The correlation between artworks and artefacts in my practice has brought me to the field of Image Studies. This field is not subject specific, but instead includes the disciplines of “art; aesthetics; anthropology; critical theory; cultural studies; history; literature; philosophy; and science”, and the ways in which the image contributes to their processes of production and distribution. (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. xii)
A leading scholar in the field, Sunil Manghani, produced an edited collection that brings together essays by art historians, philosophers, science, and technology scholars to examine the role of the image from historical and contemporary perspectives.
Images: Critical and Primary Sources
Manghani’s collection, ‘Images: Critical and Primary Sources’ (2013), consists of four volumes containing texts by writers such as W.J.T Mitchell, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, James Elkins, and Hans Belting. The volumes are arranged thematically as opposed to historically, and are separated into four themes: Understanding Images, The Pictorial Turn, Image Theory, and Image Cultures. This blog post is focused on the first of these themes, Understanding Images.
“[The Understanding Images] volume is divided into three main parts. Part 1, Image Studies, brings together a selection of contemporary writing (stemming mainly from the 1990s) that have proved critical to the development of a field of studies concerned with the philosophical, historical, and critical examination of the image.” (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. xviii)
The series begins with a number of essays which aim to define the nature of the image in varying contexts. Although I have been focusing primarily in the image in relation to the art object, it was good to get an understanding of images as a method of communication and interpretation across disciplines. As the introduction to the series asks: “for example, how is it (and what does it signify) that we can move from considering a picture in a gallery in aesthetic, technical terms to understand a visual metaphor in a political speech?” (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. xx)
In considering the importance of images throughout the ages, the book draws on references to historical and contemporary iconoclasm, otherwise referred to as iconophobia – “the fear (or hatred) of images.” Manghani explains how “iconophobes have often sought to challenge established beliefs by breaking or decrying images.” He cites Bruno Latour’s ‘What is Iconoclash?’ to describe the particular assumptions held by iconoclasts: “First, iconoclasts purport to possess a truth denied to ordinary people [who] cannot see beyond the appearances of everyday sensory reality… Second, iconoclasts have access to the truth hidden behind these superficial images… Third, only by the iconoclastic action of smashing our everyday beliefs in the images that surround us can the rest of society become privy to the real truth, while at the same time being freed from the dangerous and illusory world of the senses…” (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. xxiii)
Image vs reality
The theme of defining images in relation to (and separate from) reality continues in the essay ‘What is an Image?’ by W.J.T Mitchell. As Mitchell explains “language and imagery are no longer what they promised to be for critics and philosophers of the Enlightenment – perfect, transparent media through which reality may be represented to the understanding.” (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. 3) These ideas link to those previously discussed in Vilem Flusser’s philosophy of photography, to explain how reality is filtered through media.
Mitchell’s analysis however, goes way beyond the advent of photography, and back to the invention of artificial perspective in 1435: “The effect of this invention was nothing less than to convince an entire civilisation that it possessed an infallible method of representation, a system for the automatic and mechanical production of truths about the material and the mental world. The best index to the hegemony of artificial perspective is the way it denies its own artificiality and lays claim to being a “natural” representation of “the way things look”… Aided by the political and economic ascendance of Western Europe, artificial perspective conquered the world of representation under the banner of reason, science, and objectivity.” (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. 17)
However, despite his questioning of this Western hegemony, Mitchell is not arguing for a subjective understanding of reality, but instead “for a hard, rigorous relativism that regards knowledge as a social product, a matter of dialogues between different versions of the world, including different languages, ideologies, and modes of representation.” (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. 18) This challenge is reiterated in the essay ‘Image, Medium Body’ by Hans Belting, and suggests a medium ground between iconophobia and iconophilia. (Manghani (ed), Understanding Images, 2013, p. 35)
W.J.T Mitchell, ‘Iconology’ (1987)
W.J.T Mitchell, ‘Picture Theory’ (1994)
W.J.T Mitchell, ‘What do Pictures Want?’ (2005)
W.J.T Mitchell, ‘Cloning Terror’ (2011)
James Elkins, ‘The Domain of Images’ (1999)
James Elkins, ‘Visual Studies’ (2003)
James Elkins, ‘Six Stories from the End of Representation’ (2008)
James Elkins, ‘Visual Literacy’ (2009)
Barbara Stafford, ‘Good Looking’ (1996)
Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, ‘Practices of Looking’ (2009)
Sunil Manghani, ‘Image Critique’ (2008)