English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

October 23, 2009

The Relationships of Pictures and Words

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention),Uncategorized — gloriachamarro @ 2:04 pm

I had not realized how imperative the relationship of pictures and words is. Prior to encountering Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” I had always enjoyed reading picture books out loud to children. I found that it was another form of connecting with them. Picture books were always a nice way to get their minds thinking and engage them in literature.  A couple weeks ago, while I was babysitting my niece and nephew, we saw the commercial to the movie “Where the Wild Things Are” and they immediately pointed out how they really wanted to watch it because the book was “good”. As I saw the monsters on the commercial I could not help but to question why they would create a movie about monsters for children to see and especially why they would create a book for them to read that had “wild things”. My niece and nephew ended up reading “Where the Wild Things Are” out loud to me and they explained how they are monsters but they are not “the scary kind”.

After reading the story, I could not help but to agree with Perry Nodelman when he states that “…it is the pictures and not the words that tell us there is nothing to worry about, that despite our assumptions about the weakness of children and the violence of monsters, this particular child can take care of himself with these particular monsters”. (197) I agree with Nodelman because I recall whenever I saw the book and took a glimpse of the cover with the monster or “wild thing” on the cover I always turned it down. It never appealed for me to pick it up and want to read it.

During class discussion regarding the book we spoke about “running text” and how it increases the suspense in the story as well as pushes you to read faster in order to turn the pages and keep finding out more of what is occurring in the story. Not only does it increase suspense but it always allows you to visualize the text really coming to life as you flip the page. For example when the “forest grew…grew… and grew.. in his room” the pictures next to each word or phrase allowed you to appreciate how enormous that forest would turn out to be and definitely left me wanting to read more and more as if I was going on this adventure with him.  As Nodelman says, “Part of the reason this sequence of pictures and words is so interesting is that the words change the meaning of the pictures, and the pictures  then change the meaning of the words…”(219) which is clearly seen when we encounter the “Wild Things”, the little boy seems to be terrified as he is sailing toward their land but once he arrives to their land, the reader notices that the “Wild Things” are not to be feared. On the contraire, the “Wild Things” are creatures that find love for the little boy and do not want him to leave their land.

Much like people who participate in Nodelman’s experiments with picture books, I too found myself thinking this was not a book meant for children. Although the adults he used were only exposed to the words and needed the pictures to change their mind, in my case, I was exposed only to the pictures and needed the words to allow me to establish a connection with the text. Once I had both the words and the pictures I changed my mind about the book and like the fact that the relationship of pictures and words allowed me to appreciate the book.

October 7, 2009

Nature vs. convention

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — keliayr @ 8:57 pm

In his article “Nature and Convention: Gombrich’s Illusions,” W.J.T. Mitchell addresses E.H. Gombrich’s attempts to determine whether imagery and language are natural or conventional art forms. Gombrich, Mitchell says, believes that images are more natural than words because they are “more easily learned [and] they are the sign we share with animals” (89). But, where Gombrich sees this as a positive indicator with relation to images, Mitchell associates this idea of images with a base instinct which he calls “a lower region of brute necessity” (79). Mitchell even goes so far as to say that the “naturalness” that Gombrich refers to with regard to imagery “can convey only a limited and relatively inferior sort of information, suitable for beings in a ‘state of nature’ – children, illiterates, savages or animals” (79). In other words, Mitchell says, imagery is a natural instinct that even animals can perceive. He then goes on to say that language is what separates and elevates humans above beasts and savages: “the perception of images [are] abilities which man seems to share with animals,” but that “to be human is to be endowed with the power of speech” (76). Unfortunately, in today’s society, I think the vast majority of adults would agree with Mitchell, saying that pictures are for children and that language is more of an advanced adult art form. Comic books, for example, have, unfortunately tended to be associated with readers who have limited literary skills. Picture books are for children and even animated films are considered family fare. But, as graphic novels become more advanced, (i.e. the “City of Glass” graphic novel, which deals with complex adult existential themes) and animated films take on more adult themes (Pixar’s most recent film “Up” starts with a 30-minute pictorial montage with no dialogue which brilliantly centers around the adult theme of losing a beloved spouse), Mitchell’s (and the rest of society for that matter) theories begin to falter.

