One of Meyer Schapiro’s interests in this essay is in contributing to a theory of evolutionary continuity between representational and abstract art, and in so doing to describe a means of aesthetic access to abstract works. As such he takes for his theme "non-mimetic elements" which, as he describes them, make up at least part of all art works. Though concerned with the functioning of visual art images, he establishes his argument in terms derived from Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics and rhetorician I. A. Richards’ two-fold concept of metaphor. Richards’ theory is signaled specifically by the term "vehicle"--in rhetoric the verbally-constructed image which carries a content termed by Richards as the "tenor". Within this study, though, Schapiro, draws more heavily from Saussure’s theory. When referring to the mimetic art work or image, Schapiro speaks of the "image-sign", which readers are to understand works in some ways comparable to Saussure’s linguistic sign, comprised of a signifier (a word) and a signified (the object or concept represented by the signifier).
One of the "problems" which concerns Schapiro, however, relates to the nature of the link by which specifically non-mimetic elements participate in the overall image-sign or art work. Implicit here is a comparison between non-mimetic art elements and the linguistic medium of words, which as units of code also do not function via mimesis. In Saussure’s theory, the link between the signifier and signified is arbitrary; the sign itself conveys meaning only via the conventions of the language in which it operates. By adopting Saussure’s framework, Schapiro sets out to examine whether or not pure convention is responsible for the employment of specific non-mimetic elements, or if they might be rooted to meaning somehow "organically", transcending cultural rules.
Schapiro spends the major part of his essay listing those art elements which concern him and giving examples of the forms they take in art of specific times and places. Among those elements which he catalogues are the field (or prepared surface), its boundaries, frames, the "format" of the image-sign, including the shape of the field, its proportions, "dominant axis", and size, and also the "sign-bearing matter" or "image-substance"—that is, the physical medium. Because Schapiro draws examples from a broad survey of periods and cultures, he is able to demonstrate the variety inherent in these non-mimetic elements, and to argue that the differences between forms derive from differences in specific artists’ or cultures’ values. More importantly, though, he not only argues that these forms bear upon the meaning of the image-sign, sometimes even semantically, but that they can be interpreted by "sensitive" viewers from very different cultural milieus. In other words, while acknowledging that a specific form may become conventional within a particular time and place, Schapiro believes that viewers do not have to be inducted in to cultural rules in order to "understand" the ways that non-mimetic elements operate. Ultimately they derive their significance through links to human physiology and other universal aspects of human experience.