gottfried boehm and the image

no camera

review of 'Was ist ein Bild'

review of:

Gottfried Gottfried Boehm (ed.): 'Was ist ein Bild?', Fink, München 1994,
Gottfried Gottfried Boehm: 'Wie Bilder Sinn erzeugen', Berlin University Press, 2007.

Below, we comment on a series of texts by Gottfried Boehm - a pupil of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Two of them are from a collection of texts 'Was ist ein Bild?'. The other texts, written between1996 and 2007, have been bundled into the book: 'Wie Bilder Sinn erzeugen'. The titles are a bit misleading: they suggest a thorough investigation of the image. But, many of them are only indirectly related to the subject. Thus, in the article ''Offene Horizonte. Zur Bildgeschichte der Natur' we get a 'Bildgeschichte der Natur'. In this review, we are only interested in the premises on which this history is based: that maps are images just like landscapes. This approach applies also to the other texts.


Gottfried Boehm announces a revolution in the approach of the image. After the example of the 'linguistic turn' (Richard Rorty, 1967), he wants to inaugurate an 'iconic turn' (W.J.T. Mitchell): a science of the image after the example of a general science of language (1994,11). According to Gottfried Boehm, such iconic turn announced itself in a 'return of the image' (1994,13). He thereby refers to the increasing attention for the metaphor in philosophy: at first timidly with Kant, but ever more empathic with Nietzsche, Bergson, Freud, Husserl and Wittgenstein II (1994,7).

The concept 'iconic turn' is somewhat misleading. It suggests an approach that would make short work of the 'linguistic turn' - the semiotic approach of the image of the sixties with figures like Roland Barthes, Nelson Goodman and Arthur Danto. But Boehm continues to conceive the image as a means of telling something about the world: 'What is granted to the Logos, must also be granted to the image, albeit it in its own way' (1994,31). He wants to 'extend the Logos beyond the boundaries of the word with a new iconic potential' (2007,36).

From this, and from what follows, it appears that we are not dealing with what a genuine 'iconic turn' would be - an understanding of the image not in semiotic terms, but in appropriate terms - in terms of mimesis. (see: 'Mimesis and semiosis') We rather get some new variant of the age-old attempts at subsuming the image under the sign - or broader: under the 'Logos'. The linguistic variant of these attempts sounds: the image is a way of speaking, yes even thinking, albeit not in words, but in images.


As a counterpart to de Saussures 'semiotic difference', Gottfried Boehm introduces the concept ' 'ikonische Differenz' - iconic difference. This implies that, just like words do not derive their meaning from similarity with the world, but to purely internal oppositions, also the image does not owe its 'meaning' to similarity with the real world, but equally to purely internal visual oppositions: the 'visual contrast' is the 'birth ground of any meaning of the image' ('jedes bildlichen Sinnes') (1994,30). Through relying on such linguistic model, Gottfried Boehm emphatically states that he rejects every conception of the image in terms of 'iconic identity'. As opposed to authors like Nelson Goodman and Ernst Gombrich, Gottfried Boehm deems it superfluous to demonstrate that the image is not constituted by 'iconic identity'. Let us therefore examine how it is constituted through 'iconic difference'.

Gottfried Boehm uses the term 'ikonische Differenz' in two quite distinct senses.

In a first sense, it refers to the opposition between the 'material support' and the 'meaning' or 'sense' ('Sinn') - in the sense of 'representation'. 'When we talk about images, we are talking about a difference where one or more thematic focuses (...) relate to an un-thematic field'' (2007,48-49). Or about the 'possibility (...) to see some lines as a figure' (2007,37), as when with Klee 'the factuality of the lines is turned into something meaningful' (2007,124). Elsewhere, Boehm is not referring to the opposition between 'lines' and 'theme', or between 'stains' and 'theme', but to the contrast between 'figure and background': 'the fundamental contrast between a encompassing overall plane and what it includes as internal events' (1994,30).

In a second sense, it refers to the difference between the representation and its model in the real world (in terms of signs: the referent, in terms of mimesis: the original). Thus, he talks about the 'imaginary' in the image as of a 'difference with the real'' (2007,19), or he states that the 'content' ('der Gehalt') that is conjured by the 'iconic difference' 'means something that is absent' (2007,38). In the spirit of this second interpretation, he describes the transformation of Pygmalion's sculpture as a transformation of 'the irreal into the real' (2007,39): the transformation of the sculpted nude into a living nude. We are not dealing here with something 'immaterial' that becomes 'material' as in the first sense - the nude transformed into marble, but with the representation that becomes a nude in flesh and blood. Iconic difference is not the difference between 'matter' and 'meaning', but between sculpture and model, between 'representation' and 'content'- as in: 'there is (...) no outspoken identity between the representation in a drawing and its content' (2007,149).

