The most fundamental difference between words and images would seem to be the physical, ‘sensible’ boundary between the realms of visual and aural experience. What could be more basic than the brute necessity for eyesight in the appreciation of painting, and the sense of hearing for the understanding of language? Even the legendary founder of the ut pictura poesis tradition, Simonides of Ceos, acknowledges that, at best, ‘painting is mute poesy.’ It may aspire to the eloquence of words, but it can only attain the kind of articulateness available to the deaf and mute, the language of gesture, of visible signs and expressions. Poetry, on the other hand, may aspire to become a ‘speaking picture,’ but it would be more accurate to describe its actual attainment in Leonardo da Vinci’s words, as a kind of ‘blind painting.’ The ‘images’ of poetry may speak, but we cannot really see them.
I don’t wish to dwell on these reductions of the arts to the senses proper to their apprehension, only to note a few problems that come up if one tries to found a system on them. The first symptom of difficulty is a certain asymmetry in the relative ‘necessity’ of each sense to its appropriate medium. The ear does not seem to be nearly as necessary to language as the eye is to painting. The eye, in fact, can stand in rather well for the ear in language acquisition. The deaf learn to read, write, and to converse by lip-reading and vocal mimicry learned through touch. Perhaps that is why we don’t normally speak of poetry, literature, or language as ‘aural’ arts or media with the same assurance that we do in referring to painting and sculpture as visual arts. If it seems a bit odd to speak of poetry as the ‘aural art,’ the designation of painting and the other plastic arts as ‘visual’ seems relatively secure.
How secure is that? It depends, of course, on what one means by ‘visual.’ One of the most influential stylistic formulas ever developed in art history treats the visual, not as the universal condition of all painting, but as a characteristic of a particular style that has meaning only by contrast with a particular historical alternative, the ‘tactile.’ I allude to Heinrich Wolfflin’s famous distinction between classical painting (which is tactile, sculpturesque, symmetrical, and closed) in contrast to the baroque (which is visual, painterly, asymmetrical, and open). 1 Of course Wolfflin was using the terms ‘visual’ and ‘tactile’ as metaphors for differences in things that (we want to say) have to be understood as literally visual. We can’t apprehend a tactile painting through our sense of touch, and we can’t apprehend any painting whatsoever without a sense of sight.
Or can we? What does it mean to ‘apprehend a painting’? Or perhaps we should ask the question another way: what can the blind know of painting? For someone like Milton, who stocked his memory with the masterpieces of Renaissance art before going blind, the answer is, a great deal. But suppose we took the case of the person blind from birth. The answer, I suggest, is still a great deal. The blind can know anything they want to know about a painting, including what it represents, what it looks like, what sort of color scheme is involved, what sort of compositional arrangements are employed. This information must come to them indirectly, but the question is not how they come to know about a painting, but what they can know. It is entirely conceivable that an intelligent, inquisitive blind observer who knew what questions to ask could ‘see’ a great deal more in a painting than the clearest-sighted dullard. How much of our normal, visual experience of painting is in fact mediated by one sort of ‘report’ or another, from the things we are taught to see in and say about pictures, the labels we learn to apply and manipulate, to the descriptions, commentaries, and reproductions on which we rely to tell us about pictures?
But surely no matter how complete, detailed, and articulate the conception of a picture might be to a blind person, there is something essential in painting (or in a painting) that is forever closed off from the apprehension of the blind. There is just the sheer experience of seeing the unique particularity of an object, an experience for which there are no substitutes. But that is just the point: there are so many substitutes, so many supplements, crutches, and mediations. And there are never more of them than when we claim to be having ‘the sheer experience of seeing the unique particularity of an object.’ This sort of ‘pure’ visual perception, freed from concerns with function, use, and labels, is perhaps the most highly sophisticated sort of seeing that we do; it is not the ‘natural’ thing that the eye does (whatever that would be). The ‘innocent eye’ is a metaphor for a highly experienced and cultivated sort of vision. When this metaphor becomes literalized, when we try to postulate a foundational experience of ‘pure’ vision, a merely mechanical process uncontaminated by imagination, purpose, or desire, we invariably rediscover one of the few maxims on which Gombrich and Nelson Goodman agree: ‘the innocent eye is blind.’ The capacitv for a purely physical vision that is supposed to be forever inaccessible to the blind turns out to be itself a kind of blindness.
It would be perverse, I suppose, to push this point any further, especially when my only purpose is to apply a bit of pressure to the sense of literalness and necessity that surrounds the notion of painting as a visual art. Let us concede that vision is a ‘necessary condition’ for the apprehension of painting; it is certainly not a sufficient one, and there are many other ‘necessary conditions 1 – consciousness, perhaps even self-consciousness, and whatever skills are required for the interpretation of the kind of image in question. At any rate, the point here is simply to call attention to a certain reification or essentializing of the senses in relation to the generic differences between words and images, a reification much like the ones that occur with the categories of space and time, nature and convention. The visual and the aural have the distinct advantage of basing these differences in physiology; the structure of sensation becomes the foundation for a structure of sensibility, aesthetic mode, and even categories of judgment and understanding. As with time and space, nature and convention, the tendency is to think of the visual/aural structure of symbols as a natural division, one which dictates certain necessary limits to what can (or ought) to be expressed by those symbols. In this case, the natural seems to be the physical, bodily conditions of human sentience. Against this reified ‘nature’ we must set the historicity of the body and the senses, the intuition (first developed by nineteenth-century German art historians like Riegl) that ‘vision’ has a history, and that our ideas of what vision is, what is worth looking at, and why, are all deeply imbedded in social and cultural history. Eye and ear, and their associated structures of sensibility, are in this respect no different from the other figures of difference between words and images: they are categories of power and value, ways of enlisting nature in our causes and crusades.
W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology, Chicago and London, 1986.