotic from eros [love], pornography from porne [sexual servitude]). As a result, there is considerable debate regarding the definition and role of the erotic in such things as appetitive drive, the critique of representation, the erotics of engagement, people who are libidinally driven, and so on.

EROTIC-FOR-MEN: See erotic-for-women.

EROTIC-FOR-WOMEN: Phrase coined by Joanna Frueh to distinguish the conventionally erotic, which she sees as really erotic-for-men and therefore an expression of scopophilia. She argues that erotic-for-women has more to do with the sense of touch because this is the primary way women explore their sensuality, whereas men see the principle sign of their sex. See her “Erotic as Social Security,” Art Journal 53.1 (Spring 1994).

EROTICS OF ENGAGEMENT: Jane Gallop’s term (in Art in America, [November 1984]) to designate a sexuality that resides not in the object — e.g., within a nude human figure — but in an intersubjective dynamic — i.e., the encounter with that object. She uses the notion to ask if psychoanalytic criticism looks for sexual subject matter, however deeply disguised, or if it finds all subject matter sexual. Mainstream Freudians describe the experience of the male child as a move from dependency on the mother to detachment from her in the recognition that she has been “castrated” (see castration). Gallop describes psychoanalytical criticism as an analogous rebellion against the object’s power and assumption of superiority over it due to its “lack” — i.e., its need for interpretation.

ESEMPLASTIC: Samuel Taylor Coleridge invented this word to indicate the faculty of the mind that can fuse unrelated things into a poetically organic unity. It is a useful idea, but postmodernism is generally suspicious of the aesthetic (see aesthetics) holism it implies.

ESSENTIAL COPY: Norman Bryson maintains that artwriters who look only for realism in a painting overlook historical and social dimensions in favour of the esential copy — i.e., the empty verisimilitude of the painting’s ability to convince the viewer that it “is” the thing, instead of “meaning” the thing.

ESSENTIALISM: Any of a variety of notions concerning the primacy of essences — i.e., permanent, unchanging, “real” identities that lie “behind” appearances — rather than the temporary, changing, specific manifestations themselves. The most common essentialisms are the Platonic doctrine of universal types and the originally Aristotelian doctrine that things in a particular category all have at least one common characteristic without which they could not be members of that category. Essentialism is frequently attacked in postmodern writings as a kind of wooly wishful thinking, especially when it is thought to have been produced by unreflective racists or sexists. A regrettably common example might be something along the lines of an art criticism which insists that women’s work is essentially feminine — meaning that it is lacking in certain supposed formal strengths and is preoccupied with “minor” subject matter, like pastel-coloured flower paintings.

ETHICS: Popularly, the (moral) standards which a particular group sets to distinguish acceptable behaviour from unacceptable behaviour. Philosophical ethics has a long and complicated history. See meta-ethical, normative ethics.

ETHNIC: Deriving originally from “ethnos” (nation or people), ethnic once meant any social group bound by race, customs, language, values, etc. Its current use to indicate any visible minority in a Eurocentric (see Eurocentrism) culture is often a thinly veiled reflection of an older use meaning “heathen” (non-Christian, with a spin meaning uncivilized). The word should be used with care. Cf ethnocentrism.

ETHNIC CHEERLEADING: Dinesh D’Souza (see illiberal education) used this phrase to characterize the worst aspects of required courses for the purposes of enforced multiculturalism. In fairness to D’Souza, whose extreme conservativism is easy to caricature, it should be pointed out that he did not mean every course in non-Western culture, but only those which evoke a kind of Romanticism instead of clear analysis of what makes a particular culture truly worthy of study.

ETHNIC DOMAIN: Susanne Langer’s once influential Feeling and Form (see also presentational symbol), in asking what certain types of art were for, proposed that the space created in an image or in architecture was not real but “virtual.” By extension, architecture especially created an image of the world which was actually an expression of the self and the relations of the self to others in an ethnic domain of sorts, a system of functional relations in which signs play a less important role than the embodiment of feeling — ” the symbol of humanity to be found in the strength and interplay of forms.” Ethnic, in this scheme, is not to be understood as “heathen.”

ETHNOCENTRISM: The tendency to see one’s own ethnic group as the norm and all others as marginal.

ETHNICITY: Ethnic identity, or the discourse which concerns it. See also hyperethnicity.

ETHNOGRAPHY: Generally, social or cultural anthropology. Among studies of art, the most overtly ethnographic are those which deal with general patterns in non-Western cultures, rather than with artist and object-centered interpretations, so that individuality and uniqueness are less highly prized than epitome. See also ethnology.

ETHNOLOGY: Sometimes synonymous with ethnography, ethnology is also sometimes distinguished from it by being less focussed on the data-gathering of field work and participant observation and more concerned with the historiography of cultures.

ETHOLOGY: Originally a branch of zoology, ethology counters behaviourism by arguing that certain types of human behaviour are innate genetic developments that had survival value in evolutionary terms. Some of these ideas are creeping into aesthetics in the form of a supposedly universal “behaviour of art,” a kind of investment of value and meaning in what is otherwise valueless and meaningless by means of play and ritual. This supposedly ensures the survival of the organism by making special. Ellen Dissanayake’s What is Art For? is the only lengthy study to attempt this approach.

ETHOS: The distinguishing characteristic, usually of a social group, particularly when it is a case of moral values or beliefs. By extension, in Aristotle’s Poetics, the character projected by a speaker, writer, artist, etc. See also evidence, implied author.

E-TOPIA: Title of a book by William J. Mitchell (not to be confused with W.J.T. Mitchell) describing the kinds of changes he anticipates will take place in urban spaces as a consequence of the digital revolution. Mitchell foresees the home as a space in which people both live and work, redefines “public” space as any of a variety of types of electronic “meeting” areas, anticipates decentralization of the production and distribution of goods, and do on.

ETYMOLOGY: The study of the origins of words. See folk etymology.

EUPHEMISM: The opposite of dysphemism; an expression of an disagreeable state of affairs in mild or oblique terms calculated to avoid unpleasantness or offense. E.g., “to pass on” is frequently used instead of “to die.” Inasmuch as day-dreaming and dream-work are supposedly palatable expressions of something which cannot otherwise be tolerated, both are euphemistic. Clearly, then, much Surrealist art could also be so described.

