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Art & artists

An unfamiliar anthropology

— December 2011

Article read level: Academic

Associated media

Cover of An Anthropology of Images by Hans Belting

An Anthropology of Images

Hans Belting

Although called an anthropology of images, this book is not an anthropology that would be familiar to an English-speaking anthropologist. It is a product of a German tradition of philosophical anthropology, which is essentially an armchair pursuit. It contains a large number of claims based on the author’s opinion rather than any form of experimental observation and reads more like cultural criticism, though without the wit and clarity of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. Like Sontag he claims to write for ‘us’, though the ‘us’ in this case is not the readers of the New York Review of Books but with academics familiar with the phantasmal creations of the German philosophical tradition.

This book considers highly abstract issues and has emerged out of German academic debates related to media studies. Its author Hans Belting has already published two books in English, Likeness and Presence and The End of the History of Art, that are highly readable and informative. This book continues those trains of thought but suffers from the defect of being decidedly unreadable. The author himself recognized that there could be a problem. In his introduction for the English reader he tells us that he excised one chapter on the grounds that it would ‘resist any meaningful translation’ and commented that the ‘reader may be startled or irritated by some passages in the present translation’. The problem runs deeper than that.

An Anthropology of Imagesis aimed at those academics who would enjoy reading the authors described in Jae Emerling’s Theory for Art History (2005). Its use is that it draws attention to the phenomenon of the ‘image’, as opposed to the traditional work of art, and its engagement with contemporary media, offering insights gleaned from the author’s earlier work in medieval art history. Image analysis may be applied to, for example, the ‘image’ of the king in the court of Louis XIV. Belting, however, wanders between a variety of uses of the term ‘image’ leaving the reader confused as to the nature of his project. There is a potentially interesting chapter on ‘The coat of arms and the portrait: Two media of the body’, though its language becomes so outlandish that it leaves the reader wandering in a fog. The author was right to say that ‘a book that that has been thought and written in German, should be rewritten, and reconceived as a new book in English’. It is just very regrettable that by his own admission it was ‘a task impossible for [him] even to consider’.

An Anthropology of Images by Hans Belting is published by Princeton University Press, 2011. 208 pp., 61 mono illus. ISBN 978-0-691-14500-6


Richard Woodfield
Editor of the Journal of Art Historiography
The Journal of Art Historiography is published by the University of Glasgow

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