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Deborah Meadows

Lecture Notes on Icons and Iconoclasts

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I read the first of the following two sections — with an emphasis on 70s works, and their varying interpretations — at the conference devoted to the poetry of the 1970s, American and international, held from Wednesday to Sunday, June 11-15, 2008, on the campus of the University of Maine System in Orono, Maine. — D.M.

Part One


Hans Belting in his Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art points out that the earliest portraits were commemorations of the person at death, to create presence in the midst of absence that icons and portraits come from the same root.


As we look across disciplines we see: philosophers, Richard Rorty among them, who point to how one property of mind is the ability to sustain a relation to the inexistent and anthropologists who write about icons as referring to absent presences.


We might ask how the economy of icons depends on stylization, both existing through minimal amount of strokes as well as relying on excess or slippage in meaning. But is that very contradiction what style is?


How might any portrait practice express realized or failed intentions? Or expose a corrupt or failed symbolic order?


In his cinema studies, Deleuze divides between Concept and Image, reserving concept for abstractions of autonomous philosophy and image as related to subjectivity. While useful here in thinking about icons as examples of inner life, as a provisioning of subjectivity and as symptoms, or drivers, of socially shared assumptions, to carve away philosophy altogether from art’s available means seems to ignore much of what image can do.


Again, Hans Belting in his Likeness and Presence writes how powerful images are especially in the face of entrenched power and monopolized means of interpretative control:


Whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power…. It was never easy to control images with words because, like saints, they engaged deeper levels of experience and fulfilled desires other than the ones living church authorities were able to address….Theologians were satisfied only when they could ‘explain’ the images…. (1)


Belting sees the historic quest to anchor authoritative interpretation of Scripture as recognition of images’ power that ‘when substituted for the word… always posed a threat because of its imprecision and the possibility of misunderstanding.’ (15)


Of course, we question authoritative interpretation of text and text-stability, and investigate how allegory or metaphor may defray its costs in terms of immediacy or embedded mark. And might we also question who is estranged from the world and how that comes to be an over-determined mark of modernity rather than of functioning human consciousness in any era? Belting sees the old image


as the symbol of an archaic mentality that still promised a harmony between world and subject. Into its place steps art, this inserts a new level of meaning between visual appearance of the image and the understanding of the beholder…. Form and content renounce their unmediated meaning in favor of the mediated meaning of aesthetic experience and concealed argumentation… (16)


But might we question whether developmental change is a useful structure and whether it is complete; are there not remnants of image-veneration involving exactly Belting’s terms of image-kissing, believing an image to bleed or cry when hurt, even today, in examples seen in Six o’clock News reports of sightings of a Virgin or Christ in a stucco building? And is aesthetic mediation ever unmediated?


Or, might we with postmodernists question the developmental scheme of understanding image practice and movement across time, and take up other models such as Bataille’s ideas of the general economy. Here Arkady Plotnitsky in Reconfigurations: Critical Theory and General Economy writes:


… Demonstrably, the question of entropy in physics and elsewhere has a profound relation to the question of temporality and presence, in addition to the question of wholeness….
… Entropy also has significant, if mediated, effect in the question of political economy in Marx, in such ‘material’ issues as amortization of the means of production. (305)


So like amortized factories, aging aircraft, the big winding down of fueled combustion in our cosmos, how is image production subject to a similar economy? Are we then to study the process of faded gods? How are Smithson’s works such as Spiral Jetty or Mirror Displacement (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) 1969 or Nonsite (Essen soil and mirrors) 1969 our entropic icons? How are Warhol’s works that print the dollars we supposedly worship a matter of print reproduction and tampered seriality? How does Joan Retallack disintegrate pages of text in her volume of poetry Afterrimages that in part offers a pervasive, iconic presence of Icarus falling: young men destroyed by their striving for impossible feats? If, as do so many of the world’s religions figure an End of Time (and subsequent movement into Eternity), how are the means of that message and material of its conveyance not subject to entropic wear-down? Or are there always features of icons that exceed the container, always waves of erotic association beyond the controls of entropy even?


Then to ask: can reconfiguration or re-inscription exceed structures of ‘origin’ thus annihilating the historian’s procedure?


In works such as Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots, do recombinant lives reveal the arbitrary nature of logic-systems such as mathematics? Or, does the monster or machine that finds a new platform from which to operate demand even greater critical and interpretative understanding?


But if it is difference and writing that make history possible, how does repetition come to look dated?