EUROCENTRISM: The tendency to see European culture and history as the norm and all others as marginal. It is a frequent complaint of postmodernism that what pretends to be disinterested objectivity in, for example, ethnography is actually the veiled self-interest of a white, anglo-saxon hegemony. It is clear, then, that first-year art history textbooks like Janson’s History of Art and Gardner’s Art Through the Ages are generally Eurocentric, despite recent valiant attempts to include more non- Western material. See also Foucauldian, postmodern catechism, power.

EVIDENCE: A legal term indicating the facts about a case that can be introduced as premises to determine a reasonable conclusion (see argument, circumstantial evidence). A great deal of published art criticism has glibly come to conclusions that are not based on what the legal world would call admissible evidence. See hearsay. There are various types of evidence: autoptic (the thing itself, like a murder weapon), character (pertaining to ethos, sometimes not admissible), exculpatory (tending to prove innocence), exemplars (forensic and other materials, like fingerprints), expert (reliance on authority figures in a given field), inculpatory (tending to prove guilt), material (objects, substances, measurable data), oral (testimony of witnesses), rebuttal (arguing against the relevance or reliability of another interpretation), and so on. Most of these conceptions have loose analogies in various types of criticism, though they are rarely addressed as such, and similar standards of acceptability, however flawed they might be, have not been articulated.

EX-CENTRIC: Those who have been pushed from a central position or marginalized by a dominant ethnic group, institutional practice, or ideology. The artwork of Black American women like Betye Saar and Faith Ringgold and that of North American Native artists like Jane Ash Poitras and James A. Luna is thus said to be ex-centric because it is produced by voices that have been traditionally suppressed. It is accordingly not to be confused with “eccentric,” which means “deviated from accepted conduct.”

EXCESS: In psychological and neurological circles, an excess is the opposite of a deficit. While a cognitive deficit is an impairment of mental function preventing the patient from forming a complete representation of experience in consciousness and thus deriving meaning from it, a cognitive excess is a superabundance of meaning that originates with the patient, not in the outside world. Paranoia is a good example: a car that just happens to be parked down the street might be interpreted by the paranoiac as a sign of his having been followed. Meanings read into artworks are equally a matter of excess. This observation casts an interesting light on the connotations and use of excess in writings on base materialism, indeterminacy, metaphor and polysemy.

EXCULPATORY: See evidence.

EXEGESIS: Interpretation, understood chiefly as explanation, originally of the Bible, but now of any text.

EXEMPLARS: Something to be imitated

EXEMPLIFICATION: A representational or typifying form or model

EXEMPLUM VIRTUTIS: Term used in Robert Rosenblum’s Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art to describe artworks whose themes are moral lessons or examples of virtue which should be emulated. The theme is particularly common in neoclassicism.

EXERGUE: A small space for an inscription, originally on coins and medallions, but now also on any other object, visual or verbal. Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (see deconstruction, grammatology, quotation) has an introductory exergue of quoted material.

EXPERT: One who is supposed to have special authority, experience, knowledge, skills, and the like. See also evidence, subject presumed to know.

EXISTENTIAL CRITICISM: Criticism which downplays or undermines traditional themes and conventional methods, especially those purporting to use scientific disinterestedness, in order to investigate more personal, existential issues, as outlined under existentialism. Probably the most famous proponent is Jean- Paul Sartre.

EXISTENTIALISM: Existentialism is a heterogeneous cluster of philosophical ideas which have the common element that existence precedes essence. This mean that there is no overarching meaning in the universe beyond that which we choose to create through our actions. Endowed with consciousness, humans are confronted with the knowledge that the world is basically absurd — i.e., it simply exists, with neither justification nor organised structure which could yield to rational analysis — and this knowledge usually produces feelings of alienation, discomfort, fear, loneliness, and the like. Necessarily, the exploration of these feelings will be subjective, peculiar to each individual who endeavours to live an authentic existence (see authenticity) through acts of self-definition. The names most frequently associated with existentialist thought are Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Gabriel Marcel, but there are distinct existential strands in the thought of currently influential figures, like Jacques Derrida.

EXPANDED FIELD: Rosalind Krauss (in October 8 [1979]) argued that persistent attempts to describe miminalism and earthworks according to the logic of modernist monuments were misleading. Instead, she noted that scultpure could be defined in terms of what is was not: “not- landscape” and “not-architecture.” Borrowing freely from mathematics (Klein) and structuralism (Piaget), she then expanded the field of discourse by noting that “not-landscape” was really a way of saying “architecture” and “not-architecture” was a way of saying “landscape.” (Such a relation is called a deixis.) She argued that if sculpture could be situated relative to “not-architecture” and “not-landscape,” there was reason to assume that there would another term situated in a similar manner relative to both “architecture” and “landscape.” This she called “site-construction.” Finally, she noted that if “site-construction” could be both “architecture” and “landscape” — and a sculpture could be neither — then “architecture” had a relation of contradiction, sometimes called a schema, to “not-architecture,” “landscape” to “not- landscape,” and so on. She used the term “marked sites” to designate the position between “landscape” and “not-landscape” and the term “axiomatic structures” between “architecture” and “not- architecture.” More important than simply inventing a useful new terminology, Krauss’s article was an early contribution to the rejection of historicism, which she saw as an endless attempt to mitigate difference and diminish newness, in favour of a postmodern celebration of difference.

EXPENDITURE: A gift, loss, or payment through use of a resource. The idea crops up frequently in sociology, particularly where it concerns exchange rituals like the famous potlatch of the Northwest Coast. Using the word dépense, Georges Bataille added to this a Nietzschean, dionysian eruption into normal life of uncontrollable forces giving expression to man’s base nature (see base materialism). Ejaculation and excretion, for example, were just different kinds of expenditure and, as such, could be understood as part of the same sorts of sociological structure. (See the Bataille anthology Visions of Excess.) Something of the idea of expenditure also plays a role in deconstruction inasmuch as potentially new meanings of texts can always be produced: the illusion of a stable, determinate meaning is thus expended.

