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Ralph Dekoninck
Translated by Matthew Rampley
A properly founded reflection on art, a science of art
could only be both historical and theoretical.
Henri Zerner1

Let us start with the recognition of the importance that studies of the
image and of the visual in general have had for philosophical research in
France in the twentieth century. In order to be convinced of this it sufffices
to refer to the work of thinkers who have enjoyed an undeniable critical fate such as Jacques Aumont, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Alain
Besanon, Pierre Bourdieu, Christine Buci-Glucksman, Dominique Chateau, Guy Debord, Rgis Debray, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel
Foucault, Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Jacques
Lacan, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Jaqueline Lichtenstein, Jean-Franois
Lyotard, Henri Maldiney, Jean-Luc. Marion, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, Christian Metz, Marie-Jos Mondzain, Jacques Rancire,
Rainer Rochlitz, Jean-Marie Schaefffer, Jean-Luc Schefer, Bernard Stiegler,
Paul Virilio or Jean-Jacques Wunenburger.2 Even if it is the custom in the

1Henri Zerner, Lart, in Jacques Le Gofff and Pierre Nora, eds., Faire de lhistoire, vol. 2,
Nouvelles approches (Paris, 1974) 183202.
2See, for example, Jacques Aumont, The Image (London, 1997); Roland Barthes, Camera
Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London, 1993); Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out, trans.
Chris Turner (London, 2002); Alain Besanon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago, IL, 2001); Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middlebrow Art (London, 1996); Christine Buci-Glucksman, Baroque Reason: The
Aesthetics of Modernity (London, 1994); Dominique Chateau, Smiotique et esthtique de
limage: Thorie de liconicit (Paris, 2007); Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Fredy
Perlman, Tony Verlaan, Paul Sieveking, Michel Prigent, Colin Carsten, and John Fullerton
(Detroit, MI, 1968); Rgis Debray, Vie et Mort de lImage (Paris, 1995); Gilles Deleuze, Cinema
(New York, 2001); Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, co-author and trans. Geofffrey

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Anglo-Saxon world to subsume the greater number of these authors, the

majority of whom are trained philosophers, under the rubric of French
Theory, it is nevertheless diffficult to discern within this constellation of
works a shared theory of the image or, at the very least, a communal way
of thinking. At most one can emphasize the importance of phenomenology, psychoanalysis and semiotics, alongside the critique, amongst some
authors, of Western occularcentrism, in other words, the dominance of
vision over the other senses as a privileged mode of grasping the sensible
world of cognition.3
Yet if these works have influenced visual studies, essentially a transatlantic enterprise, then one has to note that they have had hardly any influence on French art history, with a few exceptions that will be addressed
later in this chapter.4 In fact, reflection on the image takes place rather
more on the margins of academic art history in France, including either
institutions at the margins (Schools of Art, the cole des Hautes tudes
en Sciences Sociales, EHESSSchool of Advanced Studies in Social
Scienceor the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS) or
disciplines at the margins (Literature, History, Sociology, Psychoanalysis,
Film Studies).5 Thus, as Georges Didi-Huberman has commented, thinking
Bennington (Chicago, IL, 1987); Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London, 1986);
Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, Le Silence des tableaux (Paris, 2005); Luce Irigaray, Speculum
of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian Gill (Ithaca, 1987); Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language:
A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Alice Jardine and Lon Roudiez, trans.
Thomas Gora (Oxford, 1982); Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English,
trans. Bruce Fink (New York, 2007); Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Annexesde luvre dart
(Paris, 1999); Jaqueline Lichtenstein, La Couleur loquente (Paris, 1993); Jean-Franois Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (Minneapolis, MN, 2010);
Henri Maldiney, Art et existence (Paris, 2003); Jean-Luc Marion, La croise du visible (Paris,
2007); Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, trans. Jefff Fort (New York, 2005); Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL, 1969);
Marie-Jos Mondzain, Image, icne, conomie: Les sources byzantines de limaginaires contemporain (Paris, 1998); Jacques Rancire, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott
(London, 2009); Rainer Rochlitz, Subversion and Subsidy: Contemporary Art and Aesthetics,
trans. Dafydd Roberts (Chicago, IL, 2008); Jean-Marie Schaefffer, Art of the Modern Age:
Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger, trans. Steven Rendall (Princeton, NJ, 2000); JeanLouis Schefer, Du monde et du mouvement des images (Paris, 1998); Paul Virilio, War and
Cinema. The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London, 2009); or Jean-Jacques
Wunenburger, Limaginaire (Paris, 2003).
3See Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French
Thought (Los Angeles, 1994).
4See Roland Recht, Remarques liminaires, in Roland Recht, Philippe Snchal, Claire
Barbillon, and Franois-Ren Martin, eds., Histoire de lhistoire de lart en France au XIX e
sicle (Paris, 2008) 1314.
5See for example, the series of volumes published by Gallimard and edited by JeanClaude Schmitt and Franois Lissarrague entitled Le temps des images.

