The Prose of Images Part 2

Published in „Der Greif – A Process“.

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

The Prose of Images Part 2

As images among each other are tied a particular order, so an inherent order is assigned to the image itself. For a long time, image and artworks were henge considered a graspable and comprehensible object of human knowledge and scientific reflection. Throughout the 20th century, that idea remained dominant, albeit connected with other objectives – in particular for the artworks. Even today, there exists a widespread demand for the usefulness of (contemporary) art witch was sought to be legitimized, for example, through exhibitions in the second half of the 20th century.

The inherent order of images was also tried to be decoded scientifically in order to derive universal conclusions based on a sound methodology.  Above all, the artwork itself had to be deciphered. Because it implied a surplus value compared to other images. A surplus value beyond its producer. Eventually, it was the invention of photography which gave rise to comparative viewing, thus allowing for artworks to be compared with each other. Without thinking the author.

However, strictly scientific methods were not appropriate for capturing an essential aspect of artworks. Because images are prosaic. The need to revise the notion of images evoked a new understanding of the nature of artworks and images in general. This understanding was characterized by the negation of any illustrative capacity of images – be it the illustration of history or the artist himself – to emphasize their autonomy instead. Such considerations were the base for new methodological questions which they provided at the same time. Still, as their predecessors did before them, these methods were developed systematically aiming at general conclusions (which themselves were often committed to a one-sided understanding of images).

But established forms of knowledge and conventional modes of knowledge accumulation are inadequate to a novel understanding of images. Because the thinking of image likewise changes the image of thinking.

The fact that this theory is too static becomes especially apparent when contrasted with a notion of images that more and more locates their magical character in the so-called vitality of images.

W.J.T. Mitchell

W.J.T. Mitchell

„Pictures want to be kissed“, notes W.J.T. Mitchell in his book „What do pictures want?“ This question aims at changing our understanding of images, to no longer see them as artifacts but to acknowledge their distinctive vitality. In the end, however, his wording missed the point. As it turns out, Mitchell does not actually believe that pictures want something. Even though he exemplifies tableaux vivants in the understanding of biocybernetics. Nevertheless, he is interested in the phenomenon that most people act as if they believed in it. By asking what picture want – and no longer what they mean – he calls for a turn from the semiotic and hermeneutic to the poetological perspective.

Disclosing the origins of the magical power of images is an essential ambition of many authors in the field of image studies. This would require to assign an inherent narrative capacity to the images. Nonetheless, many authors rather tend to their ambiguous mystification.

The need to revise the notion of images becomes urgent and is hence still relevant in that the lines between imaginative images and images as objects get blurred. Mainly because – due to the internet – their haptic presence can no longer be precisely defined. The material freed itself from the use and now use follows materiality.

Images are no longer to be understood as a graspable and comprehensible object of human knowledge or scientific examination. Because pictures are prosaic and therefore freed from their authors – without killing them. This becomes particular apparent in the confrontation with other pictures: Resemblance and difference are no means of verification or falsification. Instead, confrontation enables images to create a shared meaning, beyond validity or definitions.

The creation of combinations is based on individual perception and hence not only results in questions concerning the aesthetics of reception, but also demonstrates the instinctive search for meaning as an anthropological constant. Because the composition of single parts to a greater whole with greater meaning may well be considered the most distinctive quality of human thinking – characterizing man as animal symbolicum.

Yet, sometimes this greater whole must itself be rethought or even called into question.

The images have regained their magical potential. And maybe this magical potential involves losing our faith in the capacity to general validity, which until now was thought to be prerequisite for the legitimation of images – especially of artworks. And the reason why they succeed in it might be precisely because they can no longer be sure of their haptics. Because they can have different aggregation states at the same time.


  • Mitchell, W. J. T.: Das Leben der Bilder. C.H.Beck: München 2012.