EXPRESSING: See betraying versus expressing emotion.

EXPRESSION THEORY: Probably the most popular and long-standing notion of art is that it is the expression of the artist’s emotion. Although such a simple expression theory stretches back as far as Plato, the first person to make the idea a criterion of systematic aesthetic inquiry was Eugène Véron, who wrote in L’Esthétique (1878) that “art is the manifestation of emotion…by expressive arrangements of line, form, or colour…[and/or] by a series of gestures, sounds, or words governed by a particular rhythmical cadence.” While Leo Tolstoy, Benedeto Croce and many others have made significant contributions, the most thorough development of expression theory is generally agreed to be that of R. G. Collingwood. Collingwood distinguished very carefully between art and craft on the grounds that true art involved the genuine expression of an emotion and its recreation in the spectator. He also argued that true expression was not a simple matter of having an emotion and showing it (see betraying versus expressing emotion), because expression meant a coming to self-awareness. One of the implications of this line of reasoning is that art lies in the mind rather than in the object. Despite substantial differences in other regards, principally regarding how much Romanticism is acceptable (see bohemianism), a wide variety of aesthetic attitudes has held this to be a truism for many years.

EXPRESSIONISM: Any of various styles and/or movements in art giving priority to the expression of inner experience, particularly where the manifestation is conspicuously deformed or paralinguistically altered (see paralinguistic).

EXPRESSIVE: Vague, overused adjective indicating vivid or especially apt descriptions, depictions, performances, and the like, of personal moods or sentiments.

EXPRESSIVE THEORY: More or less a synonym for expression theory, used in the literary criticism of M. H. Abrams.

EXPRESSIVITY: Dictionaries define this as the quality of being expressive (in addition to an obscure genetic reference). Paul Ricoeur, however, has used it in “The Problem of Double Meaning” in The Conflict of Interpretations to describe not the expression of a particular emotion, but the fact that language says anything at all. Following A. J. Greimas and others, he says that there is no mystery in language — i.e., the structural rules for determining meaning are accessible to all — but there is a mystery of language: “namely, that language speaks, says something, says something about being. If there is an enigma of symbolism, it resides wholly on the level of manifestation, where the equivocalness of being is spoken in the equivocalness of discourse.” He concludes by asserting that philosophy’s task is to reopen discourse to the expressivity of being. See also extralinguistic.

EXTENSIONAL DEFINITIONS: Definitions which identify members of the class of things named by that term ( for example, visual arts means painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, etc.). Such definitions link our experience to the world. Without them, all words would be circular.

EXTRALINGUISTIC: Paul Ricoeur uses this word to refer to the expressivity of being: “while linguistics moves inside the enclosure of a self-sufficient universe and encounters only intrasignificant relations…, hermeneutics is ruled by the open state of the universe of signs.” The term is thus not to be confused with paralinguistic.

EXTRINSIC: External; extraneous; not forming part of or belonging to a thing. In some artwriting, contextual information is characterized as extrinsic. For instance, information concerning the social circumstances under which a given artwork was produced might be dismissed or downplayed by a critic or art historian who exploited only artistic biography and who intended to demonstrate his subject’s genius. Obviously, methods which emphasize social circumstances (e.g., Marxism, feminism) would argue that such “external” conditions are not really external at all but constitutive of the work of art. Cf epiphenomenon, intrinsic.

EXTROVERSION: See personality types.


FABLE: Any brief tale or fictitious narrative, especially when peopled by talking animals or objects and aimed at teaching a moral lesson. The word is sometimes used as a synonym for plot (see also fabula).

FABULA: Latin for conversation, play, or story. Some writers substitute fabula for plot.

FALLACIES: Most specifically, any of various types of argument in which invalid reasoning is used. See four term fallacy, informal logic, maldistributed middle, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, validity. More loosely, however, the word is used to indicate any error (real or imagined) or wrong-headed belief, as in affective fallacy, biographical fallacy, genetic fallacy, intentional fallacy, pathetic fallacy, stratigraphic fallacy.

FALSE COGNATES: See faux amis.

FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS: A much used term originating with Marx, indicating the failure of the typical human mind to develop any sophisticated awareness of its rooting in historically specific circumstances. Instead of being conscious of how its abilities, contents, habits, and patterns are shaped by circumstances, such a consciouness is not really a material consciousness at all but only conceives of itself as such. Sometimes the term is used as a synonym of ideology, but its origins appear to have been in Marx’s conception of “inverted consciousness,” which is the result of reification. E.g., religion is produced by society, which promptly forgets the fact, seeing religion as independent and productive of society.

FALSE FRIENDS: See faux amis.


FALSIFICATION: According to Karl Popper, a more useful process than verification in distinguishing science from non-science. Universal claims like “all swans are white” cannot be verified because one can never collect all swans to prove to it. However, one can falsify the statement simply by producing one black swan. Science thus can never reach a point at which it can claim, without risk of error, that it has reached the final truth. Of course, the history of science bears out the principle with its frequent revisions, refinements and refutations. By analogy, art history might be profitably considered less as a series of objectively true interpretations than as a series of possibilities which one must eventually subject to falsification. Unfortunately, this only rarely seems to happen. See also corroboration.

FANCY: At one time a synonym of “imagination,” fancy was distinguished from it and made subordinate in late eighteenth-century academic thought. Joshua Reynolds, for example, associated imagination with true genius and fancy with mere taste. As a result, where imagination means the power to create something unprecedented, fancy has come to mean a certain resourcefulness in manipulating the already given.

FANTASTIC: There is no unequivocal consensus, but “fantastic” is sometimes used to indicate an imaginative, subjective world of inner expression that transcends mere fantasy or science fiction. One might describe Oskar Kokoschka’s The Tempest (Bride of the Wind) in such a term.

FANTASY: Any conscious break with reality, whether in the relatively benign forms of caprices and daydreams, or in the more psychologically charged delusions and hallucinations. In psychological criticism, fantasy can be either creative or adjustive (i.e., compensatory).