One additional point of interest that Mitchell discusses is the difference in the perceived accuracy inherent in imagery versus language. He points out that the “naturalness of the image makes it a universal means of communication that provides a direct, unmediated and accurate representation of things, rather than an indirect, unreliable report about things” (79) and goes on to say that in a courtroom, a photograph would be considered more reliable as evidence than an eye-witness account, showing that the “natural and visible sign is inherently more credible than the verbal report” (79). I think once again society tends to subscribe to this way of thinking, tending generally to trust what they see visually over what they hear verbally. But, in this day and age when image software like Photoshop can doctor, transform, warp and altogether alter photographs, this faith in visual imagery is no longer as strong as it once was. Tabloid newspapers thrive on this kind of image manipulation to sell newspapers, giving celebrities an alien head or a mermaid tail or who knows what else. In addition, models’ bodies are constantly retouched on magazine covers to make them look thinner. So, while Leonardo da Vinci may think that imagery “imitates natural objects, the handiwork of God, in contrast to poetry, which contains ‘only lying fictions about human actions’” (78), in reality, both can represent either truth or fiction depending on the way in which the imagery or words are used.

Nature and Convention

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — cja4 @ 3:58 pm

Is there a difference between nature and convention signs? Does the mind recognize certain signs naturally without ever learning about them or are all things learned? The articles by Gombrich argues on the idea that certain signs are natural, others are conventional. I believe that all signs have to be learn to be recognize. The mind can’t recognize a sign unless its been taught to identify  it. It means that pictures speak louder than words. A sign is connected to something whether it represents something or someone, but over time people are taught to recognize it.

There are some signs that recognized by animals,but humans have the power of speech. The articles says “To be human is to be endowed with the power of speech, the capacity that lifts us out of the state of nature and makes culture, society, and history possible”(76).  The power of speech has allowed us to put signs to objects. If it wasnt for language we wouldn’t be able to have conventional signs which come natural to us. All around the world they are different signs that mean something else in our culture. We might not understand it, but in other parts of the world they are.

We live in a culture that  we learn signs that stand for something. It could be a logo to a company, stand for a group of people, and genders. An example would be the playboy bunny, its recognizable because its part of our culture which stands for playboy magazines. Not everyone else would recognize it they might just see a bunny. Learning comes from knowing the signs that represents things in our culture after that the signs become natural to us.

The articles says “images are naturally recognizable because they are imitations and words are based on conventions”(80). People first need to learn the imitation that image is imitating. There not an image that people can recognize before learning what it means first. They are limits on what the mind sees and recognizing it.

Images are learned through language and then the language puts pictures for them. The article argues on how Socrates that words like images have a natural connection. They do, but unless its put together. They are signs all over which stand for something. The difference between the male and female restrooms, handicap parking spots, and where not to smoke. These are signs in our culture that we are taught that stand for something and we know how to identifity them.


Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention),OUR JOURNAL — mojde @ 3:20 pm

Question asked in Art and Illusions by E. H. Gombrich: “Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible worlds in such different ways?” This reminds me of many examples and studies of human beings. Going back through history, people in Stone Age, at the time languages weren’t developed were using signs and symbols implied from nature to communicate. They had painting in caves and were using symbols of  nature to convey a message. As Wolfflin formulated the conviction that “not everything is possible in every period” (Gombrich, 4) We now see that these days with new technologies and digital world which is taking over everything in people’s life even art and images are changing their meaning. As we all know the way people are communicating is different than even 10 years ago. There is a vast usage of abbreviations that perhaps wouldn’t even make sense years ago, or even today for some people who are not still much into technology. People use the symbol : – ) and in some word processing programs or emails it turns to a smiley face, which is actually known as “smiley face” by us now, but not perhaps in the past,  and almost everyone today understand this, because it is interpreted. Although few years ago that would only mean some punctuation signs and wouldn’t make any sense or even seem inappropriate in the middle of a text.

