Since art pedagogy, art history, and visual studies are all thriving, a more intriguing question might be what kinds of discourse are enabled by not pressing the question of what an image is. It is a commonplace in studio art instruction that theories tend to be used strategically, to let the student artist get on with whatever she wants to do, so that it might not be helpful or pertinent to interrogate the student’s theories. Whatever they are, however strange and idiosyncratic they might seem to the student’s instructors, their purpose is to enable other practices. In the same way, the words ‹image,› ‹picture,› and Bild in art history, theory, and criticism, and in visual studies, may work by not being analyzed, and so the work done in the book What is an Image? might be counter-productive or misguided.

Contemporary discourse would not be alone in its lack of interest in its leading terms. There is a long history of texts that take «image» for granted in order to do other things. Here, as an emblem of that issue, is Hume’s opening argument in the Treatise of Human Nature: «Impressions,» he writes, are «all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these [impressions] in thinking and reasoning.« Notice how much weight images have to bear: they are the link between impressions, a crucial concept throughout Hume’s work, and ideas. As scholars have noted, Hume is thinking of a printing press, and so an image would be the visible result of the printing. But the image’s faintness is not the result of a faint print impression, at least not according to this passage. Somehow the image itself carries the property of faintness, which then characterizes all ideas. [5]

It would not be difficult to multiply examples of often fruitful theories that have begun by declining to interrogate the image.

I thought it might be good to begin informally, with a selection of theories about images. I present these in absolutely no order. Afterward, I will propose six reasons why it would be difficult to do this more seriously: that is, to begin a study of images in the way that might be considered both reasonable and necessary in many other fields, merely listing the principal existing theories.

1. Images as very thin skins of things. This is Lucretius’s theory: images are «membranes» or «cauls» (allantois, and in German «Häutchen») that float through the air toward our eyes. We see the world by virtue of our eyes’ capacity to take in these diaphanous skins of objects. An image, in this theory, actually is a skin: it is not thin like a skin, but is an actual skin. [6] As a metaphor this is very suggestive, very embodied, but as a theory it would restrict seeing to literal embodiment. [7]

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