FARCE: A narrative depending on improbable situations, outlandish characters, grotesque language and imagery, rather than on well-wrought plot and the like. The term usually carries a spin of “low comedy.” When presented in the form “farce-comedy,” the term implies high comedy (of serious moral, philosophical or other import) that occasionally makes use of farce elements, as in Woody Allen’s later films. Performance and installation artists growing out of the conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s often use farcical elements in their work: examples include Laurie Anderson (sparingly), Blue Man Group, Gilbert and George, General Idea, and Pat

FASCIST FEMINISM: A brand of feminism which is thought by its opponents to be symptomatic of right-wing politics, central dictatorial control, or simply a profound lack of critical self-consciousness. Those who believe affirmative action is reverse discrimination, rather than genuine equal opportunity, would be so inclined. Public policies of hiring only women, as in the instance of the Ontario College of Art in the early 1990s, have been so described. Hannah Wilke seems to have been the first to use the phrase in her art. In the mid 1970s, mainstream feminists disliked her self-portraits with allusions to pin-up girls and she responded with the slogan “Marxism and Art/Beware of Fascist Feminism.” More recently, Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae has made similar charges. She even described Gloria Steinem simply as “Stalin” in an interview on 60 Minutes.

FAUX AMIS: False cognates, as in the French “assister à” (to attend) versus the English “assist” (to give aid). For an example specific to artwriting, see herstory.

FEELING: See meaning (sense 1).

FEELING-ORIENTED: See personality types.

FEININ: A term which implies the remapping of existing iconography to inject a sensory faculty of a present history overlapped over annals of history. (Feininology) is a homogenization of the self and it attempts to breathe life into the epochs of time where meaning is questioned by the manifestation of its infinitive placing.

FEMICIDE: Title of a 1992 book by Jill Radford describing the misogynous killing of women by men. See feminism, misogyny.

FEMI-NAZI: Derogatory term for fascist feminism, popularized by abrasive radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

FEMINISM: Although some dictionaries define “feminism” simply as the advocacy of the rights and equality of women in economic, political, and social contexts, there are actually all sorts of feminisms and feminist practices. Moreover, some feminists disagree profoundly with others. Where Heidi Göttner-Abendroth calls for a matriarchal aesthetic that transcends historical specifics, for example, Linda Nochlin once wrote that such a feminism was essentialist and the antithesis of historical action. The two basic types of feminist interpretation are what Elaine Showalter called feminist criticism and gynocriticism (works about women versus works by women). Deeply affecting the forms these approaches take is a wide variety of responses to Freudian and/or Lacanian thought, hermeneutics, linguistics, and Marxism, among others. Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s Feminist Dictionary (1985) gives a thorough picture of the myriad possibilities. Feminisms have become very nearly the dominant orthodoxy in certain circles, prompting a controversial critique of some feminist strategies as pseudoscientific propaganda. See, for example, Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? See also backlash, bi-sexism, l’ écriture féminine, fleshless academicism, hymen, masculism, matriarchy, new masculinity, patriarchy, sexism, subject presumed to know, victimarchy, woman as the not-yet, etc.

FEMINIST CRITICISM: Showalter’s term for criticism of the artistic productions of male authors, especially (but not necessarily) in their treatment of the image of women and in their relations to a female audience. See also feminism, gynocriticism.

FETISHISM: 1. Originally, a fetish was an object in which a spirit was embodied or which had magical power. The term was adapted by anthropologist E. B. Tylor (in Primitive Culture) to mean a veneration or near-idolatrous worship of such objects. (For a related but specialized use of the term, see commodity fetishism.) 2. In psychoanalytical theories, fetishism is a pathological condition in which the fetishist, unable to acknowledge an attraction for some threatening or forbidden object of desire, finds gratification by displacing the impulse onto the object’s possessions or nonsexual body parts. A frequently repeated illustration is the case of a young boy who sees a nude woman for the first time, only to be shocked by the absence of a phallus. Castration anxiety traumatizes him to the extent that he will “provide” the woman with a symbolic phallus, which is typically the first more or less phallic shape he sees when he averts his eyes — her foot or a shoe. Both sense of fetishism appear in art: for sense 1, some connoisseurship certainly entails the fetishism of artworks; for sense 2, one need look no further than Surrealism, which frequently capitalized on fetish objects like shoes (Salvador Dalí’s hat designs), carpet beaters (Hans Bellmer’s Doll photographs), feet (Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or), and so on.

FICTION: Under construction. In his Gospel Fictions, Randel Helms characterizes fiction as “a story written to affect the present, rather than to describe the past.”

FIELD: A physical plane; a sphere of activity; a context; a discourse; the totality of an individual’s perceptions in a given period or the psychological representation in consciousness of same; and so on. See also consummatory field, discursive practices, expanded field, field dependent, field independent, field theory.

FIELD DEPENDENT: One who cannot ignore irrelevant data in a perceptual field is said to be field dependent. When one uses the idea in a critique of artwriting, one must be careful to ascertain that the data are genuinely irrelevant to a particular task. (How one defines “task” here is crucial.) A person who is constantly reminded of, say, William S. Burroughs by some feature of a Die Brücke woodcut is clearly field dependent because of the anachronism involved (Die Brücke preceding Burroughs by decades). The situation would not be so clear cut if the same person were reminded of Burroughs by Laurie Anderson, whose debt to Burroughs she has acknowledged.

FIELD INDEPENDENT: One who can ignore irrelevant data in a perceptual field is said to be field independent. Field theory argues that such a person is behaviourally normal, whereas a field dependent person is not.

FIELD THEORY: In Principles of Topological Psychology, Kurt Lewin tried to alter Gestalt theory in a manner that would account for individual motivations. He argued that because an individual lives in a personal field, parts of which are of no use or interest (see field independent), experience is highly selective and much perceptual data is simply ignored. To account for why a given thing will be of interest to person X but not to person Y, Lewin invented positive and negative valences — the former indicating importance and attractiveness, the latter the absence of same — and vectors – – inducements toward or away from some object. With these basically linear concepts, Lewin mapped out human behaviour. Marxist theory argues that the circumstances of production impinge upon the mind of an artist, but it rarely articulates why two artists in roughly similar circumstances often produce fundamentally dissimilar works. Field theory might provide an alternate explanation.

