BildEvidenz Research Program
Our research group is addressing one of the oldest and most fundamental aspects of scholarly reflection on images and pictures, that is to say, the structures and processes involved in the generation of pictorial Evidenz, where Evidenz (which is not congruent with the English term evidence and therefore retained here as a technical term in German) comprises not only the visible presence of an image, but also its impact, meaning, construction, and more. The particular importance and current relevance of our project is that our investigations are specifically focused on the aesthetic profile of any such Evidenz. We take the view that pictorial Evidenz is a fundamental aesthetic category that not only comprises processes for representing reality but also constitutes a genuine visual presence in its own right. This twofold determination of any picture—as representation and presence—is fundamental to our project, for it is only in the dialectical mediation of these two modalities that the central meaning and function of images and pictures can be properly discerned. Therefore the prime aim of the project is to identify the various historical and systematic forms that this mediation takes.
Today an endeavor of this nature is as challenging as it is urgent. For it comes at a time when the ubiquitous debate in cultural and visual disciplines concerning the meaning of images is suffering due to the narrowing and polarization of seemingly antagonistic positions. On one side there is widespread skepticism regarding pictorial Evidenz in nature and society, in politics and history, propagated by those who regard images as a “language,” as legible systems of signs that have no specific meaning of their own and that have served their purpose as soon as their message has been deciphered. This is exemplified in recent efforts to contain pictures and pictoriality within the concept-heavy theoretical framework of a “general science” of pictures (Bildwissenschaft), without taking full account of the historical and aesthetic particularities of the individual image. On the other side there is the ever more emphatic insistence on the autonomous production of meaning in images, which seeks to detach the image from any connections to external reality. In this understanding the complex relations between reality and the visual are regarded as no more than purely accidental, overlaying and obscuring—even hindering—the actual recognition of the image’s presumably pure, unfalsified pictoriality. Moreover, this essentialist art-historical tendency to reduce and isolate the picture encourages a teleological narrative, which presents the increasing exclusion of reference and the liberation of a “pure” pictoriality devoid of references as progress in modern art. Similarly, the quasi-animist discourse regarding the “life” of images, their “desires,” and their “will” or their status as autonomous entities responds to the current challenge to discover the determination of aesthetic evidence with an unexplained mythification of its true capacities.
The scholarly study of visual imagery and culture is thus in thrall to a scarcely reconcilable opposition. Whereas, on one side of the divide, the aesthetic evidence of the image is ignored, in effect robbing the image of its true impact and visual qualities, on the other side it is regarded as an absolute, and consequently detached from its multifarious historical, social, and cultural references to extra-pictorial realities. And as for the poetologies of the picture, as they are currently devised by academics engaged in the study of visual imagery and culture, these seem to be characterized by a more or less latent indifference to the aesthetic grounding of an image’s referential content.
Our research takes this aporia as its starting point. Self-determination and references to reality are, in our view, not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor are autonomy and heteronomy necessarily the opposite poles of a dichotomy; in our view they are components in a relationship that, as a web of interconnections within the picture, provides the aesthetic foundations and context of that picture and should be analyzed as such. The criteria for this analysis are, not least, already set out within the picture. For although pictures have so often been the subject of theoretical reflection, at the same time they also have their own reflective status. There are two reasons for this: the disconnection of pictures from the reality that they nevertheless refer to, and their reflective referentiality to their own conditions of production. That pictures have their own “theory content” and, in that sense, embody a discursivity of their own, is central to the matter of how they generate Evidenz. For this in itself opens up the possibility of deriving conclusive criteria for their aesthetic form from within the pictures themselves, criteria that for their part have a describable story of their own, which can therefore be historicized. Whenever there is an attempt to discover the meaning of representation as representation, this also reflects the contemplation of the picture and hence the realm of its external connections. Thus the endeavor to restore to pictorial Evidenz its own historical complexity and depth can open up a viable path between historical observation and aesthetic exploration, between concept and contemplation, and hence between the picture’s relation to reality and its own reality. It is only by this means that the special sense in which pictures are determined by their multiple historical and cultural connections at the same time as being open—in their presence as it is now and in the present—to aesthetic experience can be duly acknowledged. This dynamic concept of picture and Evidenz can also serve to mitigate the present tendency (arising from rival “turns,” i.e., “linguistic” as opposed to “iconic”) to treat pictures and words, visual and textual skills as polemic opposites, and hence to pave the way for research with a new transdisciplinary perspective.
Our research group has therefore set itself the task of developing a more complex pictorial concept, a concept that will be capable of fully capturing real feats of visuality at the same time as substantively revisiting its constitutive connections with the linguistic, cultural, social, and political embeddedness of images. Ongoing, close collaboration with experts in the fields of literature, film, and history, with philosophers and cultural historians is therefore a fundamental component in our research program.
2. Research Topics
In different disciplines pertaining to cultural history and the history of science the notion of Evidenz has recently aroused particular interest. This has been further fuelled by changes in our field, known in German as Bildwissenschaft and which might be described as the science and study of the image per se. There even appears to be a “longing for evidence” (Harrasser/Lethen/Timm), which—following the loss of referentiality in Post-Structuralism and Constructivism—is now being read as the precursor of a necessary, methodological review of the connections between systems of signs and the world, between representation and presence. Our research group, taking a comprehensively interdisciplinary approach, has embarked on an investigation into the interface between the history of the picture and the history of art, at the same time taking into account aesthetics and epistemology, the history of science and of modern media. With its focus on pictorial structures and the processes involved in the creation of pictorial Evidenz, our project is engaging with an issue that is currently of particular interest; deliberately turning away from the notion of a world experience that is a purely cultural construct, it is our aim to historically and systematically redefine the internal logic of pictures and images, including their various functions and realms of operation. Recently opposition has arisen to the radical departure from “the real”—as seen in theories of simulation, of the social construction of reality, or of the discursive dissolution of the world—in the shape of a counter-movement back to the “thing itself.” Yet these restrictive approaches fail to take account of the complex modus operandi of pictorial evidence. The challenge is therefore neither to underestimate pictorial Evidenz either as a pure construct and as the purely superficial impact of different codes and attributions, nor to overlook it in the wake of the opposite striving to (re-)ontologize and to de-historicize the picture.
2.1 The Semantics of Aesthetics
One main purpose of our project is to explore the specific aesthetics of pictorial Evidenz with regard to its historic, cultural, and social roots and interconnections. The question is, how do pictures in different contexts—be these social, religious, political, cultural, economic, or epistemological—articulate particular aspirational and representational aims, not only in terms of their content and iconography but also (and in particular) by means of the formal and aesthetic production of meaning, and thereby imbue them with an Evidenz that eludes the logic of a purely discursive determination? Research by historians, social scientists, and art-sociologists has so far not produced any wholly satisfactory or even suitably concrete analytic models for this. Hitherto the postulate of an “Überleitung zur Form” [Transition to Form], proposed as a future task for art historians by Martin Warnke in his outline of a sociological model “Bau und Überbau” [Structure and Super-Structure], has remained an unfinished project and an unfulfilled desire.
This is where our research interest begins: the aim is conduct case-studies to lay new, theoretically and methodologically secure foundations for the wider understanding and analysis of pictorial evidence left by history, society, and politics.
(a) The Charisma of Beauty: The Pictorial Politics of Evidenz in the Late Middle Ages
In view of the increasing functional differentiation, seen in the late Middle Ages, between identity-establishing ideals of unity (and notions of the common good) and their ecclesiastical and religious roots, the subject of enquiry here is the extent to which public images and pictorial programs move into the ensuing charisma-vacuum not only with innovative iconographies, but also—and particularly—with their media-specific language forms and strategies of visualization; in addition there is the question of the extent to which these images also attempt to fill that same vacuum with religious or quasi-religious authority. What is happening here (as we aim to demonstrate) is a fundamental, far-reaching process of social, political, and judicial renewal and change in pictorial semantics by means of an aesthetically operationalized valuation. The main focus of this enquiry will be on thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian art; besides prominent pictorial programs, less well known or fragmentary groups of pictures (some only known from documentary sources) will be analyzed in a comprehensively systematic manner. These studies will also draw on examples from north of the Alps.
