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  • (Re-)Creating OrderNarrativity and Implied World Views in Pictures
  • Michael Ranta (bio)

Despite some recent interest in questions of pictorial narrativity (Kafalenos 1996; Ranta 2011; Steiner 2004; Wolf 2005), scholars of story need to do more to highlight the relevance of pictorial narratives for debates about the nature of narrative. Conversely, within traditional art history the narrative potential of the visual arts has sometimes been taken for granted, without any attempt to elucidate the deeper cognitive, semiotic, and philosophical issues involved. In this article I seek to bridge work in narratology and the theory of art in order to open new avenues for investigating the storytelling potential of pictures.

Like other kinds of stories, pictorial narratives fulfill one of narrative’s key functions, namely, contributing to the human endeavor to reduce the unpredictability of change—change within the sphere of human existence in particular. In this sense, pictorial narratives help people order their experiences, thereby mitigating the transitoriness and existential vulnerability associated with being-in-the-world. Yet as theorists such [End Page 1] as Jerome Bruner (1991) have emphasized, narratives’ “tellability,” their noteworthiness as stories, entails deviations from what recipients take to be a canonical order of events. In this article I review possible criteria for narrativity (and tellability) and explore the applicability of those criteria to pictorial objects. I argue that pictorial works can express or imply high-level narrative structures, including basic constituents of wider world views or world schemata. I also draw on recent research in cognitive psychology to illuminate the origins and role of these schemata. To make my case, I will discuss a number of examples of pictorial narratives indicating or evoking world views, focusing in particular on Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel (Padua, c. 1306–7) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555–68).

Ingredients of Narrativity and Functions of Narrative

Precisely what constitutes a narrative has been and still is a matter under dispute within contemporary research. In this section I highlight some of the strands within the debate that can serve as a point of departure for research on pictorial narrativity—and more specifically for research on pictorial narratives that foregrounds their ability to convey as well as critique world views.

Some theorists have approached narrativity in a relatively descriptive, extensional, and fixed way, distinguishing stories from non-narrative texts via a set of defining criteria, such as temporal sequentiality, emplotment, eventfulness, causality or causal agency, and particularity (rather than generality). In Gerald Prince’s (1982) account, a minimal requirement for narrative is “the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other” (4). Still, the mere presence of a minimal narrative link does not account for our sense of what is required for a text to be a “good” or prototypical story. Thus, “The water boiled then World War II started” might from this perspective qualify as a minimal story, though hardly as a good, interesting, or even comprehensible one (most notably because several causal or enabling links between the two events seem to be missing) (Prince 1982: 145).

Such considerations concerning the scope or extension of the category [End Page 2] “narrative” highlight the relevance of recent research on the nature of categories as such. Generally speaking, in their role as psychological constructs or tools, many categories do not have clear-cut boundaries but rather possess a graded structure. The gradient nature of categories has been confirmed by experimental studies within cognitive psychology, in particular Eleanor Rosch’s pioneering work (Rosch 1975, 1994; Rosch and Lloyd 1978; Rosch and Mervis 1975). Rosch’s findings suggest that certain category members are experienced as cognitive reference points (or the clearest cases of category membership), while other members gradually deviate from them, although they still belong to the category in question. Put another way, categories are formed around their most representative instances, which have something like a prototypical character. Likewise, we may conceive of narratives as constituting a category with fuzzy boundaries, centering around clear-cut “stories”; here too one should not insist on a too rigid and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2156-7204
Print ISSN
1946-2204
Pages
pp. 1-30
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-19
Open Access
No
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