3 - A theory of depiction  pp. 43-64

A theory of depiction

By Flint Schier

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The innocent eye cannot always interpret an icon off the bat. Many a native son or mother-in-law has gone unrecognised and unheeded when presented pictorially to his or her nearest and dearest. One might say that such pictorial innocents fail to see their relatives in the picture. And who can blame them? Surely it is a form of madness to see a robustly three-dimensional mother-in-law in a flat two-dimensional piece of glossy paper. But that is exactly what Western iconomanes apparently succeeded in doing, and not only with mothers-in-law, but with mountains, churches, cars, planes – in fact, if you can see it the chances are you can see it in pictures.

Although in some cases something like learning how to interpret icons occurs, once the coin has dropped and someone has succeeded in a first pictorial interpretation, they will then be able to go on to pictures of other things and, without further ado, say what the icon depicts, provided only that they are able to recognise the depicted object. In other words, once you have succeeded in an initial pictorial interpretation, perchance as the result of some tuition, you should then be able to interpret novel icons without being privy to additional stipulations given only that you can recognise the object or state of affairs depicted.

I call this property of iconic modes of representation ‘natural generativity’. Natural generativity is what makes a symbol (system) iconic. The two dot systems which I contrived in the last chapter transparently lack this property. For example, suppose I tell you that this red coloured dot stands for Stalin and that the rectangle stands for a table.