What Do Pictures Want?



It was only about a year ago, though it feels like half a lifetime, that Shepard Fairey created the most efficacious American political illustration since “Uncle Sam Wants You”: the Obama “Hope” poster. In innumerable variants, the craning, intent, elegant mien of the candidate engulfed the planet. (Check out the review of Fairey’s Boston exhibit in the recent New Yorker).


12 Responses to “What Do Pictures Want?”

  1. Easton Says:

    I found myself on a little bit of a rollercoaster ride with this week’s readings. Unfortunately it began with a slight plunge in the course of reading Jeffrey Quilter’s “Representational Art in Ancient Peru and the Work of Alfred Gell.” Now this wasn’t a required reading but as I have deep respect for Quilter and a personal interest in ancient Peru, I thought it worth the read. I was wrong.

    Its not that Quilter does anything wrong, per se, it’s just that at the end of his article you are left feeling that Gell’s work is very limited in its applicability. Let me explain. Quilter applies Gell’s methods to two forms of Moche art. The first of these is portrait head ceramics which argues are “among the most ‘representative’ of all Andean art.” (137) He then proceeds to talk about the enchantment of technology/technology of enchantment as regards the extreme lifelike features of the pottery and their production using an unusual process utilizing molds.

    But after that his application of Gell stalls. Quilter rights “…if we knew when and where these pots appeared in Moche social contexts we might be able to infer how they interacted with other social agents.” (139) But as we don’t know, the analysis is forced to make weak guesses based on the appearance of pots in some iconography. In addition, Quilter laments the fact that the prototypes of these pots are also unknown and proposes various scenarios in which different individual could have served as prototypes. He makes similar hedges in discussing patrons and the role of these pots in distributed personhood.

    In frustration, it seems, Quilter turns toward Moche friezes where at least his object of inquiry is stationary and so we can know something of the context. Once again however, he seems frustrated by lack of application and simply argues that the complex colors must have been “dazzling” to those accustomed to drab desert (151). In the end Quilter states “We may not be able to be very successful in applying Gell’s theories to truly prehistoric art which has no or only very tenuous connections to written sources” (155).

    Is this true? Is Gell’s “anthropology of art” impossible to translate into an “archaeology of art?” It seems to me to be counterintuitive. After all, a theory in which objects serve as social actors seems to be an archaeologist’s dream. But Quilter finds himself searching for “codes that will provide the reading of the symbols of art,” something to which Gell would patently object. But doesn’t Quilter have a point? How are we to examine the social nexus surrounding indices when we have no exact information on the artists, recipients, and prototypes involved?

    I had hope of finding an answer with Mitchell whose theory was developed somewhat independently. In truth, I was captivated by his reformulation of the question into what do pictures want (a question I reformulated as what do objects want?) and his similarities to Gell striking. His discussion of paintings’ desire to transfix (36) may as well have been pasted from Gell’s discussion of captivation. Where they seemed to separate was on the issue of semiotics, “The question of what pictures want certainly does not eliminate the interpretation of signs.” (46) Does Mitchell’s analysis, then, solve the problem of Quilter’s utilization of texts?

    Maybe. The truth is, Mitchell’s discussion of pictures also relied heavily on contextual social analysis unavailable in most archaeological contexts. Sure, black and white figure with “beckoning” hands may hold special significance in the Warner Bro’s picture, but isn’t that significance a result of social and historical processes that we don’t have access to in prehistoric situations? In addition, I’m sure what the picture of Bin Laden wants in the U.S. is much different from what it wants in Afganistan. How do we unpack these differences without symbolic and textual sources?

    I just realized how long this is so I will save the rest for class, but if you have a suggestion, please help.

  2. Alina Says:

    Mitchell wants to focus on the ontological through an evolutionary explanation to the question, ‘what do pictures want?’ Here Mitchell is reframing an old question while eliding the subject/object distinction by using biological metaphors. Images desire a host to live off of and ensure reproduction. They find their hosts to be humans, but humans also are dependent upon images. Instead of judging images as good or bad, we can see which images live the longest. Politics, power relations, and the laws of attraction are implicated.