In an age when professional governmental and political authorities started to provide a secular replacement and compensation for the lost, previously divinely-legitimized “supernature” of sovereign rule, how was it that these pictures managed to fulfill their task of charismatically elevating a new form of governance, founded in a rational, juridified, bureaucratic administration, and of sublimating the mundanity of institutional circumstances? The notion of charisma and its aesthetic application seems a particularly promising area of enquiry for our project, for—following the lead of Max Weber and recent advances made on the basis of his theory by cultural sociologists—charisma is seen as a form of manifestation of non-quotidian ideas, which, by laying claim to meaning, holds out the promise of escape from the daily round of human life, from social constraints, and the concomitant behavioral uncertainty. Within the context of our project the notion of charisma thus points to the socio-structural dimension of “the aesthetic” (i.e., that which is aesthetic) and its cultural significance, which is the object of our enquiry: the aesthetic as a medium and agent both of a dynamic process of attribution, which transfers or reconstitutes religious (as well as ideological and political) values and of a process of institutionalization, during the course of which these values are successfully rationalized, elevated and/or sublimated by means of symbols, dogmas, and rituals, and fixed and grounded in views of the world.
Against this backdrop our intention is to determine the extent to which representational aims (entwined in political, ideological, legal, and institutional issues), which are all concerned with abstract, non-visual value concepts, patterns of behavior, and general principles, come into conflict with the fact that, since around 1300, the painted picture had increasingly established itself as mimetic representation, and the extent to which a topical inventory of pictorial models, iconographic codes, and image-text relations are transformed by a growing potential for fictionalization and the poietic weighting of said representational aims; it is our intention to thus establish a new type of representational hermeneutics pursuing a goal that is both aesthetic and engaged in the interpretation of reality. How do pictures and pictorial programs, with the appearance of mimetically determined figurations, convey political and governmental-legal arguments? How do they substantiate these arguments with the pictorial impression of “evidence” in the sense of undoubted powers of persuasion and proof? And what role falls to the postulate of “beauty” and aesthetic aspiration that is frequently and explicitly expressed in public speeches, sermons, and treatises, in communal statutes and governmental-administrative decrees? To what extent will a systematic overview of these pictures that are individually highly complex and variously differentiated bring to light a striving for validity that is definitively founded in the aesthetic communication of social and political messages?
(b) Sacralization and Stylization: Aesthetic Evidenz and Discrepancies in the Early Modern Era
The aim of the study concentrating on the transition from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era is to work toward a historical and systematic illumination of matters that will open up perspectives and conclusions that are relevant to the questions posed by our research group as a whole. Accordingly, the intention is to show that any inquiry into the aesthetics of Evidenz can only be one-sided and blinkered if it really only draws on humanist art theory and traditional rhetorics, and fails to take full account of the complex spectrum of its visual and historical premises. At the same time, in a follow-up investigation, the intention is to ask to what extent the processes of a truly new semanticization through aestheticization, developed and refined during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, already contained within it the crucial ferment for that systematic elevation, even sacralization of the aesthetic that came to light during and after the Renaissance, in the form of increasing divinification of artistic beauty and as the art-theoretically institutionalized celebration of its quasi-religious, revelatory role. This in turn sees a constellation looming into view whose consequences remain highly active until the development of art as a religion (Kunstreligion) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which are still apparent in the notion of a “post-figuration” (Rentsch 1998) of religious experience in modern art, according to which the aesthetic immanence of the now autonomous work of art can be seen as the heir to religion and which itself thus becomes religiously elevated.
Against this backdrop, research into the aesthetics of pictorial evidence will take us in two directions in particular.
The first will explore the relationship of religious and aesthetic experience modeled in and by means of pictures. Whereas the premises of mimetic representation in the Early Modern Era proposed the maxim of engaging in the pictorial representation of reality in terms of its visibility and momentariness, when it came to religious pictures and their intended aim of visualizing transcendence this precept by definition led to the fundamental paradox of pictorial Evidenz of that which is unseeable. This is the point of entry of our research: the intention is to discover to what extent solutions to this problem of paradoxical Evidenz were sought in the realms of processes of representation, to discover whether there were attempts to compensate aesthetically by presenting a pictorial reflection of the problem, which would also serve as a form of sublimation. The main point of interest here is the complex process of reshaping aesthetic signification, such that the achievement of the picture would be judged less on the visible Evidenz of the reality it portrayed than on the making visible of the latter’s unseeable, imaginary nature. In light of this, the aim will be to show that the growing aestheticization of the picture in the Early Modern Era should not one-sidedly be viewed as a process of autonomization or as the establishment of an “age of art” (Belting 1989). For it is our contention that the moment of reflection that is intrinsic to aesthetic Evidenz is inexorably tied to the latter’s visible link with the invisible reality of the subject matter represented in the picture. The aim of our project is to show that, and how, Evidenz in a picture is constituted as a polar, poised balance between autonomy and heteronomy.
These interconnections will be investigated in selected areas, namely Renaissance painting (especially in Venice and northern Italy) and the Early Baroque in Rome around 1600 (particular attention will be paid to Caravaggio and his circle). Thus the question will be examined in different instances of the specific art-sociological context of the (historically highly significant) emergence of new conditions pertaining to the commissioning and functions of pictures and of the aesthetic dispositifs within these pictures. A special study will be made of the new genre of collectors’ paintings, which appeared and proliferated in their own particular ways in Venice around 1500 and in Rome around 1600. The focus will be on an analysis of the dynamic interaction between religious and aesthetic experience, which in both situations set in motion a socially and artistically acutely heightened urge for distinctiveness.
In the wider context of these analyses the second direction will fundamentally review the aesthetic categories of style and form and the part they play in the generation of Evidenz in pictures. Style and form, as pre-eminent categories in the production, formation, and finish of a picture, determine its visibility and, depending on the context, shape the complex, specific interplay of its material-sensual presence and its function as a referential representation. This raises various, acute questions that have their roots in the broad historical and media-related variability of style and form: In what way, for instance, do they promote, affirm, and stabilize—or hinder, obscure, and undermine—the visibility of represented reality and, in so doing, affect the latter’s plausibility or seeming presentness? In other words: how do style and form thus semanticize evidence of reality within the picture and/or its evidence as a picture? The premise for our examination of these questions has to be that style and form are not equivalent. With its multiple historical and semantic determinations (as the style of an era or epoch, as personal or individual style, as the style of a school or workshop, of a genre, as a functional style, as rhetoricized style or a style modus, etc.) “style” is in essence a “discursive element,” anchored in form, which can have varying currency, a flexible normativity and, beyond that, considerable potential for contextual differentiation and pluralization.
This context is crucial to the question of the aesthetics of pictorial Evidenz and of the historical specifics of its capacity to render visible. Thus it may already be said of fourteenth-century Italian art that the new public pictures prove to be mediums on the interface not only with multifarious social and political contexts but also—and particularly—with richly elaborated visual discourses and with the latter’s innate mode of meaning production. To what extent are “pictorial styles” actually shaped by social and political argumentation? And, with regard to notorious stylistic oppositions, as seen in municipal picture production in Florence and in Siena, to what extent can these be interpreted (in light of collective goals of symbolization and representation) as multi-intentional “stylizations,” which produce their own, long-lasting Evidenz effects? Can these “stylizations” be reduced to the notion of social-, mentality-, or even class-specific modes of expression or presentation, as writers such as Frederick Antal, Millard Meiss, and others have attempted to do with particular reference to the trecento? Or do they reveal their true capacities less as the “expression” of existing social and political pretexts than as performative, aesthetically effective dispositifs, that productively inscribe themselves into the praxis of social and cultural imagination and, by this means, in fact shape that society’s political self-image and self-awareness?
A similarly broad range of questions arises in connection with the other historical scenarios under investigation here. For instance, with regard to the lengthy disegno-colorito discourse—with its roots in the trecento and widely debated during and after the Renaissance—to what extent may it be seen, on one hand, as a means of engaging with the artistic perception and conception of reality through the medium of its pictorial visualization, and, on the other hand, as a controversy, which—under the banner of distinct cultural paradigms and stylizations—was in fact a manifestation of the struggle between Venice and Florence for institutional, political, and economic supremacy? And what role is played by individual artists under pressure to make their own distinctive mark and to hold their own in an increasingly market-oriented cultural situation? In this connection, and with a particular focus on developments in Early Baroque art, the question is also to what degree the establishment of a singular, innovative pictorial style (which can be seen paradigmatically in the emergence of a figure such as Caravaggio) within the tougher market conditions of artistic rivalry and distinctiveness was not only tied to the individual’s need to pursue a programmatic personal copyright strategy by dint of stylization but also contained within it semanticization goals, which could promote the construction of a personality-myth of originary and fundamental social alterity by means of the productive Evidenz of a specific pictorial style. This in turn raises a wide range of questions regarding the dynamics with which any such stylizations, in a positively inflationary manner, took hold as “fashions,” and also, how self-images and public images of creative originality and their Evidenz in an artistic work mutually modified and differentiated each other, and how, at the same time, the ensuing stylization-inflation counterproductively undermined individual artists’ striving for singularity.
