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A professor at the University of Chi­ cago in the departments of English and art, Mitchell can be described as one of die "literary scholars moonlighting in the visual arts," as he calls them (p. 84). His longstanding fascination with im­ ages operates mostly from the perspec­ tive of language, the relations of words to pictures. In an introductory chapter he does deal with pictures by them­ selves. He highlights the problem of representation by dealing with what he calls metapictures, that is, pictures not unifiable in a single visual percept be­ cause of inner contradictions in their perspective or concealment of the vi­ sual presence of something. The sim­ plest examples are those of multistability (as psychologists call them), the tricky back-and-forth of fig­ ure and ground or of competing double subjects, such as the duck-rab­ bit, which acquired philosophical citi­ zenship through Wittgenstein. It is worth noting that such contra­ dictions arise in representational art only when it claims to show the depth of three-dimensional space. Only then, for example can figures looking at the observer acknowledge the presence of someone who does not belong in the scene. In earlier forms of art, for ex­ ample, in Byzantine murals or in children's art, there is no such illusionistic pretense and therefore no contra­ diction. But Velazquez's Meninas, an ex­ ample to which thinkers of Mitchell's generation are magnetically drawn, pre­ sents indeed a whirlpool of contradic­ tory viewpoints. Pictures only rarely produce illu­ sions, that is, the deceptive impression that one is facing actual physical space. Much more frequently and more inter­ estingly, pictures are taken to merely "stand for" the actual objects because the viewer recognizes pictures as being products of their makers. This recogni­ tion involves an awareness of the formal traits by which the medium represents its subject, an acceptance of the par­ ticular visual language by which the pic­ ture maker communicates. One might think that such a translation requires a sophisticated convention, but this is not the case. It is all but spontaneous in children's and early forms of art and is all the more common in later styles. What we are facing here is a curious fu­ sion of two contradictory attitudes: pic­ tures are taken as presenting "real" ob­ jects, and treated as though one were facing denizens of the real world, but at the same time they are recognized and treated as mere figments. Mitchell points out that when newsreels were a regular part of movie programs, they were seen as "just another kind of movie" (p. 397), that is, as an accept­ able document of what was happening in the world and, at the same time, as just a story offered for entertainment— a fateful association of attitudes, all too familiar from the responses of televi­ sion audiences. Mitchell describes the consequences in his analysis of Oliver Stone's film ß'K. He devotes revealing chapters to power in its relation to images. Films such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing depict the power of violence; but there is also the power of imagery simply as a medium dominant over the other senses—which, after all, is the subject of Mitchell's book. When it comes to nonrepresentational images, Mitchell reveals a curious blindness to the inherent expression of shapes and colors, although this is their most telling trait. In a debate with his young son, he declares himself unable to explain what Malevich's famous Red Square and Black Square is about, al­ though one needs only to point to the stability and large size of the black square, firmly entrenched in the spatial framework, and the dynamically tilted, smaller red square moving obliquely against the weighty power of the estab­ lished mass on top if it, to have the sym­ bolic meaning of die work impose itself almost too obviously. Mitchell is at home with conven­ tional and verbally confirmed emblems, which he applies especially to works of minimalist art, such as that of Robert Morris, which indeed can do with all the verbal help they can get. In dealing more generally with the relations be­ tween words...


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pp. 76-77
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