On Metaphors and Art-Making

A friend studying metaphor theory asked me about my experience of the use of metaphor in art. He wanted to know why I use metaphor when I write and what my thoughts were on why other artists in the great variety of artistic disciplines use metaphor in their various forms. We talked at length a couple of months ago. This morning, I read a paper he wrote and decided to reiterate much of what we talked about in December, and to do so in the form I’m most confortable expressing myself – the written word. I thought I’d post my (edited) response here in hopes of finding out if any of my artistically inclined friends agree or disagree with my ideas.

As an artist, and particularly as a creative writer, I use metaphor to impart meaning that is impossible to impart any other way. My aim is always to communicate and to do so as clearly as possible. I think some people probably entertain the illusion that artists use “fancy” words and phrases, employ images, and tell stories because artists enjoy being vague and difficult to understand. While this may be true for some “artists,” I do not believe this characterization is true broadly. Most artists have a terrific desire to know and be known. Their art-making is the best way they know to wrestle with what they do and do not know, and their artistic products are the best way they know to communicate what they’ve learned and to invite others to respond to who they are. For an artist, the art making process is kind of like when an academic sits down to thoughtfully consider a new proposition. Presenting an art work to the public is like when an academic engages in spirited debate.

People often criticize artists for being egotistical and self-centered, indemnifying artist’s works for being too showy and self-aggrandizing, as if a painting or novel or film is a way of saying, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” There is a very strong element of truth in that criticism. Artistic works are indeed objects of ferocious self-expression. Art works are identity statements. However, they are rarely meant to be polemical, as if the artist is forcing his or her identity on the world. Rather, the exhibition of a work of art by an artist is an act of extraordinary vulnerability, as if the artist is saying, “This is who I really am. Will you love me?” or “This is what I see in the world? Do you see the same?” This sounds cloying, and indeed, in the case of emotionally unhealthy artists it certainly can be, but it is also an invitation to intimacy.

Artists do this because an artist, just as, I would argue, every other person on this planet, desires most deeply to be known, to feel loved and no longer alone. And so an artist’s aim is to communicate who they are and what they know and what they wish they knew as clearly as possible.

Unfortunately, the things most artists are trying to communicate are inherently intangible. The subject of most art is not mathematical or scientific. There are no facts associated with the experience of grief and loss. There is no objective data regarding the phenomenon of falling in love. One cannot graph the emotional trauma of abuse or define the exhilaration of holding a newborn in one’s arms. This is all the realm of the subjective and experiential, and while we may in our increasingly technologically adept world be able to observe and chart the neural firings inspired by experiencing fear, those charts fall far short of correctly conveying what it is like to watch a child wander out into the street.

And so artists tell stories, paint paintings, sing songs. We build scale dioramas of tiny people on the edge of a great abyss. We splash watercolors on canvass. We write obscure blog posts about untilled earth. In all of this we are trying to better represent something we know or are trying to know that cannot be correctly captured in words.

In short, we use metaphor, not in a direct, linguistic way as Aristotle detailed, but in an indirect, often suggestive and experiential way as Jesus did when He told his parables, broke bread and poured wine, and hung on a cross and rose from the dead. I think this all touches on why Jesus always seems so cagey about “the kingdom of heaven” – he’s trying to describe something that can only be experienced. The kingdom of heaven can only be lived.

I think you were correct to approach Jesus’ words in Luke metaphorically, because I don’t think the kingdom of heaven can be explained didactically. I think it can only be suggested with words. It is actualized in life. I graduate in June, and I’m excited to stop only talking about the kingdom of heaven for a while and discover even more of it by living into it more intentionally as best as I can.

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