What is real in the hall of mirroring images?


Ours is the century of the image. If we set out to summarise the history of the last 100 years, chances are it will take the form of a hectic rush of images vying for our attention. During that time virtually everything, public and private, sacred and profane, has offered itself up to the camera lens. Adolf Hitler addresses a Nazi rally at Nuremburg and Leni Reifenstahl is there to choreograph and capture it. A Vietnamese army officer draws his pistol and shoots a prisoner in the head, on camera. Boris Yeltsin climbs on to a tank to remonstrate with the crew during an attempted coup in Russia and we see it more or less as it happens, via satellite. From the inner workings of the human body to the ghostly imprint of subatomic particles recorded in the bubble chamber, from the complete works of Picasso to the fiery birth of stars in unimaginably distant galaxies, we expect everything to be available to us, and by and large it is. Besides inhabiting the workaday physical world, to all intents and purposes, we also inhabit a parallel world of images, one that has developed with the century, and one that latterly, some would argue, threatens to engulf it.

Shifting perspectives

One hundred years ago, practically any image you might encounter was likely to exhibit the classical, fixed, single point perspective of Renaissance pictorial space. This was the dominant pictorial formula in Western art. Ernst Gombrich's standard history book, The Story of Art, is largely an account of the development and refinement of this mode of representation. Despite certain inroads made into this way of seeing in the latter half of the 19th century, it was still possible to think that the culture had arrived at a stable, universal pictorial language, capable of refinement and variation, but essentially there.

Gombrich's unease with the art of the 20th century is symptomatic of his reluctance to forego the magnificence of this achievement, and many would, even now, echo his sentiments. Though it was not readily apparent, even at the beginning of the century any such presumption of an agreed, coherent pictorial space was living on borrowed time. It was under threat from several different directions - most obviously from painting itself, the very art that had perfected it.

The French painter Paul Cezanne, in a remarkable series of still lifes and analytical landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire, seemed to be groping towards a new way of describing the world around him. Rather than depending on the creation of a seamless optical illusion, his pictures sought a means of conveying the experience of three-dimensional space in a more concrete way. Even now many people have difficulty with Cubism. If painting could ever have been said to appeal to a mass audience, Cubism is the point where they part company. It is true that there is an extraordinary austerity to the pioneering Cubist works of Pablo Picasso (that one-man image machine), Georges Braque and Ferdinand Leger. Time has not mellowed them. It is as though they were too preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of what they were doing to make it look good. But there is a wonderful, infectious excitement to their work of the time. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which dates from 1907, is a key work of the century, not alone because it flouts the idea of a single, dominant Western style by importing the modes of representation drawn from African and Oceanic art - styles consigned to ethnography, not art, and regarded as "primitive". More to the point, the picture features the audacious dismantling of Renaissance pictorial space and presents us instead with a jagged pattern of overlapping planes and fragments, disrupting our single, fixed viewpoint and leaving us to reconstruct the picture for ourselves.

It was so revolutionary that Picasso himself wasn't sure what to make of it. And it was merely the opening salvo in a concerted campaign. From that point onwards a whole series of movements in art challenged the authority of the staid Renaissance model. The Italian Futurists wholeheartedly embraced the new sensations of speed and power offered by emerging technologies, be they devoted to transport or mass destruction. This impassioned belief in the technological future reached its apogee in the rationalism of the Dutch design movement De Stijl, and in the art of revolutionary Russia. There abstraction enjoyed a brief, heady flowering before being summarily banished in favour of populist Socialist Realism.

The `art object' dethroned

The Dadaists attacked the status of the art object and the cultural frameworks from which it derived that status. Marcel Duchamp, the seminal influence on conceptual art, exhibited a urinal signed with the manufacturer's name, R. Mutt, as a work of art. As the theories of Freud and Jung were popularised in the 1920, they were enthusiastically embraced by the Surrealists, who exploited the pictorial possibilities of the unconscious, most famously in Salvador Dali's meticulously dreamlike images of logical impossibilities, which captured the public imagination to an extent rarely matched. The dystopian images of the post-First World War German realists opened up another imaginative vista, one that has persisted throughout the century. Max Beckman's strange, unsettling allegories, images of cruelty and anxiety, rework classical myths for modernity. In his Kafka-esque pictures, individuals find themselves caught up in the nightmare of history. But it was Picasso, in his monumental painting Guernica, depicting the bombing of an undefended town during the Spanish Civil War, who perfectly married avant garde techniques to political realities. By contrast, Francis Bacon's later tortured spirits are hermetically self-absorbed, embodiments of existential dread.

