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

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