Of course, both interpretations are intertwined: when the material substrate remains visible, the representation comes to differ from the model in the real world. Both aspects have nevertheless to be discerned clearly. Because Gottfried Boehm fails to do so, he is not able to recognise 'true to nature copies' like photographs or mirror images as images: 'The image (...) is not the non-different simulacrum, but the difference of the imaginary' (2007,39). That shows clearly that he does not understand the real 'ikonische Differenz', the real difference between image and reality: that the image resembles the real world only for one or a limited number of senses, not for all the senses. That is graphically expressed in the story of Narcissus, whose mirror image disappears as soon as he touches it. That age-old paradigm reveals in all clarity that the image is constituted by the 'iconic identity' - mere visual similarity - as well asby the real 'iconic difference' - that visual similarity is not endorsed by similarity for the other senses: whoever wants to touch his mirror image stumbles on the surface of the mirror, not on a body, and knows precisely therefore that he is dealing with an image, not with the real thing.

To make matters worse, Gottfried Boehm continues to understand his 'iconic difference' in the second sense - the relation between 'image' and 'original' - in terms of the very reference, that is constitutive of the image, rather than in terms of the 'presentification' - the making visible here and now of what is absent - that is constitutive of the image. In his essay 'Ikonoklasmus', where he opposes Moses the iconophobe with Aron the iconophile, he constructs a continuum between 'pure referring, the resigning of similarity included, and iconic assimilation (Ineinssetzung), a continuum between 'embodying and referring'. Between these two poles extends the 'field of iconic representational potentialities ('das reiche Feld ikonischer Representationsmöglichkeiten') (2007,59): on one pole the non-similar sign, on the other the similar 'simulacrum', with in between a whole array of images. Therewith, the subsumption of the image under the sign is completed. The divide runs no longer between 'referring' and 'presentifying', but between reference on the basis of similarity and reference on the basis of 'difference'. Iconic identity is smuggled back in through the backdoor as 'ikonische Ineinssetzung' (iconic assimilation), against Boehms explicit intention to understand the image in terms of 'iconic difference'.


Gottfried Boehm not only subsumes the image under the sign, he also tries to subsume many phenomena that are normally not understood as images, under his extended concept of the image, whereas he at the same time degrades what is usually called an image into a borderline case - not an image in the real sense of the word.

Let us begin with the last category - images in the improper sense. As opposed to the genuine image, that is constituted through iconic difference, the 'copy ('Abbild') is only a blunt reproduction (1994,16), an 'indiscriminate simulacrum' (2007,39). To the category of the 'copies' or 'simulacra' belong the most widespread images: 'television, photo's, advertising, catalogues (1994,6). They are on one end of yet another continuum, this time between proper and improper images: 'images may self-denyingly dissolve in conjuring up an illusion, or they can, conversely, emphasize their being made as an image' (1994,34). That does not prevent him from calling 'copies' 'images': 'Copies are the most widespread images' (1994,16). He thereby concedes that 'iconic difference' cannot be a fundamental determining characteristic of the image. The emphasis is on the 'difference' (with the original), whereas identity, which is the primary determination of the image, is just overlooked. And, since he regards 'iconic difference' as a deviation of the original, it escapes him that the 'reproduction industry' does not produce a redoubled reality: that is what nature does, when it produces clones, or man, when he produces mass products. A mirror or a camera, on the other hand, do not produce clones ('copies'), but images: as demonstrated above, they only provide optical (or acoustical...) identity. Gottfried Boehm goes so far as to accuse the 'reproduction industry' of being iconoclastic (1994,35) 'The so scorned age of the images (...) is iconoclastic' (1994,35). Let us remark in passing that Gottfried Boehm emphasises elsewhere that 'the idea that photography would be a copy has been refuted more than often during its history'' (2007,43)...