(c) Visibility/Invisibility: The Aesthetics of the “Optical Unconscious”
Among the historic forces for change that have decisively affected the history of human “seeing,” and hence the aesthetics of the visible, there is of course the emergence and establishment of photography and film in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In many areas the images created by these media were expected not only to represent reality but also to themselves become a physical trace of that reality. This led to entirely new means of generating Evidenz in the realms of the invisible. Although the role of the classic visual arts already incorporated the representation of non-tangible phenomena and entities (by means of symbols or allegories, for instance), photography and film introduced a fundamentally new and different way of portraying the invisible, that is to say, mechanical recording and mediation—however controversial this was from the outset. Explorative processes with different shutter speeds, slow or accelerated motion in film, or—in the realms of scientific image-making—the revelation of hitherto unseen visual worlds (by means of extreme enlargement, x-rays, and so on) gave rise to visually structured realms of knowledge that had previously eluded human perception. On one hand, besides their representational function, pictures now also acquired “revealing functions” (Kracauer 2005), that is to say, the capacity to present sights to the world that are only accessible in these same images. On the other hand, the truth content of these images was fundamentally at risk, in the sense that there were no verifiable correctives in the realm of normal sensory perception: photography and film were generating images without an apparent ante-type. This form of making-visible in a realm somewhere between visible images and their (originally invisible) sources, between facts and technical artifacts, raised the question as to what the term “seeing” could now mean: what is meant by the term “making-visible,” if this process is delegated to a technology that cannot itself “see” and merely creates chemical-physical records?
The “evidence” of the invisible generated in photography and film demands fundamentally different categories of description than those developed, for instance, in the classical tradition of art-historical descriptions of pictures, for it is founded on entirely different notions of pictorial genesis, authorship, and representation. In contrast to purely anthropological media theories, which basically regard all media technologies as expansions or extensions of human senses and/or organs, the technically produced image is intrinsically alien, contingent, and other. Although any such technical images are created by dint of calculated interventions, intentions, and manipulations, at the same time they manifest an autonomy that transcends the realms of intentionality and control and take on a certain significance specifically because of this added value. Whereas research in this area has hitherto very much concentrated on the claims to objectivity made by photographic images—which is to say, the emphasis has been more on ideologically motivated comments on images rather than on the processes of their generation or on their interpretation—it has been forgotten that any such claims are bound up in rhetorics that are constantly disclaimed by the protagonists by virtue of their practical work on the image, their interventions, and manipulations. If the “optical unconscious” (Benjamin), brought to light by film and photography, really is to be understood as a genuine product of these media, then it must also be susceptible to manipulation, interpretation, and visual forming. For the aesthetic specifics of pictorial Evidenz are not an added extra: they cannot be separated from the epistemic dimension of the generation of Evidenz in the first place. In the case of chrono-photographic studies by Muybridge, Marey, Anschütz, or Londe, for instance, the point would be to show that besides the photographer’s documentary intention to portray sequences of movement that are invisible to the naked eye, aesthetics played a part in the presentation of these images (in the arrangement of the model, in the montage of the images, and so on). Conversely, at the same time visual artists were themselves starting to deploy the latent creativity of photo-chemical and filmic materials, in order to give visual form to things that would normally ideally be eliminated from the supposedly transparent depiction of reality, things such as material traces of the object’s mediality itself (the incorporation of chance in Surrealism, the intentional neglect of technical regulations, in order to induce unforeseeable effects, and so on).
The history of this epistemic and aesthetic molding of the invisible has only partially been written. Beyond the usual realms of research into photography and film, the current relevance of an in-depth study of this area is the need to find alternatives to the almost ubiquitous, far too static opposition of visibility and invisibility in today’s scholarly discourse. Phenomenology has already introduced the notion of “adumbration” (Abschattung) to indicate that the normally visible also always contains within it a component that is “unseeable,” for every act of optical perception means that other elements are not being perceived, although they are “co-intended” and alluded to in symbols (Husserl 1973). In the same way that the supposedly “visible” is riddled with “unseeable” yet powerful impressions, the “invisible” is not for its part a black box, but is already pre-structured (before being made visible in photography or films) by flights of imagination, intuitions, expectations, and so on. Therefore the dichotomous, purely perception-based notion of visibility and non-visibility that prevails in research today is not fit for purpose. Besides taking into account purely physiological seeing, attention must also be paid to the constitutive function of the imagination. Not least for this reason, it is our intention to extend the notion of the “image” in our work to include non-optical images, such as the “word pictures” and imagery encountered in literature.
2.2 Picture, Evidenz, Imagination
The matter of pictorial “evidence” cannot be separated from the matter of the imaginary and the fundamental part it plays when people are producing pictures. Accordingly, the first things to be considered are the products of the individual and the collective imagination in general, with its myriad historical and anthropological, social and psychological aspects. The spectrum of its manifestations, which is so wide as to effectively resist any stringent systematization, ranges from memories and recollection to dreams, visions, and phantasms, through social utopias, mythical notions, and religiously founded belief-expectations to subjectively determined longings, desires, and projections. The common structural factor connecting all these products of the imagination is that they constitute and determine themselves through their relationship to reality, or rather, to what is regarded as “real” in any given situation, be this through conscious or unconscious alignment, replication, or participation, or be it through categorical opposition and alterity: the imaginary as the not-real.
The particular line of enquiry of our research project has emerged against this backdrop. For, regardless of the variously differentiated uses of the relevant terms over the course of history (phantasia, imaginatio, flights of fancy (Einbildungskraft), powers of imagination, and so on) our interest here is always in the structure and operation of those form-giving visualization with which one’s powers of imagination is concretized in images—how the imaginatio leads to imagines—and acquires a visible, definitive form. The history of the discussion concerning the nature or the “mode of being” of these images (and the relationship that emerges here between mental representation on one hand and sensory-material pictures on the other) is as long as it is rich in diverse positions. One thing is clear, namely that among all the various products of the imagination, examples of the visual arts are generally accorded a special status, not least because, as creatively formed materializations of the imaginary, they immediately enter into a complex relationship (involving acceptance and exchange, processing and transformation) with other products of the vis imaginativa and, hence, with a nod to Wilhelm Dilthey, may lay claim to their own, originary powers of interpretation, or to put it more precisely, their own reflexive standing. Therefore, if we view de facto pictures, in the sense of a “formative medium” or a media-made construct, as a reified substantiation of the imaginary, then it becomes clear that the liberation of the latter also, and particularly, has to be seen in terms of the aesthetic conditions of the medium.
This context has shaped the aims of our investigations, which are concerned both with the special role played by the imagination in the pictorial generation of Evidenz and the crucial part the imagination plays in the aesthetic formation of this Evidenz. What is the nature of that Evidenz in pictures if we recognize them as mediums that occupy a realm somewhere between sensory experience and mental imagery? And what aesthetic strategies do they deploy in order to give visual form to the divergence of reality and fantasy, in other words, the interaction of reality (regarded as a given) and transmaterial imaginative notions that arise in dreams and memories, visions and poetic fictions? Within their own contextual and historical confines, these questions always also imply a degree of systematic reflection on the extent to which pictures, as a coming together of materiality and illusion, of presence and representation, mark an interface or a fault line in the relationship of imagination and reality.
(a) Religious Imagination and Pictorial Evidenz in the Late Middle Ages
The question of the connection between imagination and the evidential nature of a picture was already widely disputed in the Middle Ages. In the wake of a tradition extending from Aristotle to Augustine and far beyond, the imagination was repeatedly exposed to epistemological skepticism and theological or moral reservations. Despite this, within the hierarchy of human cognitive functions it was increasingly privileged as a productive, generative, and creative capacity, which acquired a greater degree of significance due to its role as a mediator between intellectus and sensus, between the human capacity for reason and our constitution as sensory beings. What ensues from this is the alterity of a form of pictorial Evidenz that exceeds the normal framework of strictly epistemological premises. Accordingly, as early as the twelfth century theoreticians such as those from the School of Chartres (harking back to classical models and applying the concept of the imagination they had inherited from Patristic literature) were deliberating as to whether mental images (imagines and picturae), as sensory crystallizations of the imaginatio, can provide access to ideas and feelings that otherwise elude rational, analytical investigation by the intellect. Subsequently these deliberations, which led to the conclusion that the imagination is ultimately a metaphorical way of experiencing reality and of interpreting the world, had a lasting effect on the concept of poetry in the Middle Ages and, as such, played no small part in enduringly legitimizing the “discovery of fictionality” (Haug 1985) as a component in the act of poetic creation. It is clear that Evidenz generated by the powers of imagination was already being seen as a cognitive achievement and experiential opportunity, whose genuine potential is first and foremost grounded in aesthetics.
