The Power of Images is not a book about the history of art. It is concerned with “the failure of art history to deal with the extraordinarily abundant evidence for the ways in which people of all classes and cultures have responded to images” (xix). It examines the psychological and behavioral responses to images rather than critical responses. Many of the psychological and behavioral responses had been deemed unworthy of examination because they were “popular,” or “primitive,” non-Western reactions to art. The behaviors involved what many Westerners considered irrational, superstitious, or explicable by magic. In fact, many Westerners engaged in this popular understandings of images. Freedberg suggests that he did not set out to provide an explanatory theory of images. “The aim, instead, has been to develop adequate terms, and to set out the possibilities for the ways in which cognitive theory may be nourished by the evidence of history” (xxii). In other words, Freedberg called for scholars to look at images differently by examining humans’ responses to images.
Freedberg argued that examining the responses to images referred to “the symptoms of the relationship between image and beholder” (xxii). This included the “active, outwardly markable responses of the beholder as well as the beliefs…that motivate them to specific action and behavior” (xxii). But, Freedberg also argued that humans’ responses to images depended on recognizing the efficacy and effectiveness of images. In other words, Freedberg called scholars to examine the power of images. This meant examining the vitality of images, what images appear to do, what people expect images to do, and why people expect images to do anything at all. Freedberg called art historians to examine images in terms of phenomenological evidence (what the viewer observers, sees, thinks, and feels about the images), written evidence in terms of documents about the images and their history, as well as contextual evidence in terms of similar images. Examining responses to images involved taking seriously what humans said about images and recognizing the power that images hold over people.
The chapter “Idolatry and Iconoclasm” examines the paradoxes of iconoclasm. The examples Freedberg gives about acts of iconoclasm, or image destruction, highlight the love/hate and fear/infatuation relationship that people have with images. In either case, people recognize images as powerful. Even so, Freedberg argues that Westerners have repressed these feelings about images because they are troubling. Freedberg argues that idolatry and iconoclasm are rooted in polemics of politics and theology. So, images are tied to ideologies. But, they are also rooted in individual psychopathologies of love and fear. This love and fear comes from the fusion of the image and its prototype. But, historians try to explain away this fusion. According to Freedberg, “it is this intellectual failure to acknowledge the logic of the gaze and the needs it engenders that we must still pursue further” (406). Freedberg call historians to examine acts of iconoclasm to understand why people love and fear images. Iconodules and iconoclasts “Both need images and admit to their power, and in so doing need to control them” (427). This control is usually carried out by words. Even so, people are afraid of the power of images. Freedberg urged historians to recognize their “self-deceptions” and fear of images so that they can analyze the “effect, power, and the success or failure of images” (428).