Press "Enter" to skip to content

Image, art, language and gender

Art as practice, phenomenon, activity, always exceeds any specific artist’s production. It therefore embodies a certain self-transcendence, which is why every era witnesses anew the problematisation of art. Art has to become a problem as soon as it seems self-evident to the people of an era, because its domestication would rob it of its function — a function it shares with philosophy, although it utilises different means.

Just as philosophy ceases to be philosophy as soon as it places itself in the service of the “gods of the city” — the official religion or ideology of a culture (remember Socrates) — so, too, art ceases to be art as soon as it allows itself to become a vehicle for “official” beliefs, or to be commodified, for instance by being reduced to interior decoration or to the formulae prescribed by what Dickie has called the artworld (museums, critics, academics).

What is the function of art? It is not to prettify or reassure — as in the case of philosophy (as opposed to its caricature, “philosophology” [Pirsig in LiIa]). It is to interrogate the status quo, to dislocate, defamiliarise it, or, as Socrates claimed regarding philosophy, to bring about a “wholesome unrest” in the soul.

Art may and sometimes does carry with it great economic value — while Van Gogh was penniless during his short life, his paintings (paradigms of art that transcended the shortsightedness of his time) are today repositories of “safe” investment amounting to millions. Their value as art remains untouched by this, however — whether one owns a Van Gogh (or a Monet, thinking of the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair), or whether one contemplates it in an art museum, its value remains the same as art.

The paradox of art is that, in Heidegger’s idiom, it “preserves” its dislocating, defamiliarising capacity even when it is not being apprehended by viewers, a capacity activated as soon as viewers enter into a sensory and cognitive relationship with it. It is well-known that this may take the form of distanced, aesthetic contemplation, a mode valorised by modernists like Bullough because of their claim that aesthetic space is autonomous and distinct from other spheres of activity (such as the theoretical, the moral or the political).

Alternatively, it may take the form of a socially, morally and politically transgressive, transforming practice, as espoused by agents of the post-modern. It happens all too easily, however, as Karsten Harries has warned, that the post-modern stance — which seeks to succeed in (re)integrating art and life where surrealism failed to do so — degenerates, like modernism, into just another manifestation of “art for art’s sake”. The existence of art museums and galleries encourages this tendency — Harries is right where he insists that museums, like nature reserves (and mausoleums), commemorate what is already experienced as being dead, and is therefore made into an object of a privileged experience: “art”, or “nature”.

We should not, for that reason, oppose the existence of art museums, however. Like most other institutions in our culture, they have an ambivalent status, bestowed upon them by a complex dialectical history, and we should therefore not approach them with an either/or attitude — “either we need them or we don’t” — but instead follow Jacques Derrida’s example and think of their necessity and their contingency together: we should appreciate the way they “preserve” things of value while relating to these things in a manner that reconstitutes them as integral aspects of post-modern life, especially if viewing art in galleries encourages artists to reintegrate art with life (the way Beuys did).

Nothing, including art, remains static in history; nor can other, reductive practices, such as academicism or the art industry, conclusively cover up its capacity to renew itself in every age. Even in the guise of popular art, it exhibits this ambivalence — while an elitist position would preserve the high art/low (popular) art distinction, Derrida’s post-structuralist approach would counsel that such a distinction is not absolute.

If art is indeed recognisable by its capacity to dislocate “normal” or customary modes of awareness, popular art is still art to the degree that it is able to bring about such defamiliarisation; witness the emancipatory effect of the (especially early) music of Bruce Springsteen on listeners, or the critical implications of Andy Warhol’s work regarding the dehumanisation inherent in mass production. (Even kitsch — bad art — is art, and the theory of art that does not make room for that is inadequate. Needless to say, in the case of kitsch, art’s dislocating function has shrunk to virtually zero; instead it tends to confirm the status quo comfortingly, with anaesthetising effect.)

Here I’d like to concentrate on what I believe is the inalienable or distinctive moment in all art, regardless of differing degrees to which it operates in various artworks in relation to spectators. In a word, it is the image, the correlate of the imagination. No matter how “conceptual” art may be or may have become — witness increasingly popular “art installations” — it cannot finally divorce itself from images, for then it would no longer be art. Among others, Freud has (probably unwittingly) cast light on the reasons for this, and more recently Leonard Shlain has provided new insight regarding the social implications of images.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud makes the familiar distinction between the primary process of the unconscious and the secondary process of the preconscious and conscious operations of the mind. According to him, the primary process functions in terms of images — in dreams, for instance — and the secondary process, in contrast, by way of thought and language.