Let us then have a look at what are supposed to be genuine images. They are at the other end of the continuum of images that dissolve into the creation of illusion, and the images that accentuate their being an image (1994,32). To this kind of images belong above all the images that have been created during the twentieth century. Immediately, painters like Klee came to my mind. But, instead, Gottfried Boehm points to the fact that painting has been referred to the periphery in the past century: 'What used to be a delimited, composed and self-contained image, becomes object, shaped canvas, installation, conceptual art, performance and the like' (1994,37). The painting has become a relict, and the questions arises whether we are not witnessing the advent of a whole array of 'images beyond the image'(1994,37). According to Gottfried Boehm, there is 'iconic difference' in the works of Walter de Maria, Joseph Beuys' coyote, and Ellsworth Kelly (1994, 37) - although he does not indicate where it could be found. 'Images beyond images' have also been produced in earlier periods and outside Europe: Eastern tapestry, Japanese tea-cups, African seats, and even prehistoric fist axes (1994,38). After having expulsed the photo as a simulacrum from the realm of images, Gottfried Boehm degrades the canvas into a Western borderline case: it is a 'prejudice to understand the image in terms of a painting' (1994,37). We would be prepared to give up this prejudice, if we heard convincing arguments. But Gottfried Boehm does not provide any. Without being aware of the difference between a mimetic object and design, he mentions Picasso's object art in the same breath as Donald Judd's 'specific objects' (2007,171), and without being aware of the difference between sculpture and real objects, he describes the 'transition from sculpture into object'' (47). Without batting an eyelid, he states that the performance is no longer 'the representation of an action', but 'action in actu'' (2007,171). Unaware of any harm, he quotes Lissitzky: 'The artist is no longer an imitator, but rather a creator of a new world of objects' from the book with the unequivocal title: 'Die Überwindung der Künste' (1922). The whole array of reality, design and art is subsumed under a 'genre-less continuum' of images (2007,172). The archetypes of the image - not only the mirror (or the photo), but also the painting - degraded into borderline cases, and 'images beyond the image' proclaimed to new paradigms. Apparently, Gottfried Boehm is joining the anti-mimetic crusade of modern art.

That is all the more remarkable, since it does not escape his attention that there is a ' 'Bilderverbot' at work in modern art (2007,55). But instead of recognising that modern art increasingly betrayed the image, he proclaims that iconophobia as the counterpart of iconophilia helps to enhance the iconic difference, and thus the advent of the real image: 'iconic difference implies negation by nature'' (2007, 56). 'To show implies to negate' (2007, 56) 'Revealing presupposes concealing'' (2007,69). In the genuine image, iconophobia and iconophilia go hand in hand. The contention seems plausible, since Gottfried Boehm illustrates it with the development of abstract art, where 'iconoclasm' leads to 'a reduction of the image to its first and last possibilities' (20076,62-63). But the reasoning is not extended to performances, design or conceptual art. How should we apply the opposition between revealing and concealing to the transition from image to design or to reality? When the performance seals the transition of staged action into real action, has iconoclasm not rather expelled the image as such? And how have we to understand concept art in this scheme? To be sure, nothing prevents us form regarding a canvas by Timm Ulrichs with the words 'image' painted on it as an example of radical iconophobia. But, although it is clear how abstraction of a landscape can lead to the plus-minus paintings of Mondrian, departing from whatever 'simulacrum' you could never end up with letters. There might be something like a continuum between a 'simulacrum' and a pictogram or hieroglyph, but there is only a yawning gap between a simulacrum and letters.

It is apparent, than, that there is something wrong with the idea of a continuum, be it a continuum between 'pure reference and iconic assimilation' (2007,59), or a continuum 'between images that deny themselves and images that stress their being an image' (1994,32). Not only do these continua refer photography to the periphery, there is no room in them for most of the 'images beyond the images' either. And what is more: it seems that we are not dealing with continua, but rather with oppositions: could there really exist something like a transition from 'assimilation' to 'referring'?

Let us remark in passing that, on the one hand, Boehm accuses the 'reproduction industry' from iconoclasm (1994,35) because it would only produce simulacra, whereas, on the other hand, he welcomes iconoclasm in modern art, because it would be the fruitful counterpart of the iconophilia of revealing. The 'icon' in 'iconoclasm' refers to Boehms 'genuine' image in the former case, and to the simulacrum in the latter case...


Before proceeding to the examination of the second series of phenomena that Gottfried Boehm wants to subsume under the image, we should dwell somewhat on the consequences of the introduction of 'Images beyond the image' for a theory of 'iconic difference'. When the theory has to apply to reality and design, the concept of 'iconic difference' has to be wide enough to encompass all these domains. That is the case indeed. Thus, his description of the emergence of the image applies in the first place to the perception of the real world as such. We are dealing with a 'material substratum' on which 'something else is to be seen: a sight, a view, a meaning' (2007,37). That goes especially for the contrast between figure and background, which is constitutive for perception as such, but which nevertheless is called 'ikonische Differenz'; 'iconic syntheses are to be found in the structure of perception itself' (2007,49). In 'Jenseits der Sprache', he refers to the 'rediscovery of the iconic' as to the foundation of language in perception (2007,45) Elsewhere, he holds that the Logos is dependent on the 'iconic evidence' of perception (2007,45).Thus, 'iconic difference' turns out to be indiscernible from 'perceptory difference'. Gottfried Boehm nevertheless attempts to discern both by stating that visual contrast only constitutes an image when it is situated within the confines of a field (2007,69). When we take into account that there are also images for other senses - just think of auditory images - the concept of the 'iconic' threatens to encompass the entire perceptible world, and hence to become trivial.


