VOLTAIRE'S BASTARDS -- THE DICTATORSHIP OF REASON IN THE WEST
PART III: Surviving in Fantasy Land -- The Individual in the World of Reason
18. Images of Immortality OR THE VICTORY OF IDOLATRY
There are differences between the late-twentieth-century Western television viewer and the paleolithic inhabitant of Lascaux in the Dordogne. The former sits in a half darkened room, holding a remote control device. The latter was equipped with some sort of rudimentary torch while he stared at his cave drawings. These and other differences relate more to social organization than to the sensibility with which they see the images. If anything, the Lascaux viewers had a clearer, more conscious and more consciously integrated concept of what they were seeing than we do today. Not that the seventeen- thousand-year-old paintings of bulls, horses, deer, buffalo and men are simple or primitive. In fact, they are the products of accomplished craftsmen.
We cannot know precisely what the cave dwellers saw in their images or expected from what they saw. Our guesses are based largely on comparisons with isolated civilizations which maintained until recently a theoretically similar way of life dependent on hunting, gathering and stone implements. What we do know is that the phenomenon of the man made image has always revolved around three interdependent forces -- conscious or unconscious fear, which in turn is counterbalanced by some combination of magic and ritual. This is not particular to the West. And it is as true today as it was in the paleolithic era.
The list of fears which drive civilizations is endless. Fear of the unknown, world outside the cave, outside the settlement, outside the country or world. Fear of being. unable to survive because of hunger or enemies. Fear not of death, but of ceasing to exist -- that is, fear that life is followed by a void.
The cave dwellers seem to have conceived their animal images as magic traps which might give them control over their, prey, in the same way that Christians would thousands of years later conceive many images of Christ or the Virgin Mary as miraculous. If successfully communicated with, these statues and paintings seemed to give -- indeed, in many places still seem to give -- the supplicant some control over disease, poverty or death. Just as the ritual used in order to communicate with these images was key to Christian miracles, so the same must have been true for the Stone Age hunters who prepared to seek out their prey.
With time the relationship between fear, magic and ritual has changed. None of our fears was conquered as civilizations became first sedentary and then urban. But doubt and anxiety over the most obscure of fears -- that of an external void -- grew in importance. And while magic has gradually retreated back into our unconscious -- which does not mean it has disappeared -- ritual has grown to take its place. In this civilization, in which God is dead, there is no clear sense that the high levels of endemic social doubt or angst or fear are an inheritance of the lost Christian promise of eternal life. Nor is there a recognition that the vast structural web of our society and the endlessly predictable images of television and film are successors to religious ritual.
We have been confused in part by the rapid and revolutionary change in our official view of why images are created. Until the simultaneous beginnings of the Age of Reason and the Renaissance, this craft played a social, political and above all metaphysical or religious role. From the fifteenth century on -- in the wake of the final technical breakthroughs which made it possible to paint a perfect image -- the idea of art began quietly to separate itself from craft. By the eighteenth century the divorce was more or less formal, although there have been regular attempts to reunite the two. In the early nineteenth century, museums were created for the sole purpose of aesthetic enjoyment. The idea that art is its own reason for existence has now been so firmly established that few people would question it.
And yet it is improbable that the image, which has played a fundamentally religious or magical role for more than fifteen thousand years, could simply be freed of itself in the space of a few centuries to become a mere object of art. This is where the Western experience parts company with that of other civilizations. For the last two thousand years, Christianity has presented and fought for a monotheistic, anti-pagan, anti-idolatry dogma. Those who view Christianity from the outside have always been surprised by the aggressiveness of these claims, because the reality of our worship has always contradicted them.
The monotheistic argument, for example, was immediately negated by the division of God into a trinity. This idea of three in one or one in three was so complex that Christians themselves were constantly fighting over its meaning. The Virgin Mary was then given, to all intents and purposes, the status. of a divinity, as were an increasing number of saints. In the opinion of everyone except the Christians, they had reconstituted a polytheistic religion.
The concept of the pagan was even more confusing. It indicated someone who did not worship "the true God." And yet the Muslims -- who worshipped the same God as the Christians, used the same texts and adopted most of the same moral codes -- were pagans, as were dozens of other sects who adopted minor doctrinal differences.
Finally, no civilization anywhere in the world has been so resolutely idolatrous as the Christian. The need to create and worship images designed in our own likeness is a constant in the history of the West. It is a virtually unaltered constant from the Greeks through the Romans to ourselves, with only marginal variations in the panoply of major and minor divinities. In spite of Christianity's Judaic origins; the Church managed so successfully to circumvent the Old Testament interdiction on image worship that only the images of other religions have been defined as idols. Six hundred years after Christ, Islam was provoked in large part by uncontrolled Christian idolatry. The Church responded by categorizing them as infidels -- nonbelievers.
Some religious and social orders have avoided dependence on the image or even its use. From the West's point of view, Judaism is the prime example. Islam has been almost as successful, as have Shintoism, Confucianism and, for a long period of time, Buddhism. During the nineteenth century, Western colonial administrators were constantly coming across groups in Africa and Asia who avoided creating human likenesses and were highly suspicious of images. There was the standard cliche about the native who was afraid to be photographed because he feared the photographer would capture his soul. The reaction of a Lascaux resident would no doubt have been the same.
This attitude actually makes very good sense. The native in question is an animist and does not believe in worshipping idols, but believes that everything, animate and inanimate, is alive. He is therefore an integrated part of the entire universe. He is unlikely to be frightened that death is a black hole leading to a void. Death simply returns him to the universe.
The particularity of Westerners has been their obsession with presenting gods, through images, not as devils or animals or abstractions, but as human beings. The painter's role has always stemmed from that basic metaphysical and social need. The gods live forever and we are created in their image. These repeated identifying mortal imitations do not simply reflect our dreams of immortality. The image, in idolatry as in animism, is a magic trap. In the West the painter's and sculptor's job has been to design the perfect trap for human immortality. As craftsmen their efforts were aimed for thousands of years at technical improvements. In the years around 1500, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo made the final breakthroughs to the accurate representation of reality. There was, however, no accompanying metaphysical change. No heightened sense of magical power.
The Age of Reason has since witnessed a long and confused decline of the image as a source of general expectation; a decline accelerated by the inventions of the photograph and the motion picture, television 'and video. As expectations have dropped, confusion has grown. First, the confusion of a civilization without beliefs. Second, confusion over the significance of astonishingly perfected new images. As their technical power grows, the confusion they provoke also breeds distrust.
The result has been a growing chasm between the image and society. The craftsmen-artists have retreated onto a plane of their own. In their place as social participants we have two groups of image makers: the modern equivalent of the official artists, who receive approval from the museum experts; and the new ritualists, who produce electronic imitations of reality. What television and film have brought us is images realer than reality and yet, images separated from belief in a society which for the first time in almost two millennia does not believe.
The end of the Age of Reason is therefore a time in which the image is popularly felt to be false and yet also a time of idolatry, pure and simple. As electronic images have gradually slipped into a comfortable, highly structured and conservative formalism, our rational methods have been powerless to capitalize on what are, in fact, astonishing changes. A civilization of structure flees doubt. And so quite naturally, rational man has debased modern imagery into the lower ritual forms of a pagan religion.
Almost all civilizations have had an obsession with the possible relationship between immortality and the image, but most of them have limited the hypnotic effect of idolatrous self-reflection. The Christians took the full power of the divine image from earlier religions -- those of the Greeks and the Romans -- and integrated that pagan divinity into their own.  It is actually quite hard to blame the early Church fathers for doing this. They were devout men but socially and culturally unsophisticated, almost universally from lower- or, at most, middle-class backgrounds. Abruptly they found themselves thrust into the centre of affairs thanks to Constantine's Christian-inspired conquering of Rome in 312. The civilization they were expected to run was dominated by the cultured, ancient and sophisticated Roman aristocracy. Within a few years these simple priests were responsible for the theological anxieties of all the citizens of the greatest empire ever known. With so much power to be exercised, their honest simplicity, which had attracted Constantine in the first place, became a handicap.
How were they to capture the imaginations of such an enormous population, one which was devoted to a bizarre combination of rational Greek philosophy and baroque idolatry? The easy answer was to integrate both of these elements into Christianity. This solution took on the aspect of official policy when Damasus became Pope in 366. Rather than continue a failing effort to convert the Roman pagans to pure Christianity, he set about making the Church Roman. He brought in the ruling classes of the city, along with their Athenian philosophical background and their attachment to highly sophisticated imagery as a central characteristic of religion.
Only a half century later this approach was integrated into the intellectual mainstream of Christianity through the writings of Saint Augustine, who was then Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. On the subject of Christian art versus idolatry, he laid out a very fine difference between the two: "God is not the soul of all things but the maker of all souls."  As so often when complex distinctions are applied to simple moral questions, the effect was simply to provide justification for de facto idol worship. This approach was doubly and permanently locked in place by the arrival on the papal throne in 590 of the great Pope Gregory, who popularized and universalized the message of the Church through a simplification of the Christian message and the embrace of magic and miracles. This he did not by rejecting the sophisticated rational' idolatry of the preceding two centuries but by building on its profound assumptions.
Finally, the devotion to magic and mysticism came to fruition in the middle of the seventh century when Eastern Christians, fleeing the Muslim explosion and its condemnation of idolatry, settled in Rome and took over the Church. Between 678 and 741, eleven of thirteen popes were Greek or Syrian. Refugees from the East. They brought their obsession with miraculous images and relics. Cartloads of saintly thigh bones and pieces of the Holy Cross arrived in Rome. It wasn't long before images decorated the inside of each church and became the central focus for the parishioners' anxieties. If there was any doubt over the Western approach, it was removed during the Iconoclastic struggle in the Eastern Empire from 726 to 843. Constantinople's attempts to eradicate the rampant use of images were constantly undermined by the Pope and the Church in Rome. 
This focus remained in place for a thousand years -- until, that is, Christianity began to weaken beneath the pressure of a revived rationality. As the churches collapsed, the image was freed from their grasp. But it was not freed from divinity. We killed God and replaced him with ourselves. In the process man himself inherited the full, divine power of the idolatrous Christian image.
The curious thing about the pagan heritage was its artificiality. Man had first to make the image, then believe in its powers. By comparison, the animistic native -- who believes that there is life in everything and that he is an integrated part of that everything -- holds an intellectually sound position. He is part of a concrete nirvana on earth. The Buddha added a wrinkle to this with his idea of a nonconcrete nirvana. Man, he said, would have difficulty leaving this earth, but if he succeeded it would be an eternal escape.
