PRINT November 2005


W. J. T. Mitchell

For W. J. T. Mitchell, inquiry into picture making has been sidetracked by the wrong questions. In art history the dominant question has been, What do pictures mean? That is: What overt or hidden messages do they convey, what set of values do they promote or denigrate? Mitchell doesn’t think this approach is wrong exactly, but the emphasis on the picture as something that requires interpretation––a visual “text” there to be read or decoded––tends to block our understanding of the ways that pictures are more than just structures of information or ideas. Pictures also work affectively: They fascinate and move us, they work on our emotions and fantasies. Rather than ask of a picture, “What does it mean?” Mitchell urges one to ask,“Picture, what do you want of me?” The inquiry thus shifts the question of images into a different register, from meaning to desire.

A second prominent question in art history has concerned the issue of whose interests a particular picture serves. Art historians, especially social historians of art, have become adept in detecting the ways that pictures are apt to behave as instruments of persuasion, manipulation, or domination. It is not difficult to sense, behind the art of the Renaissance, the power of popes or princes; or, in later art, the power of newly emergent social groups and elites. Mitchell does not doubt the efficacy of the image as an agent of ideological control, but he takes issue with the way that the analysis of power relations in visual art typically locates all the power on the “outside” of the image, in the various groups that use the image to promote their cause, and ignores the way that power exists also in the “inside” of the image, as an energy it mobilizes from its own resources, its independent capacity to persuade or enthrall or overwhelm its beholders.

But what does it mean to speak of pictures as having their “own” power? Mitchell’s first task is to establish that pictures do indeed have an irrational hold over us. In a sense, the proof already exists, in the prior work of art historians David Freedberg (The Power of Images [1989]) and Hans Belting (Likeness and Presence [1994]), whose influence has clearly shaped much of Mitchell’s own outlook. Anxiety concerning the seductive and misleading capacities of images is central, Mitchell argues, to the Judaic worldview. God’s second commandment, indeed, is a prohibition against making images of any kind: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. The immediate context for Jehovah’s angry edict is the episode of the golden calf: Aaron, the Hebrews’ master sculptor, has melted down the gold that the Israelites brought from Egypt and fashioned it into a statue that is to “go before” the Israelites as their standard, their focus of worship, their idol. What is intolerable about the golden calf is that this blasphemous object takes on the powers of God himself: It does not just represent divinity, it purports to be divine.

In examining the ancient fears concerning the properties of sacred images, Mitchell seems to be covering ground similar to that of Freedberg and Belting. But where they confined the superstitious or magical image to a primitive era “before” the advent of modern art, Mitchell argues that the golden calf is still very much with us. A widespread topos in postmodernism is that mediated images—in cinema and television—have come to function in new ways, no longer representing the real world but replacing or supplanting it. In the “society of the spectacle,” the image dictates to its viewers the terms of their reality (Debord, Baudrillard). For Mitchell, what is interesting in this kind of account is not whether it offers an accurate description of the contemporary world but rather the way it expresses contemporary anxieties concerning the power of the image to go its own way, to “walk by itself”—anxieties that, he suggests, suffuse the whole cultural climate.

Apprehension concerning the autonomous power of the image is clear in the case of cinema. In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), the image of desire (female lips and mouth) breaks out of the television screen and invades the real world, literally devouring the male spectator. In Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), DNA technology reanimates dead matter and resurrects extinct species (dinosaurs)—which, of course, break out of their confinement and turn on their makers. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) portrays a future in which artificially engineered human beings, complete with personal memories and programmed dreams, are so lifelike that we cannot be sure, watching the movie, who is “real” and who is “cyber.” In The Matrix (1999), what is left of the human race, enslaved by machines and confined to comatose half-life in incubators, experiences as reality the cybernetic program that is fed into it by the all-controlling computer program. Mitchell, by the way, clearly loves this spooky, gothic terrain: speaking statues, living masks, haunted houses, magic portraits.