Rosalind Kraus in ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’ approaches the divergence of 70s art such as Vito Acconci’s video art, performance, earthworks, photorealism, and so forth where she employs Lacan’s idea of the index, the remnant presence of a person, a fingerprint, a trace, a shadow as the recurring character manifested through difference. She considers Marcel Duchamp’s ‘infrathin’ (the warmth left behind on a chair seat, etc.) as the domain of the index he actively worked, and further considers Large Glass an autobiographical work as well as Tu m’ wherein his famed ready-mades cast shadows. She sees these works engage, if not feature, an index.


Of Man Ray’s and Duchamp’s use of photogram and photographs, she writes:


Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface. The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical relationship to its object (75)


Kraus considers With My Tongue in My Cheek as split ‘along the semiotic axis of icon and index’ (78) as Duchamp sketches his profile but also impresses plaster with his chin and cheek.


With Kraus we consider 70s art that arrives to us as documents of persons, places, and things indexically present from a distant elsewhere such as earthworks in a desert, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969. Indeed, she sees the increased use of photograph in 70s art as not only characteristic of:


photo-realism, but in all those forms which depend on documentation — earthworks,… body art, story art — and of course in video. But it is not just the heightened presence of the photograph itself that is significant. Rather it is the photograph combined with the explicit terms of the index…. In the work that Dennis Oppenheim made in 1975 called Identity Stretch, the artist transfers the image (index) of his own thumbprint onto a large field outside of Buffalo by magnifying it thousands of times and fixing its traces in the ground in lines of asphalt… (80)


Kraus’s culminating view is that 70s art be ‘viewed as a deliberate short-circuiting of issues of style. Countermanding the artist’s possible formal intervention in creating the work is the overwhelming physical presence of the original object, fixed in this trace of the cast.’ (80) It’s easy to note that she positions serial repetition against style.


Kraus considers Acconci’s Airtime (1973) wherein he videotaped himself talking to a mirror alternating between referring to himself as ‘I’ and other times as ‘you’ as ‘playing out the drama of the shifter — in its regressive form’. (69) Kraus draws on Jakobson’s term


for that linguistic sign which is ‘filled with signification’ only because it is ‘empty’… ‘this’ is such a sign… the personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ are also shifters… (69)


Kraus thinks:


Airtime establishes, then the space of double regression. Or rather, a space in which linguistic confusion operates in concert with the narcissism implicit in the performer’s relationship to the mirror….


She considers Duchamp’s later works as ‘the project of depicting the self [that] took on those qualities of enigmatic refusal and mask… ’(74)


Philosopher C. S. Peirce writes of signs divided into three: icons, index, or symbol. He restricts the direct communication of an idea to icons, but locates indirect communication in a sort of predicate relationship substrate to icons, and that the very truths that can be taken in from an icon exceed its very construction:


For a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction. (Vol. 2, 158)


Similar to Rosalind Kraus’ view of photography, Peirce sees the physical correspondence of photographs to nature as placing them within ‘the second class of signs, those by physical connection.’ (Vol. 2, 159)


Pierce asks about likeness as a test for inclusion in the class of icons, and interestingly finds it too small to consider by looking at an example that is an emblematic, if not allegorical, case: exhibiting a drunken man ‘to show, by contrast, the excellence of temperance, this is certainly an icon, but whether it is a likeness or not may be doubted. The question seems somewhat trivial.’ (Vol. 2, 160)


Rosalind Kraus would probably like what Peirce writes about the index, and though Pierce seeks to exhaust category-possibility, his examples are sympathetic with Kraus’ examples such as the shadow, imprint, trace, and infrathin. [End Note One]


Peirce considers a restricted definition of index by allowing that the tight bind of object and sign cannot be undone and still be an index (and we notice the similarity to Kraus’ index and Duchamp’s infrathin) but that interpretation, according to Pierce, may be missing or faulty:


304. … An index is a sign which would, at once, lose the character which makes it a sign if its object were removed, but would not lose that character if there was no interpretant. Such, for instance, is a piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as sign of a shot; for without the shot there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anybody has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not…. (Vol. 2, 170)


The question of how a sign might lose its character or status is taken up by Jean Baudrillard in Simula and Simulation in his often quoted ‘hyperrealism’ where he opens with Borges’ fable about a map coextensive with the world which ‘disappears in the simulation’ and loses correspondence to a ‘real’ by producing it through ‘miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks… a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.’ (2). Baudrillard asks ‘what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra?’ (4) and reviews the slippage from authentic to representation itself that becomes troublingly powerful from the view of iconoclasts, and ironically, points to the


faculty simulacra have of effacing God from the conscience of man, and the destructive, annihilating truth that they allow to appear — that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed…. from this came their [the iconoclasts’] urge to destroy the images. (4)


