Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Theories and Concepts

There are three key theoretical texts that seem to me to be primarily useful in the articulation of concepts around the practice of an ‘Art Surgery’: these are What Do Pictures Want, by WJT. Mitchell; The Power of Images, by David Freedberg; and Art and Agency, by Alfred Gell. In this post I want to reflect on some of Mitchell’s ideas in his extraordinary book, What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. First of all Mitchell defines pictures in terms of a tripartite set of interdependent categories, an assemblage of “virtual, material and symbolic elements”. First of all there is the image, “any likeness, figure, motif, or form that appears in some medium or other”; then there are objects, an object being “the material support in or on which the image appears, or the material thing that an image refers to or brings into view”; finally there is medium, the “set of material practices that brings an image together with an object to produce a picture”. He then moves on to discuss what he means by the question “What do Pictures want?” in so far as ‘want’ has two meanings: ‘desire’, and ‘lack’; so pictures may be powerful, but they are clearly also powerless. It is this double consciousness that Mitchell pursues, both from the point of view of pictures and their spectators, wherein people are capable of “vacillating between magical belief and sceptical doubts, na├»ve animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes.” (In fact criticism itself can be seen as an iconoclastic practice, “a labour of demystification and pedagogical exposure of false images.”)

Here is the crux of the thing: “A poetics of pictures addresses itself to them, as Aristotle proposed, as if they were living beings, a second nature that human beings have created around themselves.” Mitchell proposes a third way (as opposed to the belief/critique paradigm), that of Nietzsche’s strategy of ‘sounding the idols’ with the ‘tuning fork’ of critical or philosophical language. This would be a “delicate critical practice that struck images with just enough force to make them resonate, but not so much as to smash them.”

Notes and quotes

“Why do (people) behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray? Even more puzzling, why is it that the very people who express these attitudes and engage in this behaviour will, when questioned, assure us that they know very well that pictures are not alive, that works of art do not have minds of their own, and that images are really quite powerless to do anything without the cooperation of their beholders?” (Mitchell)

In the same way that the non-living, inorganic image-copy of the ‘real’ becomes itself real, so the “biologically viable simulacrum of a living organism” (Mitchell, on Dolly the sheep, p. 13) recedes from view, becomes unreal—a chimera.

“and regarding the sounding out of idols, this time they are not just idols of the age, but eternal idols, which are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork” Nietzsche, from Twilight of the Idols.

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