Image, Artistic

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Image, Artistic


a universal category in art; the depiction, interpretation, and perception of life through the creation of objects that produce an aesthetic effect. The term “image” often refers to an element or part of an artistic whole, generally a fragment that as it were possesses an independent life and content, for example, a literary character or a symbolic image such as the sail in M. Iu. Lermontov’s poem “The Sail.” In a more general sense, an artistic image is the very basis of a work of art from the viewpoint of the work’s expressiveness, intensity, and meaningfulness.

In comparison with other aesthetic categories, the artistic image is relatively late in origin. The rudiments of a theory of artistic images may be found in Aristotle’s doctrine of mimesis, that is, the artist’s free imitation of life insofar as life is able to produce integrated and internally structured objects; Aristotle noted the aesthetic satisfaction to be gained from such imitation. For a long time, owing to the classical tradition, art was viewed as a craft or skill, and consequently the plastic arts predominated among the arts. Aesthetic thought was limited to the concepts of the canon and later of style and form, which clarified the transformative relationship of the artist to his material. Only when the less concrete arts—literature and music—became foremost was it recognized that artistically transformed material embodies a certain ideal that to an extent is similar to an idea.

Hegelian and post-Hegelian aesthetics, including the aesthetics of V. G. Belinskii, made extensive use of the category of the artistic image, contrasting the image as the product of artistic thought to the results of abstract, conceptual thought—that is, to the syllogism, deduction, proof, or formula. The universality of the category of the artistic image has often been disputed since then, because the connotations of objectivity and clarity in the term “artistic image” seemed to make the term inapplicable to the nonobjective, nonrepresentational arts, in particular to music. However, modern aesthetics, and primarily Soviet aesthetics, widely uses the theory of the artistic image, regarding it as the most promising theory for the elucidation of the distinctive nature of art.

Various aspects of the artistic image may be distinguished that demonstrate its simultaneous involvement in many areas of knowledge and being.

In ontological terms the artistic image reflects the ideal and is as it were a stylized object superimposed on its own material substratum. Marble is not the flesh it represents, a two-dimensional surface is not a three-dimensional space, and a story about an event is not the event itself. An artistic image is not identical with its material base, although it may be recognized in and by means of this base. “The nonaesthetic aspect of material, in contrast to the content, does not form part of the aesthetic object. The artist deals [with the nonaesthetic aspect] and aesthetics does so as well, but primary aesthetic contemplation does not deal with it” (M. M. Bakhtin, Voprosy literatury i estetiki, 1975, pp. 46, 47). Nevertheless, the image is more closely united with its material basis than is number or any other ideal object dealt with in the exact sciences. Since to an extent the image is uninvolved with the literary material it is based on, the image uses its potentialities as signs of its own content. For example, a statue has no relationship to the chemical composition of the marble it is made of, but it does have a relationship to the marble’s texture and color.

In this semiotic aspect, the artistic image is a sign, that is, a means of semantic communication in a given culture or among related cultures. Similarly, the image is a manifestation of imagined existence, repeatedly renewed in the imagination of the reader or observer who possesses the key or cultural code needed to identify and comprehend the image. In order to understand a traditional Japanese or Chinese play, one must be acquainted with a special language of gestures and poses. But even Pushkin’s The Stone Guest would not be wholly comprehensible to a reader who was completely unfamiliar with the Don Juan legend and its symbolic language. In order to understand a motion picture, the viewer must have an elementary familiarity with the language of cinematography. For example, he must understand the function of large-scale shots, which alarmed the unaccustomed viewer in the early days of the cinema. Consequently, in the material on which the image is based, the image-forming elements are those that are distinct from the strictly technical elements. For example, it is not acoustics but tone which is an element of a harmonic system. The image-forming elements constitute part of a specific language that is used to describe a given art form or artistic tradition and that is conditioned by cultural agreement.