Though Baudrillard sees icon worshipers the ‘most modern minds’ who enact the death of god, he reads this as the emptiness behind all representation. Thus he tunes us to the ’murderous power of images’ (such as Byzantine icons) which he opposes to ’representations as dialectical power, the visible and intelligible mediation of the Real.’(5) Does Kasimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ with its crackled surface reminiscent of icons composed of egg tempura on wood meant to be positioned in the room in the usual place of icons escape Baudrillard’s economy of the simulacra, or does its status as trace or indexical referent shimmer out of history and return us to a present that can no longer repeat the reception of old-time representation? There is no ‘going back’ to an innocent time? [End Note Two]


We might forget that Baudrillard spends quite a bit of time and text on the manufacture of the problem of authentic disappearing Indians, on the problematic role of museum institutions in their constructions of truth, supposed original, and reinforced categories, and we may here consider artists such as Marcel Broodthears and his work, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles that kicked off early efforts to show us underlying assumptions of institutions through parody and other means, also Robert Smithson’s reflections on dinosaurs at the natural history museum, and, later yet, installation art such as the Los Angeles-based Museum of Jurassic Technology (founded by David Hildebrand Wilson and Diana Wilson in 1989). Baudrillard writes:


In order for ethnology to live, its object must die; by dying, the object takes its revenge for being ‘discovered’ and with its death defies the science that wants to grasp it. (7)


In what way is the search for authenticity based on the very obliteration of origins it (falsely or naively) claims to uncover?


In study of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Old Testament iconic items fade on a cinder heap, the frail tree barely, indexically, alive, too insubstantial to sustain life or desire for knowledge, yet too insubstantial to sustain death by suicide. To what extent does Estragon and Vladimir act the folly and utterly human impulse to wait for a savior, to mark time without promise of transcendent meaning, their misguided belief that one can negotiate an even better deal with a cruel god?


In Hal Foster’s Prosthetic Gods, he interprets the sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa, (Canova at the MET, a work commissioned for Pope Pius VII to replace a statue of Apollo triumphing over Dionysus appropriated by Napoleon) as analog to the institution of the museum itself, its symbolic order:


… What is celebrated is the strategic taming of these uncivilized forces to civilizational ends, the ‘apotropaic’ transformations of a deadly enemy into a prized trophy, of the evil eye of Medusa into the wise vision of Athena (apo-tropaios is to turn or to trope away)…. The implication (might we speak here of an ‘unconscious’ of the museum?) is that this apotropaic transformation of weapon onto shield is fundamental to art, perhaps its originary purpose.(260)


Medusa, of course, created inanimate sculpture from animate forms, so is, as Foster points out, ‘a master artist, for she produces sculptural images by her gaze alone.’ (262) But Foster thinks this is the lesser story of the larger transformation of the gaze into shield: it is a double movement wherein the reflection seen in the shield can also become a representation that can ‘arrest the viewer in turn.’ (262) We can be stopped in our tracks by powerful art.


Foster applies Lacan and Lacanian image-screens to his purposes suggesting the Gorgonicon shield forms the triad mirror, icon, and painting that are embodiments of reflection, protection, and representation. Yet this shield is never entirely stable as a field of protection but an excess of mimesis. Foster via Lacan and his take on torn image-screens might remind us of the depleted world in Waiting for Godot. We might ask to what extent does Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Wash, 1973 or other Maintenance Art ‘tear the screen,’ and distribute people and social relations along a horizon where formerly practice and habit reinforced a sharp vertical rise or decline along the social ladder?


Foster considers detection of the screen at ‘moments of crisis’ and ‘then only from an extreme perspective.’ Is this a strategy, if not artistic urgency, to bring-to-sight the hidden assumptions of the symbolic order of our society, its historic legacy that goes unspoken and so-called naturalized? Will sight of that ‘face’ allow us to be or think more freely as critics of the current order? Or, will it dissolve into and increase fear, show the void behind the surveying eye, the terror of an utterly arbitrary order? Will that experience, or that insight lead us to inhabit a state of awe that throws us into the world? Or, will that awe lock into a frozen Heideggerian anxiety about being thrown into the world?


Indeed we might think of the screen of the poet’s forehead in Hannah Weiner’s works of experimental poetry such as Spoke or Clairvoyant Journal 1974. But we might also bring into the discussion John Ashbery’s work Girls on the Run (1999) that writes in relation to outsider artist Henry Darger’s epic The Story of the Vivien Girls, in What is Known As the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a work of poetry that uses vernacular spoken language perpetually slipping from normative use to hint at what the symbolic order glosses over in its smoothly running day possibly available for those initiated into some sort of fictitious parallel universe.