FIGURATION: An act of representation in figures.

FIGURATIVE: 1. Any expression of one thing in terms of another thing, by means of language that rejects the literal in favour of a figure of speech or a trope. Strangely, audiences often forget to consider the figurative in visual images — particularly photography — even though they readily recognize that common speech is riddled with figurative expressions like “she was on cloud nine.” Visual images are no less figurative, ranging from pure conventions like personifications to more imaginative tropes. 2. Artwriters sometimes use “figurative” simply to mean that an image contains recognizable images (i.e., that it is not abstract or non-objective). Since this usage does not distinguish between literal and figurative in the sense given above, it is considerably less precise.

FIGURE: A numerical or other symbol; a written or printed character; a graphic representation of a form; a figure of speech; etc. See also figurative.

FIGURE POEM: Another name for carmen figuratum.

FIGURE OF SPEECH: Any use of language that replaces a literal expression (e.g., “he was angry”) with an indirect one, like the conventional statement “he was beside himself.” Tropes are generally more inventive and individual figures of speech. (They were once called “figures of thought” to distinguish them from more conventional expressions, but that usage is outdated.) Some literary critics have argued that there are “figures of sound,” meaning such things as alliteration, poetic repetition and rhythm. A hypothetical “figure of sight” could go either way, being either a matter of formal repetition or figurative language in visual imagery. (I hesitate to imagine what a “figure of smell” might be.)

FILIOPIETISTIC: Pertaining to an excessive reverence of ancestors or tradition. Some coffee-table type books which praise artists unreservedly as geniuses could be described as filiopietistic.

FINE ART: Visual art considered primarily for its aesthetic or theoretical character, including its meaning and significance independent of practical application, as opposed to commercial art. See also high art (culture).

FIXATION PAUSE: Brief moments between saccades during which the eyeball is not moving and something comes into focus. The meaning of a printed word is conveyed during such a moment, giving some idea of the rapidity with which meaning is constructed by a succession of perceptual instants. Saint-Martin’s conception of the coloreme exploits the phenomenon in an attempt to contruct a uniquely visual semiotics.

FLANEUR: A flâneur is a type of dandy — that is, a male figure of fashion or one who adopts exaggerated clothing habits — common from the mid-nineteenth century or so. The word derives from the verb flâner, which means to stroll idly. Artists interested in turning away from classicism and romanticism to the depiction of everyday life were drawn to the image of the flâneur, who usually appears with a conspicuous top hat and other fashionable accessories. Notable examples are in the works of Constantin Guys, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Gustave Caillebotte, and Edouard Manet. The latter was something of a flâneur himself, and there are many stories of his accompanying aristocratic hauteur. The fashion for strolling to see and be seen is most closely identified with the Second Empire in France, and the construction of the Grands Boulevards around the then-new Paris Opéra gave plenty of opportunities.

FLAT: Although it is an oversimplification of Clement Greenberg’s position, artists and artwriters of the 1960s and early 1970s agreed with his assertion that the essential characteristic of painting was its flatness. This led to post-painterly abstraction on the one hand and to minimalism on the other. See formalism, modernism.

FLAVOUR: A predominant quality or characteristic, as in the exotic flavour of a Delacroix painting.

FLESHLESS ACADEMICISM: Under construction. Basically the notion that a critical method (i.e., academicism) can be objective and rational (i .e., fleshless), instead of driven by desire (i.e., by the body, or flesh). Certain feminist writers (e.g., Chantal Chawaf) believe this to be impossible.

FLOATING: Barthesian term for the slipping away from significance into signifiance (sic).

FLYING BUTTRESS: See buttress.

FOIL: Originally, a slip of shiny metal placed under a translucent jewel to increase the amount of light it reflects. By extension, the term is commonly used in literary criticism to refer to characters whose personalities contrast those of the protagonist in order to show the latter in a better light. Similar examples can be found in art. For instance, David’s Death of Socrates includes a number of men barely able to contain their grief; they serve in part as foils to the stoic resolution of Socrates to put himself to death. The term works for formal analysis as well: Brancusi often designed bases for his sculptures which functioned very much as foils for the forms they supported (e.g., Bird in Space).

FOLK ART: Traditional representations, usually bound by conventions in both form and content, of a folkloric character (see folklore) and usually made by persons without institutionalized training.

FOLK ETYMOLOGY: Where etymology, deriving from the Greek etymon (true), is the study of the literal meanings of words according to their origins (or first recorded usage), folk etymology is the unsystematic application of similar principles, sometimes leading to errors, faux amis, and fanciful connections where there are none. One might make the mistake, for example, of assuming that “doxy” in “orthodoxy” (literally, “straight opinion,” implying correctness and goodness) is related to “doxy” (“woman of loose morals”). The assumption of relation ignores the words’ different origins (the Greek “doxa” and the Middle Dutch “docke”). Related abuses of word origins can be found in deconstruction (for example, dissemination), hyphenation and certain neologisms (for example, herstory). Cf confabulation.

FOLKLORE: Traditional customs, fables, legends, myths, proverbs, sayings, tales, and the like. Folklore has had a direct influence on literature and art. Examples of the latter range from the illustration of Dutch proverbs by Terbruggen to Kandinksy’s veiled Russian folktales in his early abstract art.

FOREGROUND: 1. Noun. The part of a field of vision that is closest to the audience. 2. Verb. To give priority to one aspect of a thing over another. See also baring the device.

FORENSIC: Aristotelian term for that type of rhetoric used chiefly to condemn the actions of others. See also deliberative, epideictic.

FORE-PLEASURE: In “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” Freud argued that writers convert their fantasies into literature by softening their egostistical character and “bribing” the reader with aesthetic pleasure. Indirectly autobiographical, literature is desirable because it serves to release “yet greater pleasure arising from deeper sources in the mind…, putting us in a position in which we can enjoy our own day-dreams without reproach or shame.” He called this mechanism fore-pleasure or the incitement premium.

FORGERY: The direct imitation of another artist’s manner for the purpose of defrauding an audience. Because fraud is involved, foregry is not to be confused with appropriation. Cf source analysis.

