nelson goodman's image as language


review of:
GOODMAN, Nelson: ‘Languagues of Art.
An approach to a theory of symbols’, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge 1976.

As already the title indicates, Goodman considers artworks to be signs (‘symbols’). He bluntly puts: ‘‘pictorial representation is a mode of signification’ (p. 3). Which immediately raises the question how signs that are artworks (‘pictorial representations’) can be distinguished from signs that are not artworks (‘descriptions’).

Goodman rejects the existing answers, in particular those of Peirce and Langer (p. 228). Peirce introduced the concept ‘icon’ for signs that resemble what they refer to. Langer distinguished ‘discursive’ from ‘presentational’ symbols. Goodman negates that something would become a ‘representation’ (say, a painting) when it resembles what it refers to. He fiercely opposes the idea that a painting would be a copy or an imitation.

Instead, Goodman introduces a whole array of ‘symbol systems’. The ‘representational’ differs from the ‘verbal’ in that its ‘symbol system’ is not ‘articulated’ (like verbal language), but ‘dense’ (gradients of colours and black and white).

Here is not the place to examine whether the Goodman’s criteria suffice to distinguish ‘representations’ from ‘descriptions’. Our aim is to show that such distinction is not relevant, as far as art is concerned. What really matters here is the distinction between words or images (‘pictorial representations’) that conjure up a world, and words or images that merely refer to world – words and images that are merely signs (‘symbols’). No doubt, an image may be used as a sign. The representation of an eagle in an encyclopaedia refers to ‘eagles’ in general. And the same goes for the pictorial representation of dishes on a menu: they refer to the real dishes that will soon be served. We do not look at hem in view of enjoying what is represented, but as a means of forming an idea of pleasures forthcoming.

Totally different is the eagle on Michelangelo’s drawing of Zeus and Ganymede. Here, we are not looking through the image at an alleged happening in a mythical world. We rather obliterate every real or mythic world and totally submerge in the world evoked in the drawing, as if the event were unfolding there before our very eyes. Thus, as opposed to an image that is used as a sign – an image that refers to something outside the painting – there is also the image that conjures up a world, that is a world itself.

And, just as there are two kinds of images – images that refer and images that conjure up – there are also two kinds of (verbal) signs. As a rule words are used to refer to the outside world: ‘It rains’. But, as soon as one says ‘Once upon a time…’, the words stop referring and begin to conjure up a world in our imagination. The difference between art and other human activities, such as science or philosophy, cannot possibly be understood in terms of signs. Only the difference between referring to and conjuring up – between semiosis and mimesis – will do (see 'Mimesis and semiosis').

Which is not to say that the world that is conjured in art cannot be understood in terms of signs, just like the real world. The expression on the face of the Mona Lisa is a sign, just like the real expression. And both a real palm and the palm in an image are symbols of martyrdom. Yet, such semiotic – iconological – exercises have nothing to do with art as such.

How much this approach misses the mark, becomes apparent when Goodman claims that ‘pictorial representations’ belong to the same kind of ‘symbol systems’ as … seismographs and thermometers! How, then, to tell a temperature curve from a Hokusai drawing of the Fujiyama (p. 229)? Goodman remarks that even when in both cases the lines exactly match, we still call the one a graph and the other an image. ‘What makes the difference?’. In both cases we are dealing with ‘dense schemes’. According to Goodman, the difference is ‘syntactic’: in the graph the quality of the line does not matter, whereas in the print the subtle variations are constitutive.

This is evidently false. Hokusai’s drawing continues to conjure up a volcano, however much we might vary the quality of its lines with a computer program. Only the artistic quality will change, not the fact that we have to do with an image. Also the graph remains a graph whatever the nature of its lines What, then, really makes the graph a sign and a drawing an image? The answer is obvious: Hokusai’s lines are an optic given that readily conjures up an equally optic landscape, while a temperature curve is an optic given the optic qualities of which are readily overlooked because they only refer to a tactile given: temperature. Also variations in the intensity of light or even a succession of sounds would do. Whereas a translation of the optic givens of Hokusai's drawing in variations of sound or pressure would utterly destroy every evocative power of the image. And that evidently has everything to do with the difference between an image and a sign.

Goodman’s theory turns out to be one of the many futile efforts to fill the gap left by giving up the good old - but all too often misunderstood - conception of art as mimesis

© Stefan Beyst, September 2000.


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