Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach
by Hans Belting
11. The Colonization of Images
The difference between image and medium clearly emerges in a crosscultural
context. It is obvious that media, such as film or TV, easily enter
different cultural environments where the resulting images nonetheless
continue to represent a particular local tradition. This even applies to photography,
as Christopher Pinney has demonstrated in his book on Indian
photography.25 It therefore is not at all self-evident that the global dissemination
of visual media, however rooted they are in Western culture, will
cause a worldwide spread of Western images or, even less so, of Western
imagination. The opposite is more likely to happen if economic conditions
will allow another course of events.
Current image theories, despite their claims to universal validity, usually
representWestern traditions of thinking.Views that are rooted in traditions
other thanWestern have not yet entered our academic territories except in
ethnology’s special domains. And, yet, non-Western images have left their
traces in Western culture for a long time. I therefore would like to end my
essay with two such cases, the remembrance of which may replace an impossible
conclusion. The one is primitivism, which, a century ago, dominated
the scene of avant-garde art. The other is the colonization of Mexican
images, half a millennium ago, by the Spanish conquerors.
Primitivism was the longing for an alien and even superior art where art,
in the Western sense, had never existed. The exclusively formal appropriation
of African masks and “fetishes” resulted in a perception that separated image and medium. Picasso and his friends never reproduced any
African figures as such but, rather, transferred African forms to Western
media, such as oil painting. To be more precise, primitivist artists extracted
their own images of what the African artifacts looked like and reapplied
them to modernist art. In the first moment, they did not care about the
significance the images had for the indigenous people but abstracted from
those images what they reinterpreted as style, thus dissolving the original
symbiosis of image and medium. The images that the African artifacts were
meant to convey at home totally differed from the ones aWestern audience
would identify in them. In other words, the same visual medium transmitted
images of very different kinds in the original situation and in the
Western situation. The Western audience did not merely misunderstand
what it saw; it also invested the imported works with mental images of its
own. It is in keeping with this dual process of deappropriation and reappropriation
that the link with living rituals was lost in a double abstraction:
abstraction in terms of the images’ translation into modernist style and abstraction
in terms of their transfer to gallery art.26
The colonization of indigenous images as a result of the Spanish conquest
of Mexico has been beautifully analyzed by Serge Gruzinski, whose
book Images at War provides a convenient guide for the topic.27 Two different
issues in this historic situation may be singled out for my purpose.
The first is the clash between seemingly incompatible concepts of what images
are, which caused the Spaniards to reject the possibility that the Aztecs
had images at all. The Spaniards denounced Aztec images as merely strange
objects, which they defined as cernie´s and thus excluded from any comparison
with their own images. The same rejection applied to the native religion,
which did not seem just a different religion but no religion at all. In
fact, the images on both sides represented religion, which was an additional
reason for the Spaniards to recognize nothing but idols or pseudoimages in
Mexico. In a countermeasure, the importation of Spanish images became
an important part of Spanish politics. But to introduce the foreign “icons”
into the “dreams” of the indigenous, a mental colonization was needed.
Heavenly visions were enforced on selected Aztecs to guarantee the appropriation
of the imported images, which meant that living bodies became
involved in that image transfer. The project was complete onlywhen
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2005 319
the imported images also had taken possession of the mental images of
The project of the Spaniards, which was carried out with relentless zeal,
provides an easy insight into the mechanics of image transmission, which
never spares the mental part but considers it the true target also in the public
space. My last example seems to be far removed from today’s concerns, and
yet I have chosen it precisely because of its seeming anachronism, which
nevertheless makes it applicable tomy argument. It is not applicable for the
reason that the colonization of our imagination still goes on today and even
happens within our own hemisphere, as Auge´ has demonstrated so well in
his book La Guerre des reˆves. It is applicable because it explains the interaction
of image, body, and medium in a striking way. It was not only the
Spanish images but also their media—canvas painting and sculpture—that
caused resistance among the indigenous, whose bodies (or brains) lacked
any experience of this kind.
Spanish art was surely involved in this event, as it was art that, at the
time, provided the only visual media in existence. But the imported artifacts
did not matter as art. They mattered only as agents of the all-important
images. It therefore would be redundant to stress the political meaning,
which is self-evident in this case. Only art in the modern sense, an art with
a claim of autonomy, today attracts the familiar controversies about political
stance or lack of political meaning. In our case, however, the depoliticization
of the indigenous images was nothing but another act of politics.
It was only in Spain that Aztec artifacts became classified as art and collected
as such in order to become deprived of any political or religious significance
and to remain outside the circulation of images. It is not necessary to draw
parallels to our time, in which art constantly becomes neutralized by the
Originally, iconology, in art history’s terms, was restricted to art alone.
Today, it is the task of a new iconology to drawa link between art and images
in general but also to reintroduce the body, which has either been marginalized
by our fascination with media or defamiliarized as a stranger in our
world. The present mass consumption of images needs our critical response,
which in turn needs our insights on how images work on us.
24. Vile´mFlusser, Fu¨r eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Go¨ttingen, 1989), pp. 9–10;my translation.
25. See Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (London,
26. See “Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, ed.
William Stanley Rubin (New York, 1984).
27. See Serge Gruzinski, La Guerre des images: Christophe Colomb a` “Blade Runner” (1492–2019)
(Paris, 1990); trans. under the title Images atWar: Mexico from Columbus to “Blade Runner” (1492–
2019) by Heather MacLean (Durham, N.C., 2001).