The Narrative Impulse and the Use and Mention of Images

A Birth in Port au Prince

Modernist artists were interested, radically, on the question of what an image is.  Contemporary art criticism is concerned with what art is. I want to pursue some meandering thoughts on what an image does. It is at once a broader question that the one modernism sought to answer and a narrower one than the one contemporary critics want to pose.  It is at once more philosophically interesting than the reactionary questions modernism entertained because it involves both the image-maker and his intended or unintended audience and is also more philosophically indeterminate because it does not propose one single set of things that an image does.

An image is.  But an image does X.  An image is a subject but as subject also serves another as object.  An image can represent itself and pretend that it does not represent anything else but itself.  An image can inhabit personal biography and social history.   An image fades away in time like so many fallen leaves.  An image can speak to the narrative that some artist wishes to draw for you, her audience.  And an image is what you think of when you read what I have written.

Perhaps most importantly for my work, an image is what I use–as substance, not style–to draw together the strings that bind a narrative that I wish to discuss and examine.  I use images substantively to tell stories, sometimes through works in a series, sometimes as some far flung illustration of some thought on politics or some philosophical nag.  What I do when I use those images to illustrate X, is that I bring to bear all those connections unavailable to me in words and in sentences.  I bring to bear the burden of color and of composition, things that remain entirely out of bounds for me whenever I assume the role of writer and writerly narrator.  I condense the whole substance of what I imagine the image to mean and allude to the history–the objective narrative or conventionally imagined tale–of all that has transpired, contingently, contagiously, before this writing, before this drawing, before this doing.

And I wish to speak of the unhinged character of our modern lives, the sense we have that because we know what lies behind the veil, we find ourselves impotent.   Knowledge of causality is for us, a sign that free-will has become a philosophical object.   There are no frames that allow a privileged true vision; there are only conventional approaches to what we must insist to be true if we are to fix ideas at all.  Things are, of course.   But that’s hardly any consolation.

Francis Bacon painted things that were stages and screens and cages that hold us all.  His Popes screech like owls at dusk.  His lover is always speeding away on his immobile bicycle.  Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic documentation of movement was a signal achievement that demonstrated that the things we know are a hairsbreadth away from nonsense.  There is more fancy and mythology in Muybridge’s serial photographs than there is substance in all of Damien Hirst’s oeuvre.  And I want to appropriate these images, as mentioned works, for some particular use.

I want my images to speak to that dislocation that audiences read into Bacon, that erasure and white noise of all we know of our political and natural knowledge.  All I can really know is that I was born, that I have hands and that I have a mother who once lived.  The rest I insist to be true without any stable foundations for that to be the case.

I do all this with a more philosophical turn that is couched in the distinction between the use and the mention of expression or an image.   To use an expression, according to this distinction, is to propose something substantive about the expression.  To mention an expression is to say something about the expression as a signifier: that is, we make a statement about the expression itself.   The sentence, “The Mona Lisa, a work by the great Master Leonardo is a very important piece in the cannon of Western art”, uses the expression Mona Lisa.  The sentence “The Mona Lisa is the name of a famous work by Leonardo” only mentions the expression Mona Lisa.  Similarly, writes Arthur Danto, to use the picture “The Mona Lisa” is to say something substantive about the Mona Lisa as a work; it is to speak to its history, to describe something true about it.  To mention The Mona Lisa is a painting is to say something about what the picture looks like in that painting.   That is to say,  to mention it in a painting is to say something about the original Mona Lisa painting in an another, different painting.  It is therefore work at a level of criticism about art.

I use a picture only in ways that refer to the production of the image, in ways that are available to me today; I do not use it to refer to a particular static reading of a work.  My use of an image then alludes to its history and its content but only by sheer relation to the digital production through which I come across it: photography.  This implies the use of the image exists behind a veil of allusions and interpretation; it cannot be read outright from what you see.   Therefore, the use  of the prior image is not as an immediately obvious, apparent image or even a style of image,  but as a specter that arises within modes of communication and production.   I mention an image in my work in so far as it could be an apparent image that bears no relation to me whatsoever.  The image could be a painting of Hero and Leander by William Etty; it could be an image that is a photograph of a dying soldier in a battlefield during the Spanish Civil War.  I want to make an image that reflects on the original image but without necessarily working in the same mode as the original, prior image.  In so doing I mention that original, prior image.

