What is an Image? James Elkins’ Lecture at ICI Berlin

© ICI Berlin

On February 16th at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, James Elkins, E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, gave a lecture titled “What is an image?”

The talk was based on a book of the same title issued in 2011 under the editorship of James Elkins and Maja Naef. In it various art critics and historians tried to give reasons for (and solutions to) the absence of any clearly defined concept of the image.

 Illustrating his points with a presentation in which background images were playfully commenting on the problem (they varied from close-ups of physical imperfections in a Mondrian copy, to Bruce Nauman’s “annoying” art and simulations of a protein formation), James Elkins structured his talk around three main headings: A) Why ask the question “What is an image?”; B) Seven reasons why it is so difficult to theorize the meaning of an image; C) Five final observations, “one screen each.”

 Why, indeed, ask the question, if most of us simply know what an image is and we seem to have a common experience of the phenomenon? James Elkins argued that, from all meaningful points of view (studio arts, art theory, criticism and history, visual studies, Bildwissenschaften, etc.), the concept of image is, “central, but taken as a given”.

In studio arts, there is, against the background of an erratic and possibly absent concept, an increasing emphasis on political elements. Art theory, criticism and history rely on received ideas about images and few serious accounts of the category have been offered so far; much of what is visual is not taken as an object of inquiry.

However, the influential idea that our age is a visual age and that, in fact, we can only think in images, begs for a clarification of the concept. All these and other factors demand an optimal account of the image.

In perhaps one of the most animated moments of the lecture, James Elkins enumerated some of the existing (partial) accounts of images—in a deliberately random order, to signify their heterogeneity. On the one hand, we have Lucretius’ theory of images as snake skins on the surface of things (De rerum natura, Book IV), on the other – images as reminders (of love) (Susan Sontag, Jacqueline Lichtenstein), but also images as specifiable structures (exploited by semiotics) and, last but not least, images as kisses or images as the touch of flowers (Jean-Luc Nancy).

Aside from theories, there are those who claim that pictures produce their own theory (Tom Mitchell, Jean Louis Schefer etc.). Another reason the question is worth considering is the disjunction between different spheres of activity that include kinds of images (for instance the difference between images used for medical purposes and what philosophy or cognitive science take for images).

Besides, as suggested above, the relation between the political and images remains undecided. From the point of view of art production, this enables us to see art as a scene for social action, whereas from a theoretical point of view, it means that, “visuality can be conceptualized as political”.

To Marie-José Mondzain, author of Can lmages Kill?, images have an inherently violent, passionate nature. The political realm itself will consider images to be sites of relationships between things (a vision stemming from Sartre); political perception may occlude whatever is not ideological, considering it to constitute an arbitrary element. This can be seen as related to the rise of anti-aesthetic tendencies in contemporary art.

Elkins spoke about the hilarious result that a Google search with the request ‘what is not an image’ gives, but even more sophisticated methods (semiotic squares, suggested in this case by Tom Mitchell or the theological interpretation of Marie-José Mondzain) do not help to solve this paradoxical question. Further, the ontological status of images remains widely debated.

Unlike, for instance, Gottfried Böhm, Tom Mitchell thinks any ontology is a product of discourse. The Swiss national research project “Eikones / NCCR Iconic Criticism,” of which Böhm is the director, departs from the assumption that images deserve to have their own linguistics.

Another complicated issue is to consider how it would be possible to find a consensus between Western and non-Western views. For instance, various Chinese, Sanskrit or Japanese concepts are simply untranslatable (and the experience they suggest, inaccessible). Yet another problem is how to make a distinction between various notions that overlap with image: picture, Bild etc.

Rather than reaching definite answers, the discussion brought new, maybe more precisely formulated questions: not just the question of what images are, but also: what do we want them to be?

Taking into consideration the fact that it is currently impossible to reconcile existing accounts (which depart from image as given and arrive at the same result), James Elkins concluded with a surprising rhetorical artifice: maybe it is too early to ask what an image is: maybe we just do not want to address the matter.

Aurelia Cojocaru (2nd year BA, Moldova)

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