A similarly effective ferment for the aesthetic shaping of the imagination is seen in the realms of Late Medieval devotional images or image-based mysticism. The particular role played by the painted image as a “materialization of the imaginary” is anchored in the core theological basis of all theories on the mystical perception of grace through imagery, namely that the visible, material picture serves in an anagogic sense as a mode of transmission for a higher form of contemplation (through and beyond the picture) of that which cannot be contained in any picture, as an instrument that guides the viewer from the visible to the invisible, “per visibilia ad invisibilia.” Against this backdrop our project will explore the conditions and developments that saw an extraordinary increase both in the proliferation and aesthetic differentiation of these kinds of images. Our initial premise is that this process directly connects with the rise of new religious orders and their increased influence in cities, in civic communities and the Signoria. This—we assume—reflects a remarkable complementarity to the eminent role that pictures play in the same historical and social framework with regard to the need for something that can be seen and experienced, that is to say, the concretization of the invisible and not institutionally formulated concept of an ordered social body, which is itself fundamental to the forming of a community within a political framework. The focus of our project in this area will be on the new significance of media-specific languages and visualization strategies and the accelerated evidence of their aesthetic dignity.
In the Late Middle Ages the intensification of image-based worship to the point of a mystical experience and to systematically organized ecstasy, the growing importance of its substantive role as a form of mediation, and not least its subjectivizing, dogma-transcending appropriation of truths from the doctrine of Redemption marked some of the main advances in the religious use of images. Our intention is to discover the extent to which the added value the picture thus acquires as an instrument for the faithful to contemplate a world beyond our own arises less from its material nature than from its status as a fiction. To what extent does the experience of the picture’s presence register in the viewer as the productivity of his or her imagination, which is liberated by the picture and its constitutive fine balance between similarity and difference? In other words: at the heart of our investigation into pictorial practices in the Late Middle Ages is the question as to whether the potential of pictorial contemplation leads either to the viewer settling for the status quo of the representational composition and thus finding the room for maneuver of his or her imagination reduced due to the impression of a coherent, self-contained illusion, or if, on the contrary, it encourages the activation and liberation of the viewer’s imagination and, as such, paves the way for the viewer to produce his or her own mental images. However, beyond that there is the far-reaching, complex question as to the de facto social and religious relationship of authority and emancipation, and not least as to the criteria, the exegetic authority, and normative power of pictorially generated Evidenz.
(b) Evidenz and Pictorial Invention in the Renaissance
Since the Early Modern Era it has been precisely in this respect that the theoretical modeling of the imagination has made progress, has been refined, and variously differentiated. However, this raises the increasingly crucial question concerning the extent to which, as a creative capacity, it really is able to produce something formatively new that transcends every relation to reality, in the sense that it, for its part, represents a “reality” in its own right with its own aesthetic logic. It is clear that precisely the products of visual art pre-eminently participate in the various conceptualizations of notions of the imagination which, since the Renaissance, have oscillated between the creative exegesis of the world and the, as it were, divine creation of a world. We will investigate this context, on the basis of the following premise: With the artistically created picture increasingly being recognized as a form of knowledge and as a mode of comprehension, with the experience of the picture in effect becoming an experience of pictorial signification per se and of the system of representation, it increasingly acquires the status of an epistemological project and, as such, may competitively invite comparison with the philosophical and natural sciences and with the way that they generate Evidenz.
In this light the question as to the aesthetic formulation of imaginatively generated Evidenz once again holds out the promise of being particularly fruitful. It is our contention that the increasing fictionality of the religious image in the Late Middle Ages is registered by the viewer as a new level of productivity in his or her own seeing and as a subjective construct. This liberation through the imaginary subsequently becomes the hallmark of a particular way of reading artistic images whose historic rise played a significant part in the progressive socio-cultural emancipation of the individual in the Early Modern Era and in his or her hopes of being set free from collective norms and constraints. A central, recurrent thought is that the painted picture is constituted as an indivisible conjunction of existence and semblance, of illusory depth and planes, of transparence and opacity, and that consequently the formal nature of the representation always also contains a motivic reflection of its subject and reveals the latter in its aesthetics. This will be investigated in part in connection with the long history of the disegno-colorito debate. Specifically, the question will be to what extent there was from the outset a specific awareness of the inherent contradiction of likeness and plane in painting, and at the same time a wide range of aesthetic options that arise from this same contradiction. Leonardo da Vinci’s concept of sfumato contributed just as crucially to the debate as did Giorgione’s development of a type of painting that, in both its form and contents, tended towards an open, genre-unraveling compositional structure. Take Leonardo’s “cose . . . molto fumeggiate e cacciate,” that is to say, his notion of systematically implemented uncertainties in the delineation of objects: to what extent do these attest to a new aesthetics of the imagination and how do they inscribe the procedural method and the formal and intellectual production of the work—and hence ultimately the imagination-led mediation between ratio and sensus—into the visible form of the picture? Do they reflect not only the category of openness and uncertainty (obscuritas) concerning the subject matter but also the productive aspect of the recipient’s conscious response to the formed reality of the work and anchor it aesthetically in this? The tension between existence and appearance, between reality and visibility that is engendered by means of the painterly technique of sfumato—we would suggest—leads, in a fundamental sense, to the thought that in Leonardo’s case the structures of the artistic rendering of nature are rooted not only in an epistemological striving for cognition but also—inextricably intertwined with the latter—in an effect-aesthetic logic of representation, whose meaning only emerges in the active, participating imagination of the viewer. In short: the imagination has a picture-producing role, in so far as it comes into its own through the medium of the painted picture, and at the same time performs the task of realizing the picture’s meaning and generating pictorial Evidenz.
It is precisely by this means that during the Renaissance the art of painting, in this sense, comes to be recognized as a form of knowledge and as a mode of comprehension; moreover, in the most fundamental sense the viewer’s experience of painting becomes an experience of pictorial meaning itself and of the system of representation, for it increasingly acquires the status of an epistemological project and, as such, invites comparison with and starts to rival philosophical and natural scientiae. However, the specific alterity that pertains to its genuine, that is to say, aesthetic cognitive role compared to those scientiae is rooted in the dual meaning that the painted image has as likeness and plane, as existence and semblance, as product and visible trace of the imagination but also as the cause and ferment of the latter. In light of the spectrum that is seen in the works of artists such as Leonardo and Giorgione, but also Andrea Mantegna and Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Gerolamo Savoldo, and numerous others, it is our intention to pursue the question as to whether, and to what extent, painting in Italy in the Early Modern Era, which is engaged in the development of a new, mimetic capacity, at the same time and in addition also develops the aesthetic option of recognizing the picture in its own materiality and hence in its own reality as a medium.
Against this backdrop it is possible to identify the fundamental importance of the aesthetics of pictorial Evidenz during the Early Modern Era as a way of making the world “legible” and of imbuing it with ideological values. This is a central issue in our research. We take it as read that there was, at the time, a specific, seemingly contradictory configuration of factors in play. In short, although the epistemological situation of the Early Modern Era was shaped by a fundamental skepticism with regard to the “visible,” there was also a pronounced desire for “sensory evidence.” Witness the “index fossils” (Blumenberg) of the telescope or the microscope; witness the proliferation of the rhetorical dialectics of inganno and disinganno. It is our intention to discover the extent to which this constellation led to differentiated processes in the reflexive potentiation of visual media, and the extent to which these media served to lend plausibility to the religious visualization of transcendence but also to identify or to control the “delusive gaze,” “semblance,” “false images,” and so on. A core thesis in our approach, which will itself be explored in depth, is the notion that, for one thing, in the Early Modern Era there was an ongoing process of “desubstantialization” of the invisible, that is to say, of growing insight into its categorical dependence on the aesthetics of its Evidenz, and for another thing, that during this process pictures and their history acquired a decisive, enduring importance. Finally, there is also the question as to how far the happiness associated with the aesthetic gaze, which, since the Early Modern Era, seems to have found fulfillment in what is known as “auratic” art, may be seen as a “postfiguration of the traditional eschatological promise of happiness” (Rentsch 1998) and as such, as a legacy of religion.