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about the image in France is dispersed.6 This is why it is not possible

to speak of major theoretical watchwords. If, for some, the lack of dialogue between disciplines is a cause of regret, for Didi-Huberman this
fragmentary state contains, in spite of everything, a positive and fecund
dimension, for it opens up a field of possibilities and freedom. According to Didi-Huberman this freedom continues a completely unabashedly
literary tradition including writers such as Denis Diderot, Charles Baudelaire, Stphane Mallarm, Jean Genet, Francis Ponge, and Yves Bonnefoy.
In France the most striking theoretical texts on the image are nearly all
marked by this profound anchoring in the poetic, and he cites examples
such as Georges Batailles writing on Lascaux, Foucaults discussion of Las
Meninas, or Barthess reflections on the photograph.7
Even if in France art history has sought to keep its distance from this
dual philosophical and literary tradition, the latter continues to inspire
work with clearly stated theoretical ambitions, but which characteristically apply such reflection to the field of history. This chapter will examine the contribution of critical, historical and anthropological reflection
on the visual by thinkers whose work has become part of the field of art
history or who sit at its boundaries. For practical reasons the discussion
is limited to only a small number of the many authors who might have
been included, and it therefore focuses on just the most important and
representative figures. In general, however, I would like to suggest that
one of the distinctive traits of this research perspective in France can be
found in the shared reflection on the problematic articulation of the relation between art theory and art history, on the one hand, and between art
and the image on the other, with a particular emphasis on the conditions
governing the agency and impact of representations.
Art History and the Theory of Art: A Semiotic Turn
Amongst the pioneers one should mention the name of Pierre Francastel
(19001970) who was associated right at the beginning with what would
later become the cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS),

6Georges Didi-Huberman, En ordre dispers, Trivium 1 (2008), http://trivium.revues

.org/index351.html (accessed 8 September 2009).
7Georges Bataille, The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, trans. Michelle
and Stuart Kendall (New York, 2005); Foucault, The Order of Things; Barthes, Camera

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thus bringing together a team of historians working within the Annales

school. Partly breaking with academic art history, Francastel contributed
to the opening up of the discipline to the social sciences. In particular,
he opened up the path to what he called a sociology of art, in which he
was careful to place artworks in the context of the visual culture of the
era that produced them, while also remaining attentive to the specific
figurative thinking that gave them their form and meaning.8 Rejecting
any kind of determinism (such as the idea of complete dependence on
historical context) and any kind of formalism (the idea of the absolute
autonomy of the history of forms) he aimed to articulate as best he could
the relation between the plastic properties of artworks and the diverse
social functions these artworks fulfilled, and to which their plastic values
contributed. The originality of his approach lay in his assertion that the
latter both depended on and participated in the nature of these functions
and their effficacy.
Inspired by this pioneering work, the art-historical research that developed at the EHESS, in particular within the Centre for the History and
Theory of Art (CEHTA) set up in 1977 by Hubert Damisch, attempted to
combine the analysis of the socio-historical conditions of the production
and reception of artworks with the study of their formal and aesthetic
properties. Adopting an approach that thought of itself as structuralist,
this research was clearly oriented towards semiotics.9 Thus for Damisch
it was a matter of studying artworks in themselves, apart from any historical determinations, but without losing sight of their structural relation
to other artworks or cultural phenomena. For the specific nature of an
artwork could only be demonstrated in terms of its diffferential relation
to the artworks it transformed (or indeed by which it was itself transformed), in the sense that it either displaced or reconfigured them.10 This
was why it was necessary to take into account both the specific rhythm
and history of artworks, while, equally, not neglecting their interactions
with an enlarged historical context. For they only bring to completion

8See Pierre Francastel, La Ralit figurative: lments structurels de sociologie de

lart, 2nd edn., (Paris, 1978) and tudes de sociologie de lart: Cration picturale et socit,
2nd edn., (Paris, 1989). On Francastels notion of the sociology of art, see the comments
by Nathalie Heinich, Sociology of Art. With and against Art History, (000000 in this
9See Jean-Claude Bonne, Art et image, in Une cole pour les sciences sociales, ed.
Jacques Revel and Nathan Watchel (Paris, 1996) 35365.
10Hubert Damisch, Histoire et/ou thorie de lart, Scolies 1 (1971) 2736 and Damisch,
ed., Critique 31516, Special Issue Histoire/thorie de lart (1973).