Though Mitchell’s book claims this uncanny realm of the eidolon as its principal domain, the argument is careful to concede that the power of the image is not necessarily so awesome or commanding. It is often, in fact, less than the power attributed to it by the kind of social art history that sees behind a particular work the machinations of worldly interests. Mitchell astutely detects in many such analyses what he terms the “power fallacy,” which attributes to the pictures themselves powers that are more accurately located outside their frame. After all, pictures tend not to act like princes; they are more like ambassadors––go-betweens, heralds, servants of the court. Consider any of Charles LeBrun’s monumental, and rather dull, allegories of Louis XIV at the palace of Versailles, showing the king restoring the navy, or defeating the Dutch, or supporting the arts. These images are backed by the whole force field of absolutist monarchy––yet as images they are not especially impressive but are merely routine and forgettable exercises in court propaganda. The power that commands pictures to be made may have vast resources at its disposal, but the internal power of a picture is relatively frail, a weak, or subaltern power. It cannot command; at best it can hope to fascinate or arouse or seduce.

How then do images acquire power––their internal power, generated from their own resources? Mitchell’s view is that the crucial phase in the life of a picture is the moment of repetition, when a picture ceases to be a singularity, a one-off event, and starts to generate its own progeny, copies of itself. Visual art is full of series of this kind—the endless proliferations of Madonnas and Last Judgments, Crucifixions and Last Suppers, of landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. What if our approach to pictures were, for a moment, to let go of its fixation on their value (questions of quality) and attend instead to their “vitality,” as though pictures were, in fact, living things? In this vitalist perspective, the key question to ask about images is: Why do some images perish almost immediately while others continue, become fruitful, and multiply? And why do images die?

For in a sense images do indeed behave like species or life-forms. They come into being, reproduce, thrive, and propagate from region to region and century to century—or else they fail and become extinct. In order to survive and endure, images require ecological niches or ecosystems that provide hospitable habitats or environments for their future growth: such as workshops, ateliers, and academies, as well as related ecosystems for display––churches, courts, museums, galleries. In our own time they require the massive ecosystem of reproductive media: books, newspapers, magazines, television, Internet.

Mitchell’s thought experiment—conceiving of images as “vital signs” rather than signs or symbols— reveals aspects of picture making that otherwise escape the notice of art historians, for whom pictures are structures of meaning rather than forms of life. Every life-form possesses a genetic code that links it to the past and to the future, to the prior history of the species and to its afterlife in the species’ later propagation. If we apply this analogy to picture making, then a particular image—say, a still-life painting—is not only “itself.” It is, in the words of Henri Focillon, “a kind of fissure through which crowds of images aspiring to birth” are coming into the world. Each instance of still life harbors the evolutionary traces or memory of the whole series of still-life paintings that have existed as its evolutionary forebears—and harbors, also, the seething life of potential images that may lead on from it into the future. Each image, then, is a microcosm of genetic variables, “nested inside one another in concentric formations,” carrying its spores forward in time. Each instantiated image is, in fact, an image swarm.

How literally does Mitchell take this analogy? Some of the most exciting and original passages in his discussion occur when he suspends the rational, Enlightenment belief that images are merely artifacts and follows the consequences of the “vitalist” thought that images may be alive, or almost alive. In certain phases of the argument—which make for some of the most fascinating yet chilling passages in the book—it is as though images really were endowed with their own life. Not, to be sure, the self-propelled and volitional life of humans or animals, since images are by definition parasitical creatures, requiring a (human) host for survival and reproduction. Surrounding human beings there is not only the “first” nature that is the province of biology, but a constructed “second” nature, an ecosystem made up of images, a “phanosphere” whose evolution runs parallel to that of man. The phanosphere teems with life (or more accurately, half-life), with the uncanny, between-life-and-death existence of the “animated” images that are Mitchell’s special focus (the golden calf, the living statue, the golem, the clone). Somewhere on the border between living creatures and inanimate matter, images belong, maybe, to the order of the virus; they enter the human world in the way that a virus invades a cell. Images are, perhaps, a kind of plague.

Mitchell’s book is a treasury of episodes––generally overlooked by art history and visual studies—that turn on images that “walk by themselves” and exert their own power over the living, from the resurrection of the dinosaur in the Victorian natural-history museum, to the quasi-animated statues of Antony Gormley, to the continuing vitality of the visual stereotypes of racism. His account offers the most serious challenge in many years to the view that images are merely “signs,” asking only for interpretation or analysis or commentary. What images want from us is much more than that.

Norman Bryson is a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego.


W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 408 pages.