Under his extended concept of the image, Gottfried Boehm subsumes not only the 'genuine images' discovered by modern artists in the past century, but also he images to which scientists resort. And, since art and science converge, 'scientific images' belong to art as well. He blames the academic division in genres for not offering a place for anatomical drawings like those of da Vinci. That comes down to asking why there is no place for a telephone book in a system of the literary genres (2007,161). Let us explain ourselves.

Many images presentify absent reality, only to provide better information about the absent world. Thus, the anatomical drawings of da Vinci give us lots of information about muscles and intestines, without us having to proceed to vivisection. For similar reasons, photos of an accident are made for the police or the insurance company.

Also three-dimensional images can serve this purpose: the maquettes and the models analysed in ''Das Bild als Modell'. We are dealing here with genuine images (at least in many cases: not in the case of models of an atom, see below) , but they are used as referring signs: we do not use them as reality presentified here and now, but we look 'through' them as if they were reality elsewhere. That does not prevent us from reading them as genuine images. Just think of Hitler en Speer when they looked at the maquette of their Germania as if their megalomaniacal project were visible right before their eyes. We could also read the image above as if it were the encounter of imaginary beings consisting of a conglomerate of intestines and spinal chords cut open.

Next to images, also other visual configurations can be used as signs, this time referring to non-visual realities that belong to another sensorial domain or that are imperceptible altogether. That is the case with a temperature curve, which renders changes in temperature as if it were changes in visual data, with columns that represent magnitudes, or with three-dimensional models of DNA-chains or atoms. Language is a source of confusion: analog translations are often called 'representations' or 'images'. Next to 'arbitrary' signs, that exhibit no relation whatsoever with their meaning or referent (think of words or mathematical formulas, Pierce's 'symbols'), there are also signs that are 'motivated' (de Saussure): either in that they resemble their referent for one sense (image as a sign) or by analogy (Pierce's 'icons'). Models can belong to both categories: a model of the Concorde is based on visual resemblance, a model of an atom on analog visualisation.

From way back, many authors are confused by (the metaphorical use of) language. Thus, Gottfried Boehm constructs another continuum of 'models', where images in the literal sense of the word are included on the same footing as images in the metaphorical sense (2007,115-116). And, since visualisations often happen to be 'schematised', he conceives his continuum as a transition from 'models' based on 'simulation' or 'Mimierung' (2007,115) - visual identity - to 'models' with a 'open range of reference', characterised by a 'reduction of complexity' (2007,117) - 'abstraction' as 'iconic difference' in the second sense. But 'reduction of complexity' does not explain the difference between both kinds of models (between images that are functioning as signs and visualisations). This becomes apparent as soon as we construct a continuum of images that are more or less complex - or to phrase it more accurately: images that are more or less suggestive (see: 'intrasensory reduction'.

On the continuum above, there is no place for visualisation: how much the images may rely on suggestion, we continue to dwell on the pole of the image. To reach the other pole, we have to switch to images in the metaphorical sense: visualisations of perceptions for other senses or of data that are imperceptible altogether. Think of relief maps where differences in height are rendered by differences in colours, of weather maps, where different colours render different temperatures, or of photos of space, where radiation is rendered in colour. The resulting visual configurations are not images, but signs motivated by analogy, visualisations hence. The same goes for route maps on which driving directions are rendered, which are invisible, but can be rendered as a line, just like the equally invisible orbits of planets. But, instead of a random sign, like a line for the orbit of a planet, we can use visual signs that are in addition motivated by visual similarity: think of the double line on a Michelin map, which is coloured red, to distinguish highways from normal routes, which are coloured brown, or from rivers, which are coloured blue. The use of partial visual motivation does not turn the map into an image, into a 'landscape' or aerial view. Many features of a real landscape are missing, and even the highways are not precisely imitations: the two red lines are separated by a yellow band, and highways are not red anyhow. As demonstrated in the continuum of three maps below, also visualisations can be more or less 'schematised', but in any case, they continue to belong to the pole that is opposite to that of the image:

Boehm's continuum turns out to be a binary opposition, both poles of which consist of a continuum from less to more 'accurate'. On the pole of the images, we are dealing with a continuum from images that are non-suggestive, to images that are suggestive; on the pole of the visualisations, we are dealing with visualisations that are more or less precise.

image sign
'non-suggestive' 'precise'

'suggestive' 'imprecise'

To be sure, Gottfried Boehm realises that, on the pole that is opposite to 'simulation', 'data of different kind, that have only in common that the human eye can not perceive them, are digitally transformed into the field of the visual, and thus become accessible as images' (2007,13). In the case of models of the skies, he even talks of 'analogy' (2007,129). But, as it appears from the end of the sentence, italicised by us, he continues to regard them as images. He does not even realise that we are dealing here with the translation of non-visual data into visual data, as is evident from the way he describes his 'givens of the most diverse kind': 'realities that are inaccessible, invisible, or visible but unknown' (2007,117). Something can be visible, but inaccessible or unknown. A correct description would be: not visually perceptible or imperceptible altogether.