Fast, versatile photography

Nor did photography encourage the retention of the notion of traditional pictorial space. It was simply too fast and versatile for that. Its potential as a documentary medium was staggering, and quickly exploited. But photographers were also concerned to claim for their practice the status of an art form, hence the self-consciously aesthetic concerns of Alfred Stieglitz and his contemporaries, and the development of a school of art photographers, including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. However, photography was never going to be only an imitation of the art forms that existed at the time of its invention. It was the development of the Leica miniature 35 mm camera, which was generally available by the mid-1920s, that revolutionsed photojournalism. At a click of the shutter, everything became accessible to the photographer. Brilliant practitioners like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa made the most of the technology.

The power of the photograph as a social record was demonstrated by a remarkable project in the US during the 1930s depression, when Dorothea Lange and her colleagues were employed by the Department of Agriculture to document conditions in rural America. Widely circulated, reportage photographs form a continuous stream of powerful images throughout the century, often outflanking the official desire to control information and opinion. The bodies of work made by Larry Burrows, Don McCullin or Philip Jones Griffith (to name but three of dozens) during the Vietnam War, are brilliant and disturbing documents of their time. It is hardly surprising that after the experience of Vietnam, governments have tried to exercise rigid control over media coverage of wars.

Cinema: the experiment is over

Photography was also capable of making visible worlds otherwise closed to conventional human sight. Even before the century began, the first X-ray photographs had been made. Cameras attached to microscopes and to telescopes made accessible as images realms of reality quite beyond the limits of normal vision. Kinetic events could be frozen and analysed piecemeal. Like Cubism in painting, montage in film is a means of presenting us with several, competing perspectives on the same scene. By and large we still resist Cubism, but we have no problem whatever following the logic of montage and piecing together a coherent narrative from the fragments offered by the film-maker. The early practitioners of film were more audacious than those of today in their use of visual language, throwing themselves into discovering and fulfilling the potential of a new technological form with the vigour and optimism of settlers opening up a new land. It is impossible to ignore the achievements of film-makers who were great visual stylists as much as anything else. We would be much the poorer without the works of Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Kenzo Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Satjavit Ray, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Altman and a host of other film-makers.

The sculptor Carl Andre once offered the opinion that, while cinema was the art form of the 20th century, its reign lasted only until about 1950. Given the wealth of fine films, not to mention the increasing technological sophistication of what came after 1950, this may seem like a perverse judgment, but he has a good point. While there were still great films to come after 1950, the exploratory age of the medium was waning. Hollywood's current, long-lasting infatuation with big name stars, violence and special effects seems puerile next to the astonishing achievements of pioneers like Eisenstein.

Barely a decade, from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, separates the making of two fictional treatments of human contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there is a fundamental imaginative disparity between them. In brief, watching 2001 it is clear that Kubrick is genuinely pushing the limits, of the available technology, of technological speculation, of his own imagination, of visual possibility. We are denied the comfort of a neat dramatic conclusion and left to face our own uncertainty. In Close Encounters, Spielberg patronisingly manipulates pieces of pseudo-science to generate a spurious air of profundity, building to an overblown, sentimental finale that depends on vulgar spectacle to wow the audience, a stroke of technological sublime (it is symptomatic of the state of the art that exactly the same could be said of James Cameron's Titanic, made some 20 years on).

In one sense the difference between the two is the difference between modernist and postmodernist. On the one hand we have Kubrick's ambition to create an all-encompassing vision, one that will only in retrospect be identifiable as his style, on the other Spielberg's calculated, knowing collage of cinematic conventions. The mentality behind Close Encounters leads inexorably to the X-Files, in which America's addiction to paranoid conspiracy theories is indulged without check. Elaine Showalter, in her study of hysterical epidemics in modern culture, Hystories, argues that fictions like the X-Files are harmful, because "these television images shape belief". She mentions a survey which found that half the students in one Sacramento astronomy class, who might have been expected to keep an open mind on these matters, said they believed in a government conspiracy to conceal the existence of UFOs, "and cited television programmes as evidence".

This, incidentally, is not to argue that good films are no longer made, much less that films, even if they are poor films, do not still exercise a huge visual dominance in the cultural landscape. But in general, films that are non-mainstream or that challenge the stereotypes in any way have been marginalised within the workings of the industry. Art cinema is a minority pursuit. That is not particularly surprising - it is perhaps more surprising that some remarkably wayward talents have managed to survive, even flourish, in an industry ruthlessly homogenised by the economics of huge production and mass marketing costs. What differentiates cinema in the first half of the century is that the mass audience more or less kept up with the pace of discovery. Keaton and Chaplin represented the cutting edge of the medium and carried the audience with them.