FORM: The constituent elements of a work of art independent of their meaning (e.g., the colour, composition, medium or size of a flag, rather than its emotional or national significance). Formal elements are primary features which are not a matter of semantic significance — including colour, dimensions, line, mass, medium, scale, shape, space, texture, value, and their corollaries — and secondary features which are the relations of the primary features with one another — including balance, contrast, dominance, harmony, movement, proportion, proximity, rhythm, similarity, unity, and variety. See formal, formalism.

FORMAL: Pertaining to the form of a work; not to be confused with “ceremonial” or “stately,” since formal elements can be quite informal in character.

FORMAL ANALYSIS: The study of a work of art with reference to its form, rather than to its content or context. See formalism, new criticism.

FORMALISM: Any of several types of art-making or criticism which foreground form. Because generic formalism was once institutionally entrenched as the most powerful critical approach, artists frequently produced works which catered specifically to it, rather than to self-expression (foregrounding content) or social responsibility (foregrounding context). Particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, art-making was often discussed purely as solutions to formal problems. This explains why some writers see modernism as more or less synonymous with formalism. Critic Clement Greenberg (see flat) is frequently cited as a prime mover, but formalism can be traced back through Clive Bell (see significant form) and J. A. M. Whistler (see art for art’s sake) to Immanuel Kant (see autonomy). See also baring the device, defamiliarization, taxonomy.

FORMAL LANGUAGE: Any uninterpreted system of signs, as in formal logic. For an example, see hermeneutic spiral equation.

FORMLESS: See informe.

FORMULA: A cliché in narrative form; any immediately recognizable sequence of events, particularly common in romance novels, televisions sitcoms, and the like. The same principle applies in visual art exploiting similarly unchallenging narratives, like Paul Delaroche’s Tudor history paintings.

FORMULAIC: An adjective describing anything prepared to formula.

FOUCAULDIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Michel Foucault. See death of the author, discourse, discursive practices, episteme, gender, order, panoptic, politics, power.


FOUR TERM FALLACY: Informal logic that is defective because the middle term of a syllogism shifts sense in such a way as to introduce an irrelevant element. For example, “all battle-axes are shiny; Picasso’s mother-in-law was a battle-axe; therefore, Picasso’s mother-in-law was shiny.” (Here, the so-called fourth term is the pun or double significance of the concept “battle-axe.) Some of the tactics of deconstruction are founded upon similar fallacies. Derrida’s Truth in Painting, for example, manipulates the gait implied by Van Gogh’s painting of old boots until it becomes both a sign of what it is (a step, a stride; pas in French) and what it is not (also pas). Some will protest that Derrida’s text is not about logic, which simply underlines that it is not effective argument. It would be interesting to consider what alternatives are left. Is it simply creative writing (and therefore a revitalized type of subjective impressionism) with a pronounced existentialist motivation?

FRAGMENTATION: Postmodern discourse, because it lacks uniformity, is often said to be fragmented — i.e., broken, discontinuous, incomplete, open-ended, etc. Fragmentation is thus desirable because it avoids closure.

FRAME: Although a frame can be anything composed of parts fitting together (like the physical frame of an athlete or a building), the term most often indicates an enclosing border or boundary, both literally and figuratively (see figurative, literal). In literary studies, it is common to find the idea applied in the frame-tale or framework story, both of which refer to a story told within another story, as in Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is told via the letters of a northern explorer. The most important application of the basic principle in artwriting is in “Passe-Partout” in Derrida’s Truth in Painting. There the frame is used as a metaphor to explore questions of mediation and meaning. Who is telling what within what? Another sort of frame is the passe-partout itself — i.e., a matte within another, larger frame — whose bevelled edge metaphorically facilitates turning from one level of meaning to another.

FRANKFURT SCHOOL: A mix of Marxist approaches to economics, philosophy, politics and sociology that has exerted various wide-ranging influences on modern thought and aesthetics. The school is so named for the Institute for Social Research founded in the University of Frankfurt in 1923. The main participants were Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin (see aura), Jürgen Habermas (see postmodernism), Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (see desublimation).FREUDIAN: Pertaining to the psychoanalytical studies of Sigmund Freud, usually with a heavy emphasis on the roles played by childhood trauma, the development of sexuality, and the putative existence of essentialist symbolic forms. The latter is a commonplace in most (if not all) psychoanalytical criticism. See also anxiety of influence, castration, cathexis, condensation, date stamp, day-dreaming, displacement, doubling, dream-work, ego, fore-pleasure, hysteria, id, latent content, manifest content, oedipus complex, pathography, presentiment, secondary elaboration, sublimation, superego.

FREUDIAN CRITICISM: Criticism emphasizing orthodox Freudian ideas. There are other sorts of psychological criticism which make use of Freudian ideas but for reasons that Freud had not foreseen. See, for example, erotics of engagement.

FUNCTIONS OF ART: Introductory books and study guides on art history usually give a variation of the following as the basic functions of art: to adorn, to beautify, to express, to illustrate, to mediate, to persuade, to record, to redefine reality, and to redefine art. Ellen Dissanayake (see ethology) adds that art serves as therapy, gives meaning to life, gives unselfconscious experience, provides paradigms of order and/or disorder, and trains perception of reality. See also art, definitions of art.

FUNDAMENTAL IMAGE: A predominant image, aspect or unifying characteristic of a text, apart from a distinct and repeated metaphor or other trope, which would be called a controlling image.

FUSION OF HORIZONS: Gadamer’s term in Truth and Method for the fundamental differences (and/or the reconciliation of same) between the perspectives of author and audience. Cf horizon of expectations.


GADAMERIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer. See fusion of horizons, hermeneutics, prejudice, timelessness.

GANZ ANDERE, DAS: The “wholly other,” which Georges Bataille developed into his theory of heterology. The phrase occurs in the religious writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, but it is most intimately associated with the theologian Rudolph Otto, whose The Idea of the Holy describes it is as the inexplicable otherness of God.

GAZE: See gaze and glance.