This proofs Nelson Goodman statement that Gombrich refers to : ” almost any picture may represent almost anything”.  (Gombrich, 12)

We all understand the peace symbol; it’s just become very universal, although at first it was probably known by minority of people at the time, not to mention the whole story behind it.


Now we recognize different symbols representing the same idea.

peace_handIsn’t this image only a hand?


peace2This is a beautiful bird flying, as a child may describe the image.

When we look at different symbols from different era and different culture, we may not understand the meaning unless familiar with the definitions and conventions. Like Egyptian symbols:


Or a Japanese symbol may not have any meaning for us:


Unless translated: Good Fortune.

Didn’t it change our vision?

I would say painting or picture or any other kind of imitation of a familiar object is always understandable by almost everyone, because of its universal language (unless representing or symbolizing something else that is described and defined), but words from different languages can not be understood by everyone. As we see in Figure 5 in Gombrich’s Scope and Limits, Cave Canem, be ware of dogs. “To understand the notice you must know Latin, and to understand the picture you must know about dogs.” (p 18) But this understanding of images is related to understanding of the actual object in its visible form. For someone who have not seen a boat a painting of a boat doesn’t mean anything.

It reminds me of a story that they put an elephant in a dark room and ask some people to touch it and guess what it is, and each person touches different parts of the animal and one by touching the ear says it’s a fan, the other by touching the back says it’s a table and else. Or another example from movies such as Vantage Point that each person has to describe assassination of the president from their own point of view and from the angle that they view the incident, and even a person videoing the incident could not have the whole picture. What I want to say with these examples is that the image we see as representation of an object is always from different point of views and different angles and although we may recognize the object but it’s just an illusion and it is only representing part of the actual being. And that is why we see different ways and style of paintings, even from a single object. Depends on the medium and tools being used and the person creating the picture we have different representation of that single object that it seems we all see it the same way. (like the example of looking for a criminal that is described by different people and is drawn by artists according to the description)

At the end I refer to the difference between humans and animals. As I mentioned above that mostly the signs and symbols, although representing an actual visual object, should be defined to represent their meaning as a universal sign. Like the driving signs that every driver has to go to school to understand them and be able to follow and pay attention to, while driving.

There is this joke: In a country road, a lady goes to the Mayer and complains and asks them to remove this sign from the road in front of their house:


When asked for the reason, she claims that all the deers see this sign and think it’s ok to cross the road and poor deers get killed! 

With no additional comment, this concludes my discussion.

Today, a picture is worth a hundred or two words, tops

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention),Uncategorized — jenniferjoellis @ 2:45 pm

E. H. Gombrich, in “Art and Illusion,” writes that he wonders if future generations will look at our paintings the way we look at Egyptian paintings. Will they see our images as “unconvincing” as we see the Egyptians’ paintings today? (3) It could be assumed that Egyptian paintings lack depth because they lacked the technology, the vision, to create paintings like later generations. While looking at Egyptian paintings, they seem especially unreal to me since the photograph now is more prevalent than the painting. Gombrich writes that “never before has there been an age like ours when the visual image was so cheap in every sense of the word” (7). In a chance to have a realistic picture of just about anything, including Google Earth where one can have a real picture of their house available on the internet at any time–for anybody with web access, a picture hardly seems worth a thousand words anymore. Maybe just a hundred or two, tops.

Art, and images in general, are certainly different today than in any other time. Gombrich, in “Image and Code,” writes that the way that one sees art is changed if the viewer understands the arbitrary code within the art. He mentions that impressionistic art was hard to understand until one understood how to view it. He goes on to give an example of looking at a photographic negative (though I wonder how many kids today have actually seen a photographic negative in this digital age). When one knows how to look at the negative, one can see the picture within. If one does not know that the light and dark of a traditional photo are reversed, then one would not “see” the image within the negative (16). Gombrich seems to be saying that the seeing and understanding of art is learned and not natural, nor is it ever without some kind of agenda. Gombrich writes about a picture of a dog on a gate that warns people to keep out. The dog is not meant to be a neutral drawing, as it is to serve as a warning, it is better if the image looks “menacing.”  Gombrich surmises “we cannot regard the visual environment as neutral” (20). Nothing is ever completely arbitrary.