That is say, finally, that any reworking of any image whatsoever, is to me, now a mention of the original image.  To the extent that most of my images refer to original photographs, this is true.  (Of course there are original drawings that I have undertaken and I would think those drawings are pictures that I use to illicit different conditional meanings.  And in so far as they are original works, wrought in my “original style” they are images and styles of images that I do, in fact, use according to the philosophical defintion) Hence, any prior image that I use only mentions that work, though in its use it refers to modes of artistic production, digital production.  My work, therefore, tries to tease out that tension between uses and mentions of an image by both using and mentioning images.

But all you see on your screen is a photograph.  This is part of my work.  And when you think about my work, you yourself only mention the work that you see when you do refer to my work.  Nevertheless, there remains, for me, another part of my work that allows me to reclaim–to some extent– the use of an image.  That is the point where I print and rework the images that you see on your screen in some particular way that remains unknown, even, to me until the moment where I begin to rework that image. That some of these images will be printed and re-worked, repainted, is for you a fact that has no consequent meaning.  You remain ignorant of the possibilities of the image that may yet be realized.  Though, even now, I remain ignorant in that same way as well, my ignorance moves toward a particular resolution prior to yours.  Is this not how all work is created?

This is meta-level art work, I suppose.  But how could any work be otherwise?

~ by Faheem Haider on February 9, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Narrative Impulse and the Use and Mention of Images”

  1. High blackandwhite. I love your blog – keep at it, it’s really provoking. What are you working towards at the moment?

    Great to hear from another artist sitting in, and curious about, the space between the word, the image and the world.

    • Hi Helen,
      Thanks for the wonderful compliment. I’m trying to figure out where I stand with my art, as you say in the space between the world, the image and the world. I am a trained political scientist, so as I’ve begun to take my art seriously I’ve found it somewhat difficult to find a place where the work can exist, a place that feels genuinely related to my past and my aspirations. For now I write a weekly “meta” commentary on Meet the Press and am producing work to see where the line lies between events I find interesting and the photographic, spectral descendants of those events.

      Pardon my curiosity, but I took the liberty to take a look at your paintings. They’re very good. I like your discipline in working toward your image. I see a lot of Phillip Pearlstein in them.

      Keep in touch.

      Best wishes

  2. Hi Faheem,
    It’s a revelation to find someone else with similar interests to me. I’m in the rural Northwest UK and although I’ve been looking for ways to challenge and expand my ideas and my art I’m finding it very difficult. I am desperate for a community – an enclave of art curious people to speak with – but everyone is talking about the importance of getting a secure vocation and I feel a little deserted!
    I’d never heard of Meet the Press before but I looked it up – it sounds like a cool program. I used to write for the Nottingham Post’s arts section and arts issues are always appearing.

    I’d be really interested to hear your take on voyeurism and the image. I’ve got questions and I want answers – for example, why is the news obsessed with the new twin tower photos? Do we love to be close to death – to analyse it from every angle, in slow motion action replay? On this topic: have you ever read White Noise by Don DeLillo?

    Might blog on this issue after work…would love to hear your take on it.

    Thanks for your motivating comments on my art – I’m trying to move it along and it really helps to hear feedback of all types. For some reason Pearlstein had escaped my Art-radar, although I’ve been interested in, and a fan of, American Realism as opposed to the Abstract Realists for quite a while. If you know of anyone else in this genre feel free to mention them!

    Great to hear from again,

    • Hello again,
      I’m with you on that search to find a community of like-minded artists. I have something of that community of “individuals” here in upstate New York, but, significantly they are all friends from my childhood and university and are all employed in different vocations. And not a single one of these fine gents is particularly interested in contemporary art. So yes, I’ll join you in that search because there is almost no other way of doing art today. Well, there is one immediately obvious way, I suppose: Hitch up for a stint at an MFA program, but in the States that’s quite expensive and the community that one joins is nearly a mechanical device to churn out work. Go to RISD for more contemporary, video based work; go to Yale for more multi-media stuff, etc. So that’s no good. Similarly, in London, the Royal Academy trains you in video, while the Slade School tends to pay more respect to drawing.

