What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images

Overview

Why do we have such powerful responses toward the images and pictures we see in everyday life? Why do we behave as if pictures were alive, possessing the power to influence us, to demand things from us, to persuade us, seduce us, or even lead us astray?
According to W. J. T. Mitchell, we need to reckon with images not just as inert objects that convey meaning but as animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own. What Do Pictures Want? explores ...

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Overview

Why do we have such powerful responses toward the images and pictures we see in everyday life? Why do we behave as if pictures were alive, possessing the power to influence us, to demand things from us, to persuade us, seduce us, or even lead us astray?
According to W. J. T. Mitchell, we need to reckon with images not just as inert objects that convey meaning but as animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own. What Do Pictures Want? explores this idea and highlights Mitchell's innovative and profoundly influential thinking on picture theory and the lives and loves of images. Ranging across the visual arts, literature, and mass media, Mitchell applies characteristically brilliant and wry analyses to Byzantine icons and cyberpunk films, racial stereotypes and public monuments, ancient idols and modern clones, offensive images and found objects, American photography and aboriginal painting. Opening new vistas in iconology and the emergent field of visual culture, he also considers the importance of Dolly the Sheep—who, as a clone, fulfills the ancient dream of creating a living image—and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, which, among other things, signifies a new and virulent form of iconoclasm.
What Do Pictures Want? offers an immensely rich and suggestive account of the interplay between the visible and the readable. A work by one of our leading theorists of visual representation, it will be a touchstone for art historians, literary critics, anthropologists, and philosophers alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Taussig
"As the history of art history reveals, to reveal is to also conceal. So what happens when, over many years of studying pictures, you ask them what they want? You find that pictures have a whole lot to say, although interviewing them is not for the uninitiated or fainthearted because ultimately it means interviewing us and our time-honored procedures too. What fun, therefore, to have Tom Mitchell take us on this rollercoaster ride into the image itself, no longer only visual but a full-bodied intellectual experience, forthright and dazzling."
Fredric Jameson
"This lively collection of essays is something more than a critical tour of the problematics of contemporary art theory; it is more than a set of pertinent (or impertinent) interventions on a series of current exhibits, films, and images of all kinds; more even than a tireless and insistent reproblematization of everybody's work on pictures, images, and image society, turning all the new ideas back into questions and more questions. It is also the elaboration of what is surely destined to become an influential new tripartite concept of the object, namely as idol, fetish, and totem."
Mary Ann Caws

“This rich volume is of an ‘intimate immensity’. . . sufficient to engage anyone—that is, everyone—interested in visuality under any guise at all. . . . Mitchell has a rare quality of generosity. . . . He is frequently witty, never boring, and always able to move rapidly from one sense to another (in all senses) without any self-conscious delight. This is serious stuff, regardless of its humor. . . . Among his other influential works, this one will hold a particular place, for its wide-ranging and exemplary clarity in a field often troubled by the criticisms of those who doubt the efficacy of such boundary-hopping experiments.”

— Modernism/Modernity

Artforum - Norman Bryson
“Mitchell’s book is a treasury of episodes—generally overlooked by art history and visual studies—that turn on images that ‘walk by themselves’ and exert their own power over the living, from the resurrection of the dinosaur in the Victorian natural-history museum, to the quasi-animated statues of Antony Gormley, to the continuing vitality of the visual stereotype of racism. His account offers the most serious challenge in many years to the view that images are merely ‘signs,’ asking only for interpretation or analysis or commentary. What images want from us is much more than that.”
Afterimage - Anna Siomopoulos
"The book displays great analytical energy, playfulness, and insight into the many varied answers that [Mitchell] offers to his own central question: images want to be kissed and touched and heard; they want to trade places with the beholder; they want everything and nothing.  When Mitchell argues that critics should put the image first, he is attempting to open up the field of visual inquiry and avoid any orthodoxy of method, whether psychoanalytic or materialist, that would consider the image as mere symptom or ideological manifestation, an object of iconoclastic destruction of idolatrous esteem.  The strength of What Do Pictures Want? is that it is less a manifesto on the rules and systems of analysis than a call to expand the field with 'new questions of process, affect, and the spectator position,' a thought experiment on the vitality of images and their ability to create in the present new forms and representations of the deep past and near future, from digitized dinosaurs to cloned sheep."
Mary Ann Caws - Modernism/Modernity
“This rich volume is of an ‘intimate immensity’. . . sufficient to engage anyone—that is, everyone—interested in visuality under any guise at all. . . . Mitchell has a rare quality of generosity. . . . He is frequently witty, never boring, and always able to move rapidly from one sense to another (in all senses) without any self-conscious delight. This is serious stuff, regardless of its humor. . . . Among his other influential works, this one will hold a particular place, for its wide-ranging and exemplary clarity in a field often troubled by the criticisms of those who doubt the efficacy of such boundary-hopping experiments.”
Art Documentation - Paula Wolfe
"W.J.T. Mitchell is an important theorist, and this book is a valuable addition to the literature of iconology and visual culture."
International Journal of Communication - Hather Collette-VanDeraa and Douglas Kellner
"Mitchell combines a dazzling array of theoretical discourses to develop analyses, interpretations and provocations that enable us to better understand the modalities and power of visual culture."
Modern Language Association
co-winner of the Modern Language Association's James Russell Lowell Prize
Choice
"The reader gets an invigorating glimpse of a brilliant mind at work, insatiably asking questions."
Artforum
Mitchell’s book is a treasury of episodes—generally overlooked by art history and visual studies—that turn on images that ‘walk by themselves’ and exert their own power over the living, from the resurrection of the dinosaur in the Victorian natural-history museum, to the quasi-animated statues of Antony Gormley, to the continuing vitality of the visual stereotype of racism. His account offers the most serious challenge in many years to the view that images are merely ‘signs,’ asking only for interpretation or analysis or commentary. What images want from us is much more than that.”