(c) Historical Powers of Imagination: Re/Production, Documentation, Fiction
The relationship of imagination and reality will also be investigated in the important field of the visual reconstruction of history, paying particular attention to the specific conditions and challenges of a past reality. The term “visual reconstruction” refers to those procedures whereby society connects with its own past—be it in the interpretation and processing of visible traces and remains, be it in the retrospective construction of images intended to make the past imaginable through artifacts, visualizations, and imagination. Human powers of imagination, in the sense of the “capacity to create a mental image of an object when it is not present” (Mattenklott 2006), are of central importance here. There are numerous instances of this form of visual mediation between the present and the past: historically-oriented disciplines (art history, history, archaeology, and so on) whose research objects feature visible remainders and fragments that are by definition in need of material or conceptual reconstitution; the visual arts with their many reflexive references to the past (history painting, re-enactments in contemporary photography and video art); diverse types of film (period feature films, compilations, docu-dramas); art-historical institutions (museums, historic monument conservation, restoration); and lastly, places of remembrance (monuments, memorials, the sites of historic events, and so on). All these places and instances of visual reconstruction engage with complex combinations of visibility and imagination, presentness and detachedness, seeing and knowing. The concomitant far-reaching expectations of the aesthetic, artistic, and epistemic function of the picture will be subjected to historic, systematic examination. In individual case studies in these various areas the following questions will provide an initial guideline: What is the specific importance of visibility, appearance, and Evidenz in our understanding of the past? How do seeing and knowing relate to each other? How do visual reconstruction and fiction, facticity and illusion interconnect? In the various scientific and artistic processes involved in the generation of the pictorial Evidenz of the past how do people deal with not-knowing, with traces of the past that are incomplete and fragmented?
In this connection we are faced with the extremely inviting task of critically redefining of the concept of illusion (Koch 2006). “Illusion”—like the notions of “imagination” or “fiction”—is often used in a derogatory sense. “Illusion” in this sense only ever implied a deficient understanding of reality that fails to demonstrate a true and correct grasp of the world. Regardless of the fact that such a simple opposition of semblance and factual reality is already intrinsically questionable, it loses all its credibility as soon as it is applied to the visualization of past and invisible entities or circumstances: In these cases there is no optically graspable, given reality (at best it may only be partially present) that could simply be “pictured.” On the contrary, visualizations and imagination are an initial means to give this reality a genuinely pictorial quality. These forms of aesthetic illusion are thus to be distinguished from the processes of purely optical illusion-creation, as described by Gombrich. Having rightly decided to address the “eternal problem” of illusionistic picture, Gombrich ultimately comes to a halt at a deficient understanding of the phenomenon: something that is not in fact the case is made to appear credible, by artistic means, as a “suggestion” or “optical deception.” Once the viewer has seen through the illusion, the visual effect of the picture ceases to function. However, aesthetic illusion (as we understand it in the context of our research project), like imagination and fiction, implies a productive and necessary capacity for coming to terms with the world. It is therefore our aim to identify criteria for a true theory of visual reconstruction that also includes the formal and specifically aesthetic qualities of pictorial composition (forms of narration, colors/black-and-white, sharp focus/blurred images, signs of age, and so on), instead of viewing pictures and visualizations—like the medium of writing—merely as “historical sources” or “documents” and solely enquiring into their “informativity” (who? what? when? where?). The challenge in these areas of research will be to establish a history and theory of the power of imagination, which will specifically focus on the productive potential and unavoidability of fiction, illusion, and the power of imagination, instead of continuing to ignore these forms of representation as deficient, deceptive, and evocative or as a threat to a supposedly unmediated form of reconstruction.
2.3 The Aesthetics of Pictorial Expression: Expressivity and Evidenz
Pictorial Evidenz can never be separated from the expression and expressivity of the picture. Initially any enquiries into pictorial Evidenz concern the status, function, and significance of representations of affect; following that they concern the specifics of their construction in terms of the medium used and the discourse deployed. Whereas recently the question of the representation of affect and artistically formed configurations of expression has predominantly been systematically explored in literary disciplines and with respect to their complex constitutional conditions founded not only in textual processes and linguistic structures but also in discourses of the imagination, any such endeavor has not yet been attempted by art historians. Yet the question of the media-related and discursive construction of affects and feelings in the non-verbal form of expression of a picture seems to have a certain urgency not only from the point of view of our discipline, but also in view of the fact that it turns the spotlight on the configuration of two mutually intertwined paradigms, which always come into play in the conceptualization of “emotional expression” and “emotional experience”: on one hand there is the “dominance of the language paradigm in the discourse of and on the subject of feelings” (Weigel 2004), which has recently been addressed again by scholars in the field; on the other hand there is the emphatic presumption that feelings are “independent of language,” as was seen in the aesthetics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and its determination of an articulation of affect directly connected to feelings, and also in the neurosciences, for instance, and efforts to gain insight into a pre-verbal or non-verbal, direct connection between organism and emotion. It is our intention to explore the validity of this paradigm and the question as to the situating of feelings and the configuration of their expression in the force-field of bodily circumstances, verbal inroads, and cultural semanticizations with the aim of conducting a critical examination (firstly) in the spirit of a historicization of the actual material and (secondly) in the spirit of a systematic differentiation with regard to the medium-related specifics of this material and the latter’s cultural and symbolic codings.
Art-historical and image research, relying on historic art theory that was shaped by the moralistic discussion of affect (Alberti, Leonardo, Lomazzo, Le Brun, and so on), has hitherto generally concentrated on the analysis of a language of expression in the visual arts, a language whose main parameters reside in its legibility and semantic clarity, in other words, in the rhetorically codified category of the perspicuitas (transparence) of the picture and its expressive figuration and in the feelings or substratum of passion “behind” that figuration; a language that sets the rhetorical expression of passions as the expression of the picture. The point of departure for our research is initially the widespread notion (dating back to classical doctrines of the soul and rhetoric, and still prevalent in the Early Modern Era) that in the medium of the painted picture affect is largely portrayed by means of its embodiment in poses, gestures, and facial expression, and that in these embodied forms of expression the multi-dimensionality of “inner” feelings and emotions is “externalized,” that is to say, “invisible” psychic forces become “visible” bodily gestures and facial expressions and thereby become visually graspable. Accordingly the body is credited with being a medium of expression for the psyche (in the sense of “expression of emotion”) and, by the same token, the picture acquires the status of a form of introspective representation or contemplation (in the sense of “representation of emotion”).
However, in many ways this notion of pictorially visible expression is caught up in considerable complexities, even problems. In the first place these concern the model of bodily expression (“expression of emotion”), that is to say, the relationship between an “inner” state of mind and “external” expression, in so far as this multiply coded and institutionalized relationship (in terms of religion, politics, and society) masks a discursively entrenched or, possibly, destabilized polarity of “body” and “soul,” of “mind” and “physical form.” Pictures of the human body and its expressions are thus also simultaneously pictorial dispositifs of particular identity constructs and their various codings (be these individual or collective, cultural or gender-related, religious or social in origin). These pictures, on the basis of this taxonomy, are first and foremost “representations of expressions,” representations of codings, such that the intended “emotions” in or behind them can above all be seen as mental phenomena or as social or cultural constructs. Therefore any talk of the “expression of pictures” also contains within it the question of collectively determined “roles and attitudes”; it also raises the question of the principles of affect rhetorics, which aim to involve the viewer’s emotions and communicate the affect to him or her, and the question of an anthropology of the religious “nature” of human beings, and so on. The question of affectivity in a picture takes on an additional explosive force in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when photograph and film introduce new processes of making-visible, and also with the advent of the targeted generation of affect (as in the photographic iconography of a “physiognomie mécanique” presented by the neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne, in the “iconographie de la Salpetrière,” or the aesthetic and social construct of “being photogenic” in professional studio photography). In these circumstances facial expression completely loses its “natural” status, in the sense that it has become a complex synthesis of subjective emotion, social convention, and the constraints imposed by the medium used to capture it.
In the second place, the complexity and problematics of the notion of a “pictorially visible expression” also brings into play the theoretically grounded model of a concept of mimetic representation striving to portray reality in as optimal a manner as possible. At the root of this concept of representation is the thought of imitatio naturae, that is to say, the representation of a human being, or the human body, in its “natural” state; this in itself was an important premise for the notion of a pictorial “naturalization” of affect. Nevertheless, the “expression” of the figures portrayed in a picture is constituted not only by means of the iconography and representational motifs in the picture, but also—and crucially—by means of its formal structure and aesthetic morphology. Accordingly the expression conveyed by a picture originates not only in its transparence, but also, and just as much, in its opacity.