In gnoseological terms, the artistic image is a product of the imagination, closest to such types of cognitive thought as the assumption. Aristotle observed that the various aspects of art are in the sphere of the probable, whose very existence cannot be confirmed or denied. It follows that the artistic image can be an assumption or hypothesis only owing to its own ideal, imaginary nature. Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son exists as such and is kept in the Hermitage, but that which is depicted on the canvas, while it does not exist in reality, has the potentiality of such existence. At the same time, the artistic image is not simply a formal assumption but (even in the case of deliberate fantasy) an assumption that is suggested by the artist with maximum sensory persuasiveness and that attains a semblance of reality. Related to this is the strictly aesthetic aspect of the artistic image—a unification, illumination, and vitalization of the artistic material by means of semantic expressiveness.

In its aesthetic aspect, the artistic image is a rational, lifelike entity that contains nothing superfluous, accidental, or supplementary and that creates an impression of beauty owing precisely to the complete unity and ultimate meaningfulness of its component parts. In the autonomous, total existence of artistic reality, nothing is directed toward such external aims as commentary or illustration by means of example; this bears witness to the striking similarity of the artistic image to a living person. A person is perceived in depth not from without, as an element in a causal chain of elements, but from that person’s own vital center. A person also has the ability to evaluate the outside world in terms of space and time owing to the internal mechanisms of regulation that also maintain that person’s own continually changing sense of identity. But without the isolating power of imagination and without exclusion from reality, the artistic image could not attain the intensity and logic that bring it to life. In other words, the verisimilitude of an artistic image is related to its imaginary existence.

As a living entity, an image is autonomous; as an ideal object it is objective, like a number or an equation; and as an assumption it is subjective. However, as a sign the image is intersubjective, communicative, and comprehensible during a dialogue between the author or artist and the reader or viewer. In this sense the image is not an object or a thought but a two-way process. To an extent this may be illustrated by examining the internal structure of elementary artistic images. The structural diversity of the different types of artistic images may be reduced to two basic principles: that of metonymy (a part or feature instead of the whole) and that of metaphor (an associative linking of different objects).

On a conceptual level, two types of artistic generalization correspond to the above two structural principles. The symbol corresponds to the metaphor, and the type, to metonymy; compare A. A. Potebnia’s characterization of metaphor and metonymy in his collection Aesthetics and Poetics (1976, pp. 553–54). The artistic image tends toward metonymy in the representational arts. This is because any rendering of outward reality is a reconstruction based on those lines, forms, and details that are viewed as most important by the artist, that represent what is perceived and replace it, and that can be depicted with the resources of the art form in question. Metaphoric linking, transfer, and indirect use of artistic images are typical mainly of the expressive arts: lyric poetry (“the poet begins his discourse from afar”) and music. In these arts the aesthetic object comes into being as it were on the boundary of the two terms that are linked; it emerges from the intersecting of the image’s elements. Both these principles of organizing aesthetic objects are not conceptual and analytic but are organic, since neither can be separated from the emotional aspect of the image.

In the epithet, the point at which the metaphoric and metonymic principles converge may be observed. The primary aesthetic trait of the epithet is that it is combined with the word it modifies rather than added to it as a logical differential. The epithet therefore intensifies the concrete, elemental content of the word it modifies without narrowing that word’s semantic scope. It is well known that the opposite is true of conceptual thought: the more concrete, the narrower.

In the phrase “the blue sea” the epithet “blue” as a metonymic feature makes the sea conceivable as such by removing it from abstract characterlessness. As a metaphoric feature the epithet shifts the sea to another conceptual sphere, that of an earthly expanse. In this elementary image of the sea, everything that is characteristic of the sea as such accompanies the meaning. Nothing remains outside the boundary of the aesthetic object, and understanding is achieved without a sacrifice of abstraction and simplification. At the same time, this concrete unity is only latent, since the epithet “blue” provides only a schematic internal form to the image of the sea, indicating in advance the direction our imagination can take and the limits within which our imagination can function. The sea must be perceived as something blue, but within these limits a broad range of concepts and associations is possible. These as it were constitute the life and inner dynamism of the image—its conceivable substance, its self-sufficiency independent of the author or artist, and its ability to have many aspects while retaining its identity. The organic aspect of the artistic image is inconceivable without the image’s schematic aspect, which establishes the author’s or artist’s subjective intention and at the same time provides scope for the reader’s or viewer’s objectivity.

