The Prose of Images Part 1

Published in „Der Greif – A Process“.

Note from the editors: Text translated and proofread by Susann Dettmann.

The Prose of Images Part 1

Foucault schaut sich im Spiegel an
Magical thinking is of great appeal.

But the desire to be seduced by the marvelous is in fact fueled by expectations. It is the prospect of sharing secret knowledge or even partaking of secret powers. What is more, magical thinking promotes the obvious. Never before has the obvious been more obvious and at the same time more obscure. Because it is beyond criteria like effectiveness or verifiability. Magical thinking, as ascribed to the 16th century by Foucault, means to acknowledge the truth of perception beyond perceiving. And this truth required no definition, as only concepts and terms needed such. In the 16th century, however, language was inscribed into the world. It was not a system of signs that could be separated from the things they represented. The concept of representation was not (yet) thought.

To combine and (re)arrange photographs also means to relieve the single images of their representative character, which is a typical feature of photographic pictures. This new freedom provides the soil for magical thinking to grow and blossom upon.
But is this magic of arrangement and rearrangement bought with the disenchantment of the original? This question is the core argument of a criticism on exhibiting that has been voiced since the second half of the 20th century. The underlying motive might be the romantic idea that the originality and authenticity of an artwork would provide it with an exceptional aura, the fading of which must be considered a loss.
This criticism, since the 1960s rather a criticism on the institutionalizing and commercialization of art, resulted in two different strategies: to leave the exhibition room or to address exhibiting itself, to display methods and mechanisms – preferably in an ironic manner – of collecting and ordering. In 1972, Marcel Broodthaers exhibited about 300 objects in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf that either showed an eagle or had one applied. In the same year in the Kunsthaus Graz, he displayed indoor plants where should have been artworks.
Since then, the art world has risen above such criticism. Not by ignoring it, but maybe by appealing to new thought patterns. The objective is no longer to preserve thinking, even less to present it in preserved form. Today, art wants to (re)shape the world. Not explain it. Collections and orders of the already existing are a welcome occasion for this.

The immediacy of magical thinking can also be attributed to prose. The term prose derives from the Latin word pro(r)sus / prosa oratio, which translates as “straightforward, simple, unbound”. That especially its connection to other images reveals its unboundedness contains no irony at all. Because images are no longer binding. Foucault entitled the chapter in which he described magical thinking “The Prose of the World”. With it, he refers to the same-titled book of his mentor Maurice Merleau-Ponty who in turn referred to the respective Hegelian expression. Hegel wrote in his Lectures on Aesthetics:

“This is the prose of the world, as it appears to the consciousness both of the individual himself and of others: – a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw. For every isolated living thing remains caught in the contradiction of being itself in its own eyes this shut-in unit and yet of being nevertheless dependent on something else, and the struggle to resolve this contradiction does not get beyond an attempt and the continuation of this eternal war.”

A world of mutability appeals to versions. Still, such versions must possess evidence that can be believed in. This means, magical thinking is closer to faith, which again has a tendency to totality. Foucault speaks of a total relation to the totality of the world. This can be seen in the dealings with images, especially on the internet. But also in the medium of the exhibition itself. A medium that is currently experiencing a boom of unprecedented proportions. A medium that might well be capable of totality.

In a world in which nothing rhymes anymore, prose is the most suitable form of expression. Yet, prose is still just literature. Like every exhibition is just a version.

A Process presents magical thinking as the potential of a truth that needs no definition. And not just as the absurd idea it is often taken for. This exhibition invites its visitors to see and does not make them see. It does not dictate but rather allows to be dictated. It suggests sense instead of taking over the senses. It provides possibilities instead of realities. Versions instead of originals, as Dirk von Gehlen already mentioned in his blog entry. New actors and new rituals join in the field of curating and viewing images. And thereby challenge the old ones.

Hegel, vor einem Bild sitzend


  • Foucault, Michel: Die Ordnung der Dinge. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a.M. 1974. French original (Les mots et les choses)1966.
    Göttert, Karl-Heinz: Magie. Zur Geschichte des Streits um die magischen Künste. Wilhelm Fink: München/Zürich 2003.
    Hegel, G.W.F.: Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I-III. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a.M. 1970.
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