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

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9780226532486: What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images

Why do we have such extraordinarily 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 9/11, 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.

  “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.”—Norman Bryson, Artforum

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About 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.

Review:

"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." (Michael Taussig)

"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." (Fredric Jameson)

“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)

“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)

"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 2006-03-01)

“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 Mary Ann Caws 2006-04-01)

co-winner of the Modern Language Association's James Russell Lowell Prize (Modern Language Association 2006-11-01)

"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 Art Documentation)

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

"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 International Journal of Communication)

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