Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

The Intractable Image

Developing our image consciousness.

Matthew J. Milliner

The Nazarene Whom We Call Jesus the Christ (detail), 1978, by Norval Morrisseau (1931–2007); Art Canada Institute.

Art history has eaten its own head. This is at least the conclusion of Christopher Wood’s exhaustively researched 2019 book A History of Art History. “Ongoing self-castigation is the very shape of the Enlightenment project,” Wood tells us. “However, anyone today who dares to…take up again the illiberal call for calls for remystification and recovery of trust in myth or ritual—anyone who dares to exit the Enlightenment—is vilified.”

The college seniors majoring in art history with whom I read Wood’s book felt rather defeated by this conclusion, which might, in fact, be the desired effect. “Actually I’d be delighted if art history dissolved,” writes James Elkins in the journal Image. “Most calls for the end of the discipline have to do with acknowledging structural racism, accommodating popular culture, or paying proper attention to settler colonialism. I’m in favor of pursuing all three of those to the point where the discipline falls apart.”

Elkins does offer a fourth possibility: “to take faith seriously.” Similarly, Wood provides (in my reading) at least three escape hatches—genuine Hinduism, Gnosticism, and (amazingly enough) the theology of Karl Barth. The upshot of such pessimistic accounts seems rather undeniable: Unless art history draws on something other than its relatively shallow Enlightenment roots, this delicate flower in the garden of the humanities will probably not survive.

But if Christopher Wood’s A History of Art History reveals art history to be a tender bloom, Thomas Pfau’s Incomprehensible Certainty shows the history of the image to be something of a giant sequoia, one more than capable of withstanding the gusts currently shaking the groves of academe. Art history, in fact, appears to be no more than a decorative parasite on a much larger organism. For Pfau, a professor of English at Duke University, “the concept of the image (imago, eikon) is distinguished from (though not opposed to) its historically and materially contingent instantiation as ‘picture’ (Greek Eidolon; Latin Pictura; German Gemälde, Kunstbild).” Which is to say that while the image is “a catalyst of focused attention and a source of open-ended reflection,” a mere picture remains only a “specialized form of representation.”

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