Art and photography

Inevitably, the advent of photography and film had a feedback effect on the development of painting. Practically from the moment of its invention, photography was viewed as painting's nemesis. Yet the evidence is that painters were not, on the whole, antagonistic to photography. In fact, in his book Art and Photography, Aaron Scharf has documented how, from the earliest days of photography, artists showed no qualms about using it for their own ends. As photography shouldered the responsibility of documentation and portraiture, it released or pressurised painting into the exploration of its own forms, and it has shown an extraordinary capacity to periodically reinvent itself throughout the century. Wassily Kandinsky pointed the way to abstraction, but one of the great, ongoing debates, that of abstraction versus figuration, has come to seem increasingly irrelevant. The fact is that they are not mutually exclusive options, as witness the careers of many artists, including Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, who moved from one to the other, or who were at various times claimed by one or other camp.

Never categorised as abstract artists, Pierre Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Claude Monet, in their different ways, pushed the properties of the medium in new directions. There are persuasive links between their work and that of a later generation of painters in America, including Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko and Sam Francis. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the advent of photography is that painting did not turn into an artistic backwater, despite the continuing attempts of its adversaries to classify it as such. An exploration of the medium was never quite the sterile refinement of formal concerns suggested around mid-century by a doctrinaire reading of the theories of Clement Greenberg, the critical apostle of flatness in painting. Time and again painters peered into their own imaginations and encountered familiar worlds there.

For example, working from the rationalist design principles of De Stijl, Piet Mondrian broke down painterly language into a spare grid of black, white, and primary colours, but when he arrived in New York, with its grid street-plan, modernist tower blocks, its neon signs and the rhythms of boogie woogie, he found the new world that his paintings described. Monet, starting from the unlikely basis of paintings of water lilies, made an art of ocular sensation that, with its stunning expanses of textured colour - which, crucially, provided a place for the spectator to be rather then an image to look at - inaugurated a specifically 20th-century version of the sublime. This was realised most purely and intensely in the paintings of Mark Rothko, with their amorphous, expansive voids, the incredible emotional power of their blocks of colour. The spiritual ambition of Rothko's work sets it apart, but it is characteristic of both the man and the age that any such evocation of the spiritual must be shot through with absolute doubt.

Contrary to expectation, photography did not even kill off representational painting, which, against the odds, continues to offer a considered visual response to the world. The growth in reputation of the work of Lucian Freud over the last decades is a case in point, but it holds true even in the midst of the pictorial revolutions that marked the early part of the century. The American painter Edward Hopper was a major artist whose low key realist paintings provide a remarkably powerful account of life in rural and urban America, capturing the loneliness and alienation of city life, and the beauty of the man-made environment, in a way that has proved hugely influential in film and design.

Cinema and photography have also fed back directly into fine art: Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills are an apparently endless series of photographic self-portraits exploiting the conventions of cinematic narrative as a means of exploring identity, while the career of German artist Gerhard Richter has been an uneasy dialogue between painting and photography. Chuck Close and Philip Pearlstein were two significant figures in a group of photo-realist painters that emerged in the 1970s. Artists have also found the lure of new technologies irresistible. From Nam June Paik's banks of video monitors to Bill Viola's metaphysical explorations, video artists have grown up with the medium.

TV: fountainhead of images

While the history of the image to mid-century is one of confident expansion overlaying a thorough-going dismantling of erstwhile pictorial certainties, its history since has been one of exponential proliferation. We are, to an unprecedented extent, surrounded by images, a lot of them generated by television, the medium of mass communication of the latter half of the century. Not only is television a perpetual fountainhead of images, it has undergone and continues to undergo the kind of explosive growth familiar from earlier experiences of print media or motorised transport.

One potential problem posed by its current fragmentation into myriad, specialised satellite channels, and selective digital programming channels, is that it ceases to be a public space, as it was for a number of major events, like the first moon walk. In its heyday The Late Late Show served the function of a national forum, in a way that it cannot do now. Though, again, after the death of the Princess of Wales, television in Britain performed that role, controversially but effectively.

Television is an audio-visual medium, but imagery is a more appropriate term than image for the sheer mass of visual material that it produces and transmits daily. We rarely actually look with concentration. We read the narratives of soap opera in terms of character and dramatic convention, and the same applies to most other forms of television drama, whether it be fiction or fact. This is not to underestimate the actual visual strengths of television, not least as a propagator of images, but only in exceptional cases is the undifferentiated mass of imagery resolved into something more powerful.

