08 Apr

David Freedberg, The Power of Images (1989)

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).

30 Mar

Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” (1950)

Martin Heidegger was a twentieth-century German philosopher. He joined the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party in 1933 and served as Rector of Freiburg University until 1934. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. Heidegger was banned from teaching after WWII because of his involvement with the Nazi Party, but resumed teaching at Freiburg University in 1950. Heidegger gave the lecture “The Thing” in 1950 as part of the Breman lecture series in Munich to the Brevarian Academy of Fine Arts. Heidegger’s work has become central to Western philosophy, but it is also controversial because of his membership in the Nazi party.


Heidegger examines nearness by observing things, particularly a jug. Things are self-supporting. Objects are representations and stand “before, over against, opposite us” (168). Thingness is not constituted in processes of making or physical appearance. Thingness cannot be observed from voids or extracted from scientific thought that assumes annihilation. Thingness resides in a void’s holding and the outpouring of a gift. The sky and earth dwell in gifts poured out to mortals and immortals. Gathering constitutes things’ thingness by bringing humans nearer and uniting them to the sky, earth, other mortals and divinities.


Heidegger’s work is known for its emphasis on phenomenology, or the study of experience and consciousness. Heidegger departed from Husserl’s notion of phenomenology, which recognized that a person could experience pure phenomena without any presuppositions.  “The Thing” examines how a person can experience and know a thing. Humans do not recognize thingness in the making or producing of a thing. They experience a jug when they experience its pouring a gift. They experience a thing when it pours a gift because they experience the surrounding phenomena too–the sky, earth, other mortals, and divinities. Humans can’t experience unmediated things. They experience things in relation to other phenomena. This decentralizes the physical thing itself. The experiences doesn’t come from experiencing the physical thing, but from what is between the observer and the thing, what is presenced. The physical object matters less than what the first-person experiences through mediation.

23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I” (1985)

Pietz historicizes the word fetish and theorizes how it works as a category of material analysis. Pietz argues that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.”[1] Pietz allows the fetish to function as a category on its own rather than a corrupt genus that obscures and dismisses the social and religious practices of non-Western societies. The fetish can help scholars recognize a historical moment about exchange between Europeans and West Africans as well as how Westerners are attached to objects in particularly religious ways.

The characteristics of the fetish include: 1) irreducible materiality, or the recognition that the object embodies truth; 2) a fixed power to repeat an original event and order; 3) social value of things; and 4) personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object. The fetish is a “factitious universal” and was never used by a religious group to name its objects or relationship with objects. The term was used by Europeans to describe West Africans’ relationship with material objects. Thus, it emerged from cross-cultural interaction. The fetish names something personal and its truth is experienced as a movement from inside the self to outside the self into a material object in space. The fetish subjects the body to material objects.

Fetish versus Idol

A fetish is not the same thing as an idol. As idol is conceived as a free-standing statue. It emphasizes the worship of a false god or spirit by someone in a religious tradition different than the pronouncer. A fetish is usually worn on the body and is used to achieve tangible effects, like healing, on the user or for the user. The fetish acts on the body and shares a phenomenology relationship with the wearer. Idols do not necessarily participate in a phenomenology relationship.

The Fetish in Marxism and Structuralism

Marxism and structuralism have not fully developed the notion of the fetish because they recognize the displacement of objective social relations. According to Pietz, Marx recognized that “Material objects turned into commodities conceal exploitative social relations, displacing value-consciousness from the true productive market prices and labor.”[2] Marxism and structuralism stress the institutional structuring, or objective structuring, of constructed value consciousness. Marxist fetish theory explains this consciousness as “false consciousness based on illusion (hence alterable only by institutional transformation, not mere subjective ‘consciousness raising’).” Structuralism “either dismisses the fetish as a significant problem or else views it as nothing but a nonverbal signifier, sometimes ‘animated,’ with pure status of sign-vehicle for a process of signification.”[3] By stressing the social objectivity of the fetish, these theorists dismiss the fetish’s relationship to the individual person (like psychological and psychoanalytic theories ignore the social dimensions). Thus, the fetish comes to stand at the point where “the objective institutional systems are ‘personified’ by individuals, in two ways: 1) material entities (the market, natural species) are understood “to constitute the order of personal relations (social production, culture) which establishes “a determinate consciousness of the ‘natural value’ of social objects; and 2) personal activity is understood to be directed by “the impersonal logic of such abstract relations, as guided by the institutionalized systems of material signifiers of values arranged according to this logic.”[4] Fetishes, in these systems, are conceived of as negative material objects that have no personal relationships to individuals and objects of illusions (Marxism), and as immaterial, impersonal signifiers that only have relationships to other signifiers, or words (Structuralism). Thus, Pietz stresses an individual’s relationship with a fetish, and a fetish’s irreducible materiality, historical emergence, socially constructed social value, and fixed power.

[1] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (April 1, 1985): 16.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 9–10.