Gnomicon 249

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Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  249
Wednesday 16 January 2013
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We live in an image society.
Speeches are not what anybody cares about;
what they care about is the picture.
Madeleine Albright (15 May 1937 –  )

From 23 Jan 1997 to 20 Jan 2001 she served as Secretary of State, the first woman to hold that office.   I concentrate here on her statement.

More and more one reads these days in the popular press hyperbolic admonitions that in a few generations or so the English language as an instrument of written communication will gradually die out, murdered by social-media-ese and cell telephony ‘texting’ with its brutal contractions and heartless abbreviations.  And by the inundations of images that have now translated their ubiquitous status on television and computer screens to all manner or ‘print’ publications.  How often do consumers of these many media read the tiny nominal one- or two-line strings of words hung as explanatory banners beneath the large picture, the image that tells the real story.

Pictures have of course always been with us, from at least the time some 20,000 years ago of the Lascaux cave paintings forward, but never have they been so pervasively in our face as they are today.  And I am not thinking only of the cascades of photos, drawings, ads, cartoons, graphics, etc. that constitute the essential raison d’être for the vast proliferation of countless papers and magazines that fill check-out counters and news stands everywhere. Indeed, just from the internet in the privacy of your study you can – without the grinding hassle of contemporary air travel – roam unencumbered and at will throughout the world’s premier museums and see the world’s greatest art more clearly and accessibly and with much less jostling than you can at Florence’s Uffizi or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or the Chicago Art Institute (although I will readily concede that no mere viewing of the reproduced ‘image’ of the smallish (~ 21” x 25”) Van Gogh self-portrait in the Musée d’Orsay [see further, here] can remotely compare to standing less than a foot in front of the real thing – jostling crowds be damned!

Well, I don’t think the Secretary was necessarily thinking of high (or low!) art when she spoke of our ‘image society’, so let’s ponder that issue.  Do images convey the same information as words depicting the same thing?  In the case of the structure of an internal combustion engine or a surgical procedure, the ‘images’ can be invaluable over and above mere description.

But what about a photo of a line of refugees with their animals and children fleeing from a village in northern Mali or eastern Congo?  Yes, that event can be described in words, but chances are that a skillful photograph (not to mention one that has been ‘doctored’ – apparently a not uncommon phenomenon in today’s photojournalist universe) can and will get at the profound human emotions of such events in an immediate and compelling way that no amount of clever use of words could.  That which they see (whether in vivo or pictorially) humans cannot help but ‘interpret’ — in a way that reading an account does not demand.  The visual needs to be ‘filled in’, and in that sense is far more open to distortion and a kind of special pleading by the viewer so as to conform to her expectations of what is being depicted.  Our own emotional inputs to the photo from our own experiences in effect do a large part of the creator’s job for him, and hence, on my view, photos (and art) with their signifying open-ended-ness are much more open to manipulation – which can be a good thing as well as a bad one.

In any event, there is little need – indeed it would interfere with our ‘reading’ of the visual – for that explanatory text we are ourselves ‘writing’ as we look.  What text we do need is minimal and is, I believe, moreover effectively cancelled out by the visually overwhelming.

Even though Albright was, I suspect, on to something rather important here, I also hope that she was wrong to suggest that it is only the ‘picture’ and not the ‘speeches’ that anybody cares about these days.

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