Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

by Christopher Wood

The essay begins:

Romance is a plot driven by interaction among willful, desiring persons within constraining envelopes of social conventions and natural laws. In romance, both the desire-shaping resistance to will and the acquiescence of the world in human ambitions are concretized in things, naturalia and artifacts alike, endowed with unexpected powers. Characters acquire, exchange, hide, and converse with rings, swords, articles of clothing, trees, birds, and the like. According to Italo Calvino, “The magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events.” Such tokens function as protagonists in medieval legends and sagas, chivalric romances, the neochivalric epics of Ariosto or Spenser, and the modern novel. “Around the object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself.” The thing arrests and then restarts the plot. Interactions with things or animals substitute for interpersonal, psychological relations when the literary means to represent such relations are lacking. The bundle of shifting desires and emotions that is a person can more easily “settle” on a jewel or a horse than on another unstable person.

In the romance, the thing provides a background against which personhood is profiled. The thing shares some qualities with persons but lacks other crucial attributes such as will, voice, or conscience. The effects of agency granted to things within the fiction intensify awareness of the nonhuman qualities of such things outside the fiction, in reality. The gem or the ribbon comes into focus as a thing, as the reduced double of a person, inside a narrative. The thing is a precipitate of story that arrives to assist the story. The thing decenters personhood and is at the same time anthropomorphic, in the sense that it stands in for something that is prior to or outside the human, but is customized by the story for human apprehension. The anthropomorphism of animal or artifact in romance is uncanny because partial.

In the last several decades the device of partial anthropomorphism, or attribution of some human qualities to nonhuman entities, has been favored within critical and historical writing across several disciplines. The project signaled by the phrase “Images at Work,” title of the conference from which the present special issue arises, is a good example. Someone who writes or speaks about what images “want,” the “life” of things, or “things that talk” would seem to be making a claim, against common sense, about reality. I am personally unconvinced that pictures desire anything, or that images think, or that things live. Awaiting better demonstrations of such unlikelihoods, I can only speculate about what people really mean when they speak this way.

In the literary mode of romance, partial anthropomorphization signals not only an awareness of the limits of narrative to convey the whole of personhood but also an awareness of the limits of a person’s ability to control his or her own destiny. Similarly, the modern critical trope of anthropomorphization signals a recognition of, perhaps even a resignation to, the limits of personhood. To speak about nonsentient things as if they were almost persons is to ironize the concept of the person. It is a way of speaking that calls attention to the way persons win unearned prestige by inserting themselves in advantageous positions within sentences. Sentences create subjects by associating substantives with predicates, including verbs. The subject is the source of the movement produced by the predicates. Grammar invites anthropomorphism, for inside a sentence or a plot you can simply replace “she” with “it,” and the verb does the rest. Sentences and plots threaten to expose the human subject as an artifact of grammar. The trope of misanthropic anthropomorphism is basically contending that people are things that have been activated by grammar. The trope is antifictional, discrediting modern stories—not just romances, but any story that exaggerates the autonomy of the person. The trope is antihumanist, if humanism is defined as the attribution of too much humanity to people. Writing reveals that from a standpoint outside writing, things would look more like persons and persons would look more like things. To redescribe reality as a series of interactions among persons and things is to replace the hierarchy of animate and inanimate entities with a nonhierarchical network.

The discourses of the “life of things,” actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology restore credence to pre- or nonmodern anthropomorphisms and animistic psychological habits. The tactical, calculated anthropomorphisms of modern scholarly discourse overturn the modern common sense that rejects animism as superstition, undoing invidious hierarchies of enlightened and unenlightened, Western and non-Western, modern and unmodern. Enlightened thought dismissed belief in an animated cosmos as a fiction permitting people to imagine that they participate in an external world greater than they are. Enlightenment was an assault on anthropomorphism, dedicated to replacing comfortable human-shaped fictions such as “God” with the impersonal laws of physics. The modern critical discourse of animism exposes hidden anthropocentrisms within enlightened thought that support an “imperialism” of people over animals, the earth, or things. The deepest aim of the new, counter-Enlightenment animism may not be so remote from those of traditional animisms, namely, to persuade each other that we participate in something greater than ourselves: if not a cosmos, then an ecology or a system.

