Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2004
James Elkins The Domain of Images Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. 282 pp. Cloth $45.00 (0801435595)
Thumbnail

James Elkins’s book The Domain of Images is an argument for extending aesthetic inquiry beyond the conventional bounds of images that typically provide the focus for art-historical research. Elkins strives to look at the world of images rather than the pragmatic relation that images bear to the world, which he believe characterizes paintings and drawings. The book promotes a few iconoclastic attitudes, broadens some horizons, and seeks to make philosophers, art historians, and art critics more aware of the present ferment in approaches to writing art history. In other words, despite Elkins’s explicit refusal to attend to the normative dimensions of aesthetic theory in this book, it is not innocent of values.

Noting that images are both visual and bearers of meaning, Elkins draws on the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Nelson Goodman to set off the world of images from the world as such. From Wittgenstein, through a complex series of arguments, he develops a notion of “pictures as propositions” that does not set word apart from image or that is not overly burdened with meaning-making. Words and images are fused, he tells us, in a manner that “tortures” our vernacular use of the word “picture.” While acknowledging the difficulty in making a distinction between art and nonart images, Elkins thinks that term “picture” better suits our thinking about images in general. In light of recent tendencies in visual theory, however, he invites us to revisit Wittgenstein’s picture theory as articulated in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)—even if he does suggest we do so by “torturing the concept.” Wittgenstein challenges the notion that our grasp of what objects are is given to us by the logic which essentially characterizes what facts are. Nevertheless, facts, or indeed propositions that represent facts, cannot exist without logic. Further, through his misprision of Goodman, Elkins seeks to show that syntactic structures play a steady though troubled role in his aesthetic explorations. He suggests, however, that our noting of the syntax of a single art-object is distinct from our understanding of the relationship among the many images that constitute the entire domain of images. That is, Elkins maintains an austere attempt at controlling when and how meaning becomes important to aesthetic appreciation. In order to get a feel for the fundamental tension between pictures and meaning, he creates fresh moments of alienation from the world of drawing and painting that is typically taken to be the inventory of images for the discipline of art history.

Attending to the circular structure of his book provides a clue to its subject’s aims and effects as it does for the Tractatus. In claiming to describe the domain of images in its entirety, Elkins could be said to claim, in resonance with Kant on thought and Wittgenstein on language, that he is placing the visual within its proper bounds. At the end of this book, Elkins begins to notice syntactic patterns in the natural world—as on the wings of butterflies and moths—which for him have become markers of images. He worries about the vastness of the landscape of images ahead of him—the darkness “as the uncounted numbers of images we are just learning to see” (251). Keeping his sense of wonder firmly in check, Elkins significantly steps sharply away from Wittgenstein’s mysticism. In sum, Elkins appropriates Wittgenstein, and to a lesser extent Goodman, selectively to propose a reading that presses the interpenetration of the verbal and the visual to its limits.

Elkins begins the book by telling us that he is embarking on a journey of discovery, even recovery, of those images that typically lie outside the purview of art history. “It is easy to get lost in the domain of images,” he warns us, since “the whole is a vast terra incognita, with entire histories waiting to be written” (ix). “At the outset,” he writes, “I suggested the domain of images is not entirely unexplored, and that it is marked with signposts that are mostly legible in the languages of art history” (ix). As already discussed, both linear and circular modes of inquiry are in play in the overall structure of the book. Roughly, in the first half of the book Elkins breaks down the art/nonart distinction through a careful analysis of crystallography in order to develop a clearer sense of what counts as a picture. With the tentative aesthetic theory he has forged from Wittgenstein and Goodman, he proposes to classify the exemplary images that he has compiled in the second half of the book. However, the bewildering array of images he presents resist attempts at classification. Furthermore, staying true to the experimental spirit in which this classification is undertaken, we are allowed to witness the struggle between his theory and recalcitrant images.. The diversity and complexity of the images in the second half of the book have overcome the vigor with which Elkins sets off on this exploratory endeavor. As he tell us, this is only a small set of the exemplary images he had gathered with every interesting species of image he could find for the project: “Like some overenthusiastic explorer, I had collected so many samples that I nearly swamped the boat” (xi).

Attempting to make sense of Elkins’s project in this way reveals the subtle position that ethics as moral adventure holds in the discussion. Adventure is the appropriate term to use here not only because of Elkins’s expeditionary metaphors, but also because the word “adventure” carries some analytic force. Since moral judgments inherently rely on a tension between principles and particular facts, they entail risk. Worthy of note, then, is the significance of imagination—aesthetics—in moral action. Furthermore, we note the moral dimension of any action that entails intense effort in pushing forward in an endeavor—even an intellectual one. Finally, a notion of adventure presupposes space. Space, in its metaphorical, conceptual, and geographical senses, is the aspect of aesthetic sensibility that helps Elkins frame his project. The metaphorical assumption of space permits him to use terms like “exploration,” “tourism,” “landscape of darkness,” and so on, in his discussion of the “domain” of images. The traversing of conceptual spaces in thinking about this domain allows him to draw on images across disciplines of inquiry. Images from other times, in other places, draw our attention to the geographical space that Elkins covers.

This claim, agnostic to particularity, runs counter to postmodern discourse. Rather, his aim is to “level the field for other ways of thinking about images” (54). Elkins not only brings these images—of Mandelbrot sets, Arabic scripts, pieces of pottery, and sixteenth-century Dutch paintings—into view, but he also pays them equal attention in his discussion of the world of images. More broadly stated, his aim is to delimit the world of images in its entirety. Here all images, in his sense, are of equal value. And yet we could ask of Elkins, as we might well of Wittgenstein with regard to his propositions, when all images are given equal value, does this not end up making them all insignificant? Keeping a very open mind, we might go along and say that this does not present a problem when looking at images from the domains of art and science, or Western and non-Western art, but, within the contemporary world, it could potentially become a significant issue when thinking about the differences between religious and nonreligious images. Thus, for example, are we to ascribe the same value to an ancient rendering of the Goddess Kali as we might to Marcel Duchamp’s more contemporary Fountain?  Might not such radical equality raise some ethical questions, not to mention some fiercely political worries?

In the end, we might find ourselves in strenuous disagreement with Elkins’s proposal to redefine the object of aesthetic inquiry, but in refusing Elkins’s invitation we miss his adventure. Perhaps in his concluding cautionary paragraph he might have included a comment on the possibility of turning the domain of images into an empire.

Pradeep A. Dhillon
Educational Policy Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.