Characteristically, therefore, thought and language are associated with reason and logic, while images are not regarded as being compatible with rationality. The unconscious, after all, operates according to its own semiotic system. Nevertheless, this does not prevent one from interpreting images or dreams at a conscious, rational level, as Freud did himself. How is this possible, if images are not regarded as being compatible with reason?

Poetry, which thrives on imagery, although it is a literary, linguistic art, provides the answer: contrary to the language of science or logic, which strives for univocity, poetic language exploits the multivocality of language, generating richly divergent, proliferating meanings through its imagery. This suggests that, if language — not only, but particularly literary or poetic language — displays various layers of meaning, this is the case with images to an even greater degree.

It may therefore not seem surprising to find that Lacan warns us against the image at the level of what he terms the register of the imaginary, of which the mirror phase is paradigmatic. He points out that, while we all need a mirror image (of ourselves) to be able to develop a sense of self, seeing ourselves in this image is a “misrecognition” =– it is and is not you whom you see in the mirror. The image is inherently ambiguous — its apparent unity is spurious. To attempt to reduce the image — including the one you have of yourself — to complete, unambiguous unity is to become the dupe of ideology, or worse, of insanity. Lack of lack, says Lacan, is psychosis. This explains what it is that he mistrusts in the image: not its inescapable multivalency or multivocality, but the promise we mistakenly perceive in it to grant us a sense of conclusive unity.

The multivocality of the image is probably the reason why — as Richard Kearney has shown at length in The Wake of Imagination — traditional philosophy, by and large, maintained a steadfast suspicion towards the imagination as a faculty of the mind, until Kant liberated it in the 18th century by inscribing it within the encompassing structure of reason and attributing to it a fundamental, productive function, not only in art, but with regard to knowledge of the world. The point is, images and imagery were regarded as inimical to reason by (both western and Jewish) tradition for centuries.

The versatile neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain has cast new light on this deep-seated prejudice towards the imagination in an important study, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (which I have referred to in an earlier post). Here he links the historical prejudice towards female deity-worship to the growth of alphabet literacy and the concomitant rise of male deity-worship.

As may be expected, Shlain is able to show that these developments also went hand in hand with the growth of patriarchy, and as neurosurgeon he is able to draw some interesting connections: the worship of female deities, he shows, is linked with right-brain dominance, while the rise in alphabet literacy can be associated with left-brain dominance.

Significantly, the left brain is the seat of functions such as logic and abstraction, in contrast to the right brain, where imagination and creativity reign supreme. It is no secret that patriarchy has valorised the functions associated with the left brain (rather ironically, if we think of the connotations attaching to “left” or “sinister”). Shlain seems optimistic, however, about the possibility of an unprecedented realignment between the alphabet and the image (goddess) in our time, given the fact that we seem to be increasingly inhabiting a culture of images.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of Lacan’s warning against the image here, in conjunction with another of Freud’s distinctions — that between Eros and Thanatos, or life and death. These two forces, Freud argues in Civilisation and Its Discontents, are at the basis of the development of human society, as well as operating in the life of each individual.

Eros serves life, and Thanatos, in the form of aggression, undermines it. Thanatos also has another function, however, in that the death of each individual promises — and is ultimately desired — as a condition of rest, where there will be no more suffering or need. What does this have to do with the image? I should perhaps rather say — thinking of Shlain’s optimism concerning a realignment between the image and language in our time — what does this have to do with images and language?

As remarked earlier, when we subject ourselves to a reduction of an image to some semblance of guaranteed unity, we risk psychosis, or at least becoming the victim of ideology. One could also call this Thanatos, or death — in order to live, or promote Eros, we have to free the image in all its richness of meanings. This is what art does. But we must resist the temptation to reduce images to ideological straitjackets, and we must do so by way of language — by interpreting art, by talking to each other about it. It is no accident that Freud, following one of his and Breuer’s early patients (Bertha Pappenheim), dubbed psychoanalysis “the talking cure”.

Lacan recognises language as the realm of desire, where the signifier slips and slides incessantly, making it impossible to produce a self-description that could ever claim finality. But he also recognises that the register of the imaginary — the realm of images — continues to exist side by side with the symbolic (language) throughout life. Art constantly reminds one of that by presenting images in all their multivocality and in various configurations.