The visual arts are well suited to this project, even better suited than the literary arts, because images, anyway, have limited means of reproducing the words or gestures that carry interpersonal relations. A simple, effective way of reducing the person is to deprive  him or her of speech. The image or picture delivers a partial person, outside grammar. Within a picture, the leveling of people and things is already half-accomplished. “In iconic communication,” according to Gregory Bateson, “there is no tense, no simple negative, no modal marker.” Modality, or open-endedness, is a key to any ambitious model of the person as emergent, contingent, and unlimited. Because art has difficulty reproducing emergence, intersubjectivity reappears within art as misrecognition and misunderstanding, as if people all along, each time they try to communicate, have been mistaking things for people. The pictorial arts, where persons and things share a mutism, give the cue to the recent critical discourses—materialist, antihumanist, and antihierarchical—that redistribute agency across a spectrum of entities. It is especially in art history, art criticism, and art theory that the anthropomorphizing discourses of the thing have taken hold. Continue reading …

This paper argues that the “anthropomorphizing” discourses that attribute agency to images and things, stressing their efficacy and power, are motivated by a perception of a lack in the artwork, or in art itself.

CHRISTOPHER S. WOOD is Professor in the Department of German at New York University. He is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993, reissued with new afterword, 2014).

Talking to a Chinese Jar on Two Human Feet

Image, Object, Art: Talking to a Chinese Jar on Two Human Feet

by Gerhard Wolf

from the special issue Images at Work, Representations 133

Through “conversation” with a more than four thousand-year-old Chinese vessel, this essay engages with some of the fundamental principles of the discipline of art history espoused in recent decades. In particular, it situates Bildwissenschaft and thing theory and the material turn within ongoing debates on art and artifacts and delineates a more fluid approach to the study of image, object, art (Bild, Ding, Kunst).

The essay begins:

Jar on two human feet, earthenware (China, Gansu or Qinghai Province, perhaps Qijia Culture, 2nd millennium BC). Permanent Loan, Meiyintang Foundation, Inv. MYT 2095, Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

Jar on two human feet, earthenware (China, Gansu or Qinghai Province, perhaps Qijia Culture, 2nd millennium BC). Permanent Loan, Meiyintang Foundation, Inv. MYT 2095, Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

It is hard to say why I stopped in front of you so much longer than before your neighbors, while walking through the collection of Chinese ceramics at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich recently. Is it because the base of your body has the somewhat simplified shape of two human feet? They carry a smoothly protruding “belly,” which contracts upwards into a neck that widens, in turn, into a collar, the whole (some 25 cm high) formed in brownish clay, with vertical scratched lines ornamenting the body and a kind of rhythmic incision at the upper circular edges that defines the border between inside and outside. Perhaps there are some remains of color, but I am not sure about this. If there were no vitrine separating us, one could handle you, have a closer look, and, while talking to you, perhaps my voice would resonate through the cavity of your “belly.” Must speak with your curator. The label reveals that your exact provenance (Gansu or Qinghai, Qijia culture?) is as uncertain as the date of your production, which is roughly the second millennium BCE. No way to write your biography, to know about your dwelling in the nearly four thousand years of your existence; most probably you were excavated in the twentieth century and sold by an art dealer to a collector, who loaned you on a permanent basis to the museum. I am intrigued by your feet, not because they give you an anthropomorphic dimension; to my eyes, it rather works the other way round, in the sense of giving feet to a thing: in fact, I would not describe your overall body in either human or animal terms, even if I have already used such terminology for reasons of convenience and convention. There is an owl-shaped jug on your left side, and it is quite different. Your feet remind me of Bertrand Russell’s rather rhetorical question concerning how we can know that things do not disappear once we turn our back to them. I read this early in life, a time when one sometimes wonders if the tables and chairs might not walk away only to return the next morning. Well, in your “case” you would need to escape from the glass that enshrines you, a container in a container, and your steps would be short and shuffling. Even if you do not do this, your (relatively small) feet on the one hand indicate a polarity of stability and potential movement, and on the other they give your self-sufficient thingness a directionality resulting in a front, profile, and back view, thus “orienting” you in space. One cannot avoid considering them when one wants to “place” you somewhere. The feet thus have an effect similar to a handle; however, they don’t seem to be attached to you, as handles often are (as animals climbing up a vessel or hanging on its side, for example). I imagine that your feet are hollow inside, taking part in shaping the volume that the layer of clay circumscribes, becoming the jar you are, to be filled with wine or water or another liquid.