After having assimilated the image with the sign, and thus becoming blind for the difference between an autonomous image and an image that serves as a sign, Gottfried Boehm's misconception of the nature of the literal image makes him blind for the difference between literal and metaphorical image, between image and visualisation. He himself conceives his blindness as a revolutionary insight: only he discovered the real affinity! According to him, the exclusion of the 'diagram' (the visualisation) is a consequence of the old antagonism between 'cognitive knowledge and aesthetic experience' (2007,114). He wants to move the model from the periphery into 'the centre of art' (2007,31). Models of atoms, DNA-chains, or the skies, globes and maps, maquettes of buildings and rockets, have to displayed side by side with paintings and sculptures (2007,115) as well as with fist axes, tapestries and conceptual art... Again, Gottfried Boehm feels endorsed by the developments in modern art, which created 'alternative world models' 'beyond mimesis'' (2007,138). He refers to Mondrian's 'composition 10' in black and white (1915), which would be an analogy with an 'unknown reality'' (2007,137). We thus have fallen back on the position of Nelson Goodman, who is not able to tell a print of the Fujiyama by Hokusai from a temperature curve.

It is not difficult to see why also visualisations are here subsumed under the image: only in visualisations do we find 'Sinn, Bedeutung, Referenz', and everything that belongs to the paraphernalia of the sign. Boehm is talking emphatically about the 'reference' of his 'models' 'to their objects'(2007,115). Of skull scans, he asserts that: 'the self worth of the visible serves to illuminate a state of affairs that is external to the image' (2007, 110). Only through the reduction of the image to a non-verbal sign can it be subsumed under the Logos, and released from the realm of the dumb physis and its dumb mimesis. 'Diagrams are often strong, but outspoken cognitive images' (2007,51). And indeed: on a weather map, we can read from each point where which temperature reigns, just like we can read from the letters and numbers in a telephone book which number belongs to which person. And, with the opposition between image and sign, every difference between 'the concept of autonomous art' and 'images of science' is eliminated, again in the good tradition of Nelson Goodman's 'world views'(2007,137). In the same vein, Gottfried Boehm is talking about the way in which Marcel Duchamp 'inaugurated a new aesthetic practice with scientific means' (2007,99).


In ''Offene Horizonte. Zur Bildgeschichte der Natur', Gottfried Boehm applies his extended view of the image to the case of the map. The case is very illuminating, and that is why we want to dwell upon it a little longer.

The development of landscape painting goes hand in hand with the introduction of 'totally new images of nature': maps (2007,71). To Gottfried Boehm, maps are images: he stresses emphatically that the map, from Ptolemy to Mercator, is a 'pictura'. The success of landscape painting overshadowed the 'artistic value of the map' (2007,73). And Boehm wants to remedy such underestimation: after design and conceptual art, also the globe in the museum.

Let us compare three maps with a satellite photo. The maps are visualisations of population density, driving directions and relief. The satellite photo, on the other hand, is not a visualisation, but a genuine image: the visual rendering of the visual appearance of a part of the earth's surface.

It is important to stress that the rendering of the territory of 'France' in the maps is a visualization, and not an image. On the right side of the maps, the invisible frontier is rendered by a line and/or differences in colour. To the left, the equally invisible frontier coincides with the coastal line. We are dealing here with a visualisation of an invisible frontier through a line. On the satellite photo, conversely, only the optical image of the coastal line is to be seen, whereas the frontier is as invisible there as on the continent. The map of an island like England is not an image of it, even when it cannot be discerned from a line drawing of the island from a bird's eye view: in the former case we are dealing with a visualisation of frontiers, in the latter case with a visual rendering of the visible coastal line. On a photo of Switzerland, no borders are to be seen: we can only guess where the country is to be situated. It is evident, then, that maps are not images, but visualisations. Even when they look like an image, the resemblance is deceptive. Most deceptive is the relief map, because height is rendered through a colour code that is visually motivated in that low regions look mostly green, and high regions are barren (see the legend below on the map). But the distribution of green on the photo is different from that on the map: just have a look on the delta of the Garonne. On the mountains on the photo, we see the white of the snow, where the map shows only dark brown. According to the same code, the Sahara on a relief map of Africa is green...

Maps are not images. And images are not maps: only gradually did the cartographers grow conscious of this fact, because the first maps were meant for sailors and traders or for military purposes, they were above all physical maps. Images can readily be used as maps (think of the 'maps' of da Vinci, which are only images read as signs). But, gradually, maps emancipate themselves from the images. The cartographers discover that maps are visualisations, and begin to develop all kinds of analog signs, the meaning of which is explained in legends. This is most apparent in the replacement of the rendering of mountains through schematised profiles of mountains, as on Mercator maps, with colour codes. Let us remark that we should not confuse genuine images of space with visualisations of all kinds of non-visual radiation, which look so deceptively like images. The development of space photographs - although they can also be used as maps - is not the completion of cartography, but a phase in the development of the image. It makes no sense, hence, to state that landscape painting eclipsed the 'artistic nature' of maps, and that space photography reversed this trend, as Gottfried Boehm suggests (2007,73). Conversely, if Mondriaan's 'composition 10' is an analog model, as Boehm puts it, then it would not be an image, and hence not art.

Only when we acknowledge the difference between image and visualisation do we realise how mistaken it is to contend that the 'perspective view through' (Durchblick), which according to Boehm is characteristic for the landscape, would be replaced with 'thousand and none view' of the map (2007, 81). We do not look on a map like we look at a painting, but rather like we look at the letters of a book: we do not contemplate the letters, but rather look through them to hear the words. Even less is there a synthetic 'overview': when we look at the letters as such, we only see the lay-out of the page, while the content escapes us. The content is only revealed when we read the letters one after another. In the same vein, a map is a database of signs. We can surely look at it as a whole, but it releases its meaning only when we decipher one particular sign on it: for instance in determining at which height x is situated.

For the same reason, it does not make sense to compare the sharpness of a map with the sharpness of an image, and to contend that a landscape exhibits differences in sharpness, whereas the map is overall sharp. To begin with, the latter is not correct: on the satellite photo of France, everything is more than sharp, and also a photo of the earth's surface from a 'bipedal's perspective' can be overall sharp, especially since the introduction of digital techniques, without losing its sense of depth (think of Andreas Gursky). But, above all, the former is a big mistake: a map does not gain in depth when we would reduce its sharpness at the borders, it only would become less readable, whereas its meaning would remainunaltered - 'sharp' in the metaphorical sense of the world.

Also the opposition between the landscape as a 'vertical image' with a horizon (view through, 'Durchblick', 2007,82), and the map as a 'horizontal image' (2007,81) without a horizon (overview, 'Überblick'), is a double mystification. To begin with, next to the ordinary'bipedal's perspective', there is also the frog's perspective and the bird's eye view, which can amount to 90°, where the surface of the earth or the depths of the sky come into view rather than the horizon. Only here can we speak of a real 'overview'. Precisely during the advent of cartography, the Flemish landscape painters had an outspoken predilection for a rather heavy bird's eye view in order to show all kinds of geographical formations. It is important to state clearly that the horizon is the place where the earth's surface escapes from view - which is the source of its appeal, before and after Columbus. As such, the horizon is only to be seen at the divide of heaven and sea, or of heaven and a flat landscape (like the polders in Holland). In all the other cases - the majority - the horizon is partially or totally hidden from view by all kinds of coulisses: remote coulisses like mountains or hills (Chinese landscapes), more nearby coulisses like the 'skyline' of cities (Vermeer's 'view on Delft'), and finally, nearby coulisses like persons or other objects on the foreground ('Verschneite Hütte' from Caspar David Friedrich). In the majority of the landscapes, there surely is a sky above the mountains, the city or the hut, but no horizon. As horizontal perspective is replaced with the bird's eye view, the focus is no longer on the horizon, but rather on the earth's surface or the skies, like on the satellite photo of France. On that photo, the horizon seems to have disappeared. But it only has been framed out: it suffices to change the perspective or to zoom out, to get the horizon back in view, and in its full glory at that: as the circular circumference of the earth. The satellite photo of France - just like the satellite photos from Andreas Gurksy's series 'Ocean' - has no horizon, not because it would be a 'horizontal image' or an 'overview', but because it has been zoomed out.

Things are totally different with a map. Since we are dealing with a visual analogy of the surface of a spherethat knows no beginning or end, there is neither a beginning nor an end of the map - which becomes fully apparent when we apply it on a globe. We can also use some kind of projection on a two-dimensional surface (like the Mercator projection), and then the map has edges: round, oval or rectangular. That there is no horizon in a map, but only edges, has nothing to do with the fact that it would be a 'horizontal image' - it is spherical in essence - but with the fact that we are dealing with analog signs that have to be read, not contemplated.


Not only deceptive resemblances, like those between a map and an image, play a role in making the subsumption of the image under the sign acceptable, also language is often misleading. To begin with, the word 'image' is often used in a metaphoric sense, as we have seen above. But language sets many other traps. Thus, with Gottfried Boehm, a representation is mostly called 'meaning, sense' ('Sinn'). On a material substratum - da Vinci's stains (2007,39), Cézanne's brush strokes, or Monet's 'matière'(2007,48) - 'something else reveals itself (zeigt sich): a sight, a view, a meaning - precisely an image' (2007,37). Elsewhere, Gottfried Boehm is talking about the 'content' ('der Gehalt' (2007,38) or 'the theme': 'When we are talking about images, we are talking of the difference wherein one or more thematic focuses relate to an undifferentiated field' (2007,48-49). How much Gottfried Boehm understands this 'theme', 'content' or 'Sinn' as 'meaning', appears when he describes what he calls the 'primal scene of the iconic': 'the emergence of something meaningful from a material substrate' (2007,124). From the interpretation of 'representation' as 'theme' or 'meaning', it is only one step to assimilate image and non-verbal statement: 'Beyond language, there exist immense spaces of meaning'' (2007,53)

This ambivalence compromises the opposition between 'saying' and 'showing', which is correct in principle. 'The power of the image means: giving to see... showing' (2007,39), and such 'showing' is 'the basis of saying'' (2007,44). But Gottfried Boehm cannot really oppose the showing of the image to the saying of language, since, as a consequence of the 'linguistic turn', the image must be a kind of non-verbal speaking. And indeed, in 'Begriffe und Bilder' he contends that in Brancusi's 'The beginning of the world', we are dealing with predication: the marble is at the same time head, egg and ovoid. Otherwise than with the concept, the image is not a 'unequivocal and founded statement', but rather an ambiguous one, 'an interference of meanings'(2007,200-221), a metaphor: 'The visual status of the image can best be described by analogy with the metaphor: the same - the creation of marble - is many things'' (2007, 220). Which demonstrates clearly thatto him 'showing' is not revealing, but 'saying' - ascribing an (equivocal or unequivocal) predicate to something. In the above, Boehm seems to contend that both image and (verbal) language as well as concept do predicate, but that the image is ambiguous and the concept unambiguous. It is obvious, however, that not every image is ambiguous: a 'true to nature rendering' of a portrait by Bernini or Van der Weyden is a bluntly unambiguous 'simulacrum'. And that applies even more to the 'images' of Boehm: maps have to be unambiguous rather than ambiguous. Whereas 'predication' in the image has to be understood rather metaphorically, in unfolds in full glory in visualisations like maps: each point on a relief map is a non-verbal statement that predicates in the full sense of the world: point x is on height y. In his endeavour to tell images from language, In passing: Boehm declares, in another context, that the difference between both is to be found in the opposition between propositional and non-propositional 'The logic of images is non-predicative' (2007,34). However that might be, it will be clear that there is a wide gap between the emergence of the image of a cathedral from the paint of Monet, ascribing the 'predicate' 'cathedral', and the interpretation of a point on a relief map as the proposition 'point x is at height y''. One 'meaning' is not the other .

Also the word 'showing' itself, finally, is the cause of much confusion. It can be understood as 'revealing', as when Phryne unveils her beauty, but also as 'pointing to', as when someone shows the way. A satellite photo of France shows a part of the earth's surface, in the sense that Phryne shows her body. In that first sense, a road map only shows a conglomerate of visual signs. Only when we decipher these signs do we know which way to follow - does the map 'show us the way', in the second meaning of the word. The concept of 'showing' in the sense of 'revealing' applies to what an image does, not to what a visualisation does. And conversely, 'showing' in the sense of 'pointing to' applies perfectly to a visualisation, but not to an image. 'Showing' as 'pointing to' is the 'reference' of a sign, whereas 'showing' as 'revealing' is the presentification of the image. Also non-motivated signs like letters and numbers 'show' in the senses of 'referring to'. Again, in the sense of 'pointing to', 'showing' can surreptitiously be subsumed under 'saying' - under language, be it verbal or non verbal.


Gottfried Boehm not only extends the image to the domain of design and the real world, but also to the domain of visualisations and hence to the world of non-verbal codes or languages in general.

That extension lays bare the fundamental weakness of the whole construction. The world of non-verbal languages comprises not only the above mentioned signs that are motivated by visual similarity or analogy, but in the first place purely arbitrary 'conventional' signs: think of the 'system' of the flags, where diverse combinations of colours are used as signs for countries.