It's worth noting, in passing, the miraculous ability of Greek culture to stir in any civilization the deep, unconscious anxiety tied to fears of mortality. then pander to it with promises tied to idolatry. The Buddhists managed for centuries without statues of the Buddha. It was the passage of Alexander the Great through India that first tempted them down the ambiguous path of Buddha images -- which are theoretically respected, not worshipped -- in somewhat the same manner that statues of the Virgin were theoretically respected, not worshipped.
As for Mohammed, he brought a clear description of Paradise to the Koran:
It isn't surprising that this clarity should have been accompanied by a general ban on images. God had passed on the full details of heaven through his Prophet. There was no room for humans to fiddle with his description.
Strangely enough, Christ had spoken to roughly the same sort of simple desert people some seven centuries earlier and done so almost entirely in parables. But at no time did he offer a hint of what heaven was like. He said a great deal about who would get there and how, but offered not a single word on the place itself. The faithful Christian who looked for hints found instead:
If Mohammed passed on a detailed description of heaven, while Christ didn't describe it at all, this can only have been intentional on both their parts. And yet we are talking about the same God, the same prophets and the same heaven. Any explanation for the divergence would be mere speculation. If we take Christ at his word, he seemed to be suggesting a heaven not unlike the Buddhist nirvana. But the Christian success in Europe was unrelated to this suggestion. Instead, the very vagueness of Christ's heaven left the West free to continue its pagan devotion to the melding of the mystic with the concrete.
It was through the image that this Western imagination had always revealed, and would continue to reveal, itself. Very little from the pre-Christian past needed to be changed. Even Christ's parables fitted neatly onto the foundations of Greek mythology and philosophy. The abstract simplicity of Christianity allowed its rapid assimilation into the image madness of Roman Europe. Christ's vague heaven was an apparently revolutionary new contribution. It formalized the nascent idea of immortality. But it was Roman Europe which converted that idea into a concrete image. And it was Europe -- Greek, Roman and barbarian -- which instilled magic into the immortal dream. 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 unconscious guarantor of human immortality.
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 that he had always dreamed would carry great power. Faced by the impotence of this progress, he succumbed to confusion and to greater inner fear.
Long before that the Christian Church had set about developing Christ's heaven into a doctrinal, concrete reality. The Church paid painters to illustrate the official heaven. These craftsmen were initiated into a complex protocol which indicated precisely where everyone would sit or stand for eternity. They formalized the idea that Christians would lie on clouds. The Church set the record straight over the exact manner in which decomposed bodies would be recomposed to perfection on Judgment Day. Again, they commissioned thousands of painters to illustrate this.
As the old Roman aristocracy gradually disappeared, the role of illustration became more, not less, essential for both magical and practical reasons. Almost everyone, including the new and diverse, indeed fractured ruling classes, was illiterate. And while the priesthood could not read out to the public reassuring illustrative holy texts on heaven, as the Muslims could, they were able to bring the people into churches where eternity was demonstrated on all the walls.
When, in the Late Middle Ages, the Church began to use its definition of heaven as a corporate tool for fundraising via such things as indulgences, it damaged the credibility of its eternity. Subsequently, under attack for corruption, it began to slide away from its earlier commitment to a concrete description of heaven. The people in turn began to believe less. At first, with the Reformation, there was a move to create new Christian churches. But increasingly the Westerners reverted to a more properly pagan use of the image -- a use which predates the conversion of Rome to Christ's cause. Today we are surrounded by millions of perfect, live images. The role they play is almost identical to that of the ancient idol: reassuring reflections whichever way man turns. What we have kept from the Christian period is the feeling that the painter and the image maker have the power to deliver a sense of eternity.
The slow, difficult technical progress towards the perfect capture of the image came in a disordered manner over several thousand years, with advances being made here and there or simultaneously in several places at once. The most intense scenes of this struggle took place in northern Italy from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. In Siena, for example, each step of this creative explosion remains exposed on walls around the city like clues in an unfolding mystery.
Until the early 1500s, painters were obsessed with technical progress. They had always struggled with problems, such as perspective, in the unconscious expectation that if the perfect image could be created, something magical would happen. And so, even before rational man got hold of the idea of progress, it had been hopelessly confused between a technical process and a moral improvement.
This does not mean that the need to progress was always felt to be a simile for the quest, as in the quest for the Holy Grail. Rather, it was properly understood as an administrative process -- an advance or a progress over controlled territory. Monarchs, for example, made a royal progress across their own kingdoms. Good might come of it, or bad, or nothing, depending on the king in question and on what he wanted at that time. The contradiction between what we now expect from progress. and what we actually get is no worse than that suffered by the medieval gentry and peasantry as they dealt with the passage of a royal party. For that matter, our confusion is not greater than that of the medieval painter. All the time he was desperately seeking technical improvements, there was proof in his own work that his most powerful paintings were not necessarily the most perfect and, therefore, not the most advanced.
Duccio, for example, both progressed and was lost in the confusion created by progress. Between 1308 and 1318 he worked on the enormous front and rear of the Maesta, the altarpiece of the Cathedral of Siena. The Maesta consisted of countless small scenes on individual panels. Duccio completed each one before progressing to the next. In the process he made a series of technical discoveries unknown to any other painter. As he worked on a given panel, he was therefore obliged to notice that a few panels earlier he had made serious errors. These had not been errors at the time. It was only his own progress which made them into errors.
Doors, for example, had been placed incorrectly so that figures could not come through them. A few panels further on in the series, there is another door. This time the figures inside the room have been painted so that they could have come through the entrance.
All over the city of Siena, painters were grouped in the studios of different masters, learning from them, then going out on their own to add to what they had learned. One by one the technical secrets of the image were revealed. The final step of this progress can be glimpsed in the Piccolomini Library. There in 1505 Pinturicchio, began illustrating on the walls the glorious career of the Piccolomini family's pope, Pius II.
Pinturicchio had digested the technical lessons of those who came before him and had moved on to the point where the enormous mass of his images' was so integrated by colour and detail and by the relation of the animate to the inanimate that the viewer could feel the details about to be swallowed up by the whole. Clearly the master was on the edge of creating the miraculous perfect image.
In the ninth mural, down on the lower left-hand side, Pinturicchio painted himself. And beside him is his student Raphael, who a few years later would solve the last technical mysteries of the image. He would make the breakthrough and take the flat, painted image as far as it could go.
Others will say it was Michelangelo or Leonardo who made the actual breakthrough. No doubt they did. So much time had passed, so much progress had been made, so many craftsmen had been thinking and working, that the last step could not help but be a mass effort. The question of perspective was solved and the perfect image created between 1405 and 1515, after thousands of years of craftsmen striving towards that moment.
Perhaps Raphael was most often given the credit because he was the most unidimensional figure of the three. He was the painter's painter -- not a randy egomaniac, like Michelangelo, as famous for his life as for his painting; nor a scientist, strategist, inventor of weapons and machinery, like da Vinci. who also painted. Raphael resembled what the painter was to become in the Age of Reason: the invisible technocrat of images. With hindsight. he appears to have been the father of the "artist"; that is, of the man who painted to create beauty. But Raphael did not simply perfect the image. His greatest work was the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, rooms in the papal apartments of Julius II. Their theme was the justification of the power of the Church through neo-Platonic philosophy. Julius was surrounded by thinkers who had updated this original betrayal of Christian dogma so that it still made sense -- that is, could be justified -- in the context of the humanist explosion of the Renaissance. But it was Raphael who had to turn this old internal contradiction into a unified image. The two most important frescoes were The Dispute and The School of Athens. It is not the detail of these scenes which makes them revolutionary, but that the thousands of years of search for the perfect image should have culminated in paintings which indisputably affirmed the marriage between the traditions of pagan idolatry and Christian immortality. With a vast flourish Raphael completed the pagan-Greco-Roman-Christian integration and closed the circle begun by Pope Damasus in the fourth century.
In any case, in twenty intensive years three men completed the miracle of the image. Paint became reality. The image became real, as real as paint would ever make it. The relationship between the viewed and the viewer was finally perfected. The viewer was integrated into the viewed. He came to the framed image in search of his eternal prison. He came as a willing virgin to Count Dracula, expecting the image to drink from him and to live forever.
This was a limited expectation in comparison to the Church's promise of Paradise. A bit of paint on a wall was, after all, a modest view of eternity, as modest as sleeping in a coffin during the day and coming out only at night. The image, like Dracula, was also the final reflection, unable to give out life, just as the count was invisible in a mirror.
So the viewer approached the perfect image in great expectation. He found a technical miracle. He found genius. He found emotion and beauty which seduced him in a way he had never been seduced before. But he did not find what he'd come for. This living reflection did not do to him what he had expected. Of course, like most metaphysical expectations, this one belonged in the realm of unformed yearning. There is never a blueprint for desire, and yet the perfecting of the image was one of the great disappointments of Western history.
For some twenty years after Raphael's discovery craftsmen celebrated their triumph with an outpouring of genius.  But gradually the subconscious failure beneath this conscious success began to slow them and to darken their perspective. The viewer has only to watch Titian's opulence and sensuous joy gradually turn tragic. With no room left for progress, the image turned and dodged and circled back and buried itself like an animal chained to its own impossible promise, searching for some way to get beyond the mortality of the real.
The conscious mind does not look at a picture with all these thoughts to the fore. It looks instead for beauty, shock value or the reflection of something it knows. Human obsessions are not tied to practicality or proof or even to public argument. The impossibility tied to them is an attraction. And yet these obsessions almost always have practical secondary effects. They produce organizations, beliefs, objects and ways of behaviour. Society is in part the result of real needs such as military, economic and social. But it is at least equally the result of unobtainable obsessions.
So, while we may come to the image in search of Dracula, we find instead reflections of our reality -- social conventions, for example, such as power relationships, established beliefs and patriotic emotions -- or we may find images which reflect our expectations for justice or material comfort, or the picture may reinforce our prejudices. The painter reflects what society hopes he will reflect. If he inspires refusal or anxiety, then he is responding to something he senses in the social body.
When Romanticism began to flourish in the late eighteenth century and the ego began to grow until it dominated public life, people abruptly found Raphael far too modest a fellow to have been the father of the perfect image. So they tended to fall into line with the description of the technical breakthroughs which had been provided by Vasari in his Lives of the Painters, written shortly after the actual events. In other words, they transferred the credit to an irresponsible, antisocial individualist, Michelangelo -- a veritable caricature of the artist in the twentieth century. If we were ever able to create a reasonable, open society, Leonardo would no doubt cease appearing to us as an overwhelming, almost forbidding, giant and the credit would be switched to him.
