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What Is the Function of Metaphor in Art?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated May 23, 2024
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The function of a metaphor in art, whether in painting, sculpture, or writing, is generally to evoke a certain feeling or thought in one who reads or witnesses the work. Metaphors use symbolism and comparisons to strengthen a point, and they may also act to represent certain ideas or thoughts. Visual metaphors may be obvious or abstract, depending on the artist’s emotions, ideas or experiences.

One common example of a metaphor in art is the use of a cross or crucifix. This symbol is usually used to represent Christianity or certain aspects of the faith, such as peace, hope, salvation, judgment, or condemnation. The exact meaning behind a visual metaphor in art will depend on the frame of mind and feelings of the artist who created the work. For instance, a Christian painter may view the cross as a metaphor for hope, while someone has felt judged or ridiculed by the church may view it as symbolizing oppression or damnation.

In literature, metaphors are often used to prove a point or add description to a point. For instance, if the writer is describing someone who is angry or cranky, she may write “he was a bear” to symbolize this concept. Poetry also makes heavy use of metaphors, as do most works of fiction in order to help readers feel more connected to the time and place of the story being told. Overall, the use of a metaphor in art of any form is to engage an audience on a deeper level.

Although using a metaphor in art is one of the most effective ways to add deeper meaning or a greater sense of presence for the audience of a work, it is also one of the most difficult elements to incorporate. In fiction, the metaphor should be easily understood so that the reader gets a stronger and clearer idea of what the writer is trying to say. Metaphors which are too abstract or confusing will have the opposite effect.

In painting and similar visual art forms, there are often no such restrictions for the use of metaphors. Abstract paintings may feature symbols which seems completely unrelated to the them of the painting on the surface, but which may hold a special meaning for the artist. Additionally, many artists depict metaphorical symbols or pictures which can be taken in more than one way. This allows the viewer to become more engaged in the work because it allows him to decipher what the work means to him.

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Discussion Comments
By anon344091 — On Aug 05, 2013

It's easy to confuse symbols with metaphor and this article muddles the two. A metaphor conveys an idea by making a comparison between two things, frequently joined with "like" or "as" (but not always). "He was hungry as a bear" is a proper metaphor. "Time is on her side" is another. Symbols are self contained and stand for something. A corporate logo is a symbol, it stands for the organization that owns it. A pineapple is a symbol of hospitality. The relationship between a symbol and what it stands for is arbitrary. Metaphors are not arbitrary because the qualities of what is being compared must work together if the metaphor is going to be coherent.

By browncoat — On Jan 22, 2012

@indigomoth - I don't really agree with you there. Art can be whatever the person wants it to be. It's not like a novel, where you have to keep a reader in thrall for hours and the object itself (the paper) has no real value.

In art, the object (the painting or sculpture) is the art. And it can be taken in at a glance or studied at leisure.

And people might prefer their books a certain way because they spend so much time in the company of that story, but they only spend moments looking at a painting, so you can do whatever you like.

Fill it with obscure metaphors if you want to. They won't interrupt the pleasure of looking at them with their existence, but they might add more pleasure for the art critic when it comes to interpreting the work.

By indigomoth — On Jan 22, 2012

@Mor - I would argue the same thing could be applied to metaphorical art, although I know some would object.

I don't like the idea of making something intentionally obscure, so that no one can understand it. I think that art should be able to fill someone with emotion at a glance, as well as withstand a more thorough look.

If all your metaphors are so obscure and clever that no one could possibly understand them, or only could if they knew certain things, then your work won't provoke emotion in anyone except you.

If you have to include obscure metaphors, you should have the skill to keep them under a layer of less subtle meaning.

By Mor — On Jan 21, 2012

I think one important aspect of metaphor in literature is that, not only should it be easily understood, it should also add something to the narrative without jarring the reader out of the story.

You might be able to understand a really unusual metaphor, you might even be impressed by it, but unless you are reading the work extremely closely, a metaphor that makes you think too hard is going to make you pause in the story.

I guess some writers might want that, but usually the goal is to sweep up a reader, make them see the piece as a whole rather than as a series of interesting metaphors.

This is what is meant by the popular saying "kill your darlings". Darlings are bits of prose the writer thinks are particularly good and they are almost always metaphors that are "good" enough to be noticed which can pull a reader out of the work.

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