Interpretation as an Obstacle to Ekphrasis

I find the concept of ekphrasis rather ambiguous, in that Mitchell states that on a semantical level, there exists essentially no difference between images and language. The same amount of information and meaning can be articulated through speech and through an image. However, the relationship between the two and the degree to  which they correlate with one another becomes the obstacle. In certain cases, an illustration can serve to support a speech or verbal element, as a picture is worth a thousand words. In other cases, the opposite occurs: speech can help better understand an image.

Although this signifies that verbal and pictorial factors are correlated on some level, the exercise we did in class with Achille’s Shield proved that while images and language are able to support one another, they are not a replacement for each other. The exercise demonstrated just how limited the practice of ekphrasis can be. No matter how detailed and descriptive the passage was, there still remained infinite ways to depict the shield because while images are concrete and straight-forward, textual and verbal descriptions leave room for imagination. Hence, interpretation obstructs the practicability of ekphrasis.

Can Ekphrasis Be Applied to Art and Music?

As I read Mitchell’s “Ekphrasis & the Other” I couldn’t help but mutter “duh.” Ekphrasis, which can be simply defined as a verbal representation of a visual, is a practice we students have been using since we learned how to write.

“Hw would you describe this flower?” a teacher may ask, to which we would responds, “It has red petals and a green stem.”

However, the more I read about ekphrasis and the more I began thinking about ekphrasis as a complication or a mixing of representations (image vs. language), I began to wonder what others mixings could be made to create a new perspective. Could I use dance to represent a body of text? What about painting to represent music?

Take for example “Burning Down the House” by Martin Klimas. In this piece of artwork, Klimas chose to visualize sound. More specifically, Klimas reinterpreted the music of Jimi Hendrix into a visual piece. This visual representation of music, called visual music art, is similar to ekphrasis, and how writers turn image into text.

Burning Down the House by Martin Klimas

The result of Klimas’s interpretation (in my opinion) is both striking and beautiful. It gives the viewer a whole new perspective on “Burning Down the House.”

Exploring visual music art helped me better appreciate ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is not just a retelling or a description of an image, it is a reimagination.

The Dimensionality of Ekphrasis

It’s interesting to consider the definition of illustration and how we understand it. When I think the innumerable movie versions of books, it makes me realize how often we interpret ideas across different mediums. From the various covers of the Iliad that range from images from greek pottery to comic strips, it becomes clear that in the realm of written and visual arts, we are very familiar with the interchange of visual and verbal representations. There is a constant dialogue between the two whether we are conscious of it or not and the complex iterations of this dialogue are evident through ekphrasis.  As a verbal representation of a visual object, Ekphrasis provides the reading of the work with another dimension, pulling in issues of identity and culture that make the experience both provocative and personal.

I thought the exercise we did in class with the Shield of Achilles was a very clear illustration of both the limitations and complexities of ekphrasis. Although it’s a passage filled with incredible description and vivid imagery, it became clear with the variety of interpretations and illustrations that it didn’t necessarily conform the images we saw in our minds. Quite the opposite, it seemed as if the complexity of detail actually resulted in even more interpretations of the shield.  Whats even more interesting is how the ekphrasic passage allowed us all to make into reality an object that never existed in reality.  And this perhaps speaks to the limitations of art forms that don’t hinder the written word. When we see a picture there is little left to imagination but, as in the case of the shield, any one description can result in any number of imaged interpretations.

Judging a book by its cover

It is interesting to consider the concept of paratext in terms of how the editors, printers, and publishers choose to illustrate the text. It is especially fascinating to me that the authors of a book are relatively uninvolved in the creation and selection of their cover art. Covers of books are the selling point, the image that draws us in as readers, and whether we like to admit it or not, we do judge books on their covers. So why are authors often detached from this process?

A book cover is a marketing tool; it is ultimately designed to engage and more importantly, sell. Even if the cover doesn’t represent the text in the way the author intended, the cover is still illustrating something, thus it will always convey meaning. This makes the cover art away to convey a text’s meaning in addition to the author’s text, giving this form of paratext even more power in its affect on the audience.

I experienced this inconsistency in meaning on a smaller scale this past winter break. My dad recently decided to self-publish a novel he had written, and hired one of his friends, a graphic designer, to produce cover art for the novel. I had read the book a while back, and saw the final copy this past month. The cover art, in my opinion, poorly represented the meaning I found in the book when I read it. While the art itself was relevant to the plot of the novel, I felt the stylized nature of the images gave off a vibe that I felt was inconsistent with the story. My point is that everybody has a unique reaction to a text, and no one’s interpretation will be exactly the same. Cover art serves a purpose, to pull in the reader, and everybody has their own tastes and opinions about what serves this purpose the best. The intersection between paratext and illustration poses a conflict of interest between the marketing tools of materials supplemental to text and the author’s intent of the meaning their text should convey.

Banksy + Metapictures

After class this morning, I left wanting to look at more Banksy graffiti art. Whether you believe graffiti is vandalism or not, the artistry and commentary behind Banksy’s work is both relevant and inspiring.

Metapictures, as defined by Mitchell in Picture Theory, are “pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures; pictures that are used to show what a picture is” (Mitchell 35). In class, we discussed how Banksy creates artwork that seamlessly utilizes the exterior world as part of the display. These meta-“graffitis” are incredible to analyze. After class, I found this Banksy image online:

This Banksy creation was done on the side of a house near the UK Government Communications Headquarters. Three men dressed in trench coats “wait” patiently next to a telephone booth with recorders, microphones, and camera equipment. To me, the artwork seems to suggest a lack of privacy. Potentially, even deeper, commenting on encroaching government surveillance… especially due to it’s location. Not only does this piece kind of make me laugh (as it’s pretty comical to envision yourself going into the telephone booth), it also makes me think critically about government surveillance. Are we being watched at every turn?

By simply incorporating the outside world (aka the telephone booth) into the piece, Banksy successfully creates a metapicture worth talking about.

The Ambiguity of Ekphrasis

Melissa Watts's "How to Paint a Sigh"

As we discussed in class, ekphrasis refers to the verbal description of a work of art.  The image/text relationship is characterized as the self/other relationship.  One one hand we have an image that is supposed to concretely express something visual, while on the other we have the context, perspective, and cultural implications of the text.  Sometimes there is the threat that ekphrasis will never be fully capable of describing an image (ekphrastic fear), other times ekphrasis can help us “sense” an image to make it more real (ekphrastic hope), while in other cases it is neutral (ekphrastic indifference).

These different relationships between an image and text mirrors how we view other people.  People can experience fear in the idea that we are all one unit (humanity).  We can also feel hope in the sense that we are not alone.  Lastly we may be apathetic to our relations with others.  Viewing and discussing images and text is then, in a sense, like taking a psychology class.  Our opinions may be colored by our view on the world, or how we wish the world to be.  They may differ from visual to visual, or we may consistently wish for a particular relationship.  I am curious to see this theory practiced in class!