Sunday, 1 September 2013

The question of images

Where do we go from here? Today we are experiencing not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions. The crisis of art for its part is a symptom of the crisis of man's very existence. The immense growth in man's mastery of the material world has left him blind to the questions of life's meaning that transcend the material world. We might almost call it a blindness of the spirit. The questions of how we ought to live, how we can overcome death, whether existence has a purpose and what it is - to all these questions there is no longer a common answer. Positivism, formulated in the name of scientific seriousness, narrows the horizon to what is verifiable, to what can be proved by experiment; it renders the world opaque. True, it still contains mathematics, but the logos that is the presupposition of this mathematics and its applicability is no longer evident. Thus our world of images no longer surpasses the bounds of sense and appearance, and the flood of images that surrounds us really means the end of the image. If something cannot be photographed, it cannot be seen. In this situation, the art of the icon, sacred art, depending as it does on a wider kind of seeing, becomes impossible. What is more, art itself, which in impressionism and expressionism explored the extreme possibilities of the sense of sight, becomes literally object-less. Art turns into experimenting with self-created worlds, empty "creativity", which no longer perceives the Creator Spiritus, the Creator Spirit. It attempts to take his place, and yet, in so doing, it manages to produce only what is arbitrary and vacuous, bringing home to man the absurdity of his role as creator.

From The Spirit of the Liturgy, part three, Art and Liturgy, by Joseph Ratzinger.

“The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” wrote Josef Pieper in Learning How to See Again.

St. Augustine calls this desire to see without reflection on what is seen as 'concupiscence of the eyes'. Our technologies multiply the opportunities for mere luxuriation in the experience of seeing. Witness the obsession with HD, 3D, big screen hyper-real visual experience. This is one type of maximisation of visual concupiscence. Surfing the web can another, where the emphasis increasingly becomes focused on the digital device used to view diverse forms of  content, from ebooks to web browsing to streaming video. The temptation to be a 'visual magpie' and hop from one shiny new experience to another in search of a 'hit' of novelty can be powerful, and prevents any deep reflection on the thing seen. 

Obedience to the gods of new technology is almost standard amongst most of my generation. I am one of the worst offenders. As well as having a tablet I have a tablet phone, and spend most of my free time flicking through the different apps on them. I do however have some friends who are purposeful luddites, who only carry old brick phones, or none at all. I have an upgrade date approaching on my phone contract. Do I dare to reject it all? 

C S Lewis argues in the Abolition of Man that in modernity "there is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating them from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”

There is much of this also in Tolkien, inevitably. The magic of Saruman is really technology, machinery, a worldview of nature-domination, even more, a denial that things have a nature of their own, that they have an end towards which they are made, and in the void that creates there is implanted the will of the magician. This inability to see things as they are in themselves, even the denial of this possibility, which comes about in a Post-Kantian rationalist age has an antidote, which I have talked about elsewhere (in particular here ). 


  1. Wow, thanks for posting this. Would not have read it otherwise. I wonder if the sheer proliferation of images and information is one of the defining factors in the decline of our acknowledgement of the sacred and the profane, totem and taboo. We are unable to process everything and even of the magnificent we are exposed to too much, always knowing that there will be something new and more to move on to.

    1. Thanks Keith. I hadn't seen your comment until now. I think you are spot on about the proliferation of images which we are all drowning in now. I heard some statistic, I can't quite remember the number, but something like 5000 images a day the average person is bombarded with (I don't quite know how they worked that out especially with moving images!) but if you compare that to a medieval peasant working in the fields, who then goes into a church and views the stained glass, it is little wonder that we seem to be numb to the beauty of sacred images now.