What now comes to light, in the third place, is an issue that has not yet fully been explored, namely the importance of the question of the pictorial representation of affect that arises from the interplay of the represented “body” (in its complex polarity between inner emotion and external motion) and the medium-related reality of the representation itself, in short, between the pictured body and the body of the picture.
(a) Evocative Pictorial Evidenz: The Aesthetics of Painted Music
Our enquiry into the expression conveyed by a picture in the field of Renaissance painting will take as its example Venetian representations of music. The focus will thus be on an “intermedia” constellation, which promises to serve well as an example and to be productive for our project, on one hand because it provides an opportunity to analyze and compare two decidedly non-verbal media (pictures and painting / sound and music) with regard to their medium-specific expressions of affect and the ensuing Evidenz effect, and on the other hand because it is possible to portray and to illuminate the contemporary discourse on this medium-related difference with particular clarity and also in terms of its art-theoretical premises and genre-poetological consequences (for instance in the context of the Paragone dispute). Our enquiry will also focus, among other things, on how painting, faced with the very different medium of the musical expression of affect (that is to say, its invisibility, immateriality, temporal transience, and so on), develops strategies of actual incorporation and, in compensation, provides music with a “body” (of a composer, a musician, an instrument, musical notation, and so on). The main point of departure for this investigation is the notion that painting mainly uses figurative embodiment to convey the Evidenz of musical-audible affect, but that at the same time it generates its own pictorial-visual affect less and less by means of figuratively represented bodily expression and its rhetorical coding (facial expression, gesture, poses, and so on), but rather—seeking to outdo music by the opposite means—by dint of a heightened performance of its own medium-specific morphologies and phenomenological values (color, painted finish, composition, sharp or blurred lines, and so on). It is our contention that the depiction of the musical expression of affect in “musical bodies” is countered by the liberation of the pictorial expression of affect in painting’s own “pictorial body.” Against this backdrop the wider reaching question arises as to the extent to which there is, inscribed into the reality of the pictorial representation of affect and the process of its increasing differentiation in the Early Modern Era, both a multi-sensual charge (sound and sight, seeing and hearing, music and painting) and a monomedial self-privilege (with painting taking precedence over music). And to what extent does it turn out that the semiotic shift from representation to presence, from pictured body to the body of the picture (both of which positively affect the reception of the work), prove to be a meaningful signum of this process of inscription, a shift that sees the medium-induced effects of presence become a genuine form of manifestation of the pictorial expression of affect?
(b) The Erosion of the Rhetoric of Pictorial Affect in the Early Modern Era
The investigation into depictions of music in the Renaissance and specifically into painting as a dual dispositif of the aesthetic embodiment of affect (representation as opposed to presence) will also be pursued from a second point of view, focusing broadly on the rhetoric of pictorial effect in the work of Caravaggio and his followers and more particularly on the concomitant erosion and inversion of traditional, humanist-Renaissance pictorial rhetorics. The intention is to discover how Caravaggio’s determinedly naturalizing, emphatically corporeal pictorial language connects with a strategy of positively and pointedly drawing attention to facial expression, gesture, and bodily poses. To what extent do the inherent paradox and contradiction of Caravaggio’s pictorial rhetorics engender a non-negotiable tension that destroys the ostensibly organically-conceived notion of a naturalization of the pictorial world, systematically undermining it, and to what extent does this tension strike the viewer as a categorical break between the physicality of the body and the non-physicality of its affects? To the extent that affects appear here very much as medium-dependent compounds, whose meaning is only seen in the picture and in relation to the latter’s aesthetically coded reality. Due to the fact that the reality of affects is so clearly connected to the conditions of their appearance and of their visibility in the picture, painting (as we will suggest in our project), in its own non-verbal medium, is engaged in a meta-reflection on bodily expression as a complex translation of psycho-physical processes into a culturally coded and medium-constructed pictorial language of feelings. This in turn gives rise to another wider-ranging question in terms of the history of images, namely, the extent to which Caravaggio, in the development of his processes, drew on motifs from the imagery associated with the “five senses” and on the theatrical subject matter of sixteenth-century “pitture ridicule,” which present affect-related themes in affect-related compositions and which he, as it seems, inverted or deconstructed in their affect-rhetorical nature.
(c) Pictorial Evidenz and Pathos Formulas
Against the backdrop of these areas of investigation another line of critical enquiry will concern the “pathos formula” and its methodological validity as an art-historical and affect-theoretical concept. Aby Warburg’s concept of a pathos formula has its roots in a psycho-historically anchored notion of the function and meaning of energetic engrams, into which collective experiences and passions are inscribed and sedimented, thus enabling them to live on as the inheritance of a socially, politically, and culturally highly diverse pictorial memory. The point of departure of our enquiry is, however, the suggestion that in its use as a means of analyzing an actual picture, the “pathos formula” tends to broadly reduce the many different strata of the medium of the picture (hence, also the specific complexity of its formation of visual expression and articulation of affect) to the main aspects of figuration and of motif-formation and to methodically underprivilege, marginalize, or even cut out of the process of analysis other ways of intensifying pictorial affect, such as those that rely on the finish or the material specifics of the medium of representation and the ensuing semantics. It is not by chance that Caravaggio’s paintings and Venetian color painting, which achieved the furthest-reaching differentiation of the subject of representations of music, are blind spots in Warburg’s pictorial cosmos. By focusing on these realms not touched on by Warburg, members of our research group will endeavor to clarify this methodological deficiency, which arises from the fact that in Warburg’s thinking affective emotion and living pathos can only, and specifically, be presented as a “formula” by being inverted and reduced; and it is only then that they can be articulated as a theoretical concept. Our research will therefore enquire into the methodological limitations that are intrinsic to the concept of the “pathos formula” (in so far as it is a product of language and its discursivity) and will endeavor to re-evaluate it with regard to other concept-theory options, such as the palimpsest, for instance, specifically in light of the “affect economy” of the picture.
(d) Images and Violence: Revealing and Concealing
Questions concerning the impact and expressivity of pictures are particularly prevalent today in connection with images of violence that circulate in print and electronic media. At issue here are both the affects depicted in the image and the affects that are triggered in viewers as they contemplate the image. Depictions of violence imprint themselves in the viewer’s consciousness enduringly and with great intensity; the publication of images of this kind has thus engendered an ongoing debate regarding the benefit or disadvantages of showing or not showing them. What is acceptable and what is not acceptable? Where should any such images be shown, to whom, and for how long? There are no universal guidelines for journalists in this respect; nor are their any binding ethical standards for what is appropriate or any precise legal regulations. And even in the realms of the academic discourse the confrontation with affect-laden images seems to put an impossible strain on established descriptive categories. This uncertainty in how to respond to images of violence attests to their precarious status and the urgent need to scrutinize them. What are the properties and effects of these pictures that make their analysis so difficult? Which latent presumption of reference, worldliness, and representational presence forms the basis of the reception of these pictures—despite any justified insight into their cultural constructedness?
As a rule sociological, psychological, and neuro-scientific investigations of any such images concentrate on subjectively perceived effects or attempt to discern their function by means of purely empirical or statistical analyses. In these investigations, which concentrate solely on matters of reception, the constitutive and image-specific dimensions of the phenomenon do not come under scrutiny. From the perspective of our own research project, it seems inadvisable to seek to use empirical methods to measure effects that only arise within the dynamics and interplay of a picture and its reception, of visual Evidenz and experience. In historical and art-historical research images of violence have above all been examined in light of their political iconography and in terms of an ideology-critical and discourse-analytical approach. In these circumstances pictorial composition is seen above all as a power strategy and as an expression of changing political interests and intentions. Our research group will take account of earlier research; at the same time, however, it will also seek to devise a wider-reaching concept of images of violence, which recognizes their impact not only as a consequence of deliberate machinations, instrumentalization, and steering, but also specifically in their affective dimension, which reflects the uncontrollable and often unforeseen effects of certain pictures. What forms of visual Evidenz manifest themselves specifically in the desire not to show certain images, for political, religious, or ethical reasons? What fundamental significance pertains to empathy as a form of pictorial reception that is particularly hard to discuss? These questions open up the possibility of completely rethinking the old problem of banned images, in light of the way that images currently circulate in the print and electronic media. For these images are also subject to the same dialectics that were rightly deployed with regard to classic forms of image-prohibition: any resolve not to show certain images, to hide them, or not to look at them is, indirectly, an admission of their power. Currently the matter of image-prohibition has become unexpectedly explosive: How is it that in an age when the majority of people have an understanding of the constructedness, artificiality, and (digital) editing of images used in the media and when any claims a picture may make to reality and presentness are supposedly no longer valid, nevertheless certain images or groups of images (videos of executions, shots of warfare, depictions of extreme emotions) are not supposed to circulate in the media, since it has been decided that they make unacceptable viewing? What are the mechanisms that ensure that ultimately most of these images can nevertheless be seen somewhere (for instance online)? Our enquiry will thus be into new and specific manifestations of a visibility that is not merely about the simple alternatives of showing or not showing, but now also includes hybrid forms of simultaneous showing and hiding, making visible and withdrawing (by various means, such as the partial cropping of images, the reduction of film sequences to stills, not playing the soundtrack, or providing detailed verbal descriptions and hence evoking mental images of pictures, which are themselves not shown). Whereas historic forms of image-prohibition and iconoclasm have been well researched, with more recent research also taking account of the prohibition of representational images in Islam, as yet there have been very few publications on the current volatility of these issues.