— Norman Bryson

Afterimage
The book displays great analytical energy, playfulness, and insight into the many varied answers that [Mitchell] offers to his own central question: images want to be kissed and touched and heard; they want to trade places with the beholder; they want everything and nothing.  When Mitchell argues that critics should put the image first, he is attempting to open up the field of visual inquiry and avoid any orthodoxy of method, whether psychoanalytic or materialist, that would consider the image as mere symptom or ideological manifestation, an object of iconoclastic destruction of idolatrous esteem.  The strength of What Do Pictures Want? is that it is less a manifesto on the rules and systems of analysis than a call to expand the field with 'new questions of process, affect, and the spectator position,' a thought experiment on the vitality of images and their ability to create in the present new forms and representations of the deep past and near future, from digitized dinosaurs to cloned sheep.

— Anna Siomopoulos

Art Documentation
W.J.T. Mitchell is an important theorist, and this book is a valuable addition to the literature of iconology and visual culture.

— Paula Wolfe

International Journal of Communication
Mitchell combines a dazzling array of theoretical discourses to develop analyses, interpretations and provocations that enable us to better understand the modalities and power of visual culture.

— Hather Collette-VanDeraa and Douglas Kellner

Modern Language Association

co-winner of the Modern Language Association's James Russell Lowell Prize

Choice

"The reader gets an invigorating glimpse of a brilliant mind at work, insatiably asking questions."

Artforum

“Mitchell’s book is a treasury of episodes—generally overlooked by art history and visual studies—that turn on images that ‘walk by themselves’ and exert their own power over the living, from the resurrection of the dinosaur in the Victorian natural-history museum, to the quasi-animated statues of Antony Gormley, to the continuing vitality of the visual stereotype of racism. His account offers the most serious challenge in many years to the view that images are merely ‘signs,’ asking only for interpretation or analysis or commentary. What images want from us is much more than that.”—Norman Bryson, Artforum

Afterimage

"The book displays great analytical energy, playfulness, and insight into the many varied answers that [Mitchell] offers to his own central question: images want to be kissed and touched and heard; they want to trade places with the beholder; they want everything and nothing. When Mitchell argues that critics should put the image first, he is attempting to open up the field of visual inquiry and avoid any orthodoxy of method, whether psychoanalytic or materialist, that would consider the image as mere symptom or ideological manifestation, an object of iconoclastic destruction of idolatrous esteem. The strength of What Do Pictures Want? is that it is less a manifesto on the rules and systems of analysis than a call to expand the field with 'new questions of process, affect, and the spectator position,' a thought experiment on the vitality of images and their ability to create in the present new forms and representations of the deep past and near future, from digitized dinosaurs to cloned sheep."--Anna Siomopoulos, Afterimage

— Anna Siomopoulos

Art Documentation

"W.J.T. Mitchell is an important theorist, and this book is a valuable addition to the literature of iconology and visual culture."

— Paula Wolfe

International Journal of Communication

"Mitchell combines a dazzling array of theoretical discourses to develop analyses, interpretations and provocations that enable us to better understand the modalities and power of visual culture."

— Hather Collette-VanDeraa and Douglas Kellner

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226532486
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 964,288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. He is the author or editor of eight books published by the University of Chicago Press, including Picture Theory, Iconology, and Landscape and Power. He is also the editor of Critical Inquiry.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Part One: Images
1. Vital Signs | Cloning Terror
2. What Do Pictures Want?
3. Drawing Desire
4. The Surplus Value of Images
Part Two: Objects
5. Founding Objects
6. Offending Images
7. Empire and Objecthood
8. Romanticism and the Life of Things
9. Totemism, Fetishism, Idolatry
Part Three: Media
10. Addressing Media
11. Abstraction and Intimacy
12. What Sculpture Wants: Placing Antony Gormley
13. The Ends of American Photography: Robert Frank as National Medium
14. Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee's Bamboozled
15. The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction
16. Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture
Index

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    innovative critique of how visual material finds its place in the culture

    In the chapter titled the same as the book title, in laying out the grounds for his innovative exposition on images and culture, Mitchell explains, '[Images] present not just a surface but a face [italicized] that faces the beholder.' Elsewhere in this chapter, he remarks that images may not have the power attributed to them which supposed power is seen as absolute and all-encompassing in postmodern culture. Not suggesting that images ave no power, Mitchell takes the position that 'the problem is to refine and complicate and refine our estimate of their power and the way it works.' The author allows that his perspective based on what pictures 'want' rather than what they 'do' can at first blush seem to anthropomorphize pictures or give them an aboriginal animistic nature. But Mitchell explains that he means this as metaphorical, conceptual, and theoretical not literal as in animism or even symbolic as with icons. Mitchell's provisional approach thus corresponds to the provisional quality of postmodern culture to bring extraordinary illumination to this contemporary culture. Fantasy, multiple selves, and virtual reality are other terms used to express this provisional quality of postmodernism. Playfulness is another--and Mitchell's book, while sound literarily and with extensive learning and cogent though, exercises the principle that playfulness can take one farther in some cases. Whereas in postmodernism, play with its provisional, usually somewhat artificial attributes is a manner of avoiding commitment and engagement with fundamentals, with Mitchell it is a technique for coming to grips as much as possible with the elusive, ethereal nature of postmodernism. It is impossible to encompass or define postmodernism whose primary attributes are contingency, continually changing imagery, and pseudo-events and provisional personas to play to the media. But Mitchell has managed to relate postmodernism's sprawling nature and what accounts for this.

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