Gombrich writes that “meaning . . . does not depend on likeness.” Though naturalism was thought of as the highest ideal at one time, Gombrich does not think that this happened because people wanted the most accurate image possible. “Western art would not have developed the special tricks of naturalism if it had not been found that the incorporation in the image of all the features which serve us in real life for the discovery of testing and meaning enabled the artist to do with fewer and fewer conventions” (41). In other words, the artist is never merely copying an image as accurately as possible. There are signs within every painting, if the viewer knows what to look for.

Mitchell writes in “Iconology” that Gombrich’s view of pictures vs. paintings is that a picture, a “natural sign,” is easier to understand since it does not require additional “required knowledge” (79). Mitchell’s definition of the “natural sign” is that it is “nothing more than the easy or convenient sign, the one we are accustomed to, the one we learn to use without difficulty” (85). The problem is that “natural” signs vary by culture, and there are no signs that are universally understood. Even photographs are staged, some more obviously than others, so we are never getting to the “real” image. I think that what Gombrich is trying to show is that artists cannot make a neutral picture because the signs of our time have a way of slipping into an image, whether the artist is aware of this or not.

Jennifer Ellis

It doesn’t really look like a duck or a rabbit to me.

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — elizabethcaffey @ 2:42 pm

Liz Caffey

English 430

October 7, 2009

Gombrich distinguishes between natural signs and conventional signs. Language is a convention where certain illusionist western art is more closely related to natural signs.

Although an image’s relation to the natural object it is trying to represent may be easier to see than a word’s relation to the natural word images are abstractions just as concepts or words are. The image takes enough of the qualities perceived from the object to make it identifiable as representation of it. Language and conventional signs are separated in Gombrich’s writing from the natural world but both language and natural signs are dependent on the natural world to exist. The medium of the artwork, paint or photo etc, is in some way equivalent to the words in language. Neither one means or resembles anything on it’s own.

It seems like surrealist art like Dali for example has been left out of the debate. Images that both imitate and conceptualize nature. Less direct representations, or representations that distort and conceptualize “reality.” It seems to me that there is a whole realm of art that has been left out or didn’t exist yet when the argument was made that is the gray area of the debate.

And the mention that literature fictionalizes seems to ignore the amount of fictionalizing that takes place with images. An image may represent the thing but flaws can be excluded from the representation, proportions are idealized, etc.

Grombach writes that we search for meaning in the image by figuring out what it represents, isn’t it the same thing when we start reading between the lines in a text? We search for meaning in everything.

Mitchell brings up the argument often made that either visual or verbal art is superior to the other. I really don’t get why one has to be superior to the other. What is the ultimate goal the two are competing to attain?

Mitchell also highlights Gombrich’s statement that we don’t have to acquire knowledge about teet and claws the same ways in which we learn about language. I don’t agree with that at all. I think acquired knowledge about how bad teeth or claws hurt might intensify the meaning of an image of a dog with them!

The sounds of language may be arbitrary but the construction of a meaningful string of them is not arbitrary. Maybe the color of objects is arbitrary. What is the “meaning” of plants being green and not blue? It seems arbitrary to me. But marks them for identification none the less.

Against Conventional Wisdom

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — alyale51 @ 2:23 pm

Sixth Sense: Against “Conventional” Wisdom

Many critics/historians claim that the whole “natural” vs. “conventional” signs debate, which Mitchell and Gombrich both trace back to Plato’s Cratylus, to be a foundational, inherent distinction between painting and poetry. Painting, as the argument goes, does not use “conventional” signs, (that is, arbitrary, manmade signs constructed according to cultural or social convention) whereas poetry (whose medium is language) does. Painting, then, uses only “natural” signs, or those which occur in nature, and therefore, do not have to be learned. Gombrich’s Psychology and the Riddle of Style makes use of the vocabulary of linguistics in its description of the process in which art is created, and its “reliance on construction rather than on imitation” (76). If we were to take this analogy to linguistics to its logical conclusion, then, the whole painting/poetry distinction, as Mitchell is quick to point out, collapses.