And we might recall having listened to portions of Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach (1976) that performs chants derived from language patterns spoken by an autistic child, numbers and solfege syllables all set to music by Philip Glass as if bending the spectrum of intelligence so that anonymous autism and an icon of scientific genius come closer than our social order typically allows.


Moving from Lacan to contemporary artists whose works ‘tore’ the screen, who performed strategies of scattering material and hence the focal point of visuality, Foster considers Robert Morris’ Threadwaste, and argues that:


… Morris wanted ‘to take the conditions of the visual field’ as the ‘structural basis’ of his work, not merely its physical limit. In so doing he sought to shift the viewer from a focal gaze (as one looks at a painting, a sculpture, or indeed a minimalist object) to a ‘vacant stare’ on a visual array; and it was to this end that he arranged his materials in a way that could hardly be grasped, in profile or in plan, as an image or an object at all. Here the minimalist undoing of pictorial illusion became postminimalist scattering of spectatorial vision, … it is as if vision were decentered from the subject, thrown into the world… (296)

Part Two


How can images elude attempts at controlling interpretation even threaten entrenched power, and when might interpretation further the aims of power? Is it possible that those with the least can use, or abuse, images in ways that threaten consolidated power? How can terms of power-critique, in turn, require a trapdoor from the stage of power? How do icons domesticate and unify people by making competing interests invisible?


Does conventional thought hold, and does art arise on the ruins of religion, with, for example, a change in reception of images from Renaissance devotional examples onward? Or, does contemporary art (of the installation, performance, conceptual, abstracted form) return art to iconic status of repeatable, pervasive number of examples that create ‘presence,’ and set a sense of timelessness, or does it reject ahistoricity? Does ‘engaged’ contemporary art and poetry have a currency traceable to earlier to icons and iconoclasts in detourned pictorial focus or in its scattered lack of center?


To explore these questions I turned to writers in varying disciplines who consider icons, and the first emphasis here is The Reformation of the Image by Joseph Leo Koerner that explores a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder: the Wittenberg altarpiece that commemorates Martin Luther in its predella. Koerner writes in response to Martin Luther’s judgment that images ‘inspired idolatry, that effigies of the Virgin … supported [a] false promise of intercession… ’ (27) Koerner details a period of image-smashing and icon removal from churches, yet he notices that ‘Luther’s mandate hardly changed images for the better’ and turns to masterworks such as Cranach the Elder’s predella:


Didacticism required that the image become less rather than more: less visually seductive, less emotionally charged, less semantically rich. Deemed useless save as school pictures, images were built to signal the fact of their impotence. Expressing their mundaneness through willfully crude visible forms, and valuable only for what they meant rather than for how they looked, they emptied out any residual expectation of magical efficacy any lingering faith in the participation of the likeness with what the likeness represents. (28)


Koerner traces the relation between reform (i.e., iconoclasm in this case) and its supposed opposite, aesthetic appreciation, by quoting from Novalis’ friend Ludwig Tieck’s novel Franz Sternbalds Waderungen (1798). The phrasing here may remind some readers of not only the high-low debate, but also of the tension between traditional lyric poetry through the Romantic lineage and experimental poetry, whether poetry as inquiry, concrete, constructivist-experimental or minimalist-Language, or as conceptual-procedural poetry:


… Tieck’s imagery is telling. True religion was like a ‘wonderful poem,’ enchanted and inscrutable. It ‘stood before us’, concrete and palpable, not like poetry read or heard, but like a cult image in a shrine. Understanding, as an activity of critique, ‘touched’ religion, the poem, the icon. The mental labour of reform becomes thus embodied (and thus debased) as the desecrating grasp of the pariah, understanding. And Romanticism’s religion of art becomes, reciprocally, a nostalgia for belief, for idols. Removed from the temple, the work of art — which Romantics struggled to make inscrutable again — remains the last shrine, the last suspension of disbelief in a world that understanding had profaned.
Conversely, bad art, and specifically art that is bad because too easily understood, desecrates the religion of culture…. (29)


In response to the latter sentence, those invested in ‘culture studies’ will recognize and tease out the complexity, multi-valence, and changed historic situation in so-called easily understood images, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Che Guevarra, Subcomandante Marcos of Chiapas, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, or Abraham Lincoln. But we also see how the Chiapan leader Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, claimed the icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe as their own, extending her resonance as a symbol of peasant endurance or underground survival toward their own struggle after the suspension of the land grant article in the Mexican constitution. In his award-winning documentary film, The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas, Saul Landau films a sympathy strike in Mexico City in 1990 where participants wear the by-then famous Marcos ski mask and chant ‘We are all Marcos.’ The film captures local signs of the Virgin of Guadalupe that are co-opted by black spray paint forming a ski mask on her face, as well as the local KFC, Colonel Sanders (symbol of debased food in aggressive globalism) also detourned with a ski mask.