Though Michelangelo came to represent the artistic type of the future, he was very much part of a society in which the craftsman was an integrated element. The painter was a craftsman and a gild member. In Bruges the Flemish primitives of the fifteenth century belonged to the same craft gild as the harness-makers. glaziers and mirror makers. In Siena their carefully dated signatures were followed by such declarations as Thadeu Bartholi's "Feait fieri agelella." "Made it proud." Their signature did not relate to ego. the way the modern painter's does. To the contrary, they signed as gild members, confirming their role as craftsmen and taking public responsibility for their contribution to the community. The image, after all, had a public function. It was accessible to every element in society. You needed neither money, rank nor literacy to look at a painting or a fresco.
As the painters inched closer to the perfect image, so society became ever more committed to having itself reflected. The donors of religious pictures had begun by having themselves painted discreetly into corners, often in little medallions. Gradually, they gathered the courage to insist on being integrated into the central structure of the image. Then abruptly. there they were, as large as everyone else in sculpture as well as painting. In St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna the pillars are decorated with life-size statues of saints and donors mixed together. It became increasingly common in paintings to find donors kneeling before Christ at the end of a row which began with the Apostles or the local saint. It wasn't long before the Apostles were gone and the image was devoted to Christ, Mary and the local lord. Or the town council. Or the king.
In paintings of the Apocalypse -- that is, of Judgment Day -- the local burghers or lords were portrayed safely on the side of the saved as Christ cast others down. The point of this was not to impress the local serfs or whatever with the remarkable connections of their masters. Nor was it to prove publicly the holiness of these people. The point was that Christ was immortal and they were beside him. The image was like a negative of life, waiting to be developed by death.
With ever-greater frequency, the painter dressed the Saviour, his family and the saints in the latest fashion of the town where the painting would hang. This was not the result of ignorance over how they might actually have dressed. There were accurate, well-known images of biblical dress -- statues, mosaics and bas-reliefs. Nor was this an attempt to popularize Christianity. Nor to modernize it. The religion was perfectly accessible. Its message may have been distorted in various ways by churches; but the message of suffering on earth, of resurrection and of eternal life was perfectly clear.
If the Gabriel in Benedetto Bonfigli of Siena's Annunciation looked like a well-to-do dandy, his hair cut in the latest style with blond curls, then the idea was that a contemporary image could be as eternal as an angel. The three wise men in Pietro Perugino's painting of the Offering all resemble princes out of Botticelli's Spring. The reason is the same. And in Modena, there is an extraordinary transposition of ordinary citizens into biblical saints. This large group of life-size terra cotta figures by Guido Mazzoni and coloured by Bianchi Ferrari in 1509 is in the Church of San Giovanni. The figures are taking Christ off the cross. Each of them looks as if he has just walked off the streets of medieval Modena in order to give a hand with the body.
This dissolving of human actuality into the biblical promise of immortality goes beyond clothes and hair styles. In the Duomo in Orvieto, Fra Angelico and Signorelli painted an Apocalypse in which some of the figures step out of a fashion parade. But more important are the dead saved by the Resurrection and coming out of the ground. They are skeletons, becoming flesh as they rise, and chatting With each other. The painters' attention to corporal detail is libidinous. Needless to say, it is also highly secular. These rising dead are the people. This is an illustration Of precisely how they will be reconstituted. The citizens of Orvieto could come to the Duomo and count the muscles, measure the breasts, check the eye colour; This is an image of themselves, resurrected in every detail for eternity. The point is made even more insistently in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, where the Maestro dell'Osservanza painted a Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew in the early l400s. On the left and right of the poor suffering saint, standing naked and bloodied, there is a line of Assisi burghers wearing fur-trimmed hats with long, wide tassels hanging down and flung elegantly over the opposite shoulder. These men are extremely well dressed for the fifteenth century. But they are inappropriately dressed for a martyrdom. The effect is that of a grotesque receiving line at a fashionable wedding. It is as if the sacred subject no longer matters, except by association. What matters is that the citizen is there, integrated with immortal people in an almost animate reflection.
All of this manoeuvring for the best spot on the wall abruptly lost its purpose once Raphael had created the perfect image and nothing magical had happened. The painters reacted by moving into overstatement. Even Titian's joyous outburst was an attempt to kick Raphael's reality into life through elaboration. More clouds, more people, more events. He was trying to take heaven by storm.
When this failed, many painters turned from the grandiose to the intimate and took a run at eroticism. Cranach the Elder's Venus and Love is a cool version of this move, with the lady, neither mythological nor goddesslike, standing naked except for a fashionable hat. The look in her eyes, coyly turned to the viewer: is clearly. a sexual invitation aimed at any man willing to join her on the wall. This centrefold approach, to which Playboy owes a great deal, was so popular that towards the middle of the sixteenth century Cranach painted almost identical versions for admirers all over Europe. Bronzino's allegory Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly dropped any attempt at coolness. It is one of the most erotic scenes ever painted. The skin of the lady -- its soft whiteness -- is palpable. A thin, postpubescent Cupid has slipped an arm around and beneath one breast to take the other between his fingers while his lips brush hers. She has the essence of female nakedness, her body turned to the viewer, her thighs about to part, exuding a mixture of placidity and expectant energy. It is difficult to understand why the British authorities periodically set about seizing pornographic films, when something as explicit as this is hanging in the National Gallery.
From the body, painters turned back to society, but in a vague, uninvolved way. They began to redescribe the scenes they knew, this time with the full skills of perspective. They carried society with them in flights of fantasy, such as those of Fragonard, who attempted to make life better than it could ever have been with impossibly romantic colours in an edgeless, overflowing nature filled with opulent women and joyous couples. Or they used new gimmicks -- like de la Tour's concentrated light and shadow -- in an attempt to trick the image into animation. The English tried a naturalism which seemed to extinguish any barrier between the subject and the portrait. Gainsborough put Mr. and Mrs. Andrews under a tree with their fields behind. There they are as they really were -- self-assured, boring and pompous. They are almost alive enough to drone on about their distant blood ties to a duke or their good shooting. Other painters began to fall into producing unapologetic propaganda. They leaped onto the new Hero bandwagon of the late eighteenth century and helped to pump up revolutionaries and generals.
The greatest Hero, Napoleon, had David, the greatest artistic Hero worshipper, at his side, along with a flock of other painters -- Gros, Regnault and two of David's students, Ingres and Gerard. They were often called romantics because of a style which married the highly personal and the grandiose. When applied to Napoleon and his Empire, this revealed itself as a combination of base sentiment and idolatry. Their supportive relationship with those in power created the illusion that painters were still the community members they had always been -- that David, in particular, was a modern version of the old burgher, gild member, craftsman of the Middle Ages. Not at all. He was a servant of power, not a constituent part. He made his own attitude towards Napoleon perfectly clear: "In the past altars would have been erected in the honour of such a man."  His paintings were those altars, In spite of his revolutionary politics, David developed no existence in his own right. He developed instead into a worshipper. This demonstration of the painter as servant solidified the whole Beaux Arts approach, which locked "art" into a narrow technical process. This was in turn limited to a narrow choice of classical subjects. In return the painter might gain false respectability -- not as a useful craftsman but as a delicate creator of beauty who needed protection from the real world.
There are many explanations for the gradual separation of the craftsman from the artist and the accompanying loss by the painter of his role as a member of society. And yet it is hard to avoid noticing that the first signs of this division came on the heels of the perfection of the image. Throughout the Renaissance, the painter continued to think of himself ,as a craftsman. But the sense of his potential mystical powers, which society felt were dependent on his skills as a craftsman, began to evaporate the moment Raphael broke the technical barrier. The painter suffered from an unspoken social rejection which provoked his slow decline into artistry.
The art historian R. G. Collingwood placed the beginning of the distinction between fine arts and useful arts in the eighteenth century.  Put another way, by the eighteenth century society was beginning consciously to doubt that art was useful.
The craftsman-become-artist reacted to his forced marginality the way social outcasts often do. He stood on his dignity. As he was not wanted, he became grand. As his social standing dropped, he became nonconformist, individualistic, irresponsible, moody, "bohemian." It was then that he switched his allegiance from Raphael to Michelangelo, an antisocial figure somewhat in the modern mold. But these new 'artists' were gradually slipping towards a definition of beauty which, in social terms, meant irrelevance. They were no longer called upon to reflect society, and so automatically, nor could they criticize or propose alternatives with any weight. As art withdrew from society, so it came to be a form of simple refusal or of anarchy.
And as the image lost its purpose, along with the potential for magic, so the artist began to slip away from it. Delacroix was among the first. In 1832 he escaped both physically and mentally from the Beaux Arts dictatorship by going to North Africa. He came back with rushing, disturbed, impressionistic images, particularly of horses in battle. In 1849 he began two enormous frescoes in St. Sulpice in Paris. Much of what is to come later in the century can be seen there in his Jacob wrestling with the Angel Gabriel. The light might have been by Monet. On the ground there is a hat van Gogh could have painted. The Impressionist slide quickly turned into a stampede, and early in the twentieth century the image had been rushed out of sight by abstraction. Forty years later, the perfected image reappeared in a series of new schools -- realist, hyperrealist, natural-realist, magic-realist -- as the artists made a strange attempt to create images more animate than those of the photographers and filmmakers of the twentieth century. The effect was surprising, but still the magic eluded them.
This flight from the image reflected a series of astonishing events. In 1839 the first photograph appeared. Delacroix was in full career. Gustave Moreau hadn't begun. Manet was seven. Cezanne was born with the photograph, Monet a year later. In 1845 the photographic plate was replaced by photographic film. Three years later Gauguin was born; van Gogh, eight years later; Toulouse-Lautrec not until 1864.
All of them came into a world awash with new, perfect images. From the technical point of view, almost any photograph was better than a Raphael or a Leonardo. And almost any idiot could produce one. In spite of this revolutionary change, the image itself still had not come alive. Instead it seemed to have retreated, yet again, just beyond the photographer's grasp. As the painters turned to abstraction, in denial of the image, or to surrealism, as if to mock it through the grotesque, it seemed· as if, in their despair, they regretted even having believed that technical perfection was the secret to bringing it alive. And yet, there had always been painters whose power lay more in their mystical strengths than in their craftsmanship. And despite the twentieth century's romanticization of the creative process, these mystics were as far away from the modern idea of the artist as they were from the medieval profession of craftsman.
Even among the finest craftsmen, there was often an element of animist genius which overwhelmed and sometimes eliminated their skills. Duccio worked hard to eliminate his errors, but many remained. We can see these errors, but we can also see that the paintings are masterpieces -- far, greater, far more touching, more alive, than thousands of paintings by other very good painters who did not make any serious errors simply because they worked a few years later.
This is self-evident. But if the perfecting of the image was not essential to the quality or power of paintings, then the general and innate values of structure and expertise were actually in doubt even before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when progress and reason blossomed as absolute, inviolable truths.
What is at stake in the case of painting is not simply whether a lack of perfection may succeed where perfection fails. If that were the case, it would be enough to note the superiority of Duccio, Carpaccio, and Pinturicchio's flawed work over the technically perfect canvases of, say, Veronese, Fragonard and Rubens. Nor is the point that genius -- as it is now understood -- may he more important than skill. In fact, genius as it appears in the mystical strain of painting is a refutation of genius as the modern West understands it.
This phenomenon isn't limited to a few oddball painters. Elements of mysticism can actually be found in even the most brilliant purveyors of skill and genius. What, for example, of Duccio and his doorway error in one of the Maesta panels? He solved that problem a few scenes later. With his new knowledge and improved skills, he could have gone back and corrected the doorway perspective. He didn't. Did he consciously decide that this incorrect image accomplished something he couldn't technically justify?
Look, for example, at the angels he painted throughout the Maesta panels. They seem familiar. Timeless. They are curiously old-fashioned in comparison to the rest, and yet they are also curiously modern. A fire shoots out from them, like a jet engine propelling their bodies forward. This could be seen as a silly, literal interpretation of how angels fly. Yet somehow it isn't silly. They seem almost to be out of another painting, if not out of another world. They reappear in the work of other painters in an equally strange manner. Perhaps it isn't so surprising to find precisely the same mystical, angelic energy a century later in the same city in the paintings of Soma di Pietra.
In Pinturicchio's frescoes illustrating the life of Pope Pius II, there is one scene in which all the cardinals are lined up before the Pope. They are crowned by the mass of their own hats, which sit like a gathered flock of snowy owls about to rush into flight straight at the viewer. They dance together on the men's heads, taking on peculiar angles and appearing to be three times bigger than the men who wear them. They are technically imperfect and yet the essence of the cardinals has been captured in their hats.
Until Raphael, the mystic strand was usually buried in the work of mainstream painters. Whenever it emerged it did so within images commissioned by the Church or the nobility or the town council or one of the gilds. Mysticism often appeared through the gap which remained between genius and incomplete skill. With Raphael that gap was filled. Over the next four centuries, the painters slipped away from society and the mystics gradually became a separable but minor strand in the background. The fact that they were irrational, antisocial in the conventional sense and therefore dangerous accentuated this marginality. Nevertheless, their paintings and objects continued to find a way to the public and to provoke reactions which society found disturbing.
Mysticism was seen as the last refuge of superstition. This was confirmed for rational man by the existence of relatively crude religious images which continued to exert an irrational influence over people. Often this was indeed little more than superstition, based, for example, on some theoretically miraculous event in the past. Here and there, however, there are images which have only to be looked at with an open mind to confirm that they do contain an active irrational force.
The crucifix which "spoke" to Saint Francis, telling him to "go repair my House which is falling into ruin" is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It is not the most beautiful of images. An unknown craftsman painted it around 1000 A.D. and the crucifix then hung in San Damiano, a small rural church. By the time Francis saw it, the church was run down, almost a ruin. He misunderstood the message, thinking it meant he was to rebuild the little stone building and not the Church of Rome.
There is still a force within this image. Of course, the religious circus which now engulfs Assisi gets in the way. No one will ever be able to look at the crucifix in the way Francis did -- alone, in a run-down, rural church -- that is to say, alone and at peace. Nevertheless, the force of the image can still be felt.
The changed position of the mystic strain after the breakthroughs of the Renaissance can be seen as early as the pictures of the German Grunewald. He used the new technical progress where it suited him and ignored it where it didn't. His Resurrection of 1515 for the Isenheim Altar seems to be one with painters of the past such as Uccello, but also with William Blake in the eighteenth century and Dali in ours. Christ rises in a spray of colours which resemble an unreal burst of electricity. The soldiers guarding his body tumble away in an inexplicable manner as he rises. A century later El Greco was fully engaged in deforming reality, for example, in The Opening of the Fifth Seal. The colours are seemingly uncontrolled. The bodies of the resurrected float in an imprecise and deformed manner. The picture is more an emotion than an image.
The purely mystical strain of painting spread as the power of reason prospered. In fact, Heinrich Fussli and William Blake worked while the waves of reason rolled high around them. In 1782, the year before Blake published his first book, Poetical Sketches, Fussli's painting The Nightmare caused a sensation across Europe. He portrayed a woman dressed, but collapsed erotically over the end of her bed, bent backwards in an impossible manner. A small shadowy monster is crouched on her breasts. A maddened horse peers in through dark curtains. Fussli's appeal to the nonrational made an enormous impact. William Blake's strange, disassociated figures conveyed that same sense of the uncontrollable. His angels, for example, appear awkward, naive, technically stilted, unbelievable. In a sense they are all of those things. They are very like the angels of Duccio and Soma di Pietra. They fly in the face of five centuries of technical progress. And yet they are almost alive. By a series of gestures, which we cannot identify intellectually as genius, Blake has almost brought it off. He has almost captured the image.
Goya was then in the full flood of his career. In his case, it seemed as if the Spanish royal family, who paid for so much of his work, didn't understand the forces he was releasing. His painting of the May 3, 1808, massacre of Spaniards by the occupying French forces was no doubt applauded by the nationalists, including the Spanish nobility. But those aren't simply Spanish peasants being executed. There is something wild and unearthly about them. They seem to be shouting at their executioners. It is an eternal cry of refusal -- as much a cry of the Spanish Civil War, almost a century and a half later, as of any peasant uprising at any time in any country. It is more a mystical image of the human condition than the reflection of a single event.
Compare its rough, crazed feel to the perfect, lacquered pictures David was producing at the same time; works of skill and intelligence. They are moving, but moving in a singular way. They are remarkable political tools which assemble the viewer's emotions with a purpose in mind. Goya, meanwhile, was painting explosions. The viewer has only to look in order to feel a ripping apart within himself. Perhaps that is a description of the eternal -- a formless, perpetual explosion.
Fussli, Blake and Coya were succeeded by men like Gustave Moreau, who began before the Impressionists and outlasted a number of them. The unnatural staginess of the mystical is there in his Oedipus and the Sphinx or in Prometheus, along with aggressive, inexplicable colours, which might have been by Grunewald. The subjects are classical but the feeling is barbaric. Mysticism was moving back towards centre stage, in part because the other pain ted images were collapsing under the weight of the photo and of the cinematograph, which arrived in 1896. But it was also propelled by a presentiment of ending -- of death, in fact -- which grew as the twentieth century began.
A turn-of-the-century group of painters in Vienna led the way in this dark prophesy. Every stroke of Egon Schiele's brush seemed to animate death, again like a Grunewald crucifixion. His 1913 portrait of Heinrich Benesch and his Son, for example, is a prophesy of the slaughter which will begin a year later and last for five years. The self-assured father's powerful hand is on the shoulder of his veallike son, leading him to death. The father thinks he sees but does not. The son sees, but feigns blindness, All of this is conveyed irrationally through the limitations of a theoretically conventional family portrait.
Once World War I had begun, an even deeper pessimism took hold. All the Blakean signs returned in the person of Magritte, who had the polished but telltale; awkward, almost gauche style which kept saying to the viewer -- "Look what you've done! You fool! What will you do now?"
So much of what was happening to the image in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first forty of this century was apparently new. Certainly these changes seemed to carry the optimism of newness and of great excitement. Invention was felt everywhere. Barriers were being crossed. Not only was the image finding new forms at the time, but those pictures still have the shock of newness when seen today.
And yet all the revelry of that period was Jess a celebration than a shattering. The Cubists, the Surrealists, the Expressionists, the frenzies of obscure lines, the slabs of raw paint or raw steel, the lumps of stone -- what was it all, except a dance of death? Brilliant, overwhelming and evocative of man's discomfort with his own rational civilization. But the dance of what death? On one level, of the image. More important, it was the death of a certain expectation from the image. In terms of art history, each of these schools deserves great attention. In terms of civilization's relationship to art, they were part of a single demonstration that the image was no longer a pillar of society, as it had been in the Middle Ages; nor a constructive critic, as it had often been during the romantic rise of the ego; nor even a servant of power. The new image neither reflected nor criticized the rational, structured world that man was creating. Instead it exploded in turmoil, off on a separate plane, as if it had no place in this new world. For the first time in history, the image was refusing society.
As for the painters, it wasn't surprising that they had been jumping so high for so many years. Cubism was pulled out of a hat in 1907, eleven years after the cinematograph was invented and just as it was gathering steam. Surrealism was officially founded in 1924, three years after Charlie Chaplin's first feature, The Kid, revolutionized the moving image. Dali joined the Surrealists in Paris in 1929, and Picasso began his distorted nudes in 1930, both hard on the heels of Mickey Mouse's first appearance in 1928. In that year, Mr. Mouse's film, Steamboat Bill, made him the most famous cartoon character in the world. He -- a mere image -- rapidly became the most famous individual in the world. Period. According to polls, he still is, Guernica and the great Surrealist Exhibit in London came in 1936, the same year that television was introduced, also in London. This was six years after talking movies, five after both Donald Duck and Chaplin's masterpiece, City Lights, and one year after the first comic book. Snow White made her appearance in 1937 and in 1939 the first American television broadcast took place in New York.
Run as fast as the most remarkable painters of the twentieth century could, the image was constantly outstripping them. They were hindered in this race by their own gradual withdrawal into specialization on an "artistic" plane, separate from society. This act of self- categorization also brought them into the range of a new breed of art historians. As the painters ran desperately to catch up with technology, they were being pecked all over by flocks of curators, art critics, dealers and technocratic art historians, all of whom were multiplying with such rapidity that they have now become a prevalent species.
The earlier generations of art patrons and historians had often been obsessive people, desiring to touch, to feel, to hold, to stare, to attempt some mystical relationships with the image. The specialists tend now to be pariahs of art, trained and graded by the specific criteria essential to contemporary education and, if anything, frightened by the potential power of the image. Their relationship to creativity is rarely one of love or obsession. They are salaried to it. They seem more comfortable with analysis, as if a dozen or so photographs of a masterpiece, taken under perfectly controlled conditions in neutral isolation, would best satisfy them. They could then destroy the original and limit the public's understanding to their own photo-based analysis of the measurable elements. You cannot be an expert in genius or in the mystical. Genius and the mystical therefore frighten them.
And since these experts controlled the major galleries, it was not long before they were able to apply their standards to the Western definition of what was art. New generations of painters -- cut off from the reverberations which their predecessors had felt, thanks to their integration into society -- instead found that the only sustained reverberations came from the experts. In the ensuing confusion, many painters began producing directly for the museums -- that is, for the technocrats of art.
That is now the dominant theme in Western painting. On the surface, it appears as if painters have turned away from egocentrism in order to reintegrate themselves into a world of public walls and public images, not unlike the gild craftsmen of the Middle Ages. But the resemblance is only superficial. Carpaccio, for example, painted public walls under contract from the constituted authorities. Those authorities were social, political and religious. They were not artistic authorities. His illustrations addressed that society's emotional and mythological needs, not his own and not those of image experts. Curiously enough, his integration into the social fabric, and the integration of his images into the public dream, gave him the personal freedom to release his full genius and mystical powers. The post-Raphael painter worked from the increasingly awkward position of the outsider but found his energy in the reverberations which he felt as a recently freed social critic. The second half of the twentieth century has seen painters gradually lose contact with that source of energy, as their link to society has been reduced largely to emanations from a socially irrelevant group of art experts. This constitutes a modern reestablishment of the Beaux Arts dictatorship.
Only the painters capable of dragging the mystical power out of themselves seem able to work productively within the breakdown of our society. They move untouched among the forces released by that break down. They seem unaffected by the fashions and standards dictated by the art experts. Today's confusion doesn't bother them. Instead of being disconcerted by our loss of centre, they seek ways of describing it. The secret, they have found, is to harness the violent, rampant forces released by that ,loss of centre. Theirs is an animist approach.
It is hardly surprising that Blake's images and words are more popular today than they have ever been. Nor is it surprising that the Englishman, Francis Bacon, was among the dominant modern painters. He said that he admired the craft of the Egyptians, "who, were attempting to defeat death." He denied that he was trying to do the same, because he didn't believe in an afterworld. But that isn't the point. So much has moved in this century from the unconscious to the conscious. Almost alone, death and dreams of eternity have disappeared into the deep unconscious. "I am a realist," Bacon said. "I try to trap realism." 
No one has trapped the violence and self-destruction of our time so completely as he has. Those truncated, deformed bodies are as eternally alive in his canvases as the reconstituted dead are in Fra Angelico's Resurrection. In fact, their shapes, disproportionate mouths and eyes and heads broken up like jigsaw puzzles, express the reality of how many people see or feel themselves. In a society as determined as ours to replace social and moral cohesion with unaffective structure and technical progress, these violent, magic images of mortality are among the few available reminders of reality.
For most painters, however, the century has brought an ever-growing pessimism over the power of their craft. If they were disillusioned in the early sixteenth century by the limited effects of the perfect painted image, they were, doubly wounded by the arrival of the photograph. Photographers have gone on developing their technology and the public has expectantly followed.
The moving picture had given them greater hope that the power of the image lay in that direction, as did sound, then colour. From 1948 on there was large-scale television broadcasting in the United States." I Love Lucy" began in 1951. The first CinemaScope movie was shown in 1953, The film chosen for this experiment with a wide screen was appropriately The Robe, a story tied to Christ's immortality. Walt Disney established his regular television slot in 1954. The last few years have contributed halls with wraparound sound and most recently, computer-generated images of people and objects which appear to be real but can take any form, melt, divide and do endless things which in reality are impossible.
No doubt the commercial holograph is next. Films will then have the density of stage plays without losing the reality of the screen and of location shooting. In 1981 the director John Waters produced a "scratch and sniff" film called Polyester. Viewers carried a numbered card into the hall. From time to time a number would flash on the screen; the public would scratch that section of the card; and the hall would fill with an appropriate smell ranging from dirty running shoes to roses. The only technically producible element missing will soon be modulated viewer emotions. Huxley described in Brave New World in 1932, just after the arrival of the talking movie, how this could be done with carefully modulated intoxicating spray. The result was "An All-Super-Singing, Synthetic-Talking, Coloured, Stereoscopic Feely. With Synchronized Scent-Organ Accompaniment."  There is no reason to think that we won't go that far.
We seem to be nearing the end of the process in which the rough, pictorial lines first scratched and painted on cave walls have come to fruition. The final result is already known. We have captured the perfect image and it is dead. Worse still, it is not exactly dead. We have created images beyond reality. Images not alive and yet more real than those which are alive with flesh and blood. We can so easily create these hyperrealist animations that masses of them are permanently available. And being perfect imitations, they are truly believable. Even the creator of a TV movie or a rock video can capture a form more perfect than any accomplished by the genius of Raphael.
On the other hand, heavy restrictions are placed on these creators by the nature of the electronic image. Marshall McLuhan talked of television having to adapt to process rather than to packaged product.  Decades later there is still no wide understanding of just how accurate this statement was. Both the public and the critics are increasingly fixated on how terrible the product is and convinced that corporations or financial interests or individuals are the guilty parties.
But television has revealed itself to be a more interesting control device than most people imagine. It isn't particularly effective at exercising control over the viewer. It is too obvious as a propaganda or manipulation device. On the other hand, the electronic system -- the machinery -- does exercise a powerful control over those who are employed to make it work. The product needs of a broadcast channel or network are both unlimited in quantity and very limited in scope and variety. Those whose profession it is to produce cannot avoid altering their view of life in order to satisfy this insatiable but extremely specific hunger.
Beyond the lens, there is the fullness of the real world -- disorderly, unexpected, filled with endless layers of expectation, understanding and misunderstanding. Its very size and uncontrollability has always made the viewer seek a focused interpretation in the creative image. Until the invention of the photograph, the painter's freeze-frame of reality sought both eternity and universality. Even a still life of a pear sought to capture something enormous through the specific. The viewer seeks that same eternal universality in the unfrozen frames of television.
The, essential nature of television, however, relates not to the viewer's need for a reflective moment but to the system's to fill airtime. The sheer quantity of material required and the speed with which it must be created, eliminates the possibility of searching for true reflections. The system rewards productivity, not creativity. It does not forbid or eliminate creativity. Not rewarding it is enough to minimize such efforts.
When television began only a few decades ago, its employees set out with both optimism and some idealism. The movie director Norman Jewison talks about the creative. talent originally gathered together in television. Through the 1950s these people worked with originality and skill to convert reality into interesting reflections. Live theatre was experimented with in new ways thanks to television's power to deliver instantaneous images to the public. The situation comedies had a fresh, sometimes crazed feeling, as radio and vaudeville traditions were adapted to the little screen. Newsmen like Edward R. Murrow seemed to have found an opening for presenting real events in a way that was partially freed from the old propaganda methods.
The conventional view is that, as the system grew, so did the potential profits. Packagers were brought in to produce the pablum we know today. And advertisers came to understand their power to discourage any political edge. Both these factors are very real. But scenarios which require arch villains are rarely accurate. Was there really a handful of individuals strong enough to wrestle down a phenomenon like television with the intention of castrating it? If so, why did a similar decline take place on publicly owned channels around the world -- even in countries where there was no competition from privately owned networks? British television, public and private, looks good when compared to the American wasteland. But this is only an effect of comparison.
The ability of machinery to suck up programming at the speed of sound, then spew it out into an endlessly expandable void can only have helped exhaust the creative. But was the way the programs sank into nowhere which discouraged the talented. Their images were not sitting in bookstores and libraries or hanging in galleries, museums or on the walls of houses or being projected in cinemas. They were simply beamed to an invisible audience, past whose eyes they might or might not flash, depending upon an arbitrary turning of dials or pushing of remote-control buttons. Surveys repeatedly show that for every person who watches a program, two or three other viewers glance at bits of it.
It is often said of the television-generation viewers -- which now includes most people in the West under forty -- that they have never been alone. That idea is typical of a civilization which denigrates accurate memory. Until the middle of the nineteenth century people were never alone. Families were grouped together in poverty or in riches. Even servants were integrated into the lives of their employers. Sex, for the poor, was a relatively public event. since families rarely had more than one or two rooms. In some societies couples were formally allotted moments alone for copulation. The basket weavers of Valabrego, a few miles from Avignon, lived in large, single-roomed group dwellings. They had a formal rotation system which left each couple alone for thirty minutes on Saturday. This was still going on in the 1940s. In the countryside of Europe and the poorer areas of North America, privacy became a dominant theme only after World War II.
To say that the television generation has never been alone, simply because it is in the constant presence of an animation machine, is certainly to treat the image as reality. It could more accurately be argued that people have never been so alone or so silent. For the first time in history, people are not gathering in families or larger groups to sing or play instruments or games. Television has removed the need for self-entertainment.
Nevertheless, it is the needs of the television structure, and not of the viewing public. which have forced the production emphasis from content to process. As the system has evolved. the creators have come to understand so perfectly the needs of the machinery that they have learned to avoid the temptations of reality. This is as true of news as it is of drama and sitcom.
A real event is not necessarily a television event. First, it must be visual and the camera must be there. This puts things such as trade disputes at a disadvantage and favours those faits divers which leave traces -- plane disasters or oil spills, for example. It also favours personalized political stories over policy questions. The case of an unfaithful or drunken politician can be dealt with like drama. A politician who favours arms spending or arms control is boring on television. Judge Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings were of little interest on television so long as they dealt with his legal opinions. Concrete debate over his sexual habits made perfect viewing. The rise of CNN (Cable News Network) canonizes the television view of reality as concrete, action-packed visuals. Wars make good television, providing the action is accessible and Prolonged. The Middle East, for example, is an ideal setting for television war. Cameras can be permanently on the spot. and a fixed scenario of weekly car bombs, riots and shelling ensures that the television structure will have ongoing material.
This perpetual motion machine works effortlessly if the flood of images illustrates situations the viewer already understands. That is one of the explanations for the system's concentration on two or three wars when there are forty or so going on around the world. The others are eliminated because they are less accessible on a long-term basis. Or because the action is less predictable and regular. Or because the issue involved does not fit easily into the West's over-explained, childlike scenarios of Left versus Right or black versus white. Or 'because the need for endless images makes television structures unwilling to undertake the endless verbal explanations and nonvisual updates which would be required for the other thirty-seven wars to be regularly presented.