      I was working on my PhD at the London School of Economics and spent a couple of days in your neighborhood. Its nice country up there. But I imagine, like me, you’re a little starved for some gallery time. (Though truth be told, I’m not that starved: I live about 70 miles from NYC and go down at least once a month to check out the scene.) My recommendation, obviously, would be to move to London. But I have a good friend who’s from Nottingham, Nottinghamshire–inside joke– and he’s dying to get out of London. David Hockney moved back to his rural hometown, though I think its a world’s difference between your need for community–and mine–and Hockney’s late period need to say something about his own roots.

      I too think about the issue of voyeurism, but I think about it in 2 ways: In the first instance, I’d think that the sociology of voyeurism just is; we are inclined to know about things that aren’t happening to us, and we want to include ourselves in those other ways of being. Facebook works through this need in many ways. So this way of looking at the issue would seek to parse out any pejorative content to expression, voyeurism. The second way is to think about the normative content of the things that follow from the broadly empirical, sociological approach to this thing, voyeurism. Chris Nolan’s first film “Following” is a wonderful take on this. For example, I think that the people who watched the 9/11 videos on CNN, with live commentary, probably had a more rationally motivated fear of the unknown, than did New Yorkers, like me, who watched the event happen in person. This is because we were too scared to think rationally without any outside voices prodding us on to think one way or the other. Just like when falling in love, we thought whatever seemed immediately obvious because the events were happening to us. So what follows from that? People in the hinterlands watched the events go down and they also tend to be more nativist about other communities. Are these things related? Possibly, but we just don’t know. Does art have the proper scope to deal with this question? Possibly, but I’d think any art that took the question literally would be fairly pedantic and, maybe even, bad.

      You might look into Richard Estes. But to my mind, Lucian Freud is the more interesting artist, though he’s not really a Photorealist. There is some affinity in the treatment of the flesh between Pearlstein and Freud, but while Pearlstein’s approach is somewhat documentative, Freud’s is almost lovingly, ruefully clinical and therefore compelling. He cares about the aging folds of his female nude models. His works almost reflect the memento mori aesthetic of Dutch still-lifes.

      Anyhow, I am curious to know, did you study fine arts? You have a nice line. And also, when you write of the abstract realists, are you talking about a particular period of work? Abstract realism, to me, is something of a catch-all, like Expressionism.

      Thanks for taking me down this road. Thank you for this conversation. Its quite interesting, and all to the good.

      Best wishes,

  3. Hmm.

    I guess I’m aware curiosity is a fairly universal response to the world. But I find it interesting that the news gives special newsworthiness and a privileged page-position to disasters and their images.

    It’s true that voice-overs make a huge difference to how we view a disaster scene, just as they do on irritating sitcoms. Do you distrust these because of their tendency to colonialise the meaning of an event? Do you think it could be inevitable that these events will be narrated by someone – if not the tv reporter then a neighbour, a teacher or other kids on the playground? Everyone is desperate to look and look at these images – I wonder if the narrative impulse has a lot to do with this.

    We get most of our news through second hand accounts – with voice-overs if you like – and the I guess we perceive of reality with our own in built voice-over, trained by and in society. It’s a tricky business but I guess I think art should look into it because the voices housed inside this area might produce some alternative insights – hopefully not pedantic of pejorative and at least a bit interesting. I’m tired of the specialism being segregated from politics and sociology and disempowered by people who suggest its irrelevance. Abstract Expressionism (not ‘Abstract Realism’, sorry, it’s currently a tough day at the office) sometimes feels like a postmodern sulk to me.

    I’ve never ‘studied’ the fine arts with an institution per se. I’ve studied some literary theory through an English Lit degree a few years back and I did an MA in print journalism (funnily enough, in Nottingham – I was born there). These were both good starting points for me. Now I feel like a sponge for art theory, I want to stand on it and flick paint at it like Pollock! I want to lie on it and squash my face up against it like Jenny Saville and I want to shout it from skyscrapers like Jenny Holzer! And also, my ignorance terrifies me on an almost daily basis – I’d love to do a PhD, but what in exactly?

    The MFA is a good idea but the funding is a big issue at the moment and, as you express very succinctly, I’d either have to be a video artist, a specialist in technical drawing or, more likely at the moment, a glorified marketing student. I’m looking around but I’ve not come up with any ideal solutions yet.

    I am a huge fan of Lucian Freud. I’m looking up Estes as I type. You seem to have studied everywhere – it’s amazing that you’ve been so many places and have so many interests…I guess congratulations? I’m certainly impressed.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking words, you’re breaking up a day of freelancing, re-working my bosses financial forecasts. Ouch.


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