Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery


All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 2001 The Regents of the University of Nebraska


Imagine, as so many artists, musicians, writers, poets and dreamers have tried to do so many times in so many ways, a universal language-one that could be understood by anyone in any place at any time. However implausible such a language may seem, however romantic, naive, or flatly impossible, its creation in visual terms was a common pursuit of early modern painters, those working in the first decades of the 20th century. At the beginning of this new millennium, we may ask afresh if all these past imaginings and pursuits were but elegant and finely wrought pipe dreams, or if in some way modern art actually did and still does communicate to the human mind-any human mind anywhere-fundamental stimuli that may be commonly understood. Recent thinking in studies of the mind suggest that perhaps at least some of it does, and that those images that achieve universality do so by way of an elemental, physiologically based phenomenon of the human mind: natural metaphor.

A metaphor is commonly understood to be a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that literally denotes one thing is used to denote and describe another; for example, "time is a jet plane." Time, the comparison tells us, moves away from us quickly. A common way to think of metaphor is that it merely decorates speech-that it makes language, whether written or oral, more interesting or even entertaining. Consider Raymond Chandler's colorful use of metaphor in his novel, The Long Goodbye, wherein Chandler describes a character as having "a face like a collapsed lung." Now, that is vivid. But perhaps a reasonable person could do without metaphor altogether in thought and speech and give a more accurate description of that same character's face: As opposed to looking like a collapsed lung, the face in question could be described as misshapen, deeply wrinkled and pervasively splotched. This might be more accurate, especially as none of us actually ever sees a collapsed lung. Yet, all of us, including the most reasonable among us, use metaphor constantly.

And, apparently for good, unavoidable and wholly natural reasons. What both contemporary linguists and cognitive neuroscientists are now telling us about the brain is that metaphors are not dispensable decorations. They are central to the process of perception, and thus to how the mind makes sense of what we call reality. The mind is nothing like the computers it designs we are told by certain neuroscientists, despite the fact that computational terminology is used all the time to describe the workings of the brain. Instead, in the words of scientist John J. Ratey, the brain "works by analogy and metaphor. It relates whole concepts to one another and looks for similarities, differences or relationships between them." Seconding the centrality of metaphor to brain function are linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson with their conclusion that "metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch."