363. Modesty (IV)
The right will generally tell you that money and women are debased, but in modernity many more things are debased than that. The image is debased: we are sodden with more imagery than our ancestors could possibly imagine. For somewhat under two thousand centuries we were on an image fast. Christianity is iconoclastic to various degrees, as are the other Abrahamic faiths; consequently, images and imagery were disprivileged in the West relative to their status in pagan societies; at some points, such as the Puritan upsurge in Cromwell’s England, imagery was destroyed at a great scale and whitewashed walls were the order of the day. Image and image-creation were pagan vices that distracted from God’s purity; just as the Arabs sailed in austere deserts, the English sailed on austere seas—and neither race needed images when the one and only God’s purity was expressed in sand and water.
Since then, the image has been produced and reproduced to such an extent that we have a vast surplus. When I was young it was still relatively expensive to take a picture, a camera film had 24 or 32 shots on it—and film was not cheap. You had to discriminate as to what you photographed; although even this was already democratic relative to those Victorian portrait photographs that were so expensive as to be “an event” in themselves. Today, it is possible to take unlimited photographs and videos on a phone—let alone a camera. Online there are uncountable images to browse and every single day we are confronted with dozens upon dozens of images that exhort us to buy products or support causes. We live in a society absolutely saturated with images, mostly low-quality images designed to manipulate us. We live in the age of debased images.
Virtual reality started a long time ago: the advent of the printing press started the virtual reality age. It should be remembered that words are also images; we rarely write by hand today, but when we do we are really drawing or painting—calligraphy confirms this fact; it is refined writing, the art of writing. Words both create images in our minds but are also images in themselves; hence when Abrahamic religions suppress images they really mean other images—i.e. images other than the images that are the word.
So even simple printing increased image circulation, both in terms of newly invented internal spaces and in terms of literal “new images”—the words on the printed page. Photography enchanted existent virtual reality, supplanting, for example, historical painting—although it also offered painters new models and perspectives to copy. In the modern age, mass photography occasionally recreates the drama found in the historical painting that took off during the Renaissance; hence the image of Trump above has a definite archaic feel, as if Rembrandt composed it—people assiduously collect these accidental historical paintings online.
The real historical painting or portrait had gravitas—not the accidental gravitas created by chance through endless snapshots—because the painting was a time-intensive and resource-intensive operation to produce; it had a certain weight. The artist was more important in the past; as the creator of images he provided a direct link to the divine. Even in pagan times, when images were relatively more common and an unambiguously welcome part of religion, the image was quite sparse on the ground. It was not possible to create your own high-quality images, or even to easily create any image at all.
At least part of the decline of the sacred in the West has been due to image debasement. It started with the printing press, with the mass availability of words—a process that eventually led to novels, an new imagined reality to challenge holy texts. Photography accelerated the process greatly and then digitisation fully democratised and debased the image. What is an image worth now? It is practically free to text an image to someone on WhatsApp. The artist has been displaced, and so has the divine.