Art History and Images That Are Not Art

By Elkins, James | The Art Bulletin, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Art History and Images That Are Not Art


Elkins, James, The Art Bulletin


Most images are not art. In addition to pictures made in accord with the Western concept of art, there are also those made outside the West or in defiance, ignorance, or indifference to the idea of art. In the welter of possibilities two stand out. Non-Western images are not well described in terms of art,(1) and neither are medieval paintings that were made in the absence of humanist ideas of artistic value.(2) Together the histories of medieval and non-Western images form the most visible alternates to the history of art, and they attract most attention in the expanding interests of art history.

But there is another group of images that has neither religious nor artistic purpose, and that is images principally intended--in the dry language of communication theory--to convey information.(3) There is no good name for such images, which include graphs, charts, maps, geometric configurations, notations, plans, official documents, some money, bonds, seals and stamps, astronomical and astrological charts, technical and engineering drawings, scientific images of all sorts, schemata, and pictographic or ideographic elements in writing: in other words, the sum total of visual images that are not obviously either artworks or religious artifacts. In general, art history has not studied such images, and at first it may appear that they are intrinsically less interesting than paintings. They seem like half-pictures, or hobbled versions of full pictures, bound by the necessity of performing some utilitarian function and therefore unable to mean more freely. Their affinity with writing and numbers seems to indicate they are incapable of the expressive eloquence that is associated with painting and drawing, making them properly the subject of disciplines such as visual communication, typography, printing, and graphic design.

Still, it is necessary to be careful in such assessments, because informational images are arguably the majority of all images. If pictures were to be defined by their commonest examples, those examples would be pictographs, not paintings. An image taken at random is more likely to be an ideographic script, a petroglyph, or a stock-market chart than a painting by Degas or Rembrandt, just as an animal is more likely to be a bacterium or a beetle than a lion or a person. The comparison is not entirely gratuitous, and I make it to underscore the final barriers that stand in the way of a wider understanding of images, just as the remnants of anthropomorphism keep the public more engaged with lions than with bacteria. (In the last few decades, art historians have become interested in a wide variety of images that are not canonical instances of fine art, including mass cultural images, commercial and popular imagery, "low" art, and postcolonial images. From the broader viewpoint of images in general, such images remain within the fold of art. Popular imagery draws on the conventions of fine art even when it is not actively quoting or subverting it, but informational images operate at a much greater remove and are often effectively independent. In my analogy, fine art and popular imagery together might be the familiar mammals and other chordates, and informational imagery the many other phyla.

The variety of informational images, and their universal dispersion as opposed to the limited range of art, should give us pause. At the least it may mean that visual expressiveness, eloquence, and complexity are not the proprietary traits of fine art, and in the end it may mean that there are reasons to consider the history of art as a branch of the history of images, whether those images are nominally in science, art, archaeology, or other disciplines. My purpose in this essay is to survey the field of image studies, which is under way in disciplines such as the history of science, and to argue three points about the importance of informational images: that they engage the central issues of art history such as periods, styles, meanings, the history of ideas, concepts of criticism, and changes in society; that they can present more complex questions of representation, convention, medium, production, interpretation, and reception than much of fine art; and finally, that far from being inexpressive, they are fully expressive, and capable of as great and nuanced a range of meaning as any work of fine art. …

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