PARIS — This summer, like every year, we'll take more and more photos. We'll send selfies and snapshots, any and all kinds of pictures and videos. Like 64% of French people recently surveyed, we'll take photographs of the meals we're about to eat at restaurants. These tens of billions of shots will be added to the colossal amount of images amassed in just a few years.
There was a time, in the history of mankind, when there were a lot more humans than pictures on Earth. They were rare, precious, magical, possessing powers of good or evil. They've since proliferated, become emancipated, uncountable — and common. Maybe not common as such, considering the way they have quietly taken over culture. This transformation deserves to be explored.
At first, there was distrust. Plato had great contempt for images, and this fueled a long tradition. For him, nothing is further away from reality than images. His reasoning is easy to understand, even though it can seem somewhat strange today. The closest thing to reality ... are Ideas, those eternal Forms, which, according to Plato, serve as models for things.
In this way, the "real" bed is also the idea of a bed, the abstract definition of a horizontal plane where one can lie down to sleep. All tangible beds — made out of wood, metal, with or without feet, rectangular or square — are only reflections, images, derivatives of this ideal reality. The carpenter "copies" the idea of a bed, makes an image of it out of wood. If the painter, in his turn, then reproduces this wooden bed on canvas, he makes an image of an image, a third-level sub-reality (first: the Form, second: the thing, third: the painting of the thing).
Why is this dangerous? The better the image of the painting, the more it distances us, according to Plato's point of view. Instead of pulling us out of appearances, it pushes us further into them, makes us believe that distant copies are real. Philosophy is meant to release us from images, free us from reflections, bring us out of the cave-jail, where we think appearances are reality. Paintings and their images are meant to do the exact opposite: They bind us to illusions, imprison us in subterfuges. This philosophical refusal is more than a mere depreciation of pictorial creations. It shows, in its own way, that there is, in images, a power to control, something that is far from harmless.
All idol breakers have known this and said this. These iconoclasts (literally, "destroyers of images") can be found, for different reasons, in the history of Judaism, Byzantine Christianity, Islam, Protestantism. Beyond their differences, they have a common intuition: images capture something, divert, deviate that which is essential. We arrive at a point where we barely understand the real thing anymore, submerged in our multitudes of pixels, copies, endless tricks. And still, without ruling in favor of fanatic rigorism, we would do well to realize that images have freed themselves by multiplying. And that they've built an empire.
In this way, we are seeing, with astonishment and anxiety, that nothing, in the visual field, is absolutely true or reliable anymore: all images can be edited, rebuilt, rendered older or young. Even archives are plagued by doubt. A Rembrandt that Rembrandt never painted has just been made, through digital analysis and reconstruction of his strokes, his themes, his pigments.
We are also stunned to see that pictures are starting to truly replace words. "Pic speech" is becoming the digital childhood illness. We no longer talk to each other, we send pictures: Show me what you're doing, I'll send you a picture of what I'm eating ...
More seriously, we have gotten used to seeing the world according to images. Walter Benjamin pointed out, in the 1930s, how a sunset made us think of a postcard. Since then, we've come a long way. Landscapes bring pictures to our minds, and not the opposite. We even sometimes think nature has bad taste or that it does well when it imitates our creations.
This is, in broad terms, what the empire of images looks like. It would also be absurd to think we can escape this. Living in it without being naive is a start.