McLuhan pointed out that we are "poised between two ages -- one of detribalization and one of retribalization."  One of the main forces on the side of retribalization is television and, indeed, the motion picture. Television has revealed itself to be the most provincial of the communication systems. The frenetic need for moving images includes the need that these images speak a language understood by the viewer.
Thus the American president speaking English is virtually absent from French and German television, as are the French president and the German chancellor speaking their languages on' American television. Audiences most often see foreign heads of state walking or getting in and out of planes. They are reduced to minor dramatic actions because television requires motion. A journalist will explain in a voiceover why these inoffensive. irrelevant images are being shown.
The whole world does appear ready to devour an unlimited quantity of third-rate, dubbed U.S. sitcoms. But these do nothing to increase international understanding. Programs like "Dynasty" simply reinforced local, single-syllable ideas of the United States." Dallas" increased international understanding of Americans to the same extent that the Charlie Chan movies contributed to an understanding of the Chinese, or Maurice Chevalier to an understanding of the French.
As for public affairs programming -- often compared to newspaper or magazine or even radio journalism -- it is rarely identified correctly as a descendant of the painted image. Television reporting is only related to traditional journalism because of their shared subject matter. The confusion is increased by the enormous efforts which are made by a small number of people, usually on publicly owned networks, to force the image into an uncomfortable and temporary marriage with information and interpretation. This requires a constant struggle to slow the images and to force unexpected questions onto a system which prefers expected answers. This is quality television and wherever it is found, it makes an impact. But the moment the people involved in production release their hold on the machinery, it rushes ahead without any memory of the real journalistic experience. inevitably, they are forced to let go.
Journalism attempts to deal with a wild, undisciplined world. Television seeks the smooth image which provides continuity and reassurance. The more successfully a public affairs program introduces this roughness, the greater the pressure to discontinue the program or change its personnel. This is often put down to the specificity of advertisers on private television or to government financing of public television. But why, then, is it that print journalism prospers happily when the news is rough and disturbing? After all, the same sort of people own newspapers and television networks. The same companies advertise in both places.
The answer is that television and film have nothing to do with the history of language and everything to do with images and what we now call the history of art. The evening news on television does not belong in the same area of understanding as the daily newspaper or political history or political philosophy. Rather, the newscaster -- whether it be a local talking head recounting three-alarm fires or Walter Cronkite, Richard Dimbleby, Christine Ochrent or Dan Rather -- belongs in the same column as Saint Francis performing miracles through the images painted of him by Giotto and Bonaparte crossing the Alps in glory thanks to David's brush. As always with the image, it is the technical structure which dominates, unless the individual genius of the creator can rise above what is rationally possible. On television, it is impossible. There production is a group activity in which the creators themselves are a minority.
When the viewer settles down to watch the news or a sitcom, he or she is watching an image which arrives by unbroken line from Giotto and Duccio and Raphael, with all the expectations and promises that stretch back to the figures on the walls of the caves. And so Indiana Jones and "Dallas's J.R. -- one of the few international figures of television -- both must carry a little responsibility for the failure of the perfected image to deliver immortality.
For the first time in history, there is a sense that images are false, that the image is a social enemy and not a beneficial prolongation of man and of his society. The image in search of reflected immortality was formerly part of society. Now we sense that the flood of animated images is not made up of reflections but rather of manipulative tools promoting a false view of ourselves. Of course, we have always suffered from a relatively false view of ourselves and the creators of images have always played a role in this. But since the completion of technical progress during the Renaissance, the image has been slipping away from its magical role towards one of propaganda.
This sense that we are viewing false images is tied in part to our disappointed expectations when confronted by the millions of perfect animations which now fill the world, We have become a society confused by its own contradictions. On the one hand, we no longer believe in the religion which was central to almost two thousand years of our development, On the other hand, we have retained an official moral code which is the product of those Judeo-Christian beliefs, We try to attribute that code to a secular and rational truth, And yet the structure created by reason is tearing that same moral code apart, The new, smooth images of television and video are driven by their own logic and yet are a central part of the structure which is challenging the moral code.
In fact, Western society is without belief for the first time since the decline of active devotion in the official religion of the Roman Empire, Our situation is unprecedented, There is no example in the last two thousand years of any civilization surviving without belief for even fifty years. There is nothing in our traditions or our mythology to deal with it. Even in our animist archetypes there is no comfort to be found, because Western man has never been so divorced from all sense of himself as an integral part of the physical earth, The abstract structures which dominate Western civilization reject anything which hints at either the physical or the ethereal.
As an immediate result we have been overcome by frenetic, narrowly focused beliefs, The strangest social and economic fashions have taken on the full aura of religious belief for short periods of time. We have devoted ourselves to economic growth at all costs, And to uncontrolled consumption. We have given ourselves over to abstract ideas such as capitalism or socialism, market economies or nationalizations. Things as lowly as an energy source -- nuclear -- have been vested with seemingly divine properties. We have fallen into drug epidemics and sexual anarchy. There has been a deification of personal ambition.
We know that this century is the most violent ever achieved by man. We tend to blame this on the invention of new weapons of mass destruction. But weapons are inanimate objects. And men have often shown themselves capable of remarkable self-control, even when weapons are at hand and victory is sure. In this century we have opted not to control ourselves. Inexplicable violence is almost always the sign of deep fears being released and there can be no deeper fear than that of mortality unchained. With the disappearance of faith and the evaporation of all magic from the image, man's fear of mortality has been freed to roam in a manner not seen for two millennia.
The signs of this fear are everywhere. An unprecedented worship of the past has won over the elites of every developed country. This has nothing to do with memory. No one is now looking at the past in order to compare it with the present or to seek guidance for the future. Our obsession with the past is unrelated to our actions in the present.
Thus, the growing number of work-free hours, a sign of the West's economic evolution, are in good part devoted to mooning over the ruins, images and architecture of the past; this in a century theoretically turned towards the new. Fewer people than ever seek to integrate the new into their personal lives, except when it comes to practicalities like the kitchen, the bathroom and the car, or to electronic entertainment. What we really want are old houses, old furniture, old paintings, old silver. The superficial details of modern middle- and upper- middle-class single-family dwellings are largely pastiches of nineteenth- and eighteenth- century decoration, inside and out. A hundred or two hundred years ago men sought to buy and to visit the new. If they visited the old, it was not in search of some vague communication with the past, but in search of inspiration for the new. Jefferson marvelled at the proportions of the Roman Maison Carree in Nimes and went on to use its principles in the construction of the University of Virginia. On the same trip he examined agricultural methodology and scientific research. The modern visitor to the Maison Carree is obsessed by its mythological past and its proximity to a quaint Provencal market.
Almost no one travels today to see the future. Even the most basic package tour, repeated endlessly, is devoted to an unending worship of the past. The churches and palaces of Europe have not been so full in a century -- filled not by worshippers and nobles but by people who move through these great rooms in a vague, unfocused manner as if they expected to come across the trace of some lost promise.
This endless wandering is treated as the superficial product of a prosperous society. But why then do we millions move so insistently around the globe as if it were a Disneyland linked by jet engines instead of toy trains? What is it we see in the palaces and churches and ruins? Certainly not any reality, either historic or actual. Most of us move through these disaffected caverns knowing little or nothing about the societies which used them or about the contemporary societies which rose out of them. The buses shuttling millions of responsible adults from Versailles to the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre pass, as if blindfolded, through a highly modern city which contains one of the most successful state-of-the-art communications systems and the most powerful administrative elite in the world. We are driven on by a confusion as well as an angst which has become one of the trademarks of the twentieth century. This would have amazed the average citizen of fifteenth-century Siena.
One of the things we seek in the relics of the past is a manifestation of certainty. We apparently find hints of that reassurance which progress has lost us in the great monuments and in the optimistic images of the past.
At the same time, we remain confused over whether our fear of modern images is over- or understated. Certainly these images are out of control. Certainly they are more enemy than friend, as they trivialize beliefs and deify the superficial, while pushing forward public figures who are more image than content. But already our common sense has permitted us to reduce our historic receptivity to images in general. Rather than take television as truth, we have codified its content into iconographic forms. We can denigrate the situation comedies, police series and family sagas that make up the dramatic arm of television, just as we can categorize the news, analysis and current affairs programs that make up this information arm, as formula programming. But these are reassuring and misleading reactions.
The most accurate context in which to place. television programming is that of general religious ritual. Unlike court etiquette or specific types of drama, religious ritual is designed to satisfy everyone. Like "Leave it to Beaver" or any other sitcom, religions at their very heart are classless. Like television, they eschew surprise, particularly creative surprise. Instead they flourish on the repetition of known formulas. People are drawn to television as they are to religions by the knowledge that they will find there what they already know. Reassurance is consistency and consistency is repetition.
Television -- both drama and public affairs -- consists largely of stylized popular mythology in which there are certain obligatory characters who must say and do certain things in a particular order. After watching the first minute of any television drama, most viewers could layout the scenario that will follow, including the conclusion. Given the first line of banter in most scenes, a regular viewer could probably rhyme off the next three or four lines. Nothing can be more formal, stylized and dogmatic than a third-rate situation comedy or a television news report on famine in Africa. There is more flexibility in a Catholic mass or in classic Chinese opera.
On television fixed, standard, facial expressions are required during and after the standard ritualistic events. The manner in which the cameras shoot is part of established practice. These were first limited by the studio size and by the cost of equipment, but now the three basic camera shots, developed for sitcoms, have become part of television's stylized repetition. The camerawork in turn dictates when and where the characters may move within each scene. As in the endless church paintings of the Resurrection or the Day of Judgment or Heaven; everyone has a designated role and place. The approved gestures and sounds of television have now so impregnated our society that even when a neophyte politician or an untrained member of the public is interviewed, he or she falls almost effortlessly into the standard patterns of reply.
Television has become the daily religious service of the modern world. Indeed, Christ's parables have been used as the basis for the continual moralizing which television drama delivers. Every half hour- or hour-long segment requires at least one moral lesson in order to drive the ritual onward. Television public affairs is no different. Each report from a journalist outside the studio must be constructed in parable form in order to pose a moral dilemma if the story is not complete, or to deliver a moral point if it is. This necessity to moralize demonstrates just how little public affairs television is related to print journalism and how much it is part of imagery.
The fact that reality bears little resemblance to what the screen shows is known on some level by the viewer. He or she understands that, beyond the television set, out on the streets, the world will be very different from the prescripted moralizing and the easy police drama killings. This is understood in the same way believing Christians once understood that outside the Church, in which they had just eaten the flesh of Christ, they would find disordered, filthy streets smelling of sewerage.