From the work of Noam Chomsky, this phenomenon of construction rather than imitation, which is known by the linguistic term “productivity” proves that, in contradiction to the popularly held view or the conventional wisdom that children (and adult second language learners) acquire language exclusively through imitation (mimesis), human beings are actually born pre-programmed or wired for language, and accounts for the ability of children who have acquired only a few words and/or semantic strings, to generate an endless number of new combinations to construct phrases and sentences previously unheard. In other words, language is not a mere imitation of what is heard, but a mental construct that humans are born with. We simply “fill in the gaps” with those particularly specific, arbitrary or “conventional” signs that come with our national or cultural group’s language. Put another way, all children are born with, in Chomsky’s terms, a “universal” grammar. We only imitate the specifics of the language we are born into, whether it is English, Chinese, Farsi, Tagalog, or whatever.

It occurs to me that the same is true of the artistic process, regardless of the medium: painting, poetry, music can be seen as analogous to a specific language (English, Chinese, Farsi, etc.) with cultural conventions or “conventional” signs particular to the medium and style of the period and/or ethnic group; however, it is my firm belief, based on my own artistic experience with composing music, writing poetry and attempting to paint, that all humans are born with a “universal [artistic] grammar,” or some mental capacity to create art, regardless of whether the medium is in images, music, or words. In other words, the same capacity for language that makes us “different from the rest of creation” also allows us to mentally construct images and/or songs. Therefore, I can only conclude that critics from Plato to Gombrich are all only partially right, which makes them all wrong: word and image are derived from the same source (they are mental constructs), and “customized” according to convention in outward expression in order to communicate to another human being “one inside talking to another inside,” as Donald Hall put it.

As Mitchell points out, consuming images, or “reading” them depends on learned conventions. Unfortunately, as an illustrative example of this, both Gombrich and Mitchell cite the pervasive images of a pornographic nature, and do not make a value judgment on the nature of pornographic images.  Certainly, pornographic images are not a linguistic “universal.”  That is, pornography is not “read” in all time periods, in all cultures, or even by everyone in our own culture.  However, as perhaps more illustrative an example,  I chose four images in a progression which I obtained from putting “Nude Descending Staircase” in a search engine. As I expected, the first series of images were photographs or slides of Marcel Duchamp’s famous cubist painting. The succeeding images, however, I believe were spawned in response to, or in dialogue with Duchamp’s work, and I believe that these images illustrate the necessity of conventions in order both to produce and consume these as works of art:

Marcel Duchamp's Nude

Marcel Duchamp's Nude

Criswell: Nude Descending

Criswell's Nude Descending

Criswell's Nude Descending


Georgia Tech – cskeels:
“Nude Descending Staircase”


John B. Mors’ homage to Duchamps:
Nude Descending Staircase

John B. Mohr's homage to Duchamp

John B. Mohr's homage to Duchamp

I think that while we are all “wired” with the innate capacity to “read” and “write” an image, I would suggest that deriving meaning from these four images, or interpreting the intertextuality of the dialogue/response of the images, depends on convention. In other words, we all have an inherent, intuitive facility for language, as well as for art. Developing this facility in order to express something artistic, or to “read” an artistic conversation, requires us, however, to learn the conventions of our time, our culture, our history, and so on. Similarly, if we misunderstand the imagery of another culture, as in Mitchell’s attribution of “obscene monoliths” to “primitive” cultures, we simply do not speak that culture’s language.


Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — andrewbelinfante @ 2:08 pm

Although Gombrich’s use of language is quite clear and his academic abilities, quite concise, I had a lot of trouble with this week’s readings as I could not bring myself to understand, fully, the concepts being presented. It seems to me that Gombrich sees a disconnect between what is natural versus what is considered a representation. Unfortunately, where the logic seems to fail me is where this coincides with the use of language and writing. To me, writing and language are not natural occurrences. These are skills we acquire; skills we are taught. If anything, the use of words is completely unnatural. I can agree with a point made that our vocal abilities come from within, as humans we are able to vocalize anything. But, the learned arbitrary signs of language are simply that, learned.

Firstly, the use of language in every country is different. Everybody learns their own system of thought and language. How could somebody possibly speak close to the way we do if they grow up with a different dialect/language/atmosphere? We are all different and language separates us. That separation is unnatural, humans create it. Also consider the feral child. Remember City of Glass? Peter Stillman, the feral, was lucky enough to be at an age where he could acquire language after his horrid situation was discovered. His natural state was to not speak clearly and to not use language to express himself. The dialectics of action are harbored in thought and exemplified through our use of language in everyday life.

In the same way that Gombrich expresses, “If art were only, or mainly, an expression of personal vision, there could be no history of art,” (3) I feel that language has a history itself and through its usage it evolves making it seem natural. W.J.T. Mitchell, in “Nature and Convention” discusses Gomrich’s works and makes points which I wholeheartedly agree with. I cannot do his words justice and therefore will let him explain. He comments, that

If the comparison of images to language was ‘more than a loose metaphor,’ however, it was not without limits, even in Art and Illusion, and much of Gombrich’s subsequent work has been devoted to spelling out those limits. Gombrich’s vast array of examples and his rhetorical virtuosity make it difficult to decide just how firmly, and at what specific points, he wants to reinstate the distinction.

I very much appreciate Mitchell’s critical nature to which he deals with Gombrich’s work. From Mitchell, I gather a respect of Gombrich’s work and a perspective to offer readers. Like Mitchell, I think Gombrich is a brute intellectual and his words resonate. I also feel that he is a necessary addition to the field of “nature versus convention,” or “image versus text.”

With that said, I want to not completely reject Gombrich’s ideas. I feel his relevance and his strong points lie in his ability to discuss human interpretations of art, and the perception we take while approaching art. Gombrich is a leader in the field and I enjoyed reading his well-written papers.

Convention vs Nature

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — uhchris @ 1:07 pm

Another argument for the differences between text and image is the convention vs. nature argument. The main claim here is that spoken words are conventional signs and painting use “natural” signs to “imitate” reality (76). According to Gombrich, the difference between text and image is a difference of styles. Gombrich seems to argue in favor of text superiority when he says “Styles, like languages, differ in the sequence of articulation and in the number of questions they allow the artist to ask; and so complex is the information that reaches us from the visible world that no picture will ever embody it all” (78). As art becomes more conceptual and less like what its imitating, we count this as a language of symbols rather then “natural signs” (Gombrich 76). Going to the argument that Mitchell later discusses in “Nature and Convention: Gombrich’s Illusions,” that images are superior for their universal language, as art becomes less realistic and more conceptual, it seems to enter the realm of symbols and arbitrary signs, something that requires some sort of predisposition to understand, similar to that of language.

We are conditioned to perceive certain arbitrary symbols to convey meaning and association. Or put another way, we are programmed to read (or interpret) a code (pictures or words) to have meaning. This would be Gombrich’ argument from “Image and Code: Scope and Limits of Conventionalism in Pictorial Representation.” What I think Gombrich is trying to say is that, what we perceive as “real” is relative (Gombrich, 12). What is it relative to? Our perceptions. How do we perceive? By gathering information. Pictures, as Gombrich puts it, are like maps, both of which can give us information but only if we are familiar with the code (14). Being familiar with the code allows us to interpret, thusly contributing to how we perceive such things. Just like with certain contemporary art in which we have to be familiar with “the code” in order to gain any sort of information that would allow us to perceive it in some way.

