The situation is different with the depiction of popular sovereignty discussed above as being legitimised by a society without a defined or unifying body. The attempt to temporarily fill the empty space of power has become the core characteristic of modern democracy recognising the contingent ground of the social. The contingent moment has entered David’s picture of Marat in the guise of the insubstantiality of the sovereign’s body reflecting the challenges of politics to navigate through an ever changing field of conflictive interests. The portrait of Marat is not a model of sovereignty; it has turned into its own image, a reflection on the concept of sovereignty as it were.

In opposition to the portraits of Louis XIV where the model of transcendent sovereignty and the concept of the body politic collapse in the image of the king, the portrait of the dead Marat demonstrates a different image of the political. Here, the image of the sovereign is no longer identical with the model of sovereignty and does no longer represent the organic unity of the people. Instead, the image of the sovereign shows its non-identity with the model of sovereignty. The examination of the sovereign’s portrait, which reveals an intellectual shift from a divine model to a self-reflexive image, can thus help to clarify the inextricable connection between political power and its (aesthetic) forms of representation, which not only played a central role at the court of Louis XIV but remains relevant to the democratic systems of our time.

In this regard, I would like to reassess the quote of John Quincy Adams as cited at the beginning of this essay. Adams rightly criticises the idea that a democratic society cannot be subsumed under one symbolic representation in the sense of the absolute monarch. However, he seems to misunderstand the necessity of an imaginary image of the social which lies at the very bottom of democratic thinking. The essence of democracy is only «iconoclastic» regarding mimetic models of transcendent sovereignty, which attempt to ground their authority in a realm beyond society’s discursive practices. Yet, it is anything but iconoclastic in the sense of the self-reflexive power of aesthetic representation.

As a mental concept of the social, which is the imaginary identity of the body politic, the image finds its correspondence in the countless variations of material image production of the mass media, fine arts and popular culture which all share in the symbolic formation of society. The role of the various image strategies in modern democracy is no longer the display of a given authority but the constant reminder that the negotiation of its appearance is its very essence. In this sense, the visual negotiations of society’s symbolic order are merging into broader pictorial discourses exceeding the strategic use of the single image.

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