(What) Is the Power of (or in) the Image?

The idea that a picture may have the agency with which to point to something is alluded to by W.J.T. Mitchell in his book What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images.[1] The book explores the notion of pictures (in a variety of forms) possessing power as if “wanting things”. Clearly Mitchell does not refer to pictures as literally possessing some “magical” power, rather he offers a consideration of how viewers respond to images. According to Mitchell, people behave as though pictures were alive and had the power to influence human lives, demanding things, persuading and seducing or leading us astray. The power of pictures lies in the responses we make to human created visual representations.

Emmanuel Levinas in Reality and its Shadow (1948) also recognised the power of images, and at times, was deeply critical of “art”. Taking quite a different approach to Hans Geog Gadamer, Art, he says, in its portraying of “things” suggests a presence that is really an absence. “It is as if the represented object died”. For Levinas, images inhabit a world of shadows. Art deceives.

Of course, the use of the word “shadows” harks back to Plato’s cave, and thus reminds us that philosophy has long regarded art (whatever we mean by “art”) with curiosity and suspicion. This suspicion is centred around notions of “truth” and whether art can lead us toward, or away from what is true. Levinas worries about the fixity of the image. The propensity for the pictured frozen moment, the implicit timelessness of figures forever portraying  a scene in perpetuity.

The Finding represents Holman Hunt’s frozen imagined moment of the young Jesus’s self revelation of his mission. It holds a moment of vision and blindness in the form of a dispute. It re-works a New Testament story, drawing upon and underpinning an artistic journey through centuries of religious and painterly practice.

Interestingly, Holman Hunt tries to inject movement in that frozen moment. Jesus has sprung up from his abaya on the ground and contorts his body to both push away his mother and gird his loins for action. In perpetuity.



[1] W.J.T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.



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