In the midst of all this debate over whether or not images and text are natural or convention, and which one is superior, I think we all miss a crucial point, a point which I think Mitchell said best in “Nature and Convention: Gombrich’s illusions:” “All signs, whether words or images, work by custom and convention, and all are imperfect, riddled with error” (92).  Both text and images have their advantages and disadvantages. Both are codes in some way, one is universal in nature, communicated to the masses, literate and illiterate alike, and the other is more efficient, conveying large amounts of information and complex ideas. One cannot be phased out in favor of the other, in fact it is often we find both “codes” side by side: most traffic lights will both read “walk” as well as illustrate the action in the form of a stick figure walking. When we first learn to read or “decode” language, we use the aid of pictures to help us associate the arbitrary letters and words to their respective representatives. When we pick up a paper, or surf the web, watch TV – virtually most of the things we do in our everyday lives we take for granted that it is through the combination of image and text that we get by, not by means of one alone.

By Christopher Osier

Construction of a “Conventional Naturalism”

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention) — elizjurgen @ 12:35 pm

By Elizabeth Jurgensen

It would seem that there is no such thing as a “natural” image, as any image is in fact produced, often with materials and tools unrecognizable from their “raw” or original state in nature. All images could be said to represent, as Gombrich acknowledges, an “equivalent” of the item it depicts. There are no “images” in nature; a plant or creature or element is never static, it is always changing, even if only at the molecular level. It exists solely as itself, never as an equivalent or likeness.

Words, on the other hand, could be said to be “natural” because the act of speech appears to be an instinctive human trait, and our vocalizations originate within, and issue from, a living being. Words do not have to exist in physical form, such as writing, to be said to exist and be useful in creating meaning.

In the case of both words and images, the meaning associated with a particular example of either could be credibly stated to be conventional, i.e. something which must be learned and which is framed within a cultural and social context. And, as Gombrich acknowledges throughout his work, particularly his essay from Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, the meaning is based in the psyche of both the producer and the audience, inherent in the purpose and intent of the communication, no matter what form it takes.

In my view, therefore, the crux of the argument over which of words and images is more natural and which more conventional seems to me to be what Mitchell calls the issue of  “right labeling” and “relative goodness” or “relative power,”  (77). I agree with Gombrich’s statement in his essay Image and Code: Scope and Limits of Conventionalism in Pictorial Representation, that it is not “helpful here to divide meanings into those which exist ‘by nature’ and others which are learned”  -i.e. conventional. Like him, I would say that a “hierarchy of responses” is a more appropriate framework – as Gombrich states, some responses “are more easily triggered, while we must be conditioned to discover others” (24). In other words, there is no escaping the fact that neither words nor images are completely clearly on one side or the other of the debate, so they can only be critically approached using varying degrees of naturalism versus convention.

The next step then, is where on the spectrum we humans place an image or a word. In that sense, certain images can be said to be closer to the “natural” end of the spectrum, such as Gombrich’s example of teeth and claws, which no person seems to need much training to recognize as dangerous, versus an image such as pop art poster, which will have different significance in different cultures.  I would argue that image in general does seem more “natural” in that most images seem to have some basis, however slight, in a form found in nature, as that is the only visual cue we as image-makers and viewers can start from.  Words, on the other hand, while they seem innate, must be “made up” in the sense that we must decide which sounds and symbols of speech signify what object or concept. These decisions depend heavily on cultural context, so I would contend that words occupy the end of the spectrum nearer convention.

In the end, though, I am of the opinion that words and images, regardless of how we label them or what level of power we ascribe to them, seem equally important to us. Despite our varying degrees of individual skill in producing either, the fact that we seem to have as natural an inclination toward image creation as speech would argue for equality between nature and convention.

I don’t think Gombrich, like any good theorist, was all that invested in either position being superior – I think to a great extent he simply enjoyed the intellectual and rhetorical exercise! And Mitchell, like any good theoretical interrogator, enjoys pulling apart and examining the underpinnings of varying opinions and schools of criticism. The amusing irony, of course, is that both are modeling nature and convention – the “natural” inclination of humans to question, explore, and communicate, and the “conventions” of the words and corresponding concepts which both employ to signify their purpose and intent.

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