The endlessly replayed fragment of grainy CCTV footage that recorded the abduction of Jamie Bulger is a striking example. The image of the toddler being led away became a chilling symbol of the impersonality of the age, and of the impotence of voyeuristic surveillance. But, for a medium predicated on the image, television depends heavily on an economic and largely uninteresting visual shorthand, one that allows us to interpret information quickly and effortlessly. Rather then looking at it, we scan an unstoppable tide of imagery. "The medium," in Marshall McLuhan's famously opaque phrase, "is the message." Even without television, ours would be an environment saturated in images. New electronic formats, like DVD, are emerging all the time. The print media are still immensely strong in terms of imagery: illustrated newspapers, magazines, and books are all produced in unprecedented quantities and areas of specialisation. The advent of computer monitored stock control has accelerated the processes of production, distribution and disposal. Computers themselves have opened up whole new areas of image traffic in the form of CD Roms, including games, and the internet.

In the midst of all this, meanwhile, there are more drawings, paintings and prints being made than ever. New forms haven't supplanted the old, perhaps because images are, in Susan Sontag's phrase, "an unlimited resource". Or, as Sam Francis observed: "There are as many images as there are eyes to see them."

In our own image

Technology enables us to produce an endless amount of them ourselves with still cameras, movie cameras and, more recently, camcorders. Virtually from the moment of its invention, photography was pressed into service as a means of providing affordable portrait images. A huge commercial trade in portrait shops drove the development of the medium, and that emphasis has grown with the availability of cameras for the amateur. Throughout the century, family histories have been recorded on film. Anyone, today, with no technical skill whatever, can choose any of an enormous range of cameras and formats, from throwaway 35 mm to broadcast quality video, to record any and every aspect of experience, and expect to get acceptable results. Susan Sontag characterises our appetite for photographic images as a lust that cannot be satisfied. Every new moment is a moment that must be captured on film. But we do not only prize personal images. We also want portraits of those we identify with, of those we idolise, or who symbolise qualities we would like to be associated with. So the simple, head and shoulders portrait has an undiminished power.

The new celebrity

There is a seamless continuity, in visual terms, between the medieval icon of the Madonna and the contemporary icon of Madonna, a continuity that Madonna explicitly and subversively evokes. The Hollywood glamour portrait, with its flawless technical values, is a secular icon that has become a universal currency of celebrity. Images of pop and rock stars, sportsmen and women, politicians, are as familiar to us as religious icons were to their audience. If someone mentions Einstein, Stalin, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis, Jackie Kennedy, Hitler, Princess Diana, John Lennon, Saddam Hussein, or any one of hundreds of other names, the chances are that an image will instantly flash into our minds without any effort whatever.

Their faces are just there, in our memories, implanted by passive encounters with numerous representations.

Art Unbound

Writing in 1947, Andre Malraux pointed out that the growing availability of images from art history in the form of photographic reproductions had created a vast, infinitely versatile museum without walls, "le musee imaginaire". In particular, the juxtaposition of works from different societies, epochs and media opened up exciting possibilities. Through reproduction, the art of the past is present to us as never before in the history of the human race. As a result, all of art history seems strangely telescoped into our century.

Robert Rauschenberg's unruly silkscreen collages, with their frenetic mixtures of diverse imagery and objects, are like an illustration of Malraux's thesis. Writing in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin pointed out that this reproducibility effectively politicises art, because at a stroke it can be used in ways quite distinct from its original context. Most commonly, images from art history can be appropriated to confer cultural authority on commercial products. As early as 1936, Benjamin suggested that mechanical reproduction has the effect of undermining the authority of the art object, of weakening its aura. That has certainly proved to be the case, at least in some senses: a painting can be paraphrased as a mechanically reproduced image, reduced to the level of graphic information.

On the other hand, the virtual celebrity status of certain works of art, like Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's Sunflowers, tends to exaggerate their authority out of all proportion. In Ways of Seeing John Berger illustrated how works of art become caught up in the mechanics of celebrity. The then best-selling reproduction in London's National Gallery, Leonardo's cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, became famous only after someone tried to purchase it for two and a half million pounds. Until that point the public was largely indifferent to it. People crowd into the Louvre to photograph the Mona Lisa. The photographs or camcorder images are proof that they were there.