I wonder if you may be called a kind of Heideggerian thing, and what this would mean. Heidegger is concerned not with the shape or making of jars and jugs, but rather with the jugness of jugs and the thingness of things; this self-referential nature of things (as predicates of themselves) he strongly distinguishes from the “objecthood” of “objects”: the “thingness” of “things.” He mentions the handle and spout once en passant, and insists on the German verb schenken in the double sense of “pour” and “give.” However, he doesn’t work out the resulting directionality intrinsic to the dynamics of such a potential flow; he rather privileges the gathering in roundness, the thing as a ring. He may not have liked your feet either, insofar as they suggest the object standing in front of me (as Gegenstand = object), or he would not have cared about them at all. But I do, for what fascinates me about you, as my remarks suggest, is this hybrid but “unified” combination of a part of the human body with a body that does not represent a living being, animal or human, iconizing with these parts a function proper to them, for which they “stand,” and that vessel and human body share—the function, in fact, of standing, emphasizing further the nonhuman nature of your overall shape. As a historian I cannot be content with my own intuitive approach or bodily experience; I must ask what images and concepts of living bodies were current at the time of your production. A quick look around that rich collection does not offer me clear hints. As for the elegant tripods next to you, they look to me like communicating organs, standing on three points and thus easily set on a fireplace. There are Chinese ceremonial bronze food vessels, called Ding from the second millennium onwards, very rarely decorated with a human face; they usually carried dragon ornaments. Heidegger may have liked them, for they apparently correspond more to his concept of Vierung, the fourfold gathering of heaven and earth, mortals and immortals, than you do, an “innocent” jar standing in your vitrine on your feet, so to speak. Even if I like the originality of your shape, I won’t call you a work of art, but rather an artifact. However, this is not my major concern. Over the last years, I have named my research department at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence “Image, Object, Art,” or in German Bild, Ding, Kunst, not because I think these terms form an inextricably fatal triangle, but rather because they can open to a rich semantic field, in a variety of constellations: as a triangle within a complex system of lines, as overlapping circles or pluri-dimensionally entangled universes. I understand “image,” “object,” and “art” as cumulative terms in a nonessentialist way, for example, embracing image and picture, object and thing, art and aesthetics. My interest is precisely to experiment with them in working out open conceptual tools for descriptive as well as analytical purposes as a way of reworking and refining the research process itself. In this way, you might be addressed as an artifact with an iconic aspect, meaning that your objecthood, if not thingness (despite Heidegger, I do not see a need for a sharp differentiation here), can be understood in aesthetic as well as anthropological categories. In fact, more generally, the techniques, practices, and aesthetics of containment are among the elementary interactions of humans and the environment, in the form of interference in, or interruption of, “flux” and other natural processes. This can happen by means of gathering and collecting; by transport, storage, and conservation of liquids or solids. Containment is thus one of the major conditions of the existence of “things”: containers or vessels are not only things in themselves; they can guarantee a relative stability of their content over time and space as well. Yet they can also be the site of metamorphoses or transubstantiation, as in the case of cooking pots. Containers can be understood as shells, constituting an inside and an outside. There is an aesthetics and poetics of containment in relation to function, transcultural agency, and biographies of objects, as well as the (not only) aesthetic practices that surround them: tea rituals, symposia or other rites of communality, pouring and drinking in religious ceremonies, measuring liquids and solids, the display and handling of drugs, packing suitcases, opening carton boxes in the archive, unloading ships, cooking pasta, or playing a violin. For the world of vessels and boxes is multisensorial, beyond the visual it involves touch, smell, taste, and, last but not least, acoustics: one thinks of musical instruments, often enshrining a volume that is essential for their production of sound, or beyond that, of the sheltering of objects by means of cases, often lined with textiles. According to Aristotle, a place (topos) is a sort of perfectly tight case enshrining or encapsulating things.

