Reflections on the Image

© 2015

The image is a powerful force. It is both material and an illusion.

Art, the visual sort especially, is the process of processing images to create material images. A lot has changed from rough petroglyphs on canyon walls to animism on Lascaux cave ceilings to heroic Athenian statuary to photoreal Renaissance paintings to Reinhart’s black-on-black minimalism to Hirst’s bisected-dissected farm animals in plexiglas.

How did we arrive here? How did our image of the image evolve? I asked myself recently about two kinds of art, and their collectors. 

One is the 'clean' art of Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra and lately Jeff Koons. The other is the 'messy' art of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack and more recently Jared Madere. I realized I didn’t know which side I preferred, but I suspected the two approaches appeal to distinctly different mindsets, one controlled and plastic, the other relaxed and natural. I concluded that in the end it's all about satisfying an elite market with too much time and money on its hands, and too little about bringing art to society as a whole.

Yet our society is obsessed with image: body image, self-image, public image, professional image, commercial image. Superficial image, in many instances, has come to replace actual content altogether. The work of Jeff Koons typifies this trend. Moving beyond the ironical use of ordinary objects in art to direct attention to artistic interpretation, as Duchamp and Warhol did, Koons adopts a post-ironic stance, glorifying the banal and mundane with the most perfect production values to create the most perfect finished images. The flawless, gleaming, chrome surfaced, giant pink balloon dog comes to mind. It is nothing more—or less—than what it is, no thought required.

John Ralston Saul reflects on the origins of our fascination with image in his epic critique of reason, Voltaire’s Bastards. He follows the evolution of art and its parallel connection to religion, moving from early pantheism to Greek and Roman mythology and their panoply of gods. Art and religion were refections or different sides of the same coin. And then came Christianity. Saul points out that while Christ defined the terms upon which one might enter heaven, he was particularly spare in describing what that heaven might be. An image of heaven was missing. Coincidentally, the intersection of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization solved the problem. Where there was no literal description of heaven, the Greek and Roman tradition supplied the solution in the form of heavenly imagery. Gods and saints could be depicted ideally in heavenly surroundings. No words were needed or required. 

Muhammad, unlike Christ, did provide literal depictions of heaven. Islam could rely on the word and not the image to incentivize the faithful to greater fervour.

By the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Europeans were beginning the process of killing off God and remaking him in their own image. Artists who formerly painted their patrons into religious canvases were redirected into capturing their patrons directly as heroes and gods.

Here’s Saul’s take on the evolution:

“Miraculous statues and paintings and objects were a gift from pagan Europe to Christ’s lean religion. And from the bleeding statues of Christ and the healing images of the Virgin Mary, it was only one more step to the civil image as guarantor of human immortality.”

Saul goes on to point out the inevitable fatal flaw:

“The power of the pagan image—whether Christian or post-Christian—has little to do with believing and a great deal to do with the myths and archetypes of Western man. A fifth-generation urban atheist is today as much a prisoner of these expectations as a medieval peasant once was. If anything has changed at all, it is that with the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of reason, man finally learned how to produce not just images but the perfect images he had always dreamed would carry great power. Faced by the impotence of this progress, he succumbed to confusion and greater inner fear.”

Saul wrote that in 1993. Today, we’re awash in digitized imagery from international advertising to our own mobile phone photo files. Our collected imagery has well surpassed the human population explosion. In 1950 the world’s population was 2.5 billion. By the time Saul wrote his book it was 5.5 billion. Within the next two or three years we’ll be at 7.5 billion people. If imagery, especially godlike self imagery—or godly art—is to convey immortality, it is being diluted to the point of meaninglessness. As Saul alludes when he addresses “confusion and great inner fear.” The image has officially lost its promise of immortality.

The point of art has dogged me since I was young. Why should my ego, expressed in images, be superior to anyone else’s? What could I create that hasn’t already been created, approximately anyway, before? Who really needs what I create? Who actually buys art, and can afford to buy art? Why, aside from the money, should I bother to pander to what they want? Why does a part of me want to be one of those artists immortalized in coffee table art books and museum galleries, and another part of me deride myself for wanting that?

These become empty questions as I long ago moved on to other creative endeavours to pay the bills and keep myself creatively alive—marketing and writing mostly. Meanwhile, in the background I keep working on personal images, oscillating between natural subjects that appeal to me, and images of social and cultural collisions that shock and repel me. Neither approach seems particularly marketable, either to galleries (I’m now much to old to be discovered) or to friends and acquaintances upon whom I’d rather not inflict my ego or my art in any possible misguided bid for immortality.

When I asked about myself about ‘clean’ and ‘messy’ art, I posted the thought, and people responded. “You can like and appreciate any or all types of art, you don't have to choose. (Unless you’re buying, of course. LOL.)” Or ,“No, it is all about what YOU like, remembering that you have two sides to your brain.” And, “Thinking about art is one thing I'm for it! But it's over thinking in art that is problematic especially if you are trying to appeal to mindset.”

What I was driving at, unsuccessfully I guess, was the immortality aspect. The ‘clean’ art designed to celebrate our dominion over nature, hence our immortality, the art as our recording. The ‘messy’ art revels in the naturalism of the earthly experience, expressing heaven in the here and now, the art this time recording the event for immortality—and thus our existence. One approach puts ego out front, the other behind. The outcome is the same.

On this, two Facebook phenomena come to mind: posts of Van Gogh paintings and sharing of hyper-real photoshopped landscape photos. Van Gogh proves that his paintings at least are immortal along with the promise that we too, like the painter who was ignored in his lifetime, might be remembered. Those over-photoshopped photos prove that we’ve witnessed heaven, and can at least approximate it on-screen, and are therefore godlike and in small measure have touched the immortal. The personal insecurity hiding inside these phenomena and others like them is depressing, including the limited immortality provided by Facebook itself.

To whit, a recently deceased online friend still has an active Facebook page. I doubt that such a thing would ever have been her intention, but there it is, alive and well in her absence, a place for us all to grieve for her. It is quite properly a shrine, though an unexpected one.

Which brings us to the obvious conclusion for art. Ultimately, technology will trump art as the deliverer of immortality. Artists, at any rate, are already being replaced by technicians (though still called artists for respectability) such as Hirst and Koons, who in turn employ small armies of craftsmen-technicians to turn out their products. With the advent of personal cloud storage, the essential output of each of us can now be carried forward eternally.

And as to what to do about art personally, the answer, of course, is to take the advice proferred. Look at it. Like what you like. Do it. Or not. Idolatry, for all it’s worth, has never led to immortality anyway. Any more than thinking has.


  1. Art today is just another consumable,If the price is right and the colour is compatible with the décor people will buy it and then forget it,after it is hung or placed in just the right spot.

  2. Gerry, do you have any comments on the passing of Prince?

    1. No thoughts in particular on Prince's passing. Gifted, brilliant guitarist and performer.


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