This ability to understand is by no means infallible. When societies are at the end of a line of evolution, there is often confusion as to which is reality and which ritual. The result can be disastrous. One of the most famous incidents of this sort was Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat brioche!" Out it snapped, fast and witty from her lips, a bon mot filled with subtlety. She didn't mention cake. That would have been a common, heavy-handed joke. In response to the people chanting for bread in the courtyard beneath the salons of Versailles, she recommended that they try the finest of bread -- white, light, filled with eggs and butter. Most of the people below wouldn't even have known what brioche was. But then, she wasn't talking to them. Hers was a clever quip delivered, with a turn of her head away from the windows and their view' of reality, back to the admiring courtesans who participated with her in the rituals of palace life. It is easy to imagine the progress of these few words, repeated eagerly at first, with the shared, sophisticated understanding of the participants, and then sullenly among some of the servants walking out of the room, along the endless corridors, repeating it to other servants, and on down the stairs, along more corridors, until abruptly it was out in the courtyard and being passed among the population, who took it up in confusion, then with disbelief that their Queen could have such contempt for them. Finally, it was repeated with horror and fury as they understood its implications. Marie Antoinette and her companions had lost all sense of what constituted reality. They had no sense of the limitations of court ritual.
In the same way we see politicians today who take the ritual of television at face value -- with its facile and constant emotions -- tears, love, hatred, all held together by a lobotomized Christian morality. They mistake these stylized emotions for the real thing. One of the first to do this was President Lyndon Johnson who, in all innocence, showed his fresh gallbladder scar to an informal gathering of journalists. Within hours the image was before the public. What could have been more banal? And yet, in a system of predetermined movement, this shocked profoundly. That is to say, Lyndon Johnson did something surprising. And surprise does not reassure, particularly from the head of state. Surprise breeds insecurity. Since then other politicians have cried on air or made personal confessions. On television people cry and confess every minute. But not really. Only ritualistically. During the American presidential primaries of 1972, when the front-runner, Senator Edmund Muskie, cried on television, he destroyed his campaign. When Prime Minister Bob Hawke of Australia did the same thing in the late 1980s, it almost finished him. If a real public figure cries on television, it affects the public in the same way that a priest could affect his parishioners by filling the communion plate with slices of real flesh, not wafers.
Like all ritual, television is also beyond the obligations of linear participation. When McLuhan originally wrote about television, he imagined that watching would require active participation from the viewer. We now know that passive will do. Viewers participate by knowing the ritual. They don't actually have to be present or paying attention all the time.
The television generations have a tendency to "watch" two, three, four or more programs at once. This is not because the programs are vacuous. It is because the viewer already knows the content and is more or less indifferent to it. What attracts him is participation in the eternal ritual of these programs. And while past generations could only wander in and out of one mass at a time, today we can participate in two, three, ten, thirty, forty rituals at once by simply pushing a remote-control device. An hour or so of doing this is enough to reveal that these are not forty rituals. They are forty variations On the same reflection. This is not formula programming but ritualistic repetition. The serious channel switcher can achieve a sort of electronic nirvana, in which all structures disappear and only a totally familiar void envelopes him.
Even reruns are satisfying supports for this system. The eating of Christ's flesh is clearly a more exciting moment in the mass than the preparatory prayers. In the same way, viewers wait to see Lucille Ball, in the old series, "I Love Lucy," go through the prescribed television movements for the nth time. During the peak Christmas viewing period in 1989, one of her reruns on U.S. television beat almost every new program and stood sixth in the national Nielsen viewer ratings.
Of course, here and there programs struggle against all this. And there are individuals who not only have a great understanding of how electronic media work but who struggle to use their talents in order to make the programs do unexpected things. In most countries this amounts to a few hours a week. Those programs have an impact out of all proportion, not only because what they offer is better, but because all ritual delights in occasional nonconformism.
Television falls into the same category as most modern, highly sophisticated systems. It is labour-intensive and pays well. In order to feed the insatiable hunger of airtime, it draws masses of people with creative talents into its structures. Those people might have made a contribution to the search for accurate and real reflections of man's state. Instead they have been sucked into the imaginary royal court of television ritual. Their situation resembles that of the eighteenth-century European aristocracy; who were drawn off their land, away from regional responsibilities as well as public and military service, in all of which they were desperately needed, and into the glittering orbit of the royal courts which turned upon apparently essential ritual. As a result, though they were no longer free to create trouble for the monarch, neither were they available to contribute to the well-being of their societies.
Ritual always carries with it a directness and immediacy. The wafer is the flesh of God's son. A man's presence in the royal bedchamber at a certain hour makes him important. The colour of a man's jacket or the shape of his shoes makes him a gentleman or a noble. Ritual creates a sense of heightened reality through the abstraction of concrete elements. Television ritual has taken a major step beyond this. Its images are not abstractions of reality. They are in themselves more real than ordinary reality. Television's images of death are more convincing than an actual death. In a sense, if televised death is more believable than real death, then television has succeeded in capturing the eternal image.
The degree to which electronic death has taken over our images of mortality can be seen in the general disappointment when a real death is televised. In the 1970s a CBC film crew went into a palliative care unit in Winnipeg and recorded, with his permission, a man's slow decline to death. An enormous audience zoomed in with anticipation on his last moments as his final breaths eased in and out. And when he died, he did it so quietly that the electronic sight and sound machinery didn't pick up any change. The audience had to be told that he was-now dead. There were and are far more believable deaths ten times a night on television and in every movie house. For each of those deaths, the lighting would be right, the camera in the best spot in order to catch the tiniest expression, the sound perfect, the colour remarkable. The process from life to death would be clearly delineated. These would be believable deaths. A few of them would be remarkable cathartic experiences. In an average week of French television in 1988, there were 670 murders, fifteen rapes and twenty-seven torture scenes.  Television in most countries would be in the same range.
We have always been exposed to quantities of violent images. Paintings -- with their decaying, decapitated and martyred bodies -- were even more explicit. Their explosive effect on a world without the photograph or the film is now difficult for us to imagine. The public areas -- churches, town halls, squares and palaces -- were filled with painted and sculpted violence. People lived in public spaces in a way we no longer do. The difference between these images and those of film, television and video is not the genius or the emotive quality of one or the other. It is the perfection to the point of banality of the latter. And they are believable. Even the most pedestrian animated drama can produce what are, in effect, beautiful murders.
Societies have always organized themselves on the basis of self-restraint and generally accepted rules of action. The electronic image seems to have slipped through these nets of restraint and of ordered action simply because it appeared so suddenly and in such an unexpected manner. Society could force the medium to restrain itself. Perhaps what has confused people is that day after day, in almost every program, the images persistently throw basic Western moral mythology together with uncontrolled violence. The latter negates absolutely the former.
This confusion can be seen in the American public's reaction to the coverage of the Vietnam War. It is often said that the public lost its enthusiasm for the war because of the violence shown them by news cameras; specifically because of the images which showed GIs and Vietnamese children dying. In reality they didn't see many deaths and very few scenes of unleashed violence. The viewers were far more put off by the way this war upset their ritual and mythology. GIs were meant to be patriotic winners on the side of good. The nationalist adaption of Christ's parables is very clear about this stylized role.
But it was clear to any television viewer that these young men, constantly being interviewed on various battlefields, were not winning. They seemed confused about what they were doing there, confused about American mythology in relationship to this conflict, confused about what the side of good consisted of. Above all, they didn't sound or look like Heroes.
The viewers, including the politicians, blamed the journalists for these images; that is, they blamed the messenger. Behind the angry accusations of bias and unpatriotic attitudes, there was a real confusion over how the ritual images had been turned on their head so as to breed insecurity with unsettling scenes. A sensible answer might have been that the war was complicated while ritualistic dramas are not. They are simple. The moral roles within them are carefully delineated. As a participant you are either in the right or in the wrong. As a viewer you automatically identify with the characters who are in the right. And you constantly hope that those who are in the wrong will repent or at least indicate regret before they die. The television viewer's participation is both intense and passive; intense precisely because the ritual deals with basic assumptions, thanks to which the viewer may remain passive. He is dependent on the continued functioning in good order of the system, The viewer can change nothing. And so, because the images coming out of Vietnam were disturbing the established iconography, mythologies and rituals, the public exercised its power. It seized its remote control device and turned the war off.
With the real war over, both television and cinema were freed to return to ritual images. In no time at all they had rejuggled the Vietnam conflict so that the GI could once again become a Hero. The Vietnamese, having been identified during ten years of war as the aggressed against little guys, could not suddenly become the villains. Instead, the image people reached into basic mythology and identified individual American officers, sergeants or corporals as the specific villains. Thus the American GI was fighting for right on behalf of the American people. However, a small group of un-American Americans betrayed the cause. They fitted into an iconography which can be traced from Benedict Arnold through to the "Communist agents" of the 1950s. Oliver Stone's film Platoon is a perfect example of this. He even provided two sergeants -- one good, one evil -- in order to clarify the "fact" that American sergeants are good; unfortunately. one in particular was evil. It is an Old Testament approach, dependent on the myth of the fallen angel as the exception to the rule. It also handily clears everyone else of responsibility. Platoon was part of the same process as the Rambo movies. However, the pure Rambo approach at least carries the honesty of a blatant lie. The Stone version is sophisticated distortion aimed at reestablishing an electronic moral parable.
The 1991 military campaign in Iraq demonstrated just how well the authorities had learned their lesson. They did not simply restrict access of journalists and, above all, television to the real war, They carefully chose appropriate images for release. That is, they designed the war's appearance. From the point of view of the electronic age, this visual management has rightly been compared to the war in Vietnam. But from the point of view of the public's access to independent information, the Iraq war had historic significance. For example, the citizen had far less access in 1991 to what was actually happening on the battlefields than it had had during the American Civil War, the Crimean War or the Boer War. As with Vietnam, knowledge about the conduct of these earlier wars had an important impact on political events at home. Fear of the modern image, the cumbersome nature of the electronic eye and the sophistication of modern management methods have all encouraged the authorities to remove an imperfect but nevertheless established democratic right.
The electronic media, like most modern structures, specialize in cut-and-paste jobs intended to rationalize reality -- that is, to force reality into an abstract form. It isn't surprising; that so much anxiety runs through our societies. People feel attached to the uncontrollable images and yet are drowning in them. Their fear swells while technology continues to progress, leaving man behind as a mere viewer.
