Towards a Pedagogy of the Image

David Shrigley has such a complex rhetorical posture: Who is the 'you' here? And who the heck is speaking?
An image, like any text, creates and is created by an entire rhetorical milieu — just as I create my rhetorical milieu by using the absurd phrase 'rhetorical milieu.'
(I've written about Shrigley here.)

Go to a museum and the writing on the walls is always the same. It's filled with facts about the work and everything surrounding the work. You learn where the artists was when she painted the picture. You learn who her friends were, what her studio was like, perhaps some events that were happening at the same time — a war or two, another painting being painted, who was president.  The one thing conspicuously absent from the writing on the wall is the image itself. It's as if the writer looked over the head of the painting, next to it, underneath it — anywhere but at it.

Sure, there might be talk about technique, materials, craft. There's writing on technique and color; on composition and motif. But these tend to focus on the making of the object — interesting, sometimes.  But they don't take up the image as a site of knowledge, of world making. The image is not something that is itself knowledge.

Usually, we don't know what to say about images. And so we talk around them. We give the so-called context of their creation and who created them; how old the artists were; who their parents were; how they felt about their parents; what the political situation was; what the historical climate was. I remember being at a Philip Guston show at SFMoMA. I'm looking at a painting that, amongst other things, features a big ol' bulbous light bulb. And I'm laughing because the image is funny, this cartoony, delicious, round view of humanity amongst things. Some random guy is standing next to me and says, as if we were on the same page, "It's sad isn't it?" Confused, I turn to him with furrowed brow. "His father locked him a closet," said man continues, "and all he had was a light bulb."  This man didn't learn this from the image; he learned it from the wall. The image said something else entirely.  

What drives me crazy is that biographical information becomes psychological explanation becomes reading of the image. As if some reductive psychoanalytic reading of the facts of someone's life could explain the complexity of an image! We don't know what to do with the inchoate experience of looking at art so we look to facts and things that we already have mechanisms to explain — psychology and history and then, if we're all fancy pantsy experts, we can talk about the materials and art history.

But we don't talk about the image! The experience of looking at art, we like to believe, is subjective. If we can't measure it, then there's nothing to say about it. It doesn't count as knowledge. It might be a beautiful, powerful experience but it's not knowledge! After all, it's just my opinion!

Which is hogwash. An image is an empirical event just as a season, a storm, or black bear is. There's as much that's subjective about a tornado that's subjective about a painting but we still have plenty to say about tornadoes. A work of art is an event, something we can see, something that not only offers evidence but is evidence.  No, forget that: an image, like a storm or animal or rock formation, is the world happening right now. 

When I look back over my extensive years of so-called upper education — four years to earn an Ivy League BA (oooh! fancy!), seven and a half years to earn a doctorate at Berkeley, in rhetoric no less — I realize I've never been offered a class in how to make sense of images. Sure, I saw plenty of art. And while my knowledge was by no means extensive, I had clearly delineated opinions about this and that (I was a doctoral student, after all; we have to have opinions). But the fact is I was blind. Images were everywhere and I had no real way to make sense of them.

I took modern art history class in college and, perhaps oddly, that’s where I learned the least about images (even if I did learn some good things). The class was a survey in which we were shown image after image and given name after name, movement after movement, coupled with some historical reduction of that movement’s philosophy. We were taught a topology, a system of classification, that we were supposed to memorize. We did not spend one moment actually reckoning images, learning to see, to feel, to process what was happening directly in front of us.  The images themselves did not offer knowledge. Rather, knowledge about the images was laid over the images, keeping us from ever seeing them at all. 

And then, in grad school, there were plenty of film classes but they were not about images at all. They were about pornography, power, gender, psychoanalysis. Images were always seen as symptoms of something else, something nobler and more important: big ideas, ideology, patriarchy. The images were not knowledge; they were examples of more important things to know. 

Reading images as symptoms is important, no doubt. This is how we do ideology critique; it's how we can come to understand methods and modes of theory and power such as psychoanalysis, capitalism, homophobia. But it is not the only way to reckon images. In fact, it ignores images as sites of knowledge, as pieces of the world, as things to know and learn from in and of themselves. 

Images are these incredible, powerful events that have the power to transform how we feel, think, see, and experience the world. Shouldn't we look learn to learn from them rather than constantly looking around them? Every image is a metabolic engine: it takes in the world, makes sense of it in its own way, then produces affects and effects. An image is akin to a person in that sense: we take in food, books, ideas; process them in our own way and time; then play them back. This play back is called our life. Images, too, have a life: they take in, process, play back. The play back is the event of the image.  