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their own particular aesthetic and semiotic potential in response to the

most diverse, individual or collective, intended or unintended finalities.
Weaving together diffferent temporalities prompts a rich reflection on the
historicity of the artwork. Thus, as we shall later see, it is important to
draw on the array of diffferent theories and ideologies that presided over
the formation of art history as a body of historical knowledge.
Yet if art history cannot dispense with a theory of history, neither can
it hide the theories of art that it consciously or unconsciously mobilizes.
Rather than evading the question of beauty, or abandoning the concept
of art in favour of a supposedly more neutral concept such as that of the
image, we should acknowledge, argues Damisch, that art history and aesthetics operate hand in glove, and that art is, by its nature, a theoretical
object. If one therefore wishes to write the history of art, one has to know
what its status is and what its forms are at each moment in its history.
In other words, one has to trace the constant process of delimitation and
redistribution of artistic activity. It follows from this that the art historians object is nothing other than the array of phenomena which are, in the
given period, held to be aesthetic artefacts. This comes back to the point
that art history studies above all the history of art as an institution and
the collective representations of art. The term production of art should
hence be understood not only in terms of the making of artworks, but also
in terms of the production and reproduction of the material, ideological
and theoretical conditions of such making and its effficacy.
The work of authors such as Louis Marin or Daniel Arasse resonates
perfectly with this interrogation of the relation between the theory and
history of art. For Marin the main stakes of this relation stem from the
recognition of artistic representation as a theoretical object. The latter is
theoretical in a twofold manner, both as the construct of a science of art,
and also an object that reflects on itself.11 For every representation represents itself. It is especially this second aspect, which coincides with the
idea of figurative thought that was so dear to Francastel, to which Marins
reflection, in its essence, pertains. For him the reflexivity within the work
of art defines its theoretical dimension.12 Focusing mainly on the study
of the theory and practice of the sign during the Classical Age, a founding moment in the history of modern representation (aiming towards the

11Louis Marin, Des pouvoirs de limage: gloses (Paris, 1993).

12Louis Marin, Opacit de la peinture: Essais sur la reprsentation en Quattrocento, 2nd
edn., (Paris, 2006) 17.

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ideal of transparency), he thus traces all the zones of opacity (in essence,
all of the non-mimetic indices and all thresholds, such as the frame) across
which representation is the object of its own thought, thereby revealing
the constitutive dialectic between transitivity and reflexivity that enables
one to articulate as closely as possible its semantic and expressive poles.
An inquiry of this kind into the semiotic and aesthetic modalities of the
figuration of such a thought naturally leads him to interrogate the latters
powers which are closely linked to the unstable play of presence and representation. All the efffects of pleasure and jouissance in the imagination
and the senses, all its emotional afffects in the feelings and the heart, are
induced by the signs opacity.13 The interest directed towards the opaque
flesh of painting (which therefore goes against the occultation of this
accursed share by the classical theory of art) makes it possible to understand how matter, form and meaning become interwoven in the cognitive
and emotional experience of the painting. This reflection on the sensible
powers of representation open up the way to a more political questioning
of the representation of power, which resides, precisely, in representation
conceived of as an operation that puts the force of signs, as it were, in
reserve.14 This is the operation that underpins the belief both in the power
being represented and also the power of the representation.
Similar conclusions on figurative thinking and on the conditions of the
possibility of representation and its agency have been reached in the work
of Daniel Arasse, conducted in the wake of Damisch and Marin. Investigating, like the other two authors, the epistemological bases of modern representation and those of art history, his work has consisted of an inquiry
into the unseen; not the invisible, as it were, but the optical unconscious
hidden within the work. This includes, in short, everything that eludes
the normative, on the level both of the construction of the representation (most notably, perspective) and also the conceptual and perceptual
framework bequeathed by art history. Only a close history of painting,
conceived of as a closed, but dynamic or organic whole that secretes its
own thinking, is equal to the task of laying bare what conceptual knowledge excludes or represses.15 One can discover such intimacy, understood
both as an object and as an approach, in the details and singular features

13Marin, Des pouvoirs de limage, 955.

