Werner Herzog once said that there is unacknowledged, imminent apocalypse -- one not found in the environmental catastrophes surrounding us, or the economic and moral decline of Western civilization. Herzog spoke of the apocalypse of images.
This is actually far scarier than one might think.
We have surely always been visual creatures. Why else have we bedevilled ourselves with the quest to represent Nature in painting and, lately, photography, ever since those first cave sketches in blood and clay? Why else might we still use candles in smokey bars, save for our soulful attraction to how damn cool candles look? And what pleasure, what meaning, might we derive from such a bizarre endeavour? From my perspective, our creative drive to share images originates in a need to externalize archetypal content within our psyches -- the stuff that we see in our dreams and lunchtime flights of fancy. Why there exists such a need is beyond me. But I will say such a need exists.
It is a cliche now to say that the Age of Internet is one of visual exhaustion; that the post-modern paradigm equates to a society in which no new images can be shared, only tired remixes of that which has come before. As someone who makes images out of some inexplicable need, I don't want to believe this. And truly, I don't think it's the case - I certainly agree that access to images has created both a challenge to, and an opportunity for, originality. Anyway, how much actual visual difference exists between a cave painting, and an Impressionist's rendering of a human? No, the real crisis is in our faith in images - what images mean to us.
The true danger that post-modern exhaustion presents is in creating an indifference to images. On a laptop screen, a GIF is as good as the Mona Lisa. And this reveals an important aspect of images -- that they hold most power when they are experienced as part of a ritual. Whether it's going to a place of worship or the cinema, images that are seen communally, and within prescribed conditions, hold significantly greater totemic power. If you've been to any religious service sincerely, I'm sure you know what I mean; equally, visit a gallery that is empty -- all the paintings feel the same. But see the Mona Lisa, with people pushing past you to get a glimpse, and that mysterious power of the image becomes tangible.
What would it mean to be indifferent to image? If images no longer held their power to move you emotionally, or awe you? If images were purely something nihilistically aesthetic and consumable? Would we lose some emotional language we as yet know nothing of? Would our ever-growing cynicism and jaded eyes mean a life only worth living on stimulants? What does our world look like where no single image or creator has more weight than another?
Finally, in the very real environmental and social apocalypses that await us, what images will hold new power, the way the image of Jesus Christ used to? Is there an opportunity to revise our culture for the better with such totemic depictions? Food for thought.