As long as we do not fall victim to the ideological tendency to foist just one set of meanings on these images, as long as we keep the possibility of another set of meanings open, as Derrida or Caputo might say, we may also be able to resist the tendency, traditionally privileged in language, namely to subject it exclusively to the rules of logic — as if that is the only function it has. Then perhaps Shlain’s optimistic hope for a kind of equilibrium between the goddess and the alphabet, between images and language, between the right brain and the left brain, between men and women in our culture, may not be too far-fetched.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 19 May 2008

    Ars Gratia Artis.

    And you’re very Eurocentric with failure to recognise religious art as an integral part of world cultures by the use of fetishes and landscape gardening. (Stonehenge, Easter island Statues, Songlines.)

    Let alone body/ sexual art with tattooes and dress being a statement of tribal grouping or individuality depending on whether you have facial tattoes in a Maori canoe or Kensington high Street.

    And be areful about using the word “Degenerate” in any context in western art.

    It’s what the Nazis used to term the Jewish, modernist and leftist art they stole for their private collections after killing the artists.

    There were several exhibitions of ‘Degenerate art’ in Nazi Germany as symbols of the subhumaness of the painters and proof of ascendancy of the Master Race.

  2. Jon Jon 20 May 2008

    You hang it on the wall, or stand it in the room, and you look at it. That’s it.

    Its art. It’s just THERE.

    The only “problematisation” (loathsome Marxist jargon,that) is when you imagine that object in the room or out in the courtyard is something more than what it is. Sheer relentless egg-headery utterly ruins art.

  3. Bert Bert 20 May 2008

    Alisdair – What I said about art, above, is valid for all art, whether it is medieval, religious, Indian, or whatever. And if you had read a bit more carefully, you would have seen that I used the word ‘degenerate’ as a synonym for ‘deteriorate’, that is, as a verb – which has nothing to do with your random noun-associations. Or do you usually just say the first thing that comes into your head?
    Jon – Strange, that you have such a modernist understanding of art’s political, social or cultural irrelevance, which is what follows from the view that artworks are ‘just there’. Even Plato already acknowledged that art has the power to move people to ‘do things’, which is why he banned the poets from his ideal republic. Art is multivalent, polysemic – in other words, no one can restrict the way in which art ‘works’ to just one function.

  4. Shaun Shaun 26 May 2008

    How on earth, then, to encourage and expand right-brain activity?

  5. Avril Gardiner Avril Gardiner 12 June 2008

    Why should art have a “function”? And what is the “essence” of “art” – its ontological status? In common language: “What is “a work of art”, or , what is “art”, and how do we go about defining these concepts? Pragmatists do it in terms of its “function” (where the boundaries between “essence” and “function” invariably become fuzzy), others in terms of its “inalienable or distinctive moment ……, regardless of differing degrees to which it operates in various artworks in relation to spectators”. And do we even need to consider getting clarity on these matters before we can proceed with a meaningful discussion on “Image, art, language and gender”? I believe these are the fundamental questions we should be considering before attempting a detailed critical analysis of (the proposals in) Olivier’s thought leader with the same title.

    In his third paragraph he asks: “What is the function of art?, and then proceeds to give one answer, which – in the context of a question such as “What is the function of art?” – I must assume he takes to be the only, and also the defining, function of art: “It is to interrogate the status quo, to dislocate, defamiliarise it, …….. to bring about a ‘wholesome unrest’ in the soul.” Surely this is only one of its possible functions (if, indeed, it needs to have a function at all)? I can arbitrarily list at least 10 more “functions” which – at least on the surface – have nothing to do with “interrogating the status quo”. A claim that “interrogating the status quo” is the function of art will surely have to be based on some more fundamental principle, and once proposed or identified, the discussion can then move in that direction.

    The discussion should, in fact, become even more radical than simply argueing about the (one) function of art. What do we mean when saying that art has a “function”? Why should it have a “function”? Why can’t things not be “functionless”? And if art (or any other activity) does not have a “function”, does it necessarily mean that the activity is also “meaningless”? And finally: What is the meaning of the concept “meaningless”?

    I agree 100% with Olivier’s concluding remarks: “As long as we do not fall victim to the ideological tendency to foist just one set of meanings on these images [“the inalienable or distinctive moment in all art”, in Olivier terms], as long as we keep the possibility of another set of meanings open ……, we may also be able to resist the tendency ….. to subject it exclusively to the rules of logic – as if that is the only function it has.” Indeed. Art does probably have more than one “function”, and an in-depth examination into this matter might be a fascinating journey of a paradoxical nature.

    Avril Gardiner
    PS (1) : I suspect that by asking “What is the function of art?” Olivier is actually asking “What is the proper / appropriate / ethical function of art?”, or “What should the (meaningful) function of art be?”, but I might be totally wrong.

Leave a Reply