And we have discussed the poetry of Reina María Rodríguez, her recurring themes of doubled self, real and simulacra, and the poem that considers the fading icon, Che, ‘that’s how he looked backlit, at least.’


But to return: concerning Reformation paintings of Lutheran iconography, Koerner cites Traugott Koch’s claim that ‘Stripped of the information it conveys, she ultimately concludes, the Reformation image, is nothing.’ (30) So, is lacking or reducing the experience of art, that is, the idea or feeling we have in front of the image that is hardly containable as a ‘message’ somehow exclusive of its status as mere information, defensible utility?


Koerner’s study show both how Cranach’s Lutheran paintings were misunderstood by scholars as ‘mere theological tracts,’ yet might we see them in critical relation to the poetry and art of our time that relies on social critique, philosophical inquiry, double play of things and ideas, words and referents? Koerner shows how earlier critics dismissed Cranach’s work out of ‘glorification of feeling over reason, the contempt for allegory as antithetical to life, and the celebration of inwardness as art’s deepest aim.’ (32)


Koerner sees a third way, that is, that Lutheran images were ‘distinct both from the treasures of the art collection and from idolatrous church pictures… Against twin threats of idolatry and iconoclasm, the Reformer sanctioned pictures as instructional aids… ’ (32) He closes his study of Reformation art with a look at 19th century paintings by Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes that, in turn, reminds me of how complex this tradition is when, today, Gerhard Richter cites Friedrich’s influence on a set of his recent paintings that were exhibited at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles (in 2007).


Most draw a line between Catholic ‘works’ to attain salvation (sacrifice, ritual, ceremony, and even image-carving) and Protestant Reformation ‘faith,’ and here, Koerner writes of Hegel as Reformation’s ‘first philosopher’ and reminds his reader of Hegel’s faith in pure subjectivity and Hegel’s Aesthetics as a working out of autonomy of art as ‘modern heir of the medieval Christian cult image’ (39) conflating Christianity and Romanticism as a stage that ‘supplanted the classical by making the difference between how art looks and what art means fully apparent… ’ (34), so that, for Hegel:


… the crucified Christ exemplified this last phase of art. Such art represented God not as beauty, power and life but as ugliness, impotence and death…. At the close of the Middle Ages, the story goes, the Roman Catholic Church mistook the gruesome spectacle of Christ’s Passion for God himself. Pilgrimage and crusade, positively sanctifying ‘things’ such as graves, relics, icons, and shrines, fetishized what Hegel terms the ‘this.’ The late Middles Ages were ‘golden’ only insofar as a purer religion supplanted its art. It was the Reformation that accomplished this and, in doing so, made art ‘a thing of the past.’ (34)


And Hegel shows us Reformation as a rejection of the religious status of images so that images were ‘remade into objects of disinterested satisfaction’ (35) or aesthetic edification supposedly for its own autonomous ends.


No surprise, that the view that poetry and art may be autonomous, or without vocation, from terms of power, historic moment, social context, of course, is challenged, revealed, overturned. Koerner sees that retracing a line from our time to the medieval image opens an inquiry not ‘for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.’ (35)


Koerner considers Reformation’s efforts at hermeneutic uniformity ways to gather authoritative status in biblical interpretation holding high ‘apostolic authority’ and ‘semantic transparency,’ yet he notes that Scripture ‘despite eminent translatability,… reminds a mind trained for reading that the eye sees things, that between inner voices of writer and reader there rises soundproof inscription.’ (36), and like contemporary concrete and other poetries that emphasize experience of the materiality of language, ‘inscriptions in Reformation art, offer illegible or abbreviated… writing [that] functioned as token, rather than vehicle, of sense’ (36) and that ‘… the word-altarpiece in the Schweinfurt canvas displays Scripture as something ornamental but blank, like a picture… ’ (37)


Koerner reads Hegel’s comments on didactic poetry: it gives a message but is dry, has no inner life. Koerner connects this to how art historians have retreated from study of Reformation art:


Like didactic poetry, the Reformation image lays bare the impoverishment of pedagogy. It particularly repels academic art historians, whose endeavors it most resembles. Gathering dust in the auditoria where we teach, it displays what things look like to the eye required to understand. (37)


