A few image problems

Understanding Pictures
January 30, 1998

More input from artists and less from philosophers might have made this a better book. It began life as a doctoral thesis and still reads like one. Its title is as ambitious as it is misleading. The book is less about pictures than about what 20th-century theorists have said about pictures; and less about understanding pictures than understanding theories of depiction.

The theorists who claim most attention are Ernst Gombrich, Nelson Goodman and Richard Wollheim. The author does not, unfortunately, always distinguish clearly between what particular theorists have said and his own interpretations of what they have said or might say.

His overall aim is to present a more satisfactory "theory of pictorial representation". The discussion starts from a crude distinction between "figurative" and "abstract" pictures, which is baldly stated and then taken for granted without further elaboration. The dividing line between figurative and abstract pictures is admitted not to be "always sharp". But the notion that what might be problematic is not the borderline cases but the distinction itself does not get a look in. "Figurative" is defined as representing physical objects and scenes, and "pictorial representation" is equated with figurative depiction. The only excuse offered for this oversimplification is that it is "standard philosophical practice". If it is, then all one can say is that it might explain why the philosophy of art is in such a sorry state.

Among the more surprising claims is that seeing a picture of the Queen is seeing the Queen. Another is that there are no conventional systems of depiction (which turns out to be a philosophical quibble about the word "convention"). A third is that pictures of things that never existed have no subject. This presumably means that most of us, much of the time, can have no idea of whether a picture has a subject. In which case it is odd that we can understand it as a picture at all. We never do if it is true, as the author alleges, that "to understand a picture qua picture" the viewer must "not only identify its subject" but also do so "by grasping its meaning as a picture". And this has to done by "the exercise of recognition skills". It would seem to follow from all this that nobody nowadays can "understand" the Mona Lisa.

A further distinction is drawn between "art" pictures and "demotic" pictures (because they are "a product of the people"). The latter include images on banknotes, maps, family photographs and architectural elevations. They are not, we are firmly told, works of art. But they constitute "the vast majority of pictures".

Demotic pictures, it is urged, take priority of explanation over art pictures, just as "ordinary linguistic communication" needs to be explained before metaphor and fictional narrative. This cryptic remark throws a welcome light on the thinking that underlies the book. The assumption that metaphor and fiction are not part of ordinary language gives the game away. We are dealing with someone who accepts as gospel the orthodox linguistic doctrine of literal meanings and is determined to find counterparts of some kind in the domain of visual communication.

The question of what makes some pictorial likenesses better than others is never satisfactorily addressed; perhaps because the author's account of resemblance starts from the gobbledygook axiom that "all things resemble themselves". Although he implies at one point that he has made "a survey of the diverse range of pictorial systems used by humans", references to non-western art are few and far between: a Kwakiutl split image and an Australian aboriginal "X-ray" painting seem to stand proxy for all the rest of the world's pictorial endeavours.

After many labyrinthine arguments, in which the weaker points are regularly indicated by the reappearance of the question-begging adverb "surely", we are brought to the following conclusion: a picture is "a representation that embodies information on the basis of which its source can be identified by a suitably equipped perceiver". In which case, most of us are as poorly equipped to understand pictures as artists are to paint them. Possibly that happy conspiracy of incompetence is what keeps the picture business going?

Roy Harris is editor, Language and Communication.

Understanding Pictures

Author - Dominic Lopes
ISBN - 0 19 824097 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £30.00
Pages - 240

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