    To demonstrate the personhood of pictures or challenge the agency of the image, Mitchell asks us to privilege desire (over power) and invite the subaltern to speak. (33) There is a dialectic formed between power and desire, between seducer and the seduced. As soon as you have power you must defend it, as soon as you are the seducer you are in danger of being seduced yourself. Here is a place that I see Mitchell asking a new question by reframing an old one. He wants to, “put our relation to the work into question, to make the relationality of image and beholder the field of investigation.” (49) From here we can concretely start asking questions like: to what extent are we making constructions, or are the images constructing us? It also causes us to revisit meta-concepts like the definition of life/materiality/presence as applicable to the image, the beholder, and the image-beholder relationship.

    I was particularly taken with his discussion of weakness and strength in terms of the relationality between image and beholder. The dialectical tension between power and desire is acted out: images lack power, but they are desirous of it for the want mastery over the beholder. At the same time it can be argued that images are weak without humans (human to ascribe and deny power to them), that images embody a lack that is seductive to humans, and that when they succeed in affecting humans, we will work to propagate and empower these images. In this tension we can see affect and effect coming together. But I still am left with a question as to whether this very evolutionary way of considering the relationality of image and beholder is overly applied. Within the weak/strong dichotomy I can locate power and desire at the margins, in the liminal spaces. I also have a hard time determining what specifically makes an image weak or strong. And what does he think is at stake by delineating weak and strong? It is almost like drawing distinctions between iconophobia and iconophilia while being blind to the place where the two come together.

    But after reading his chapter on Cloning Terror I was able to somewhat reconcile my distrust of the dialectical tension that he set up in What do Pictures Want?. Mitchell says, “we need to grasp both sides of the paradox of the image: that it is alive-but also dead; powerful-but also weak; meaningful but also meaningless.” (10) And his way of using the attribute of desire to straddle this paradox is a clever turn and one that may come the closest to giving us that moment of pause to consider the very question (What do pictures want?) that seems not to be rhetorical…for it has caught us up in a paradoxical and dialectical fix that bridges disciplines, temporalities, and modes of thought and expression.

  3. Constance Says:

    Where Gell finds no difficulty in attributing agency to objects, Mitchell goes to considerable lengths to defend his question ‘what do pictures want?’ He asks us to roll with him and approach pictures as ‘mock-persons’ or ‘quasi-agents’ (46). This might have been ok (though uncomfortably anthropomorphic) had Mitchell not previously just categorically stated “it’s clear that the ‘default’ position of images is feminine” (35). Although I give him the benefit of the doubt that he probably did not mean to suggest that women are merely mock-persons, nevertheless this seems to me a very problematic approach.
    He relates the femininity of images to his shift from questioning what pictures do to what they want – a shift from power to desire. But by foregrounding the human-ness of images above all else, Mitchell digs himself deeper into a corner. For Mitchell, what both women and images want (i.e. lack) is power, but he does not consider possibilities for more equal relationships or reconsider types of agency. Perhaps it would be more interesting to thing of objects’ agency on their own terms, rather than as comparable to ‘weak’ or ‘impotent’ humans. Instead, he (presumably inadvertently) seems to reinforce orientalist/paternalist superiorities by framing his approach in terms of a model where the subaltern is “to be interrogated or (better) to be invited to speak” (35). How generous!

  4. gabriel Says:

    What do pictures want? Shifts Gell’s emphasis on things (as artworks) from doing to wanting, from secondary (indexical) agents to primary (willful) agents and from relative boundedness of the artwork (its fractal multiplication is not a fragmentation) to a more existential and uncertain positioning of the (conscious?) desiring image (subject?), which aims at a Freudian “lack” (49): what do pictures lack? This question turns Mitchell on its head and nears him to Gell: pictures want a beholder (who, as abductor of desire, is placed almost in the same identity-giving position that the artist has in Gell’s analysis). Furthermore, moving “from what pictures do to what they want, from power to desire” (33) Mitchell silences the historical (colonial) intimacies between power and desire (one could even say that desire is a prelude to power in the colonial encounter).
    Is any picture a muted subaltern? (“pictures … might want… nothing at all”, 48) I guess a more detailed historical and social analysis of the conditions of production, fruition and reception of pictures (in these first 2 chapters) would allow a positive or negative answer according to the single picture: some pictures might embody power and desire (red female lips eating a man), others no.
    A clear purchase of the text is the notion that pictures can unsettle the orthodoxy of theory by (a la Gell) making “the relationality of image and beholder the field of investigation. The idea is to make pictures less scrutable, less transparent; also to turn analyses of pictures towards questions of process, affect, and to put in question the spectator position” (49)
    On another note, Mitchell—through the shift from doing to wanting—does not reject meaning, which allows (I guess later on in the text) for a critical distance modulated through allegory, metaphor and metonymy: all aimed at questioning the (ideal and material) wholeness of the picture.
    Methodologically, the pictorial “double consciousness” (7) is the basis of Mitchell’s (Nietzschean) critical idolatry of sounding the picture/idol without shattering it, but letting it speak (27, in relative contradiction with the above quote from page 48)
    Why casting pictures as “other” (Freud’s “what do women want”, 35; and Fanon’s “what does the black man want”, 29), furthermore in a moment in which the other is (in western scholarship at least) less reified than ever before?
    Finally, what are pictures read as distributed persons? What common dimension do they share? Mitchell writes “Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language” (47), i.e. away from historical or discursive over-determinations (yet what does it mean to write that pictures want “to be seen as complex individuals occupying multiple subject positions and identities” (47) ?)

  5. aria1027 Says:

    Mitchell discusses pictures as “not merely signs for living things but signs as living things.” (6) He asks the question of what we mean as life in the first place, a similar idea brought up by Gell as to what constitutes living things and inanimate objects. Besides life and death, should the dichotomy instead be just inanimate and animate, or is this dichotomy a false one and does life exist as a fluid spectrum, with objects and people moving freely from “alive” to “inanimate” and back again? Objects certainly have the ability to fit different definitions for life, they can reproduce as one object being the catalyst for the creation of a similar object, they have the ability to adapt and to survive, and to change from one form to another. They do have a life cycle of sorts: they are created (born), are used in the world (live), and then wear-out, break, or are lost and discarded (death). For things can die, be killed and be harmed, in fact that is one of the “points” of iconoclasm. Things can also have an afterlife, as a “ghost” of what was there, a presence in their absence, as Mitchell illustrates in the World Trade Center example. So if Mitchell’s definition of life is simply something that can die (52), then objects too may be truly alive.
    I feel that both Gell and Mitchell, while not quite advocating that things are alive, do present compelling arguements of how things should be treated as fully functioning actors alongside human beings.
    As an aside I also enjoyed Mitchell’s play on the double meaning of want, both as desire and lack. Do pictures both desire life and lack it? The same for power?

  6. gabriel Says:

    This is long (1 hour): Mitchell’s lecture on Cloning terror (2006)

  7. Matt Says:

    I found Leach’s review and test of Gell’s work to be the most interesting and innovative piece that we read this week. As opposed to Gell, who focused on how a creative agent was abducted from the index, Leach highlights how the creative agent(s) anticipate and directly influence this abduction based on their previous conception of their own self-identity. While this is not a direct threat to Gell’s work, it does point out its limitations. A more direct attack occurs in the final sentences of Leach’s piece in which he suggests that while Gell has argued that his work was non-representational his entire theory is in fact about the representation of agency within art. This point was not fleshed out, I think largely because Leach understood that while it was a nice turn of phrase and appeared to be a crippling blow, it actually carries relatively little weight. While one could argue that Gell was interested in the appearance of agency within the index, that this is qualitatively different than the representation of meaning that he is arguing against. Gell argues against representation in terms of symbolic meaning – where the index can be read to act as a different thing/concept – where it is a representation. Instead, Gell focuses on the indexical quality of objects in that they are the outcome of prior actions. They do not represent those actions, nor do they represent the actor – rather, they are the result rather than the representation.

  8. Alina Says:

    just a quick follow-up to connie’s comment on mitchell’s idea that images are feminine (because both images and women want power)…i am reminded of the cover story in the my times magazine entitled: What Do Women Want? In this article today’s ‘science’ answers that question with: women want to be desired.
    which would likely interest mitchell greatly…


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