GAZE AND GLANCE: Norman Bryson’s Vision and Painting critiques realism in painting because its apparent invisibility as technique and as meaning in a social formation appeals to an ahistorical, disembodied, programmatic “gaze.” In contrast, he describes the “glance” as anchored in history, in body, in desire, and in improvisation. The latter is preferable because it allows for an aesthetics of disruption. The terminology has become quite fashionable and can be found nearly anywhere. See also essential copy, perceptualism, social formation. Cf anchoring gaze. Jacques Lacan’s use of the word “gaze” is more abstract and psychological, describing the fact that individuals are caught up in the scopic field of others (see scopic pulsion). The gaze is thus fundamentally different from the eye because the former is a network of relations while the latter is simply one point. Moreover, that one point is a scotoma, so individuals are blind to themselves. For Lacan, a “picture” — especially one which uses traditional linear perspective — is a kind of trap for the gaze, inasmuch as it puts the viewer into the hypothetical position of the eye, even as it is also inevitably social and psychological. He invented the phrase dompte-regard (as a play of sorts on trompe l’oeil) to describe this function of the picture as a gaze-tamer. Images which deform perspective, as in anamorphosis, fail to trap the gaze and thus are more revealing of desire. Not surprisingly, the famous skull in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors becomes, for Lacan, a phallus.

GEISTESGESCHICHTE: The history of ideas, or intellectual history. Wilhelm Dilthey argued that if the natural sciences explain events as the results of causal laws, cultural science should explain events in terms of the meanings and intentions that people give them. These meanings and intentions, however, are informed by historical and social change, particularly the total global outlook peculiar to a given period (see Weltanschauung). Geistesgeschichte made inroads into art history in Max Dvoràk’s Idealism and Naturalism in Gothic Art. Dvoràk saw Medieval art as the visual manifestation of a particular attitude towards Christian spirituality, rather than simply as an effect of contemporary theology. I.e., theology did not cause changes in art; art and theology were both caused by the Weltanschauung. See Zeitgeist.

GENDER: J. P. Chaplin’s Dictionary of Psychology lists “gender” simply as “sex — male or female,” while “gender identity” is given as “one’s sense of being male or female.” In contemporary artwriting, “gender” usually means the latter of these two. This is almost always given additional spin by allusion to the ideas of Michel Foucault (see Foucauldian), who described gender not as biological identity but as the result of various processes of socialization.


GENDER SYMMETRY: The presumption that for each characteristic of one gender there is some complementary opposite in the other gender. This line of reasoning is now disparaged because it lends itself easily to essentialism. E.g., if men are strong, women are weak. If men are competitors (see competition, report-talk), women are collaborators (see collaboration, partnership).

GENDERLECT: Gender-based differences in conversational style. The two basic genderlects are rapport-talk and report-talk. One wonders if the idea might be used to revise essentialist definitions of gender-based aesthetic sensibilities, as in matriarchal aesthetic.

GENERAL ECONOMY: A term of Bataillean origin, but most recently used by Steve McCaffery in North of Intention to indicate “the distribution and circulation of the numerous forces and intensities that saturate a text.” It is thus basically a synonymn for the interrelations of content and context. See also economy, horizon of expectations.

GENERALIZATION: A common structure in informal logic: some members of a group have characteristic X; therefore, members of the group in general have characteristic X. Obviously, a valid generalization must be based on a representative sample that is of reasonable size and is free of bias.

GENERATIVE-TRANSFORMATIONAL: In Syntactic Structures and elsewhere, Noam Chomsky asked how anyone could understand a sentence they had never heard before and how they could generate new sentences which would be intelligible to others. He proposed the existence of a linguistic deep structure (see deep structure and surface structure) with a finite number of so-called “rewrite rules” which allowed competent speakers to predict or “generate” an infinite number of possibilities. Then he proposed a set of “transformational” rules allowing speakers to analyse and reorient sentences (e.g., changing a passive verb to an active one), which in turn facilitated the production of any number of new surface structures. A speaker’s level of understanding of the generative-transformational properties of language, even if intuitive, determines his or her level of what Chomsky called “competence,” while a particular utterance was a matter of “performance” (see language and parole). The idea has two potential applications in artwriting: the first is in asking whether variations on a given theme — for example, the femme fatale of the late nineteenth century — were intelligible because of a historically specific deep structure (in which case linguistics overlaps with Geistesgeschichte); and the second is the more abstract consideration of why (or whether) visual imagery is intelligible at all. (For food for thought on the latter point, see perceptualism.)

GENETIC FALLACY: The presumption that because a certain condition obtains today, it must always have been such, and vice versa. E.g., that people evolved from some kind of apes indicates that people are now higher apes. Similar structures lie behind many popular assertions about the nature of art. That art was once a matter of technical expertise or decoration is thought to be proof that it is so now. In an era of historical relativism, such statements smack of essentialism.

GENEVA SCHOOL: Influential literary school of thought which asserted that a text is the existential expression of an individual consciousness. Accordingly, Geneva school criticism is relatively uninterested in the text as a physical object and more interested in its affective properties. See also affective fallacy, phenomenology.

GENIUS: One of the more overworked conceptions in traditional artwriting, “genius” originally referred to an attendant spirit or tutelary deity of the sort seen sprinkling holy water in Assyrian reliefs. It has become synonymous with transcendant intellectual or creative power and as such is a cliché in basically Romantic descriptions of divinely inspired artists outside history (see pseudotranshistorical). In postmodernism, nothing is seen as outside history, and all conceptions of genius are discarded or at least made secondary to such things as the social formation. See also bohemianism, divine afflatus.

GENRE: A class of art (or artistic endeavour) having a characteristic form or technique

GENRE CRITICISM: Criticism which foregrounds genres.

GENRES: 1. The various categories of subject matter in the traditional academic hierarchy, in descending order of importance: history, megalography (representations intended to glorify or idealize excessively some event, person or thing), mythology, religion, portraiture (including the portrait historié, a portrait of an historical figure playing the role of a character from history, literature, mythology or theatre), genre (see sense 2, following), landscape, still-life, and rhopography (representations of trivial bric-à-brac, including such things as the remains of a meal, garbage on the floor, etc.). 2. A little confusingly, one of the genres is “genre,” the depiction of everyday life, ordinary folk and common activities. Cf bourgeois drama, drame bourgeois, intrigue.