And now, Koerner’s detailed and contextualized look at Cranach’s Wittenberg predella that depicts Luther preaching is where Koerner sees how Luther with one hand on the page he reads and the other toward his flock as one reads left to right, another version of


the silent medium of painting what in preaching is audible: writing transformed into speech. At another level… word to image articulates the difference between any medium of transmission and the information it transmutes… (187)


Koerner’s consideration of the Wittenberg predella as a ‘model of communication’ uniquely, and with some risk, adapts communication theory, the ‘flow of truth releasing the counterflow of amens swelling into the collective voice of the hymn… ’ (187) Within this alternating current, Koerner sees Christ as the ‘charge,’ the transmitted message positioned in a frontal manner in contrast to Luther and the flock in profile where Cranch ‘portrayed preaching as a social structure’ (188):


Ours is a profile view of speech but a frontal view of the information it transmits. This is another reason why we don’t imagine that Luther or his flock behold the crucifix from the side, since no one hears in profile. (187–188)


Not a speech-act representation, but a determined shift away from the image, how do we experience Minimalist art? In our later discussion we will examine minimalist sculpture, such as Richard Serra’s works such as Pulitzer Piece: Stepped Elevation, 1970–71, Torqued Spirals, 2001, or Sequence, 2006 that position, or create the situation for, the viewer to move between mere opticality to a walking-through experience that works with and against somatic expectations or phenomenological habits by blocking views, declining perceived leveling agents such as clear horizon lines or vanishing points, rotating large items to partial, if not, thinly disappearing dimension.


Koerner applies the communication theory of Niklas Luhmann (that rather than attempts at ‘understanding and agreement, information-transfer serves to displace conflicts among mutually inscrutable, self-serving entities’) to the Wittenberg predella composed long before the so-called information-transfer of television: ‘Communication socializes by making its participants unaware that they remain at war.’ (188) And, brilliantly, Koerner points to ‘how, in the religion of the word, the visual image rescues the dream of direct reference.’ (190) But, does it? Aren’t images and non-utilitarian items received as extra, as in extraneous to our biological world, as products derived from a human relation to the world iterated variously? The philosopher’s ‘contingent’: possible and unnecessary? The movement from depicting the face of God to Reformation images, i.e., ‘what religion looks like in the world: a performance of certain words and actions’ (420) could ornament ‘built spaces where such routines unfold, asserting by iconography and by sheer force of repetition that what might seem contingent or man-made is divinely instituted… ’ (420)


This opens questions on how ‘anti-fetishes became fetishes once more’ (420) as Koerner writes on the emphatic ornamentation of font, pulpit, and altar, and others have pointed to the turn toward the Book, chained to a pulpit all as exemplary of returned iconic status within Reformation practice. Koerner thinks that knowledge of a certain type comes to dominate, and that ‘Luther had arrived at the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (sola fides) around 1515, while preparing his university lecturers on Paul’s Letter to the Romans….’ (20) and Koerner (dangerously, or deliciously) traces repetition of the known, the ‘correct reading’ or decoding up through his own art-historic academic training and reliance on received-truths:


The Schweinfurt canvas’ scene of catechism pictures even this routine. Its pairing of question and answer as golden sentences placed side by side reminds us that knowledge, pious or professional, consists of recitations of the known; that decoding visual meaning, as a method of instruction, has roots in Christian school; and that a historical line runs from Dr Luther through Baroque catechetic emblem literature and the Enlightened iconographies of Lessing to Erwin Panofsky’s iconology, with its strict distinction between pre-iconographic and iconographic analysis, as if between naïve and learned viewers, and with its pedagogic ambition to cultivate (Bilden) the cultural laity through images (Bilder)….


… Reformation images look less like bad art than like bad art history. They offer a macabre likeness of myself as an iconographer responding to the image’s ‘Was ist das’ with the redundancy ‘Das ist das.’ Art, it is hoped, leaves unsaid an unexchangeable something, distinct from the currency of meaning, which insures that, however much is explained, a minimum deposit will remain. (26)


And so Koerner skewers this school-lesson in obedience and docility, the conformity of education that works against exploratory, Paolo Freire style question-posing forms of dialog. And it is not far to skewer, in turn, the correct, close-reading that privatizes literature and art as the reserve of the expert despite the availability of close-reading, as a method, to the outsider, as are also available the heightened role of inquiry in a more liberatory version of education as well as the shared biological or perceptual response that phenomenological art works.


