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The Role of Metaphor

By Cherie Z. Hu, Contributing Writer

The artists:

For better or for worse, metaphors abound in artistic discourse. Composer John Cage calls music “a means of rapid transportation”; novelist Theodore Dreiser deems art “the stored honey of the human soul”; painter Eugène Delacroix sees it as “a bridge linking the painter’s mind with that of the viewer.” In the words of these renowned artists, art becomes a condiment in a jar or a piece of urban infrastructure. What is the role of metaphors like these in our understanding of the creative process? Do such metaphors detract from or enhance the quality of art?

Several artists have argued that metaphor, rather than providing descriptive clarity, only further increases the gap between the genuine nature of art and what can be successfully communicated to a popular audience. Poet and essayist T.R. Hummer writes that metaphor “may allow or even encourage us to forget literal truths.” In fact, the past two centuries have seen the advent of many abstract artistic movements that were arguably founded on the desire to eradicate all metaphor. Inherent in abstractionist philosophies seems to be the notion that art is capable of transcending this dependence on references to everyday experience and of existing on a higher, untouchable plane. However, what brings together Miriam Huettner ’17 and Sam Wu ’17—both immensely thoughtful, talented artists in their sophomore year at Harvard—is their mutual appreciation for metaphor as a facilitating, rather than reductive, force in artistic creation and collaboration.

Miriam embraces a metaphor for art that I had never heard before: that of excavation. This metaphor turns art into an act not only of production, but also of discovery. The word “excavation” has anthropological undertones, bringing to mind the image of digging through multiple layers to unearth venerable, previously-unknown treasures—refuting precisely the surface-level artistic activity and understanding for which metaphor is often criticized.

Indeed, the metaphor of excavation is a core element in Miriam’s understanding of art. “Artworks are constantly being built on top of each other, being adapted and changed,” she says. “There is a constant sense of the new appearing on top of the old, but the old is still there.” Through dance and choreography, Miriam hopes to gain insight into the influence of these older, established ideas on modern artistic innovations. She cites the newly-renovated Harvard Art Museums, whose “regal, Roman-forum walls” contrast with the modern aura provided by “clear glass and white spaces,” as an inspiration for her current conception of art as an elaborate dialogue between old and new.

While Miriam’s conception of art centers around the discovery of content, Sam sees much of art as the discovery of new forms of the same content. To him, artistic innovation is concerned not only with “increasing content depth,” but also with “changing the way we phrase and deliver the same message.” Interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the most effective facilitators of this change, as the very act of conversing with an artist from another discipline requires a brute re-contextualization of what otherwise feels innate. Sam agrees that it is both revitalizing and challenging to “express in words what you’ve always felt intuitively, what you’ve never felt the need to explain.” The end result is an interpretation of one art within the framework of another—a metaphoricalization of an artistic idea across disciplines.

In this vein, Sam is particularly excited about the idea of combining his craft of musical composition with that of dance or film. He describes a hypothetical collaboration with a choreographer in a strikingly multilayered way: “First you’d have a musician interpreting the composer’s music, then you’d have the choreographer interpreting the musician’s performance, then you’d have the dancers interpreting the choreographer’s instructions.” In this case, each “layer” represents not newly-excavated material, but rather a different expression of the same material, or a different metaphor for a common artistic vision.

In other words, metaphor is a means not only of communicating art to others, but also of creating art itself. Concrete, familiar ideas become metaphors for making art while, in the interdisciplinary collaborative process, different artistic disciplines become metaphors for each other. Only one of many reasons interdisciplinary collaboration is needed in the arts is to keep this communicative and creative power of metaphor alive.

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