GENUS: A general kind of something

GESAMTKUNSTWERK: German expression for complete or total artwork, usually associated with Richard Wagner’s theatrical integrations of drama, music and spectacle. The idea is applied by analogy to any grandiose work in which a variety of arts contribute to a shared goal, as in the blended architecture, painting and sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Ecstacy of St. Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel.

GESTALT: German word meaning “configuration,” “figure,” or any whole pattern with characteristics different from its parts. E.g., the tune of a song is such a pattern because it does not appear in the individual notes. (Leonard Meyer is the strongest Gestalt writer on music.) Similarly, a sentence’s meaning does not inhere in the individual words themselves but in the relations between those words. (H. J. Muller is the strongest literary figure in Gestalt literary criticism.) In art history, Gestalt figured prominently in discussions of Minimalism in the 1960s. It could be used in any number of contexts, however, since all it demands is that any individual element of a work be treated not as an absolute term or fixed meaning but as a relative one — a variable whose meaning depends upon its relations with other elements in the overall configuration. E.g., the cat at the lower left of Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience plays a very different role relative to the meaning of the work than does the cat at the foot of the bed in Manet’s Olympia. Because certain relationships are filtered out by the context at hand (see meaning effect, structural semantics), a Gestalt approach evokes closure by definition. It is thus opposed to the open-endedness of deconstruction and its derivatives. See Gestalt factors, Gestalt psychology.

GESTALT FACTORS: Conditions which create the perceived effect of a unitary figure (closure) rather than a relation of parts. The most frequently mentioned are contiguity, contrast, proximity, and similarity. For example, eight vertical lines will read as four bars if they are arranged in pairs rather than evenly spaced. Such effects are routinely discussed in artwriting involving the psychology of perception and are, as a result, mostly a matter of visual patterns. However, the same principles can be applied to meaning, as in Gestalt above.

GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY: The study of human behaviour and experience as a whole phenomenon. Consciousness, for example, cannot be studied analytically because the analysis would break it into parts which would cease to bear any resemblance to it.

GIFT: A sociological term relating to exchange rituals (e.g., potlatches) and the like in tribal culture. Georges Bataille borrowed the term from Marcel Mauss and gave it a characteristic spin in his discussion of expenditure.

GLANCE: See gaze and glance.

GLOBAL: General; comprehensive; embracing all factors within the field at hand.

GOLDEN SECTION: A mythical proportion which was once fashionable in discussions of compositions with pretensions to perfect harmony and eternal gracefulness. Unfortunately, it can be found just about anywhere one chooses to look for it. It is usually expressed as “(a:b as b:[a+b])” or “the subdivision of a line or any other figure, area, etc., such that the smaller part is to the larger part as the larger part is to the whole.

GOUACHE: See body colour.

GRAM: See grammatology.

GRAMMATOLOGY: Grammatology originally meant only the study of writing as the systematic presentation of meaning in graphic codes and representations (see I. J. Gelb, The Study of Writing). Since Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (see Derridean), grammatology has taken on a far more philosophical tone. Traditional discussions of language maintain that speech existed prior to writing. Derrida argues the opposite. While the smallest meaningful unit of speech would be the morpheme, the smallest unit of writing is the “gram,” the mark or trace. The individual grams of a writing have no essential meaning resulting from an actual bond with the things they describe or indicate. Meaning simply arises from the differences between grams and the deferral of meaning that a reader must undertake in order to prevent false closure (see différance). Grammatology, thus conceived as the study of the open-endedness of the text, is a part of the larger program of deconstruction, which has become one of the more influential modes of contemporary critical discourse. Directly related ideas can be found in the work of Mieke Bal, Julia Kristeva, Gregory Ulmer, and many others.

GRAND AUTRE: See other.

GRAND RéCIT: French term for metanarrative.

GREATNESS: Most postmodern writers deny that there is any inherent characteristic of an artwork which ensures that it will last through the centuries as a significant moment in visual history. Certainly form cannot fill the bill because it provides no objective standard that is not compromised by a political construct (see also power). Some simply dismiss the idea of the masterpiece altogether, replacing pseudotranshistorical observations with historically grounded ones. Others retain the idea of greatness, but they try to describe it more matter-of-factly. One such is Stephen David Ross’s A Theory of Art, which defines greatness simply as an enduring ability to generate further articulative responses. Because this ability can be produced by conditions of power, by genuine characteristics of the work, by historical accidents, or in any other number of other ways — none of which are given priority — and because articulative responses can include everything from refernces in coffee-table books to doctoral dissertations or further works of art, it seems an accurate description of what actually happens to works that have been granted special status by posterity.

GROUND: A basis for action, argument or belief. See groundlessness. For a second, specific sense, see sign.

GROUNDLESSNESS: Derrida’s Truth in Painting uses the metaphor of an upturned boot in a painting by Van Gogh to confirm the groundlessness of logocentric assertions of essential meaning. See deconstruction.

GUILT BY ASSOCIATION: A tactic in informal logic: artist X knows artist Y well; artist Y is suspicious; therefore, artist X is suspicious. The tactic works in a valid argument only when the alleged association genuinely exists, when Y is demonstrably suspicious (or whatever), and when there are no relevant premises (such as unstated causal arguments) to differentiate X from Y. The tactic is rarely identified as such in art history, but it is very common, as when Neoplatonists are linked to Michelangelo or linguistic theorists are to postmodern artists.

GYNOCENTRIC: Anything which foregrounds a putatively essential feminine principle can be considered gynocentric. See feminism, gynocriticism, hymen, matriarchal aesthetic. Cf phallocentric.

GYNOCRITICISM: Elaine Showalter’s term for the criticism and interpretation of works by women authors. See feminism, feminist criticism.

GYNOPHOBIA: Irrational fear of women. Cf misogyny.

Postmodern terms – Absence to Curtain wall

These Postmodern definitions are a useful gauge to see how academics construct their sentences. 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.


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 [1982]). 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.


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 [1938]).

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.

ARTCOUTURE: The process in which art based work is produced  from the highest form of craftsmanship.

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 [1964]) 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.


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 [1979]). 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.


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 [1965]). 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.


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