Book Chapter
Peer Review
After Art shifts critical emphasis from art’s production (and the corollary of artistic intention) to what images do once they enter circulation in heterogeneous networks.
Book Title
After Art
Book Author(s)
David Joselit
Number of Pages



Diagram 1. Designed by Geoff Kaplan.

There are three dominant attitudes toward images that parallel those pillars of grade school education—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic—with three Ds: derivative, dumb, and deceptive.

Derivative: Images are thought to derive significance from external sources. Whether tethered to a historical era or a philosophical idea, they are treated as illustrations—as vessels for borrowed content.

Dumb: Images are dismissed as merely intuitive—incapable of the rigorous formalization that transforms visual data into communicable knowledge. In an otherwise excellent book by Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet, for instance, art is considered a form of “informal knowledge.” In their preface McNeely and Wolverton state, “[Our book] hardly touches on informal knowledge, the type of knowledge we get from reading a newspaper, fixing a motorcycle, parenting a child, or creating a work of art.”[1] The (widely shared) assumption of these authors is that visual intelligence is insufficiently disciplined to cross the threshold of “formal” (i.e., genuine) knowledge.

Deceptive: As sources of pleasure, images deceive. They create the ideological fantasias that Guy Debord so lustily condemned in his 1967 manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle, and that critics from both the right and the left have loved to hate ever since. As spectacle, images are the opposite of knowledge—they are the epitome of ignorance.[2]

After Art will assert that images possess vast power through their capacity for replication, remediation, and dissemination at variable velocities. In order to exploit this power for progressive ends, it is necessary to understand the potency of images on their own terms rather than dismissing them as derivative, dumb, and deceptive. To this purpose, After Art will shift critical emphasis from art’s production (and the corollary of artistic intention) to what images do once they enter circulation in heterogeneous networks. While the prefix after signifies belatedness, it is not synonymous with the more commonly used prefix post, which, as in the vexed category postmodern, or its more recent successor, postmedium, indicates both the termination and transformation of a previous era and its signature styles.[3] Post leaves the art object in tact albeit transformed or negated, whereas after shifts emphasis to its effects—its power—under the conditions of circulation.

The term image is a slippery one. I will use it here to indicate a quantum of visual content (say a digital photograph) that can assume a variety of formats.[4] For instance, any digital photograph may remain a computer file, or be printed in a variety of ways on a variety of surfaces; it lends itself to editing with software like Photoshop, and it can be degraded in quality by emailing or uploading it. In short, an image is a visual byte, vulnerable to virtually infinite remediation. The icon that heads this preface, which appears in a sequence of diagrams punctuating After Art, was designed by Geoff Kaplan to signify a new, more productive understanding of the power of images. Here are three of its aspects:

• Eye and I: the letter i in the center of the icon suggests both a pupil and a pronoun, just as images combine sensory and conceptual forms of information that, together, constitute their connection or link with spectators.

• Scalability and transformation: Images are a form of information that may shift from two dimensions to three, from tiny to huge, or from one material substrate to another, just as the image-icon in this book will move through several formats or situations in its sequence of diagrams.

• Power and currency: The icon approximates a plug where the i functions as a prong entering a disk. I will argue that images produce power—a current or currency—that is activated by contact with spectators. The more points of contact an image is able to establish, the greater its power will be.

[1] Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (New York: Norton, 2008), xv.

[2] See Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995). One of very many examples of “the spectacle” being taken as a monolithic force by critics on the left is Retort (Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews), and Michael Watts, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, new ed. (London: Verso, 2006).

[3] See Rosalind E. Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000).

[4] Arguably the most influential definitions of an image as the term is used currently in art history are those of Hans Belting and W.J.T. Mitchell. In Likeness and Presence, Belting states his definition explicitly in the Foreword: “[I]n the framework of this book, the image I am considering is that of a person, which means that I have chosen one of several possibilities. The image, understood in this manner, not only represented a person but was also treated like a person, being worshiped, despised, or carried from place to place in ritual processions: in short, it served in the symbolic exchange of power and, finally, embodied the public claims of a community.” Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), xxi. I would like to underline two ramifications of this argument beyond the important qualification of the image as the representation of a person: First, according to Belting this image is historically specific. It is the type of visual entity that exists before the modern understanding of art, or what he calls the “era of art.” In other words it pertains to visual culture before the Renaissance. Second, this image is known through its “agency” as well as through the acts and aspects attributed to it by different constituencies (such as theologians, but also how images were used and abused popularly).

In Iconology, Mitchell, on the other hand, is at pains to insist that the image is culturally specific (though not necessarily pre-modern as in Belting’s definition) and that it may be situated in a variety of disciplines, ranging from theology to literature, to science, to art, where it has significantly different meanings. This is what he calls a rigorous relativism. As different as these accounts seem on the surface they share two important qualities: first, that the image is based in history (though Belting periodizes it whereas Mitchell pluralizes it), and that the image possesses agency. Mitchell writes, “Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution from creatures ‘made in the image’ of a creator, to creatures who make themselves and their world in their own image.” W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 9.

My definition of the image transposes these two fundamental qualities—historical specificity and agency—into terms relevant to a digital and global era of wild image proliferation. I will dwell on questions of remediation (or format) in the place of historical specificity; with regard to agency, I will argue that populations of images exercise the kind of power that Belting and Mitchell differently locate in the image as personage.