It is as if these reflections -- of death more convincing than death, of violence more terrifying than Violence, of women more beautiful than women, of men stronger than men -- are all Godlike and unbearable. In coming alive, they seem to have captured a monopoly on believable exaggeration and thus filled the normal space of the human imagination with graphic animations which leave room for little else. The internal fear from which we now suffer resembles that of a caveman with the image prowling about outside in place of our imagination.
It is as if ritual has been refined to its ultimate form. In the past it was limited in the West not only by the imperfections of the static image but by the presence of God. The official school, established by Saint Augustine, had God as the original creative force behind these images. But the practical reality of belief had him as an idolatrous force, filling an endless quantity of images and statues with some part of his power, so that he could be found at the centre of all reflections. The sacrifices, the martyrdoms, even beauty and love had meaning only in that divine context. Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source. these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.
The electronic perfection of the image has been the final step in Western man's search for a pure idolatry. The process -- which began with Pope Damasus integrating the rational and pagan foundations of Rome into the Christian church and which took another major step with Raphael's completion of the perfect static image while portraying the Athenian principles for a Renaissance pope -- has now come to an end. Man's consuming inner fear is a reflection of that finality. It is as if we and our image were turning in an eternal circle staring warily and meaninglessly at each other.
The first sign of an aggressive human reaction to this capture of our visual imagination came with the abrupt appearance and growth of comic strips. Forty-five years after the invention of the photographic plate, thirty-nine after the photographic film and five after the invention of photogravure, this awkward, naive, unsophisticated, voluntarily inexact form of imagery popped up in England. The British "Ally Slopes" of 1884 evolved into the first American newspaper strip -- "The Yellow Kid" -- in 1896. It led to the phrase yellow journalism. The success of "The Yellow Kid" led to a proliferation of comic strips -- "Krazy Kat" in 1913," Little Orphan Annie" in 1924, "Tintin" and "Tarzan" in 1929, then hundreds of others.
A reasonable projection would have been that. as the cinema progressed, these crude, manual, moving stories would have made less and less sense. The arrival of talkies in 1927 should have ended the matter once and for all. Instead, one year later Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in an animated cartoon. The success of this movie made no sense at all. Why would anyone watch an obviously unbelievable-looking mouse when there were images of real filmed people? And yet Mickey became more popular than any movie star. In 1935, the first full-length comic book appeared and started an explosive new growth in these crude pictures.
As the electronic images of real people improved to the point of perfection, so the cartoon increasingly became a release mechanism for the visual imagination or, rather, for the human need to exaggerate. That Mickey Mouse is still the most famous man in the world merely confirms that Disney was more important for the image than Picasso or any other modern painter. They have all had to struggle against the prison of the perfect image. Disney actually released the image from prison.
The return of William Blake to a position of great influence gave an indication of what was happening. Blake had combined the mystical with the narrative by using figures not unlike the cartoon figures of today. At the same time. he was the first to show that the immortal image was seated deeper in our imagination than in reality.
The second cartoon revolution rose in a Europe recovering from World War II. Perhaps the violent lunacy which had swept back and forth across the continent for six years released the necessary emotions. In any case the Belgians. French and Spaniards began to produce hardbound book-length comic strip novellas known as Bande Dessinee (BD).
Luky Luke, an off-the-wall cowboy, became the new Mickey Mouse. Asterix, a warrior of ancient Gaul, evolved into a familiar Freudian repository of the French character. Marshall McLuhan, in a letter to the historian Harold Innis, noted in 1951 that "the comic book has been seen as a degenerate literary form instead of a nascent pictorial and dramatic form."  The medium has exploded out of this nascent state with an energy even he could not have imagined.
Then, in the 1960s, came a third explosion. Uncontrolled bouts of imagination produced cartoon novels filled with violence, exaggeration, sex and speed. A whole frustrated. irrational dream seemed to be bursting onto these pages. as if in reply to the perfect, predictable images of television and films. RanXerox, for example, is a robot man who punches out eyes and pulls off hands. He also makes love for hours on end.  But there is irony in his character and the books contain a cold. fearful vision of what we are becoming. The painter Bilal is the hero of many BD creators. In 1986 he published a cartoon novel called La Femme Piege.  This Woman Trap lives in a future world, sordid, in decline. The future that Bilal draws is dated only a few years ahead of us. London and Berlin are morgues fought over by bizarre revolutionary armies. The woman has blue hair. blue lips and kills men. Men with birds' heads are somehow linked to Egyptian mythology. Time is precise but in constant movement back and forth. There is a general and profound. sense of fear which none of our electronic images could produce. This overflowing of fears and repressed imaginations along with open criticism of the status quo, which television faithfully respects, increasingly through the 1970s and 1980s began to appear in such monthlies as Metal, Hurlant, Pilote, Heavy Metal, Hara Kiri, Charlie Hebdo. and most recently the American magazine Raw, edited by Art Spiegelman.
When sixteen thousand French teenagers were interviewed in 1986 on the question of literacy, they were asked about their reading preferences.  More than one preference was permitted. The first nine were as follows:
A more interesting question would have been what their visual preferences were, after putting comic books on the same list as paintings, television, video and film. Once a year some two hundred thousand people come to a BD gathering in Angouleme. And the two television series which imitate comic book mythology -- Star Trek and Dr. Who -- are the focus of equally popular annual conventions. It is hard to imagine any living painter or group of painters effortlessly drawing such crowds or causing the real excitement these fairs do. Certainly the gathering of film industry professionals at Cannes does not bear comparison. Nor does its television equivalent.
In North America, newspapers have maintained their daily quota of strip cartoons. These were once limited to the comics page for children and to the editorial page for adults. Gradually, strip cartoons which are social, political and simply entertaining have spread to other pages. Jules Feiffer and Garry Trudeau among others have gone from there to hardback annuals. Whole sections of bookstores are now filled with these cartoon volumes.
It was only a matter of time before American book-length original cartoons began appearing in hardback. The first to make an impact was Art Spiegelman's Maus.  Using simple, almost crude black-and-white drawings, Spiegelman managed to find a new way to reopen the healing wounds of public sensibility over the Holocaust. The Jews in his book are portrayed as mice, the Germans as cats. At the same time translations of BD began to appear. One of the constant themes in these dramatic comics is that Western society is in decline and that its peoples are gripped by an inner fear. Each image appears to refute the false hyperrealism and reassuring moralization of television and the cinema.
In the midst of this evolution, a number of painters turned to the cartoon. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, for example, played with these images, but only within the context and vocabulary of official art. The effect on the art experts was shock. They concluded that these painters were revolutionaries. But Warhol and Lichtenstein were more like court painters who sought to attract attention by parading around the palace without their wigs. They were still addressing themselves to the court and its courtiers and still doing so within its structures.
This is quite different from the cartoonists, who, if anything, more closely resemble the craftsmen/painters who preceded Raphael. They deal with reality and address society as a whole. While the Warhols and Lichtensteins engage in sophisticated, amusing, shocking imitations of reality, the cartoonists actually seek new reflections of reality.
The official artists do amuse the court of critics, experts and social followers. In a way they are more conservative and patronizing than the official artists of the late nineteenth century. Take Lichtenstein, for example, who was pushed to paint blown-up versions of comic strips when, in 1960, one of his sons pointed to a Mickey Mouse comic book and said, "I bet you can't paint as good as that." He painted an outsized picture of Donald Duck. In 1962 he caused a sensation in the art world with his cartoon-based show at the Castelli gallery in New York. In November 1963 Lichtenstein said, "My work is different from comic strips -- but I wouldn't call it a transformation.... What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word; the comics have shapes, but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified."  This may sound surprisingly pretentious from the mouth of the leading pop artist, but Lichtenstein, after all, for a good part of his life was a university professor of art. On the other hand, copying comic strips made him rich and famous. This process had to turn, however, on one shared assumption -- that Lichtenstein was an artist, while the cartoonists were not.
There could be no clearer example of how completely the craft and art functions have been separated by Western society. In hijacking the secondary idea of personal artistic merit, the artist himself loses track not simply of the technical craft so essential to earlier painters, but of the real relationship between the painter's image and the public. Lichtenstein ripped off the true public images -- the comics -- while denigrating them and thus amusing his fellow experts. Like most people caught up in the abstract reality of ritual, they assumed quite naturally that the cartoon was just an amusing tool to be manipulated by their talents. There really Isn't much difference between Marie Antoinette's bon mot over bread and brioche and Warhol's soup cans. They are both expressions of clever artificiality, not of intelligent relevance.
What the artistic profession -- with all its training schools for analysis and production, its museums and its experts devoted to judgment -- missed was that the cartoonists have been seizing many of the tools of imagination which they have been laying down and which the perfect images of television have been unable to use. The cartoonist, almost alone, was still playing with the old conundrum of the image, society and immortality. What appeared to the rational, professional mind to be escapism was an attempt to go beyond the apparent reality which seems to have imprisoned our imagination. While Lichtenstein was mindlessly exploiting the images created by others, they, the others, were moving, on, finding new images. While Warhol strove so desperately to shock with other people's ideas, a cartoonist called Chester Brown was drawing BD, in which the president of the United States was a talking penis attached to the body of an anemic small-time criminal.  No doubt some post-Warhol professional will eventually do an "artistic version" of this image.
In Le Proces-verbal, a novel by the French writer Le Clezio, the hero says: "I am in the cartoon of my choice."  A short time later, rational society locks him up and tells him that he is insane. To a remarkable degree, the visual side of the humanist tradition is now in the hands of the cartoonist, as is the quest for the immortal image. The art experts with their client artists are increasingly the allies of the television sitcom and of imprisoned reality. It is hardly surprising in a society which seems to be in decline, but worships structure too much to do anything about it, that imagination should be treated as an enemy and not as a friend of the people.
The next chapter of this struggle began in earnest in 1991 with the appearance of the film Terminator II. Through the use of computer programming, cartoon figures were created which appear to be real filmed people. This was the culmination of a decade of increasingly bold experiments: real babies with computer-designed mouths superimposed to make them talk; real heads combined with computer-designed bodies as in the film Tron. However, with Terminator II it has become possible on screen to cut in half the head of a real person, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, and then put it back together again. In other words, the ritualistic images of the electronic world can now simulate that freedom of visual imagination which had taken refuge in the cartoon. It is as if the entire magical line of imagery had been occupied by the official school of ritual. Man-made imagery revolves, as it always has, around the forces of fear, magic and ritual. A radical change in the relationship between the last two cannot help but lead to a growth in the first. The more sophisticated the controlling images become, the more likely it is that individuals will seek reassurance in increased levels of fear. It is as if the last known refuge of visual imagination and fantasy had been occupied by the forces of structure.