In this connection it is also time to revisit and to rethink the discussion regarding the impossibility of portraying the Shoah. One aspect of this discussion that is as yet entirely unclear is whether the decree of non-representability is rooted in the notion that certain events per se elude representation (the categorical impossibility of representation) or in the notion that while any such representation is in principle possible—like any other representation—it would, on ethical or moral grounds, be reprehensible (the unacceptability of representation). Both positions arise from entirely unclear premises with regard to the aesthetics both of the picture and of its reception; it is our intention to explore this with reference to specific cases (such as photographs from concentration camps) and by critically re-reading the leading theoretical positions (Adorno, Lanzmann, Didi-Huberman). In the case of depictions of violence there is also a particular need to discuss the aesthetic nature of these images. For although photographs and moving images of extreme violence are necessarily beholden to a particular set of aesthetics, at the same time the visual impact of their contents is so dominant, that a purely formal and aesthetic or iconographic approach could well fail to do justice to the visual Evidenz and presence of what is represented in them. Where is the boundary line between the “aesthetics” and the “aestheticization” of violence? In this context special relevance still attaches to a question originally posed by Barthes, namely, to what extent the compositional (over-) coding and semanticization of “shock images” may in fact domesticate their affective potential? A very promising line of enquiry in this connection could, for instance, take the form of a systematic analysis of the honors and distinctions for photo reportage that have been awarded for decades now (“World Press Award,” and others), with images from current theaters of war being declared “best photograph of the year” for their compositional qualities. But what makes a photograph of warfare “good”? What other descriptive categories might be used? The art-historical tradition of comparing images (“comparative seeing”) also finds itself challenged by images of extreme violence. For, although, there are clearly formal and motivic analogies between images of the victims of war and aspects of Christian iconography, there is still the fundamental question as to how far pictorial hermeneutics derived from European painting are not, by definition, incapable of assessing the visual Evidenz of photographs and film footage of violence.
2.4 Aesthetic Reflexivity: The Knowledge and Evidenz of Images
The fact that pictures, by virtue of what is represented in them, refer (in whatever way) to an external reality means that they are intrinsically different from this reality. References to reality and differences to reality are two sides of a relationship that is variously seen in the actual aesthetic appearance of pictures as a dynamic oscillation of opposition and conjunction. This already points to what the concept of reflexivity implies when it is applied to pictures. For, while in one sense “reflection” means “contemplating” or “thinking about something,” in another sense it can also be understood as “re-flection,” where allusions refer back to the item in question. This dual aspect of reflexivity, whereby a picture, which has the purpose of representing something also necessarily represents itself, has aptly been described by Marin as a combination of other-referential transparence and self-referential opacity.
The fact that pictures have their own theory-content and, in this sense, embody a reflexivity of their own, is crucial to the question as to how they generate Evidenz from their condition as vehicles for mediating reality. Our research group will systematically explore this topic in its historical and aesthetic circumstances. The aim will be, not least, to counter a widespread narrative, according to which pictorial reflexivity owes its existence to a development that first emerged in the Modern Era with the supposed liberation of art from its external religious and political functions and with the establishment of its own norms and rules. However, bearing in mind that pictorial reflexivity is already categorically anchored in the Medieval theory of the theology of pictures and its multi-faceted conceptualization of the conditions of pictorial presence and absence, which is particularly prominent, for instance, in debates concerning the images of Christ, it soon becomes clear that the history of pictorial reflexivity should be viewed differently and with an eye to a much greater degree of complexity.
(a) Aesthetic Reflexivity and Mimetic Representation in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era
Our investigation takes these factors as its point of departure. One focus will therefore be on the question as to whether and, if so, to what extent the doubling of the pictorial dispositif (with its history reaching far back into the Byzantine age and the Middle Ages and beyond) was only subjected to a categorically distinguishable and enduringly influential process of change in its aesthetic premises in the Late Middle Ages. It is our contention that this process had its roots partly in the fact that social, religious, cultural, and political expectations of pictures were now very different to what they had been before and partly in the new mimetic requirements in images which had spread during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and were to have such long-lasting consequences. It is our intention to explore the shifts in form and semantics that ensued with regard to both representation and presence, when the image markedly increased its “mimetic transparence” (Marin) even as it started to lose its marking as a medium of presentation. The more the image became an imitation of seen reality, a “window” on the objectively visible world as described by Alberti, the less it opened up a direct prospect of a meta-pictorial reality, be this religious or judicial, ethical or political in nature. To what extent did the tension arising from two different expectations of the picture necessitate solutions within the bounds of an aesthetic praxis that elevated the problematization of representation and of the intended status of the picture itself to a productive aspect of representation? And what were the consequences for this process when, as the Renaissance progressed with its highly charged discourse on the imitation of nature and its acutely heightened expectations of pictorial mimesis, the notion of a two-fold mediality of the picture became a productive central category of an increasingly self-reflexive genre poetics of painting? To what extent did painting, under these conditions, become a form of knowledge and an aesthetics-based matrix of the human understanding and interpretation of reality, particularly in view of the growing scientific (perspective, anatomy, and so on) and ethical authority (doctrine of affect) of images? And to what extent did this mean that painting was, at the same time, relieved of expectations that representation would be anchored in an objective, already established “reality,” thus enabling it, in its genuine reflexivity, to establish the alterity of an other, aesthetic Evidenz of “reality”?
(b) Epistemic and Aesthetic Dimensions of Evidenz: What does the image “know”?
Images represent specific forms of knowledge. However, knowledge is not “contained” within them as discrete information or retrievable text, for it is inextricably entwined in the particular forms of a picture’s visual representation and in processes of visualization and reception that change with the passage of time. Despite the rightly repeated exhortation not to approach images as no more than a replication and “illustration” of already extant knowledge, research into the specific knowledge-potential of images is still in its infancy. The connection between pictorial aesthetics and knowledge presents particular challenges to researchers in this area. For it raises the fundamental question of how to describe, appropriately, the epistemic dimension of the pictorial in its genuine, non-verbal structure. The knowledge contained in images is primarily conveyed in pictorial terms and therefore cannot be read and analyzed in the same way as a written text. Who or what conveys or mediates pictorial knowledge? How is any such knowledge articulated in images and where is it located in a picture? Recent research has in part sought to answer these questions by imputing images with autonomous features and quasi-intellectual faculties. According to this approach, images “think,” they communicate with each other and have an intelligibility that is seemingly independent of both viewers and makers; they may even attain the status of autonomous subjects. Although this approach rightly recognizes that pictorial Evidenz is a law unto itself, it does not seek to explain this by means of genuinely picture-related, descriptive categories, but rather by anthropologizing images and treating them as quasi-human agents, and hence failing to take account of the particular effect and function of the image. Similarly, any attempts to make a categorical distinction between artistic and scientific images, by separating “strong,” “equivocal” works of art from “weak,” allegedly “unequivocal” scientific images, cannot do justice to the complex interconnections of pictorial aesthetics and knowledge. Problems also arise in connection with attempts to describe scientific images (double helix, “apple man,” and so on) in terms of beauty, symmetry, and harmony, since this attributes a purely compensatory role to these pictures: what they supposedly do not achieve in the generation of knowledge, they compensate for as aesthetic entities with a beautiful appearance. “Pictorial knowledge” cannot be reduced to the seemingly uncontested “legibility” of these pictures (M. Kemp). By contrast, in the realms of experimental science visualizations often display their epistemic potential precisely in the high level of illegibility and need for commentary that they manifest. Instead of “illustrating” familiar knowledge in these cases visualizations in fact pave the way for new knowledge.