14Louis Marin, Portrait of the King (London, 1988).
15Daniel Arasse, Le dtail: Pour une histoire rapproche de la peinture (Paris, 1996).

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that betray the thought of the work (the presence of the painting) or the
presence of the subject in the work (the presence of the painter). In other
words, the subjectivity invested in the painting by its author (the genetic
approach to the work, concerned with the vestiges of embodied thinking),
but also the implication of the subjectivity of the viewer, not to mention
that of the art historian, all three of whom are moved by the pleasure
and desire aroused by the work.16 Subject to the enduring efffect of the
painting through time, the historian has to seek to produce an account
of the plot at the heart of the iconic narrative that constitutes its power,
by creating a narrative, even a fiction, which aims to enable us to come
into intimate contact with the painting and the painter, and thereby to
recreate none other than the artists closeness to the work. This closeness,
which must not be mistaken for empathy, can be achieved through the
exercise of a reasoned sensibility or a theory open to the senses.
A theory of history and of its writing thus emerges out of this theory of
the subject and of the figurative thinking in the work of painting. For it is
important to address the delicate issue of how to give a historical perspective to a singularity, how to turn the unique and original thing that is an
artwork into an object of knowledge. Conceived of as an event that reiterates itself at each encounter, it is the bearer of its own unique history that
the historian has to unravel once more, and which is a function not only
of its figurative weft, but also of the diffferent layers of interpretation that
weft creates, and which have become sedimented through time, enriching
or impoverishing the works meaning.
Turning from the history of painting to histories of paintings involves,
for Arasse, a rethinking of historical knowledge by taking into account the
depth of the historical and cultural distance separating the present of the
observer and the past of the work. With the strong conviction that when
one interrogates the past one is inevitably responding to the present,
Arasse sees historical knowledge as put to the test by the anachronism
constitutive of every work of art. Placed under the sign of the singular and
the intimately private, which cannot escape its own historicity, his work is
basically that of a historian who constantly examines the epistemological
and aesthetic stakes of temporal and psychic distance (the question of
living memory, the works memory and that of the spectator) as well as
physical distance (the question of the intimate gaze) from the artwork.

16Daniel Arasse, Histoire de peintures (Paris, 2004) 199.

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Art and the Image: An Anthropological Turn

One can add the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman to this reflection

dedicated to the thought and power of images, which are in his case
accompanied by a critical revisiting of the epistemological foundations of
art history, what he terms a critical archaeology of art history. Inspired
by his early research on the figuration of hysteria and on the figurative
processes within the painting of Fra Angelico, he has undertaken a deconstruction of the humanist thinking (of writers such as Vasari, Kant and
Panofsky) that made possible the establishment of art history as a form
of knowledge, which has, as a consequence, reduced the visible to the
legible.17 The main object of his research has been everything that the art
history emerging from this humanist tradition has repressed, has been
unable to conceptualize or to see. The unthought or the unseen is none
other than what has plunged representation into crisis, a critical point to
which he gives the name of symptom, dialectically linked to the symbol.
Derived from Freudian metapsychology, this concept refers to the event
where the unconscious bursts in, the repressed returns.
The other key concept is that of embodiment (taken as the symptoms
implementation) which permits him to conceive of a visibility beyond
appearance. A counter-model or one that diverges from that of classical
aesthetics and the theory of mimesis sustaining it, the Christian paradigm of embodiment or incarnation leads Didi-Huberman along the path
towards an anthropology of the visual, in which the concept of the visual
is understood as the unconscious of the visible. However it is not only in
reference to Christian dogma that he thinks of embodiment as the major
anthropological stake of images, even if it enables him to undertake such
an anthropological turn. Instead, he envisages it as a phantasm in a wider
cultural sense. This goes on to interrogate the limits of imitation, limits
which are crossed over in the fiction of a living image that desires, that
offfers and opens up its body to the spectator. Whether this is in relation
to fables (he cites examples from Ovid, Baudelaire, Mallarm, Balzac and
Proust) or the concrete reality of images that reify this phantasm, embodi-

17Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetrire, trans. Alisa Hartz (Cambridge, MA, 2004); Didi-Huberman, Fra
Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago, IL, 1995); DidiHuberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, trans. John
Goodman (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).

