This particular tangle of often undeveloped claims—the left brain/right brain claim, the idea that the visual is somehow outside of language, the hope that the visual is optimally or inherently suited as a medium for political work—underwrites a substantial amount of the work that is done in art departments, art schools, and art academies, and so it is especially important from their point of view that the concept of the image is understood as well as possible.

Second, regarding art criticism, art theory, and art history: most historians and critics work with received ideas about what images are. Words such as ‹image,› ‹picture,› and Bild work in art historical discourse as placeholders: we do not put much pressure on them, we don’t expect them to carry much of the argument. [2] Relatively few art historians or critics have developed accounts of images. This is not a fault of art history, criticism, or art theory, but a characteristic of their discourses, which enables many other things to happen within the ill-defined field (the cloud, as Karin Leonhard, one of the contributors to the book What is an Image?, might want to say) of the image. The pragmatic, everyday use of words such as ‹image› does have some nameable consequences, however, such as art history’s relative lack of interest in detailed visual incident.

Third, regarding visual studies: like art history, theory, and criticism, the developing field of visual studies uses the word «image» as a given term, but with different consequences because of the enormous rhetorical weight that visual studies puts on the idea of the visual. [3] We are said to live in an especially visual culture: we may see more images in our lifetimes than any other culture has, and we may be able to assimilate more images per minute than any other culture. Visuality is said to be characteristic of late capitalist first-world culture, and it has even been claimed that we have come to think and experience primarily through the visual. The authors associated with different forms of these claims—Martin Jay, Jean Baudrillard, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Lisa Cartwright—either speaking for, or are claimed by visual studies. For that reason the relative lack of work on the nature of images themselves plays an especially important part in the constitution and conceptual possibilities of visual studies. [4]

In all three of these areas—art production, art history, visual culture—the image is normally taken as a given term. That is how I would frame an answer to the question about the question. (Why ask, What is an image?) My own interest in this is principally conceptual and not normative: that is, I do not want to reconsider or reformulate the fields that use the concept of the image in these ways. The uses of ‹image› and related terms do not call for change as much as explanation.

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