With bracing clarity, James Elkins explores why images are taken to be more intricate and hard to describe in the twentieth century than they had been in any previous century. Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? uses three models to understand the kinds of complex meaning that pictures are thought to possess: the affinity between the meanings of paintings and jigsaw-puzzles; the contemporary interest in ambiguity and 'levels of meaning'; and the penchant many have to interpret pictures by finding images hidden within them. Elkins explores a wide variety of examples, from the figures hidden in Renaissance paintings to Salvador Dali's paranoiac meditations on Millet's Angelus, from Persian miniature paintings to jigsaw-puzzles. He also examines some of the most vexed works in history, including Watteau's "meaningless" paintings, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, and Leonardo's Last Supper.
"Elkin's book…is a gentle jab at his profession's habit of generating 'intricate and voluminous' interpretations of paintings." -- Inside Publishing
"…Elkins argues that all our responses to pictures vacillate between conflicting desires to interpret, or read, and merely to see. He tracks these impulses from one extreme-- in ancient writing systems and mathematical notation-- to another, in modern abstract painting that tries to contrive a purely optical experience. The survey is arduous, but it is also fascinating." -- The San Francisco Chronicle
"Cogent, conversational and lucid, this book provides a useful, nuanced understanding of what ordinary viewers today share with 'the discipline [that] thrives on the pleasure of problems well solved'." -- Publisher's Weekly
"A daring challenge to all those who would continue to defend art history's status as a positivistic discipline… a dazzling intellectual achievement." -- Keith Moxey, Barnard College
"Written with crystalline elegance and analytical rigor, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? will be of interest not only to students of visual culture, but also to anyone concerned with interpretation in the humanities as a whole." -- Martin Jay, University of California at Berkeley