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ment is studied not only as a motif, but also as a motor, in other words,
as the cause and efffect of the desire that literally sets the body in motion,
the body of the image as well as that of the spectator.
To think of the body of the image in relation to the body of the spectator
is to give imitation and its anthropomorphic tropes their full anthropological depth. Thought of not as a state so much as a dynamic and relational
process with very real pragmatic efffects, resemblance has to be viewed in
its relation to dissemblance (a polarity that recalls Marins opposition of
opacity and transparency), in a play of dialectics from which representation draws all its power. This accounts for Didi-Hubermans interest in
all figurative processes or, in other words, visual efffects and phenomena,
more so than in visual objects, for they open up the bodies of images
and tear down the veil of mimesis all the while addressing the spectator
caught up in this play. For one cannot distinguish between the image as
an object and the image as subject, or as operation of the subject, hence
one should not separate the image in the imagination from the image in
the psychic economy.18 This brings us back once more to examination of
the belief in the powers of the image.
Such anthropological reflection on the effficacy of the visual, which goes
against the tyranny of pure visibility, is necessarily accompanied by a second layer devoted to the temporal dimension of images.19 Having first
scrutinized art as an object, it is then necessary to linger by the object
history. For how can one articulate the relation between the timelessness
of anthropology and its historical declensions? This is achieved, quite simply, by recognizing that when we stand before the image we stand before
time; as Didi-Huberman argues, the present and the past are constantly
reconfiguring themselves in the image. If the concept of the symptom
made it possible to think through the unconscious of the visible, then the
concept of survival, borrowed from Aby Warburg, makes it possible to
access the unconscious of history.20 In other words, it enables access to
everything that the classical models of temporality (mainly cyclical, linear,
even teleological) used by art history do not manage to think.

18Georges Didi-Huberman, Limage ouverte: Motifs de lincarnation dans les arts visuels
(Paris, 2007).
19See Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico and Devant le temps: Histoire de lart et
anachronisme des images (Paris, 2000).
20Georges Didi-Huberman, Limage survivante: Histoire de lart et temps des fantmes
selon Aby Warburg (Paris, 2002).

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One can start with the idea of anachronism, the accursed share of the
historian, which expresses both the longue dure of survivals and the discontinuity of historical time. How can the present reconfigure an image
from the past, and how can the past survive in a current image? This is
linked to the fact that every image is the result of a sedimentation of heterogeneous times. Its meaning can no longer be found exclusively in the
era that produced it. Instead, one should sound out its memory in order
to gain access to the multiple stratified times of which it is composed. In
short, the image is more a matter of memory than of history, and art history should turn itself into a kind of art of memory (a chronological anamnesis consisting of a going back in time contrary to the order of events),
where the historians own memory is implicated in every moment.
Without theory one will not know what history means, nor art, nor
what is meant when one speaks of a history of art. But without history,
there will be no theory that has any validity, even if, in the final analysis,
art eludes any strictly historicizing treatment.21 This could be the credo
underpinning the thought of French art historians, who are united in their
conviction that no history or theory of art can do without an interrogation
of the nature of its objects and their historicity. One additional shared
issue is the desire to bring back presence to representation, the presence
of the painting and of the painter, but also the presence of the spectator, including the presence even of the art historian. The recognition that
every historian makes theoretical choices involves a self-reflexive step
that lies at the heart of the work of the thinkers presented here.
Another distinctive trait that goes hand in hand with this is their desire
as much to bring objects from the past together with contemporary theory, as to bring together theories from the past and objects of the present,
in a constant to-and-fro. In a way it involves having objects from the past
speak in their own language, all the while showing how what they say
still concerns us in the present. It is in this respect that one can speak
of a diffference from mainstream visual studies, where one can witness
a move towards the inverse taking place, where the point of departure is
often rather more the society of the spectacle and issues relating to the

21Bonne, Art et image.

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contemporary world, sometimes at the cost of a relegation of history to a

secondary level. In contrast to this essentially contemporary orientation,
the articulation of the relation of history to theory would appear to be one
of the salient features of the oeuvre of these art historians, who are conscious of the depth of history working its way through images. One might
thus say that history, just as much as the unconscious, lies at the heart of
their theory of art and the image, and that their thinking is traversed by
the question of time. Finally, one could summarize their contribution by
saying that the image is to be found at the heart of all thinking about time,
while time is to be found at the heart of all thinking about the image.

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