Dossier | Resemblance, Doubt, and Ruin | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Resemblance, Doubt, and Ruin

Resemblance, Doubt, and Ruin
By Maxime Coulombe

. . . a naked young woman looks frankly at the beholder; her chestnut tresses fall over her shoulders; her nipples are erect; with her left hand she only half covers her pudenda—she almost toys with them—while the shadow around them suggests (if it does not actually indicate) her pubic hair. She is completely naked except for the ring on her little finger and the bracelet around her wrist. The sensuality of the representation would have been plain to many and may well continue to be so. (1)

Out of curiosity, a bystander asks the art historian, “Can we say that an image resembles reality?”

The latter hesitates, struggling to find his words—it’s a rather touchy subject. His face slowly creases into a frown.

The art historian finally answers, “For a long time, we believed that it does. In fact, resemblance defined the notion of artistic expression for centuries. From this were born mimesis, realism, naturalism . . . So many movements and approaches that we can date and contextualize. A fascinating task.

“Yet does resemblance actually exist? Is there an analogical, imitative relationship between the image and what it represents?” continues the inquisitive bystander.

“The discipline doesn’t take a clear stance . . .”

The bystander sighs. “And you? Do you believe in resemblance?”

“Me? As an art historian, I prefer not to believe. Basically, resemblance is the belief in the other,” concludes the researcher.


Resemblance is central to the reaction of the child who sees a human face in a cloud, to the naïve observer of an abstract painting who recognizes a familiar form in it, and to our own response, fascinated and moved by a nude, or saddened by a crying woman. And yet, neither art historian nor spectator dares to speak openly about resemblance. It is taboo, for acknowledging it—giving it a voice—would gradually mean granting the image the power of presence.

We must therefore forget this notion that makes the image into a kind of modality of expression: think of photography, or a corner-stone of the imagination; think of the differences from one resemblance to another. We must repel, even more forcefully, any feelings that resemblance may arouse in us: the sadness we feel when confronting a dramatic portrayal, our desire when faced with nudity. That’s all too personal, all too subjective to nourish the reflections of the art historian. Being unthinkable, always being a question of the other, resemblance is denied, and, in turn, so is the specificity of images. And we art historians speak of images as we do of all objects: with a cool head, a quiet confidence, a calm and distant tone.

Relativism without End
Art history is still struggling to recover from the debates, attacks, and deconstructions that animated the discipline in the 1980s. This questioning underlines the risky nature of working on an object whose equivocal definition leaves it at the mercy of ideological considerations. In his influential Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (1989), Donald Preziosi, for example, stressed that “in seeing methodologies as tools for analysis, we tacitly legitimize an empiricist modality that by its very terms—its implicit euclidean geometries—situates the analyst behind a glass wall, apart from objects or analysands.” (2) The task of every serious art historian, therefore, was to make the aesthetes see reason, to demonstrate the naivety of sociological, aesthetic, and semiotic approaches. Each of these approaches was, of course, upheld by an ideology that coloured the way we perceive objects. Even causality seemed like a trope: “. . . its picture of historical causality . . . is a discursive trope among others, the metonymization of the world as constituting a modern science.”(3)

Once these approaches were put forward, their adherents, skilled at critiquing the premises of the discipline, didn’t stop there. They went as far as to claim, in a most radical form of relativism, that all sciences constitute an ideology. W. J. T. Mitchell noted, in Iconology, “I am arguing for a hard, rigorous relativism that regards knowledge as a social product, a matter of dialogue between different versions of the world, including different languages, ideologies, and modes of representation.” (4) The links between the discipline and any approach that was objective or tended to support some form of reality in its analysis were broken. Contemplating the vestiges of the discipline, the heirs to post-structuralism could only affirm the fragmentary, a-significative nature of the art object, thus transforming it into a lever to perpetuate the dissolution of any ideology of the object.


Time seems to have passed on these positions. They now seem to evoke only mild irritation, discomfort, or silence. These reactions are revealing. Indeed, what remains to be said after relativism? How can we analyze or draw conclusions? To raise a sore point: Have we truly returned from relativism of this kind? From this persisting doubt?


More and more art historians seem prudent, even obliging. They welcome a return to more modest approaches in art history, as if to avoid stirring up the dust that has fallen on these postmodern positions. Thus, they concentrate on details, remnants, objects that embody the constitutive erudition of the discipline ; on analyses that, through their factualism or cynicism, shield them against any ideological criticism. At least, that is what they believe. In reality, these approaches ignore the visual specificity of the object and struggle to make of the image an object expressing broader knowledge about an era, the psyche, or the creative act.

Most often, the image serves to validate—to illustrate—information that we already know. We have read Georges Didi-Huberman’s far-reaching analyses of the dependence of art history on legibility, in which the image finds meaning only as a commentary on a pre-existing text: the Bible, The Golden Legend, and, more recently, interviews and artist profiles. (5) We have taken note, so to speak, of this dependence, but we have done nothing to change it. Apart from this legibility of the image, this cynicism, this detail-oriented approach, we are unsure of what to say or do. The image remains characteristic of a singular semiotics, but it is a singularity that we all too easily gloss over.