An image is a mode of decision making — one offers chairs; another, pears; another, faces; another, an undulating plane of blue; another just splatters and drips; and another, nothing at all: just blackness or whiteness or a the trace of an image that's been erased, its ghost barely perceptible.  All images consume and produce affects, percepts, and usually a piece of a concept, sometimes an idea or just a notion. What does this image like to consume?

Rauschenberg erases a de Kooning. 

And, once selected, what does it do with the thing (or lack thereof)? An image processes the world, makes sense of it in its own way. Lucien Freud sees flesh as so much viscous ripples; Bacon sees it sliding off the body all together; Picasso splays the body's dimensions onto one plane, rearranging body parts in the process; Modigliani sees bodies as sensual, elongated line. Right there are four different ways of human going; four different philosophies; four different physiologies; four different architects. 

Making sense of art is really no different than making sense of anything — a weather pattern, a book, a human being. The critic — the reader — is empirical. What do you see? That is, you gather your evidence together. What kinds of things are in the image? What are the different relationships between the things? What are the different moods of these things and these relations? And then: How can it all fit together to become a little engine — an engine that makes this image with these affects, these effects?

Every image creates and participates within a rhetorical milieu. So how does this image stand towards the world? Just as we can analyze the rhetorical posture of a written text — the way Nietzsche attacks and provokes his audience; the way politicians use "we" to implicate their listeners; the way Burroughs leads readers (or not) into odd alien worlds. Or think about songs: some are sing alongs, inviting you; others push you away, screaming; some include you but not him or her. The same is true of images: they position viewers. I've written about the complexity of David Shrigley's rhetorical posture.

Image makers don't represent the world. They create the world. They offer us knowledge of how things go, just as the writer and scientist and doctor do.  Or as gods do. Art is the world happening like this or that. It confronts us as this way of going just as anything and everything does — people, dogs, ideas, books, chocolate, tequila. And while images offer subjective experiences, this subjectivity is no greater or lesser than it is in any experience. 

An image is out there, something to be seen, to be reckoned, to be known. Images teach.  It behooves us to look and learn. And to teach our students to see.


dustygravel said...

We all have students.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes! Exactly! And we are all students and all teachers and so on and so forth. Yes, thank you.

αληθεια said...

"Every image is a metabolic engine: it takes in the world, makes sense of it in its own way, then produces affects and effects. An image is akin to a person in that sense: we take in food, books, ideas; process them in our own way and time; then play them back."
Hmm…interesting! So, wouldn't you say that an image plays back/reflects the social, political, economic situation of the time in which it was created? Or would you say that an image is creating itself continuously by the people who interpret it? And since different people have different realities/situations, an image always speaks in multiple voices/languages to those different people? I don't know if I make sense. See, that's something that challenges me. Whenever I meet people, I want to know where they are from, how they were raised, where they studied, what they studied, etc. Learning more about their background helps me make sense of why they behave the way they behave. Peoples' background is reflected in their foreground (maybe I'm using this word in the wrong way here), i.e., in the way they interact with you or the way they are in the present. But then one can also say that our interpretation of someone's background changes in relation to our always-already-in-motion thoughts and interpretations. So knowing about someone's background doesn't give me a concrete understanding of why someone is the way he/she is (if there is an is-ness at all; Maybe a temporary is-ness). Maybe psychics get it right - they try to read you by just looking at you, leaving aside your history and background, etc.

Daniel Coffeen said...

You make beautiful sense.

I love this phrase you use, "an image is creating itself continuously by the people who interpret it." I'd say yes but that's not quite right. Of course an image is an expression of the socio-cultural-historical world. How could it be any other way? It's just that those things don't determine meaning. I think again of Merleau-Ponty talking about Cézanne. He finds people looking at the man to understand the work — Cézanne was crazy, for instance. But Merleau-Ponty flips that around: he reads the art and finds the man. Because both are born at the same time, necessarily.

Having info about people, objects, etc is great. Often, it's essential to understand what the heck's going around us. But it doesn't determine the person right in front of you; that person determines and is determined at the same time by this "background." As you suggest, background and foreground blur (something John Searle ignores).

I come back to repetition (or go forward to repetition?) and the restructuring of the relationship between concept/idea and things/phenomena. I am as much an example of "Jew" as I (re)define "Jew." We all know people who perform their cultural heritage so perfectly; I, for one, often feel like a parody of Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy — and I find it humiliating. But these people, at these times, bore the shit out of us (I bore myself); there's something creepy about them.

What's interesting, what we enjoy, is the way a person takes up all that "background" and makes a new image with it and, in so doing, (re)creates the background. Ergo, my last entry about the role of critique.

Take My Online Seminar on Deleuze & Guattari Starting 9/7. It'll Be Fantastic.

Take my online seminar on D&G. It'll be over three consecutive Tuesdays in September — September 7, 14, & 21 at 5:30 PT/8:30 ET....