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Modernism's Unfinished Business?


On modernism's problematic legacy of form and de-formation.


In the English-speaking world, the mention of modernism usually conjures a couple of things: famous authors (one thinks of names such as T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf); and avant-garde formal experimentation, from what Eliot in his study of the metaphysical poets calls the amalgamation of disparate experience to the use of stream of consciousness as a mode of narration. In the larger, global picture, of course, modernism has been associated with innovations in photography, art, film, architecture, sound, and music—all in all with the appearance of novel techniques in the construction of imaginary, symbolic, and social time-spaces.

The issue of form remains contentious. Outside the Anglophone context, discussions of modernist engagements with form cannot fail to acknowledge the important contributions of the Russian Formalists, whose notion of defamiliarization was widely adopted in conceptual and imaginative undertakings throughout the twentieth century and beyond. The irony in this case is well-known: the Formalists were intent on de-formation as a way to renew awareness of the world, their point being that form is deadly when it becomes a mere automatized habit. The Formalists, who were given this name by their detractors, were advocates of techniques, devices, and processes that would help us disengage from fossilized form (that is, formalism); hence their emphasis on art’s potential to roughen our perception, to surprise and awaken us.

But even as modernism’s continuing influence in multiple fields and discourses owes its impetus to de-formation as both a concept and a practice, it seems imperative to raise a historical question: why did de-formation, which was, arguably, always present in the literary and artistic practices of earlier time periods, come to play such a dominant role in the avant-gardism of more recent, indeed contemporary times? What factors made the fetishizing of de-formation—a fetishizing that greatly disturbed the critic Georg Lukács—a modernist signature? With this question in mind, formal techniques such as montage (film), collage (art), stream of consciousness and polyphonicity (fiction), estrangement effect (drama), and their like begin to assume a discernible quality: these techniques’ emphases on fragmentation and disintegration, it seems, make them eminently objectifiable, reproducible, and thus fetishizable—that is to say, portable and exportable.

Part of the problem with modernism’s legacy, then, is that these portable and exportable formal markers have so traveled around the world that they have brought about another type of automatism, what Theodor Adorno, discussing the fetishistic character of modern music in capitalist society, called regression in listening. For thinkers who share Adorno’s disdain for modern mass culture, the project of modernism, even if it is an inevitable failure, has to be about recovering a reality behind the fetishes. Yet after more than a century, the modernist avant-garde legacy has become so deeply enmeshed with the commodifying forces of corporatist capitalism that the distinction between art and advertising has come to seem irrelevant. Some theorists have therefore argued that the contemporary world is a post-art world (David Joselit, After Art).

Another aspect of modernism’s unfinished business pertains to modernism’s relations with the non-elite and/or non-Euro-American worlds. Raymond Williams’s essays in The Politics of Modernism provide important examples of interrogations of the political implications of the avant-garde’s claims to revolution and social renewal. Other theorists, from James Clifford (The Predicament of Culture) to Sally Price (Primitive Art in Civilized Places), alert us to the cross-cultural dynamics embedded in modernism’s investment in primitivism. Anne Phillips’s Multiculturalism without Culture may be seen as a more recent response to what Clifford calls the predicament of culture—of culture as the unavoidable, yet precarious, arena for creative and discursive undertakings—once we accept the fact that there have been and will always be cultures (in the plural) with vast unevenness in achievements and resources.

From a certain perspective, however, the predicament of culture and the issues of multiculturalism are postmodern topics. How do we arrive at them from the origins of high modernism? What kinds of trajectories—disciplinary, philosophical, artistic, and practical—lead from the heightened interest in form, however defined (revolutionary or elitist), to the fraught, unresolved confrontations among contemporary global cultures?

In the Western academy, one such trajectory may be traced in modernism’s immense influence on poststructuralist theory, as represented by the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida. Despite their disciplinary and critical differences, what these Parisian intellectuals of the postwar period had in common was a dedication to anti-humanism. The "ends of Man" as they theorized for the European human sciences—in a mode of writing referred to as critique—have left indelible imprints on the work of subsequent generations on both sides of the Atlantic and around the globe. Can these thinkers’ dramatizations of "the age of the crisis of man"—to borrow from Mark Greif’s book title—be seen as a genealogical trait of modernism itself, and if so, how might this trait be elaborated? In the spirited announcements of the ends of Man, is there not a residual metaphysics of Man lurking somewhere?

The modernist fetishization of form may also be seen as a precursor to the turn toward the posthuman, whereby the ascendancy of computational technology marks what may be regarded as the crossing of an ultimate threshold. Form in the older sense—as a crafty means of crystallizing, transmitting, storing, and redeeming human experience—is now understood by some theorists to have given way to computation as the preemptive, determinant logic, one whose interlocutors are no longer humans with imprecise sensory capacities but rather networks comprised of mathematical actants (such as algorithms). If the technological innovations of an earlier era were still centered around human creativity as such (think of the phonograph, radio, film, television, and so forth and their ties to imperfect, material human performances), those of post-electronic times rather subsume human agency to the ubiquitous regime of machinic calibrations, whose links to human experience now seem largely a matter of software programming, social control, and ever more sophisticated varieties of surveillance. The coolest modernist fetish today seems to be human experience in the form of generative data and metadata.

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