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what do we want pictures to be?

January 17, 2009

There are two complementary challenges in attending to pictorial marks. On the one hand, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to slide away from the picture and toward symbolic or narrative meanings. On the other, there is a tendency to fall into mute admiration for line, color, and “pure visuality.” Those are twin dangers for any account of pictures, and they seem built into any concerted looking. The second temptation is not a danger for most art history, where the torrent of words pours unabated over images. But the first is a severe challenge; much more difficult, I think, than it has been taken to be.

Something about pictures prompts us to speak, and it seems to prompt the late twentieth century more insistently than it has in the more distant past. We write a tremendous amount about pictures, and even though many things can be difficult about what we write, still our books and essays get longer, our analyses more intricate, our critical lexicon larger, and our rhetoric more sophisticated, if not always more persuasive. That growth itself is a curious phenomenon, and I have no easy answers to what might be provoking such an ocean of interpretation.(1) It seems to me that-for some reason that is not at all apparent-pictures have come to be experienced as objects that are in immediate need of having their meanings written out. Ultimately, questions about the interpretation of pictures come down to questions about what we want pictures to be: what our writing implies they are and what we make them into by interpreting them the ways we do. To some degree it makes sense to try to make sense of pictures-they are, after all, the epitome of senselessness-but the rush to make meaning, and the sheer volumes of meaning we rush to make, are puzzling. Why, I want to know, are we so anxious to turn pictures into narratives? What is it about pictures that drives us to put them through the mills of historical and critical interpretation-and to pounce on even the least promising little blot and turn it into a symbol, a phrase, or an entire narrative?

People who write seriously about art seem often to be disturbed by the very fact that images do not speak, that they cannot be read, that they have nothing to say except what we say to them. Even the narratives of premodern academic and religious paintings can seem too simple or insufficient as explanations. As William Rubin and others have noted, twentieth-century painting has turned away from overt, textually based narratives-almost as if there were something inherently wrongheaded about using brushes to tell stories.(2) Pictures, it appears, are properly mute objects that have no stories to tell, no messages, no fixed fabulae. They say nothing clearly-or else, in the best case, they clearly say nothing. The antinarrative or “iconic” impulse in modern painting is one of the indispensable marks of modernism. But art history, art criticism, visual theory, visual anthropology, and visual semiotics have leaped into that vacuum and filled it with words, as if they could cover the troubling silence of visual art with loquaciousness or forget the intrinsic illegibility of pictures by becoming ever more eloquent.

What interests me in this is trying not to practice the kinds of interpretation that explain marks by revealing them as signs. The longer I can hold out against the impulse to find narrative meaning, the more aware I become of the picture itself and of the workings of the desire to find words. For those reasons Mieke Bal’s trajectory is very different from mine; to put it in a phrase, she is interested finding new narratives to tell about pictures, and I am interested in hobbling narratives. I would like to cripple our confidence in interpretation and to cast doubt on the very act of creating meaning.

James Elkins
from What Do We Want Pictures to Be? Reply to Mieke Bal
Critical Inquiry, Spring 1996 Vol.22, No.3

1. The anxiety contemporary writers feel about pictorial meaninglessness is the subject of my work-in-progress, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? On Monstrous Ambiguity and Hallucinatory Interpretation in Art History.
2. This is explored in my “On the Impossibility of Stories: The Anti-Narrative and Non-Narrative Impulse in Modern Painting,” Word and Image 7 (Oct.-Dec. 1991): 348-64.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2009 1:49 am

    Interesting perspective that I will have to mull over. In art school, we were always taught to have an narrative, something to say. Sometimes when, I am in my studio and just having a private moment with my medium of choice at the moment, I feel such freeness. There is no narrative I am just enjoying making marks with paint, gesso, ink, markers, pencils, water colors, fiber, glass It is a conversation private not meant to be shared with the world but the left part of my brain says, ” fine glad you had good time playing…. yes, but what does it mean? What are you saying? You have an obligation to communicate with the world about you. the expressionist movement is long gone.”

  2. January 18, 2009 2:34 pm

    Glad to stimulate a good mull. though Elkins is speaking from a critic’s point of view, he does put his finger on one of the many dilemma’s artists face these days. but in the end as an artist i feel it is simply a question of being clear as to one’s intent, then realizing it in the most effective form possible. nonetheless my personal experience with viewers of art usually leads to the feeling that people are always looking for directions to the metro–they long to be told something whether a story or idea or bit of personal history. even when one empties the canvas (or whatever medium) of such narrative content i often notice people will project their own account, seeing things never intended (welcome to contemporary philosophical critique). let me end by paraphrasing Robert Motherwell who thought that the very act of picking up a brush was an ethical act.

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