Only in these visual codes is revealed the genuine - semiotic rather than iconic - difference that is the real counterpart of the 'acoustic difference' of articulated sound, the purely arbitrary - non-motivated, non-mimetic and non-analog - basis of their signifying potential, as demonstrated by de Saussure. We found similar visual codes at work in the colour codes on maps. Even images - when they are used as signs motivated by visual similarity - can be integrated in the semiotic difference of such codes, as is the case with many pictograms, or they may be combined with purely arbitrary signs, like the red circle crossed with a diagonal:

The question remains why of all people Gottfried Boehm, who is so keen on extending the concept of the image, does not integrate such visual codes in his continua. The answer is that the sheer simplicity of these codes reveals in all clarity that we are not dealing here with images, unless we would be prepared to call letters images of words as well, and thus make the concept of image trivial altogether. With relief maps or visualisations of background radiation in space, the difference is not so striking. But in the comparison between a satellite photo of France and the flag or the word for France, it catches the eye: we clearly see that the colour code of a flag is more related to letters than to a photograph - that maps belong in the category of letters and flags, together with images that are used as signs.

(satellite photo read as a sign)

We can express this state of affairs in the following scheme, with a binary opposition between (autonomous) image and sign, and on the side of the signs three kinds of signs according to the nature of the relation between sign and meaning (or referent), where by we omit the countless possible combinations for clarity's sake:

image (visual) sign
image sign (motivated by visual similarity)
visualisation (motivated by visual analogy)
visual codes (unmotivated)

This scheme is a more complete (but not exhaustive) version of the previous, where only visualisations were contrasted with the pole of the image.


The move with which Gottfried Boehm subsumes not only design and displayed reality, but also images that are signs, and visualisations under the image, only reveals its full meaning, when we do not loose out of sight the contrary move, with which not only the painting, but also the mirror (or the photograph) are declared to be borderline phenomena of the 'immense spaces of meaning beyond language''. The move can only be made plausible though silently assimilate the image with the image used as a sign. The scheme above shows that both must not be confused: only the image-sign can be placed on the same footing with visualisations and arbitrary visual codes, although there is no talk here of a continuum between image and sign, but only of a scale of signs consisting of three discrete steps.

This scheme also shows that the extension of the image to the 'images beyond the image' in modern art or contemporary science is not justified: we are dealing either with items that are not images at all, or with configurations that belong in the category of visual signs, which are only images in the metaphorical sense of the word. Or, to paraphrase Boehm's statement: 'Beyond the realm of images, there exist immense spaces of non-visual signs.'

It might be objected that it is only a question of terminology. There is no problem in se with extending the meaning of the term image thus that it comes to encompass temperature curves, flags and written words. But we then have at least to reintroduce a term for what used to be called 'an image'. And that 'x' must then also be clearly discerned from an 'x used as a sign, from visualisations, and from unmotivated non-verbal and verbal signs. Granted, it is more appropriate to discern images in the literal sense and images in the metaphorical sense, better still, since images in the metaphorical sense are signs, to simply contrast signs with images. Because Boehm only extends the concept of the image, without making the necessary subdivisions, he sweeps the image under the carpet and comes to simply deny the existence of presentifying images.

The accusation of iconoclasm, hence, applies not so much the 'reproduction industry' or modern art, but in the first place to the very man who wanted to reveal what an image is. In joining the iconoclastic fervour to understand the image in terms of the sign, he only provides the umpteenth justification for the iconoclastic crusade of modern art (see: Mimesis and art). The fact that Gottfried Boehm does not tell (mimetic) models from autonomous images, and the fact that he seems to have a predilection for complex 'image-like' visualisations, and overlooks the simple visual signs, betrays how much the very man who wanted to refer the photo and even the painting to the periphery of the realm of images, is mesmerised by the 'simulacrum' or the 'copy', the ''Abbild' - the mirror image as the archetype of the image. Or: 'das (Ab)bild als 'Götzenbild' - Aron's golden calf.

Whoever thought to find the answer to the question 'What is an image?" with Gottfried Boehm, must have a rude awakening: just like with Nelson Goodman (1976) the images evaporate into the ghost world of the sign. Despite all his talk about difference, Gottfried Boehm eliminates all the differences between the sign and image, whereas, at the same time, he fails to descry the difference between the genuine 'visual difference', that is constitutive for the visual sign, and the 'mimetic difference' that is constitutive of the image.

Gottfried Boehm's 'iconic turn': not more than a half-hearted regression to positions that were already taken by his predecessors, with even less success.

Stefan Beyst, March 2010.

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