By Krishna Kumar
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Is it always a means to an end? If so, to what end? Beauty, Mieke Bal writes with regard to political art in the context of visual representations of human suffering, ‘distracts, and worse, it gives pleasure – a pleasure that is parasitical on the pain of others’. 5 This approach to beauty is radically different from Norfolk’s. For Norfolk, beauty leads to engagement; for Bal, it renders engagement difficult. While Norfolk talks only about his own approach, Bal makes a categorical statement concerning representation in general.
In this reading, explaining a photograph means reducing it, making it (appear) smaller, reducing its power and taking something away from it. What is this something? One way of answering this question is with reference to what David MacDougall calls the ‘excess meaning’43 that images invariably carry with them, a multitude of meanings which is hard to control. Acknowledging the irreducibility of images to one meaning is an exercise in ‘work[ing] with difference and not by reducing difference’,44 a commitment that cultural studies and peace research share.
Art Spiegelman vehemently disagreed by arguing that the ‘notion that the images can just be described leaves me firmly on the side of showing images. The banal quality of the cartoons that gave insult is hard to believe until they are seen’. 48 For example, filmmakers and writers ‘produce two quite different accounts of human existence’ even if they wish to give the same account: Writing contrives to evoke the ordinary features and substructure of an entire scene by implication, and then concentrates its attention on a few notable details....