A cultural theorist like Jean Baudrillard would argue that the tourists are photographing not the Mona Lisa, but the "Mona Lisa", that the painting's status as an icon eclipses whatever qualities might have generated its fame, and it has become an empty sign, part of the self-perpetuating, self-referential circus of such signs in which we now live. That is what happens when images, styles and movements lose their historical grounding and become rootless signs in what Baudrillard describes as a hyper-real world of simulacra. The process is market-driven. Images are turned over at an ever-increasing rate. More than that: everything is image. In the relentless logic of commodification, we buy representations, because the market has learned how to exploit the way we attach meaning to images. The Gucci bag, the Armani suit are not so much things in themselves. In Marxist terms, their worth derives not from the labour theory of value, but from their status as cultural objects. They are images of desirability.

The pop artists of the 1960s weren't the first to realise that they were living in Malraux's museum without walls (in the 1950s de Kooning had referred to taking spoonfuls of "the alphabet soup of art history"), but they were the first artists to address themselves to the media landscape that had grown up around them. The Pop artist par excellence is Andy Warhol, whose work is a recognition that the artist operates within a mass market culture, not above or outside of it. By appropriating images from popular culture and presenting them in the context of fine art, and applying a parodic version of the techniques of mass reproduction to them, he was simultaneously claiming for them the authority of the art object and placing art in the same marketplace as any other commercial product. Warhol's appropriation of images of Campbell's soup cans, Jackie Onasis, of Mao and Marilyn, like the creation and promotion of his own persona, was both a comment on and an example of the rampant commodification of mass market capitalism. It could be argued, however, that the ease and ubiquity of reproduction has also had an opposite effect to that predicted by Benjamin. We attach greater value to the original because we know how widespread copies are. Apart altogether from such examples as the Mona Lisa, the authority of the object has actually grown.

Art of the moment

A great deal of art in the latter half of the century is in some measure a response to the actual or perceived erosion of that authority and has sought a means to restore it. Performance art, with its emphasis on unique events, on duration, endurance (often on the part of both performer and audience) and, not uncommonly, on extreme sensations like pain, prioritises the momentary experience and declines to come up with defining, reproducible images. Californian Chris Burden, for example, rather recklessly had a friend shoot him in the arm and, not surprisingly, the result was a more serious wound than he had envisaged. Less drastically, Richard Long's work, which recognisably relates to an English landscape tradition, depends on similar notions of duration. Long would embark on long, ritualistic walks in the landscape, often over periods of days. At some stage he would make large patterns with stones or other natural objects he encountered, and photograph them. The exhibited work would consist of a photograph of the pattern in the landscape, with a brief description of the location and duration of the walk. His images, with their built-in sense of duration, can be viewed partly as an antidote to the frenetic pace of electronic imagery.

The accelerating proliferation of images in the late 20th century has understandably drawn the attention of a large number of critics and theorists. Susan Sontag rather vaguely suggests that we need "an ecology of images". The art critic Peter Fuller, a champion of traditional painting, labelled the contemporary image environment, with its promiscuous mix of advertising, entertainment and reportage, the "mega-visual tradition." His stance in regard to this tradition of the new was directly analogous to the hatred of industrialisation and an emphasis on the moral properties of art typical of Blake, Ruskin and Morris in the previous century. He decried what he saw as the corrosive anti-spirituality of the mega-visual, predicated as it is on mass-market capitalism.

Death by imagery?

Fuller's wholesale rejection of the mega-visual seems unrealistic and impractical. According to Baudrillard it is simply impossible, because we have been absorbed by our invented world of images. We are adrift in hyper-reality, a hall of mirrors, lost in images of images of images. In his apocalyptic view of things, there is simply no "outside image", because at this stage everything is image, just as in Jacques Derrida's metaphysics there is no "outside text" because we can never step outside of language. Our world of simulacra has undermined any notion of the real, siphoning away our capacity for genuine experience. The Gulf War was a virtual war, a war of images. This may be figuratively true, but the Gulf War was also real, for the people who fought it, reported on it and died during it, and for those who still live with its consequences.

By contrast, art critic and historian Robert Hughes is sanguine. We may be permanently under a non-stop bombardment of electronically generated images, he has argued, but that doesn't mean that we have lost the capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality, and it is patronising to suggest otherwise. For Hughes the problems lie not with the quantity of images, but with our capacity for qualitative interpretation. This has the virtue of pragmatism. It's simply not practical to bury our heads in the sand, as Fuller would have us do, and there is no point whatever in giving in to Baudrillard's hysterical passivity. Discrimination remains our single most important asset. Information is worthless unless it is available within a framework of meaning, and it is up to us to provide that framework.