Resemblance, from Convention to Non-human
Resemblance is at the core of the attacks of relativism. Again in Iconology, Mitchell underlines, for example, that “the category of realistic, illusionistic, or naturalistic images has become the focus of a modern, secular idolatry linked with the ideology of Western science and rationalism.” (6) For Mitchell, as for an entire tradition, image is, first and foremost, representation. Seeing that representation aims to convey something to someone, it is deliberate, conventional, and not accidental. It implies the presence of a code—such is the sense of this “convention”—that allows us to understand its meaning.

In Mitchell’s view, image is representation in the same way as written language is: it is just as conventional, constructed, and symbolic. In this sense, Mitchell is heir to Nelson Goodman, who wrote, “The plain fact is that a picture, to represent an object, must be a symbol for it, stand for it, refer to it; and that no degree of resemblance is sufficient to establish the requisite relationship of reference. Nor is resemblance necessary for reference; almost anything may stand for almost anything else.” (7) Thus, in essence, there is no difference between image and text.

Perceiving the image symbolically is not without benefits. It allows all signs to be placed on an equal footing—as Goodman’s words suggest—in order to perpetuate the illusion of iconographic legibility. It also turns the image into a phenomenon that can be perfectly understood by pure reason. Yet, once again, what of the desire we feel when we gaze at an image? What of the tears that spring to our eyes when we read a novel? Maintaining that these phenomena are conventional in no way speaks to their power.

Relativism’s reframing of the image blinds us to the very functioning of the image, be it mental, visual, or produced by language; it takes shape—only becomes an image—to express similarities with a reality already familiar to us. About this, there remains little doubt: for the past forty years, researchers in cognitive science have attempted to prove that resemblance exists, that it is the very basis of all perception. (8) In regard to the proponents of anti-mimetic discourse, Jean-Marie Schaeffer states, “The arguments that they advance to negate the possibility of a representation that would be mimetic presuppose that the notion of resemblance itself is without a veritable object. This is quite a surprising idea if only because in everyday life we do not cease to have recourse to judgments of similarity, as shown by the frequency of enunciation of the kind ‘Today I met someone who resembles what’s-his-name’ or ‘Oh, this noise reminds me of something . . . Damn it, it’s the sink that’s overflowing!’ or else ‘This photograph is truly not good a likeness.’ In fact, the aptitude to recognize as similar or dissimilar external stimuli that are digitally distinct is a condition of survival not only for human beings but for the majority of animal species.” (9)

Such a resemblance, such a biological foundation of the image, shakes the philosophical foundations of art history, in which all knowledge oscillates between erudition and reflection. This history of art is sustained by the belief that “without any other weapons than those of pure and solitary thought, [it would be possible] to produce a knowledge superior to that available from the collective research and plebian instruments of science . . .” (10) Such is the illusion of thinkers who believe that through reflection alone, they can grasp, understand, and judge everything. A relativist illusion, then.


Art history seems to be at a crossroads. It could, once and for all, out of modesty or relativism, challenge recent research in cognitive science and psychology on the image, thus creating a distinction between the essence of the artistic image and any other image. It could also embrace a path that is more difficult and risky, but the only one capable of sustaining genuine thought on the image: that of subjectivity and science.

The path of science, of course, for the resemblance and the analogy at the heart of our view and understanding of the world are, in part, beyond reflexive comprehension. As Schaeffer asserts, “The works conducted in the domain of perception and, notably, in perceptive categorization tend to show that the mechanisms of perceptive identification (of the same object from one occurrence to the other, or the same type through multiple occurrences) are endogenous and ‘cognitively non penetrable’; that is, they are constituents of the perception and operate in an automatic manner.”(11) Such an assertion does not stem from failure, but implies opening up art history methodology to empirical, scientific, and experimental approaches that would go beyond mere cognitive apprehension.

This position would, correspondingly, require that images be understood subjectively; that this subjectivity not be a matter of accident, but one of the purposes and analytical levers of the image. Being an extension of our perception of the world, the image thus possesses a singular quality of presence. The reaction to the image and its strength, rather than being a taboo or an anomaly, should be integrated into the gaze, studied by the art historian and observer. It would also mean exploring the anthropological nature of the image and the effects that it generates. And it would mean breaking with the condescending stance of the art historian who attributes the effect of the image to the belief of the other—to the naïve observer, the amateur, the child—as if it had had no effect on him in the first place.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]

(1) David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 17.
(2) Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989), 35.
(3) Ibid., 165.
(4) W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 38.
(5) Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, trans. John Goodman (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).
(6) Mitchell, Iconology, 39.
(7) Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), 5 (emphasis in original).
(8) Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000), 337–92.
(9) Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Why Fiction?, trans. Dorrit Cohn (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 61–62.
(10) Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 27. He also argued, “The ‘free’ and ‘pure’ disposition favoured by skholè implies (active or passive) ignorance not only of what happens in the world of practice. . . and more precisely, in the order of the polis and politics, but also of what it is to exist, quite simply, in the world” (Bourdieu, 15).
(11) Schaeffer, Why Fiction ?, 94

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