the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Multivalence: A Preamble

Posted by gninja on June 17, 2006

In his most recent publication, Becket’s Crown,Paul Binski addresses various images that have multiple, overlapping meanings, or, “multivalence.” I believe that, unless there is evidence pointing to a single specific meaning, most images do possess multivalence and are informed by numerous cultural and contextual factors. This is not to advocate a kind of interpretive anarchy (this is a terrible turn of phrase; I’ll have to think of a replacement), in which anything can mean everything. Rather, I endorse a moderate approach that sees an artifact as containing a finite number of significations, each of which can be emphasized according to form and context.

For example: a bottle of red wine.

Situated at a table set for a dinner of steak and greens, it represents earthy health and even national pride (see Barthe’s essay on “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies). Yet, that same bottle, set beside caviar and cigars becomes a sign of pretension and elitism, perhaps. In the hand of a tipsy homeless person? We associate it with inebriation and dissolution.

But this bottle of red wine does not inherently mean any one of these things; its meaning ensues from what our cultural presumptions and its contextual accompaniments impose upon it. At the same time, and returning to what I had said above, denying “interpretive anarchy,” picture our bottle of red wine in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, and we become confused. What does this mean here? There is no immediate answer, and we have no way of locating a meaning for this bottle of wine (aside from just that: bottle of wine) until we are given some justification for its presence.

What does this have to do with medieval art?



These images, taken from the interior of Ely Cathedral, are discussed in Binski’s book, and provide a useful illustration for intentionally simultaneous multivalence in medieval images. In my next post I’ll discuss how these vault corbels are laden with numerous religiously and mythologically informed meanings. At the same time I will argue that it’s both the multiplcity of these meanings and the dominance of one specific, contextually determined meaning that makes these sculptures so useful in–not surprisingly–asserting the importance of this particular church.

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