WJT Mitchell: Picture Theory

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:46 pm)


Chapter 2: Metapictures

This essay is about images that refer to images. It further relates to art that refers to art (partially itself, and partially other art). Going into it, Mitchell starts with Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, who discuss how modern art has become essential and self-referential. This partly seems to be representative of postmodernism and eternal self-reference and analysis. This also connects to self reference in language and literature, metalanguages that reflect on languages.

Mitchell’s focus is still on images, pictures, though, but this is mentioned upfront, so we keep it in mind.

The first example given is of a man drawing a world and then finding himself inside of it. This is more of a casual and tired bourgeoisie type of art (it’s a New Yorker illustration) rather than a sublime and frightening perspective of the enveloping nature of images. The fear derived seems to be of the lack of boundary and enveloping nature of images. We create images, and in turn find ourselves reflected back in them.

Looking at metapictures requires a second order discourse. The first order of an image is the “object-language”, which I suppose is the manner of direct representation. Even images which self reference (frame within a frame, or a man painting a picture of a man painting a picture…) can be posed hierarchically by a first order representation. This works (at least on paper) because images are necessarily finite. Extending this to a second order requires a blurring of the inside and outside.

In mathematics, first order logic can make generalizations about classes of things, but a second order of logic is requried to make generalizations about functions and relationships. This in mind, second order thinking involves thinking beyond direct interpretation and consider sorts of external analogies and references.

Mitchell looks at multistable images, which are ones that can be interpreted in two ways. These have different thresholds, and confuse the role of pictoral representation, but they do not formally confound representation in the sense that the New Yorker cartoon does. The second order boundary is ambiguous, but not overtly flaunted. Images in this sense have a supposed mutability. That form of multistability is also observed in various literary forms (The Lady or the Tiger).

The dilemma with multistable forms is an essential question (Wittgenstein found the rabbit-duck image to be extremely troubling). The question ultimately seems to reside in where we do the identification in our minds. Is it an internal model, an external model (with respect to vision), is it determined by some sort of grammar?

Pictures generally have some sort of presence and role in life. They can seem to have lives of their own. Thus, metapictures, which throw the reference and metaphor into ambiguity, call into question the role and self-understanding of the observer.

This is understood in looking at Foucault’s writing on Las Meninas (a classical painting by Velazquez which employs some degree of reflection and ambiguity), and how Foucault’s attention to Las Meninas is similar to Wittgenstein’s dwelling on the duck-rabbit which complicate and make the images all the less penetrable or comprehensible. They encourage us to think of not the images directly, but think of how the images relate to their culture, our culture, and our thought.

Matisse’s “Les trahison des images” serves a similar role, but instead of exploring our relationship with images (or images with images), it explores the relationship of images and words. This, in turn, is an infinite relation.

The conclusion of the chapter offers some insights: “The metapicture is not a subgenre within the fine arts but a fundamental potentiality inherent in pictoral representations as such: it is the place where pictures reveal and “know” themselves, where they reflect on the intersections of visuality, language, and similitude, where they engage in speculation and theorizing on their own nature and history.”

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMitchell, W.T.J.
TitlePicture Theory
Tagsdms, visual culture
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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