Accordingly, with respect to the epistemic status of pictures there is again an unproductive polarization in research efforts in this field: whereas some play down knowledge in images, underestimating it as an illustrative replication of long-familiar facts or shelving it as a purely aesthetic extra, others disproportionately elevate it to an autonomous entity, independent of human input. However, aesthetically configured knowledge in images is neither “created” by external description or merely attributed to them by dint of social acts, nor is it already contained within them as a quality or item of content that is independent of the viewer. Here, too, the challenge facing our team is to sidestep existing purely constructivist or ontological approaches and to present the potential for knowledge in images precisely in its dynamic and historically mutating mediation between concrete pictorial forms and their reception.
One of the basic premises of our approach—that knowledge in pictures is itself presented in pictorial terms—necessitates a thorough re-definition of picture-specific visual phenomena and their perception. These include, for instance, the central category of color. Is there a specific coloration pertaining to visual Evidenz? It is not by chance that the question of photographic images and film footage as witnesses to a past age have particularly come to prominence at a time when unimagined quantities of colored images from the late nineteenth century and twentieth century have come to light in various archives (Albert Kahn’s extensive Archive de la planète, contemporary documentary images of both the First and the Second World War). Suddenly color has entered a realm of actual and imagined pictures that had hitherto been occupied by black-and-white photographs and film footage. What is the aesthetic and epistemic function of color in these images? Whereas some scholars automatically attribute a “closer proximity to reality” to the color images, on closer examination it turns out that, on the contrary, the coloration of these shots has a disturbing proximity to the color aesthetics of historical feature films. To what extent is visual Evidenz, the appearance of authenticity and the supposed act of bearing witness, tied to or modified by specifically pictorial elements such as color? In the case of historic photographs and film footage a similarly constitutive role is played by visual effects such as blurred motifs, faulty exposures, and visible signs of ageing or material defects. It is precisely the partial absence of immediate visibility (causing the imagination to step into the breach) that heightens the impression of authenticity. It is only by investigating specific pictorial categories such as these that light can be shed on what role pictures play as pictures, that is to say, how they participate in the creation of knowledge on the basis of their formal make-up and medium-specific characteristics.
In the previously mentioned context of historic, documentary photography and film, there is also a need to define, more accurately, the status of the picture as witness and evidence. One important aspect in this line of research will be an examination of the meaning and tradition of the English term “evidence,” both in the sense of “demonstration,” “proof,” and as a physical trace. Accordingly, in the realm of photography—contrary not only to the first conceptualizations of the medium (Talbot 1844) but also to later positions in the history of photography (Frizot 1998)—it can be taken as read that the mere existence of a photograph is not conclusive evidence. In order to serve as evidence, a mechanically made image (like other images in other circumstances) has to be analyzed and seen in the context of additional factors and pointers (picture caption, eye-witness reports, and so on). Contrary to the dominant view in current research in this area, our aim here is to show that any such plurality and the co-existence of evidential processes do not by definition weaken the image, but rather sustain—and in fact make possible—its particular epistemic potential.
(c) Production Aesthetics and the Genesis of Evidenz
Besides these forms of an aesthetically intentioned generation of knowledge pertaining to realities beyond the picture itself, there is also something that could be described as the picture’s knowledge of itself. Pictures refer not only to things outside of themselves, but also to themselves and to other pictures, in the form of quotations or comments. However, once again this form of commentary is not verbal but pictorial and therefore can only be addressed by means of a specific methodology, which is yet to be developed. Research into this difficult topic is as yet relatively amorphous and extremely unsystematic. For instance, as a rule no distinction is made between “self-reproduction” (in the sense of artistic styles that follow one after the other), mere “self-reference” (in the sense of an iconographic thematization of the picture within the picture or of allegorical representations in painting), and the very much more complex function of genuine “self-reflexivity” (in the sense of an aesthetic or even intelligible process). Whereas earlier research in this field rightly took concrete historic constellations as its point of departure—such as the establishment of easel painting—the category of self-reflexivity has in the meantime become an unspecific, general pictorial category that can seemingly be freely used as one likes. This tendency has most notably been reinforced by research into the artistic avant-garde and the teleology, often associated with it, of a constantly intensifying negation of reference, which has in turn led to the notion of painting ever more effectively finding “itself.” The fundamental category of pictorial self-reflexivity is thus threatening to become a non-specific figure of discourse that can arbitrarily attributed or disattributed to pictures. At the same time, frequently the philosophically propagated notion of self-reflexivity as the inward-concentration of the thinking individual (the “subject”) on his or her own thought processes is uncritically applied to the very different workings and function of materially based pictures. But pictures are not “subjects” in the sense that term is used in transcendental philosophy. Nevertheless, the possibility of “visual thinking” has to be recognized if one is not to reduce pictures to no more than a means of depiction. Whereas differentiated research into self-reflexivity has already been undertaken in connection with written texts, in the visual arts it is only now getting under way. How is it possible that one picture can refer to another? Can pictures mutually negate each other? How can pictures be mobilized against each other (for instance, in a political context)? Are all pictures per se already self-reflexive? Or do particular criteria have to be developed in order to distinguish various “degrees” of reflexivity and categorical differences between self-reflexive and non-reflexive pictures? Here, too, there is a need to develop criteria to be used in pictorial critique that do not unquestioningly presume the automatic presence of self-reflexivity in pictures but rather seek to address it on the basis of the picture itself and with the active incorporation of the function of the viewer. In addition to this, the previously mentioned tendency to ontologize the picture has to be countered with a fully grounded historicization of the self-reflexive potential of pictures.
(d) Production Aesthetics and the Genesis of Evidenz
Given that knowledge in pictures and the manner in which they generate Evidenz are always pictorial in their constitution and therefore cannot merely be reduced to the logic of an exclusively discursive determination, very considerable significance attaches to the finish of the picture, to its material make-up, and the process of its making. Accordingly, the structures and processes of visual Evidenz will be examined in light of the aesthetics governing pictorial production, in order to determine how aesthetic Evidenz is generated, in real terms, during the making of a picture in different historic, cultural, and social contexts. This line of enquiry involves a reorientation from the work or object as a fixed entity—a notion that is implicit in many art-historical investigations—to a process-based understanding of artistic work that has long prevailed in performance theory (Fischer-Lichte) and has recently also been developed from a new constructivist position, which no longer regards objects, states, circumstances, even reality as static but as the dynamic outcomes of processes of production and perception (Schmidt).
Specifically in relation to works of art our project will scrutinize the making of the work as a process that operates on the interface between theory and practice, between artistic imagination and reality, between artistic knowledge and skilled execution. Although analysis of the processes of artistic work—including design sketches, preparatory drawings, and pentimenti—is a classic, art-historical enterprise, it has only been in recent years that researchers in this area have started to systematize and to evolve a theory applicable to the models and forms of the creative process. And it is only recently that methodical approaches have been developed to assess the materials, compositional, pictorial, and stylistic means used in the work process, in order to address the complex configuration of a picture’s constitution in terms of its semantic codings and strategic functionalization. Moreover, as yet only tentative efforts have been made to address the aesthetic transformation of reality during the genesis of a work and to examine the changing relations between the sensory presence of the material and its representational function in the picture. With very few exceptions, the development of any such theoretical frameworks for the process of artistic creativity has been confined to modern and contemporary art.
This is the point of departure for members of our research group, whose aim it is to extend the narrow chronological confines of these initial methodical attempts to develop an aesthetics of production and to give it a much further reaching historical dimension, and to demonstrate its use in a sample investigation into the processes of the generation of pictorial Evidenz. A crucial factor in this is the artist’s own knowledge and self-awareness, for although the artist, as the producer of the work, initiates and guides its genesis, he or she also has to contend with potential resistance from the material, the style, or the form. For—in the same way that the picture is more than merely a discursive instrument—style, form, and material also have their own innate properties, which the artist, engaged in the process of creation, has to render operational for the work and its plausibility. In order to achieve a firmer grasp of this tension and the individual solutions for an individual work in a particular context, the aim will be to correlate various aspects of epistemological artistic knowledge with the practical experience and work of the artist in the act of pictorial invention at the same time as taking account of the significance—for the creative process—of the pictures in the artist’s mind and the relationship of external reality and its representation in the picture. In this context, the question will also be raised as to how and where during the creative process intentional, specifically pursued Evidenz or unintended, purely coincidental Evidenz are generated.