Drawing Distinctions

Drawing Distinctions

In Iconology (1986), W.J.T. Mitchell advances two interconnected theses:

  1. There is no essential difference between poetry and painting, no difference, that is, given for all time by the inherent natures of the media, the objects they represent, or the laws of the human mind.

  2. There are always a number of differences in effect in a culture which allows it to sort out the distinctive qualities of its ensemble of signs and symbols.

Mitchell goes on to expand this notion of “differences” in culture are riddled with antithetical values “which the culture wants to advance or repudiate” (49). In the several examples that follow in the book, he highlights the desire of critics to keep images and texts in their place, and performing their normative function. One of the difficulties that Mitchell highlights is our tendency to render images by linguistic rules—this continually reasserts the domination of language over image. Constant throughout the argument is his first principle: that images and texts are not inherently different. The distinctions are exclusively cultural in nature.

Near the close of the book, Mitchell articulates his vision of a reinvigorated critique of the image/text opposition:

Such a critique can lead us several directions. The most obvious would be more of the same—more study, that is, of critics, aestheticians, and other theorists who have tried to legislate the boundaries between the arts, and especially the war-torn border between image and text. A second alternative would be to study artistic practice in relation to the embattled boundary between texts and images. How is this struggle manifested in the formal characteristics of texts and images that are designed to conform or violate the boundaries between space and time, nature and convention, the eye and ear, the iconic and the symbolic? To what extent is the battle of text and image a consciously articulated theme in literature, the visual arts, and the various “composite arts” (film, drama, cartoons, narrative cycles, book illustrations) that combine symbolic modes? These questions take us away from “what people say” about images towards the things they do with images in practice. (154)

Most of these areas have been explored at length since the publication Mitchell’s book. However, there has been an understandable (due to aesthetic bias) surfeit of attention to his second possibility, that of “artistic practice” rather than a close examination of the conventions that these currents run opposed to. There seems to me to be a large gaping void in the non-material or psychological study of vernacular artifacts of “composite” (Mitchell’s description, not mine) practice. I find myself agreeing with his basic assertions, and his suggestion that the future of research should be in a closer examination of practice.

However, I also find myself constantly chafing against the cultural binary of “artistic” versus “non-artistic” (vernacular) practice. This line, like the line between images and texts, is anything but distinct. It is filled with antithetical oppositions as well.

2 thoughts on “Drawing Distinctions”

  1. This is just what I meant in today’s post. And it’s why I’m itching to converse with and learn from you. I’m entirely sympathetic to your resistance to the language of “artistic” and “non-”; it seems quite antithetical to the broader endeavor of thinking through what happens when people recognize (letters, word-shapes, sign-shapes, form-shapes, whatever). And I need to work through some intense ideas about the topic in the next two weeks. In fact, it would be great if I made significantt headway by Monday, when I run this past my faculty colleagues.

  2. I have Mitchell’s book on my desk. Perhaps I had better start reading him, since this sounds quite like what I have been interested in and working on for some time now. Hmm..

Comments are closed.