Thus, no artistic image is wholly concrete. The elements of clarity and stability in the image are enveloped by other elements of indefiniteness and concealment. This results in a certain incompleteness of the artistic image in comparison with the reality of actual objects. Art seeks to become reality but is constrained by its own limitations. However, the image also has the advantage of its own polysemy and its capacity for elucidation by means of many varied interpretations, whose number is limited only by the author’s or artist’s emphasis. For example, the respective interpretations of Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin that were made by Belinskii and by F. M. Dostoevsky, although they constitute a polemic and in many ways contradict each other, are valid in terms of Pushkin’s artistic intentions in the novel. On the other hand, D. I. Pisarev’s interpretation of Eugene Onegin is opposed to the very values emphasized by the poet himself in the novel.

The merging of that which is organic and that which is schematic in the artistic image underscores the dual relationship of the image to the criterion of truth. This has undoubtedly been the most complex and paradoxical aspect of art ever since art became an independent field of human endeavor. Beyond the artistic image as a hypothesis and a means of communication is the creator—the individual artist. This is also so in the case of anonymous or collectively produced works of art, where the aesthetic object also expresses the viewpoint of the person or persons creating it.

However, an image is subject to its creator not absolutely but only in its schematic changes and its internal form. This internal form is composed of the semantic tension instilled by the artist, a tension that is part of the emotional exterior of the artistic image and that controls the image’s perception. Moreover, from the viewpoint of its own organic unity, an image belongs to itself. It becomes objectivized, that is, it becomes detached from its psychologically arbitrary source—the nonaesthetic views and intentions of the artist. It is true that the artist himself creates a work of art from beginning to end. However, in relation to the organic aspect of the image the artist is not an authoritative creator but a sensitive craftsman who nurtures the independent development of an artistic idea and the growth of a living, developed seed.

The inner form of an image is personal and bears the indelible impression of its creator’s ideology and his selective and creative initiative. Consequently, an image represents the creator’s evaluation of human life, has cultural value, and expresses historically relevant tendencies and ideals. But as an organism that vivifies literature or art, an artistic image constitutes a sphere in which the aesthetically harmonizing laws of life function to the utmost. In the artistic image there is no infinity in a negative sense and no unwarranted outcome. The range of perception is extensive, and time is reversible. Coincidence is not absurd, necessity is not oppressive, and clarity triumphs over indistinctness. In these aspects, artistic value is a relative sociocultural value and one of life’s permanent values. The artistic image represents an ideal potentiality of our human universe. For this reason an artistic assumption, unlike a scientific hypothesis, cannot be discarded as unneeded and be replaced by another assumption, even if the historical limitations of its creator seem obvious.

The enigma of art and the hypnotism of its persuasiveness consist precisely in the following: in an artistic image, suprapersonal harmony appears as personal profundity, that which is historically and socially relevant is inseparable from the eternal, the creator is inseparable from he who completes the work of art, and subjective initiative is inseparable from objective vision. Because of this valuable but deceptive fusion the artist’s truth seems the only possible truth and permits no other, so long as the perceiver remains within the limits of the aesthetic object. To the extent that an artistic image is true to the laws of beauty, it is always correct in its foreshadowing of harmony. However, the artist and creator of the image is not always correct, and he cannot be totally correct when he organizes this harmony and beauty around his inevitably subjective world view.

True art never lies, since consciously false intentions on the part of the artist are fatal to the artistic image. However, in spite of an ideal equivalence of truth, goodness, and beauty, true art often leads the perceiver astray. In view of the suggestive power of the artistic assumption, both creative art and the perception of art are always associated with cognitive and ethical risk. In evaluating a work of art the perceiver should submit to the artist’s intentions and re-create the aesthetic object in its organic harmony and self-justification. At the same time the perceiver should retain the freedom of his own viewpoint, acquired through his experience of life and his inner development.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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