Reading Pictorial Narratives: an Introduction to Nelson Goodman's Aesthetic Theory



Received: 23/01/2017

Accepted: 19/07/2017

Extended Abstract

Introduction and statement of the problem: In interdisciplinary narratological studies, pictorial works of art, such as linguistic narratives, are capable of making narratives. Pictures with their own specific devices (colors, lines, shapes, perspective, etc.) employ a different and appropriate space for narrative-making. Nelson Goodman is a philosopher who developed his aesthetic theories and interdisciplinary concepts in narrative studies. In “Twisted Tales; or, Story, Study and Symphony” (1981), he opts for diverse pictorial examples to meticulously examine the dynamics and devices of narrative-making in pictures. He strongly rejects any generalizations about the assumption that pictures can make narratives under any circumstances.

Ali Akbar Sadeghi is one of the distinguished modern Iranian artists who has created a considerable number of artworks. In his paintings, the rich traditions of Iranian art and surreal elements are combined to form extraordinary spatial relations on the basis of Persian symbols and myths. In most of Sadeghi’s paintings, mythological, historical, mystical, and romantic motifs are represented artistically to make their particular and proper narratives. Mohammad Farahani is an Iranian painter in Qahveh Khaneh or Coffeehouse style whose works portray well-known religious, historical, and epic themes and meta-narratives. The present research opts for three paintings of Sadeghi and one of Farahani's paintings to introduce and exemplify Goodman's examination of pictorial narratives. Goodman’s aesthetics provides unique promising concepts and categories for a systematic exploration of the driving and preventive factors in pictorial narratives and representations.

Theoretical Background: The essence of narrative has been always a subject of significant consideration. Classical/traditional approaches in the field of narratology were mainly limited to textual/linguistic narratives, but the current scholarship has led narrative studies to a “cross-disciplinary concern with stories and storytelling” (Herman, 2009, p. 23). The new theories investigate features of narrative in various modes of representation – such as pictures, sculptures, films, computer games, dance, music, etc. Theorists assert that in recent decades “a narrative turn” has linked narratology to other fields of study.

Narratologists have been trying to present a comprehensive definition of narrative which includes all essential elements and qualities. The element of time has been approached as one of the fundamental conditions to make a narrative; on the other hand, Goodman in his examination of pictorial and linguistic narratives comes to this conclusion that this element is not indispensable for making pictorial representations. His exploration of the question of pictorial narratives provides a systematic study with four well-discussed categories. No doubt, his aesthetic theory equips readers with concepts and categories which lead to deep understanding of narrative pictures and paintings.

Methodology: By considering the specifics of pictorial-narrative structure, examination of the element of time, and relationship between “the order of occurrence” and “the order of telling,” Goodman explores the particulars of narrative-making in different pictorial representations. He claims that, both in verbal and pictorial narratives, it is not always mandatory for the order in which the events are represented to follow the order in which they occur. This possibility of disagreement between these two orders makes Goodman to ask whether any arrangement of the orders of telling and occurrence in pictures lead to a narrative. His analytical approach shows that not any ordering of events makes necessary grounds for pictorial storytelling. By the same token, pictorial narratives can be put into four broad categories in accordance with the relation they bear to temporality and ordering: 1) Timeless Momentary, a single event in a single moment; 2) Temporal Linear, a series of events in an oriented relationship between the orders of telling and occurrence; 3) Temporal Twisted, “episodic” events with “twisted” structure in their narrative-making; and 4) AtemporalAntitemporal, the events as “eternal” and “emblematic.” According to Goodman's theory, the distinguishing feature of narrative lies in the relation between “the order of occurrence” and “the order of telling” and if ordering is twisted too much there would be no narrative anymore, only other types of representation like "description," "study," or "symphony."

Results and Discussion: An examination of various pictures, in light of Goodman’s aesthetic theory demonstrated the applicability and richness of his method to analyze and interpret pictorial examples beyond the restrictions of formal elements, styles, artist's life, culture, etc. Instead of elucidating what is told in pictures, Goodman's approach provides a deep understanding of how something is represented in a picture. His analysis stops concluding “too hastily from the evidence considered that narrative under any transformation whatsoever of the order of telling is always still narrative” (1981, p. 111). Like verbal examples, the ordering of events in pictures can be arranged to represent a story, to describe something, to report on psychological, religious, or biographical topics, or to simply show aesthetic qualities. By the same token, this study made a comparative understanding of verbal and pictorial narratives possible as well.

Conclusion: The temporal effect is not a fundamental factor in making a distinction between story and other types of representations in pictures. The highlighted point in pictorial narrative-making is the function of the orders of occurrence and telling. The discrepancy between these two orders is not unexpected in different forms of narrative, but not every ordering or twisting will maintain the essential narrative qualities. It is impossible to determine a certain degree of twisting that can destroy a narrative because every picture has its own singular structure. In each of the selected paintings of Sadeghi and Farahani, the narrative-making is achieved by the ordering of events to tell a story. Moreover, enough twisting in these pictures makes Persian themes and stories to be represented in new structures.

Prominent Results: Exploring the features of narrative-making such as in cinematic, verbal, and oral forms of representation is feasible in pictures. Pictorial works of art have a close affinity with verbal/visual and oral forms of storytelling. In all of these forms, the relationship between the orders of occurrence and telling plays a prominent role. Despite the formal elements, the highlighted distinction of pictorial narratives is that the absence of temporal elements is not a hindrance to a narrative. Applying Goodman's systematic analysis of narrative-making to Iranian paintings illustrates the practical essence of his approach.

Keywords: Nelson Goodman, The Element of Time, Pictorial Narrative-making, Ali Akbar Sadeghi, Mohammad Farahani.


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