Turning to the three terms “image,” “object,” and “art,” I see the danger of fetishizing them or, rather, of following certain traditions and current practices of doing so. If art in the narrow sense of the European tradition is set as an absolute, universalist category, “image” and “thing” are easily drawn into the game, which then tends to become a fatal triangulation. My suggestion, however, is not to renounce speaking about “art” (a term with a kind of global success), but rather to try to free it from the connotations of the early modern “system” as it was established in Europe, to abandon the traditional hierarchies of artwork and artifact and to rediscover the notion of aesthetics as an open category well suited for transcultural research. If I see it correctly, there is at present a tendency toward just this in various parts of the world. Continue reading …

GERHARD WOLF is Director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His current research topics are Mediterranean and global art histories, sacred topographies in an interreligious perspective, theories of the image in religion and art, and the interrelations between artistic and scientific worldviews. His many 2015 publications include Littoral and Liminal Spaces: The Early Modern Mediterranean and Beyond (co-edited with Hannah Baader), Bild, Ding, Kunst (co-edited with Kathrin Müller), and Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 (co-edited with Alessandra Russo and Diana Fane).

The Efficacy of Images

Images at Work: On Efficacy and Historical Interpretation

an introduction to the special issue Images at Work, by Hannah Baader and Ittai Weinryb

The introduction begins with the example of a magical fly:

In an early thirteenth-century letter, the newly appointed general emissary to Puglia and the imperial chancellor Conrad of Querfurt (ca. 1160–1202), educator of the German emperor Henry VI and later bishop of Hildesheim, recollected one of the many legends associated with the city of Naples:

In the same city is a gate of the greatest strength, built like a castle, possessing doors of bronze which now the emperor’s troops control, on which Virgil had placed a fly of bronze. As long as it remained whole, not even one fly could enter the city.

imagesConrad here unravels unique relations between animals, men, and objects. Placed upon the walls of the medieval city of Naples, above the bronze gates, is a manmade object, produced in bronze in the shape of a fly, whose function is to prevent other, living, flies from entering the city. That object is more than just a physical presence on the exterior of the walls of medieval Naples and more than just a depiction. The bronze fly of Virgil is an image that “works,” so to speak. It is described as having a certain influence on the natural world. The object has a function; it is supposed to operate, to effect change. At the heart of the story is the manufacturer of the object, Virgil, the classical Latin author who, in medieval text and imagination, had been characterized as a sorcerer. The legendary qualities ascribed to Virgil and the legendary qualities ascribed to the object are played out in the natural world.

Such consideration of operational qualities forms the essence of the collection of essays in this special issue, with its notion that images and artifacts have an ability to “act.” To consider how the bronze fly worked is to consider how images operate within various times, spaces, regions, religions, and frameworks as well as or according to various disciplines, subfields of study, and different investigatory modes. It is to study how images operate, and to reflect on the sheer qualities of objects in a broader sense. They may attract or, in the case of the bronze fly, repel living organisms. The mechanism for images that repel is known as apotropeia, from the Greek verb “to avert.” The bronze fly was considered to have a practical effect or function—to keep other flies at bay. As such, the small fly is part of a larger ensemble, the large gate and bronze doors, built “like a castle,” protecting the city by their strength. From Conrad’s letter, we know that the fly hanging above the city gate was found above the now-lost bronze doors that formed a threshold at the same gate. In this way we can understand the bronze fly as part of a wider environment of crafted objects made out of the same materials (bronze or other copper-based alloy) and according to the same technique (lost-wax casting). The bronze doors thus formed part of a created world of similar material objects—demarcating the threshold of the city—a world that included a bronze fly with a specific purpose or effect.

The bronze fly is also a story of fabrication. In the Middle Ages, Virgil was associated in legend with various artisanal and mechanical capabilities, but rather than being described in such tales as a scientist, he was rendered as a sorcerer or magician. His ability to influence the natural world was understood not as a product of discovery and rediscovery of certain techniques (like bronze casting), but rather as an indecipherable practice with supernatural results. The bronze fly of Virgil is triggered by acts of secret knowing and making. It is immersed in tradition, ideas about antiquity, and the miraculous. Continue reading (full text of this introduction free online) …


In recent years, art history has seen a shift in the historical understanding of the material object, drawing further attention to historical experience and potential historical efficacy as a means of historical interpretation. Anthropologists and art historians alike have established viable interpretive schemes for the exploration of material objects. This introduction to the special issue Images at Work outlines the various problems encountered in articulating notions about the historical efficacy of an object.


HANNAH BAADER is Permanent Senior Research Scholar at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut.

ITTAI WEINRYB is Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Material Culture at Bard Graduate Center in New York City.