A close look at Erwin Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts wherein he divides art reception into his well known three-part analysis: pre-iconographical description, iconographical analysis, and iconological interpretation might convince us this is a work that does more than create a distinction ‘between naïve and learned viewers.’ Panofsky honors research into, and analysis of, images and their allegorical meanings, but he reserves a place for synthetic interpretation that academic preparation cannot guarantee. He seeks to honor examples of art that ‘reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion — qualified by one personality and condensed into one work.’ (30)


He claims through examples such as the change in Nativity depictions from a reclining Virgin Mary to one kneeling in adoration that not only does this change the image from a rectangular to triangular composition but ‘reveals a new emotional attitude peculiar to the later phases of the Middle Ages.’ (30) He furthers this line of thought with the example of ‘Michelangelo’s preference for sculpture in stone instead of in bronze, or the peculiar use of hatchings in his drawings, are symptomatic of the same basic attitude that is discernible in all other specific qualities of his style’ that are ‘underlying principles’ (30–31) to be studied and named.


Further, Panofsky thinks the way we consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper as an example of how we ‘try to understand it as a document of Leonardo’s personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renaissance, or of a peculiar religious attitude, we deal with the work of art as a symptom of something else which expresses itself in a countless variety of other symptoms… the discovery and interpretation of these “symbolical” values… is the object of what we call “iconology”…’ (31)


Such works require more than historic knowledge and keen description; in the Panofsky scheme, these works reveal something about their respective period and philosophical persuasion ‘condensed into one work’ — a masterwork. Might he include such iconic works as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans? Yet how might an approach to art as a set of symptoms also fall short?


Panofsky sees a heightened role for the nonspecialist, and that ‘Iconological interpretation… requires something more than a familiarity with specific themes or concepts as transmitted through literary sources.’ (38) He cites how reading the New Testament passage (John 13:21) about the Last Supper is not enough to fully grasp the significance of Leonardo’s version of this image after centuries of other Last Supper images, and that to:


grasp these principles we need a mental faculty comparable to that of a diagnostician — a faculty which I cannot describe better than by the rather discredited term ‘synthetic intuition,’ and which may be better developed in a talented layman [sic] than in an erudite scholar. (38)


And today, though we question whether a category such as masterworks exists and why, and we question claims to authoritative or definitive interpretation, Panofsky warns that responses to art and synthesized insights are socially-conditioned and require ‘correctives and controls’ such as historic understanding that may offer an ‘insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts’ (39), or given phenomenological works such those by as Richard Serra, ‘concepts’ from thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty on how art can challenge how we perceive.


End Note One

Not only does philosopher C. S. Peirce in his Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volume II, Elements of Logic see signs divided into three: icons, index, or symbol, he traces the escape from dyadic relations as the test for iconic definition:

274. A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. … its three members are bound together by it[s relation] in a way that does not consist in any complexus of dyadic relations. (Vol. 2, 156)

In this way he widens inclusion to the category icons (more so than, say, an art historian might) by assuring us that algebraic equations, for example, are icons given their ability to substitute and to involve purpose. This compression, he writes, differs from status as a sign ‘only by virtue of a contrast, or Secondness between two qualities. A sign by Firstness is an image of its object and, more strictly speaking, can only be an idea.’ (Vol. 2, 157)

We can speculate how Peirce might place the striped ‘paintings’ of Daniel Buren variously when one might be hung in an art gallery separate from its intervention site as is currently the case at MOCA, Los Angeles (2007), and how Peirce might consider any iteration of the Buren ‘painting’ in its site, not to mention as a document, a photograph of that striped painting in, say, an art history journal.

Peirce writes of Firstness as a matter of degree, and that:

Hypoicons may be roughly divided according to the mode of Firstness of which they partake. Those which partake of simple qualities, of First Firstnesses, are images; those which represent the relations, mainly dyadic, or so regarded, of the parts of one thing by analogous relations in their own parts, are diagrams; those which represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else, are metaphors. (Vol. 2, 157)

Peirce restricts the direct communication of an idea to icons, but locates indirect communication in a sort of predicate relationship substrate to icons, and that truths that can be taken in from an icon exceed its very construction:

For a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction. (Vol. 2, 158)

Here Peirce’s passages read as stunning prose-poems:

285. Let us examine some examples of indices. I see a man with a rolling gait. This is a probable indication that he is a sailor. … Geometricians mark letters against different parts of their diagrams and then use the letter to indicate those parts. Letters are similarly used by lawyers and others…. A rap on the door is an index. Anything which focuses the attention is an index. Anything which startles us is an index, in so far as it marks the junction between two portions of experience. Thus a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was….

286. … A low barometer with moist air is an index of rain; that is we suppose that the forces of nature establish a probable connection between a low barometer with moist air and coming rain. A weathercock is an index of the direction of the wind…. The pole star is an index, or pointing finger, to show us which way is north. A spirit-level, or a plumb bob, is an index of the vertical direction. A yard-stick might seem, at first sight, to be an icon of a yard; and so it would be, if it were merely intended to show a yard as near as it can be seen and estimated to be a yard. But the very purpose of a yard-stick is to show a yard nearer than it can be estimated by its appearance. This it does in consequence of an accurate mechanical comparison made with the bar in London called the yard. Thus it is a real connection which gives the yard-stick its value as a representamen; and thus it is an index, not a mere icon.

287. … The demonstrative pronouns, ‘this’ and that,’ are indices…. A possessive pronoun is two ways an index: first it indicates the possessor, and, second, it has a modification which syntactically carries the attention to the word denoting the thing possessed.

288. Some indices are more or less detailed directions… “Notes to Mariners,” giving the latitude and longitude, four or five bearings of prominent objects, etc., and saying there is a rock, or shoal, or buoy, or lightship. Although there will be other elements in such directions, yet in the main they are indices….

291. Icons and indices assert nothing…. (Vol. 2, 160–165)

End Note Two

A study of Mark Rothko’s chapel paintings with triptychs and incandescent floating squares on darker backgrounds suggests these might be similarly problematic as iconic works but occur as what James Elkins writes in Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings as both ‘religious painting’ as well as carrying a phenomenological interplay with the viewer of Rothko’s paintings:

At a fundamental level of human existence, the shape and its background are reminiscent of a thing, any thing. Rothko gives us an imperfect memory of an object and its background, and withholds the object itself: a deeply disappointing move because it fails, deliberately, to make human contact with the way the world is arranged. You might say he shows us, in the most profound and general sense what loss looks like. Or as he put it, the paintings have ‘intimations of mortality.’ They are insistently empty, and that is disturbing. (15)

Baudrillard’s work, when applied to Rothko or Malevich or Beckett, suggests an evacuation of gods, the radical loneliness of human life, and folly of wishing for a transcendent something out-there. Baudrillard writes:

The transition from signs that dissimulate something to signs that dissimulate that there is nothing marks a decisive turning point. The first reflects a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates the era of simulacra and of simulation, in which there is no longer a God to recognize as his own, no longer a Last Judgment to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance. (6)

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Girls on the Run. (1999)

———. “Artists’ Gifts: Michael Asher”, MOCA Los Angeles exhibit 09/09/07–01/07/08.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot, New York: Grove Press, 1982.

Belting, Hans. Edmund Jephcott, trans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989.

Elkins, James. Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Foster, Hal. Prosthetic Gods. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004.

Honnef, Klaus. Andy Warhol — A critical observer of American Society, Taschen, 2004.

Koerner, Joseph Leo. The Reformation of the Image. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Kraus, Rosalind. ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’ in October, Boston: MIT Press, Volume 3, Spring 1977, 68–81.

Meadows, Deborah.“The Poetics of Drifting Devotions: The poetry of Reina María Rodríguez,” Jacket magazine, John Tranter, editor, issue #26, Oct. 2004, and by mail: 39 Short Street, Balmain NSW2041, Sydney, Australia

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volume II, Elements of Logic. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds., Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.

Plotnitsky,Arkady. Reconfigurations: Critical Theory and General Economy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1993.

Retallack, Joan. Afterrimages. Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1995.

Rodríguez, Reina María. Violet Island and other Poems. Los Angeles: Green Integer Press, 2004.

The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas. A film by Saul Landau. Meridian Production, Inc., 1996.

Deborah Meadows at MOCA May 2009. Photo: Howard Stover.

Deborah Meadows at MOCA May 2009. Photo: Howard Stover.

Deborah Meadows teaches in the Liberal Studies department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her works of poetry include: Goodbye Tissues (Shearsman Press, 2009), involutia (Shearsman Press, 2007), The Draped Universe (Belladonna* Books, 2007), Thin Gloves (Green Integer, 2006), Growing Still (Tinfish Press, 2005), Representing Absence (Green Integer, 2004), Itinerant Men (Krupskaya Press, 2004), “The 60’s and 70’s: from The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick” (Tinfish Press, 2003). Her poetry as well as a chapter on the poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop and Yoel Hoffmann’s Bernhard are forthcoming in Another Language: Poetic Experiments in Britain and North America, edited by Kornelia Freitag and Katarina Vester, LIT-Verlag: Muenster, Hamburg, Berlin. Electronic Poetry Author Page:

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