Pictures at an exhibition

At each stage of our decline we have, it seems, exchanged one truth for another. Let me give an example.

Photography was “invented” or “discovered” in the early nineteenth century. In fact, the pinhole camera was known many centuries before Christ to both Greeks and Chinese; and the Byzantines had, during our Western “Dark Ages,” worked out all the methods of the camera obscura. (It was, as so often, they who taught the Arabs, and the Arabs who taught us.) Albert the Great knew all about silver nitrate; and mediaeval alchemists dealt with silver chloride — they could in principle have produced “primitive” photographs, and probably did. The modern trick is not so much “discovery” of anything new, as organized or methodical play, in which various tricks, long known, are combined to a clearly-conceived purpose. (I believe this is called, “technology.”) The ancients only wanted to see; we wanted photographs to look at.

Not only photographs, but the means of reproducing them, in large numbers, had been worked out long before the end of the nineteenth century, and newspapers began to use them as soon as the reproduction became economic. They were immediately popular.

I have watched bargirls in Asia go carefully through Western fashion magazines, unable to read a word in English or any other language, but riveted to the colour photos. The semi-literate of our inventive West were similarly enchanted from the start; and as they obtained the franchise, our politics were transformed by still and moving pictures.

Serious newspapers resisted this revolution, and right up to the 1960s, would never put a photo on their front page. Then they made the concession of running boring photos, of diplomats arriving in airports, and the like. Of course, there are no serious or intelligent newspapers any more.

But today’s sermon turns on an invention of the 1930s. Inspired partly, I should think, by developments in fine art, and perhaps early cinema, this was the invention of the contorted photograph. Called by the late art critic, John Russell (in his book on the painter, Francis Bacon) “the formalization of disrespect,” it was the picture in which public worthies such as statesmen and royalty would be depicted, “wrenched out of the standard attitudes of traditional portraiture and shown as they actually are: harassed, inconsequent, racked by tics, their faces distorted, their clothes in disorder, their bodies off balance.”

From there, the development leads to the formalization of disrespect for humanity at large, and as a by-product, the development of that “post-modern irony” which looks upon anything well-composed or dignified as an aberration, that could be mocked.

One thinks of this, glimpsing imagery from the latest psychopath hit, on some Munich shopping mall. These scenes of people scrambling and hysterical are by now a journalistic norm. Big media will pay big bucks to the person who can hold his mobile steady during one of these panics, so the home viewer can get a good look, along with the soundtrack of all the screaming. In turn, the images quietly teach us how to behave, should we ever be caught up in a terror trauma.

The original “revolution” — the indignification of the respectable — could be presented as an advance in moral truth. The Church herself has taught that people are people, and gravely flawed. (She also teaches, however, that with God’s grace we can be raised to passable behaviour.) The “great and good” are not so serene as they once looked. They are “just like us” in the sense that, though in better clothes, they belch, get drunk, mishandle chopsticks, and stagger to the water closets. “Human, all too human,” we might say. The wind blows their hats off, and sometimes they try to kiss babies and miss. Focus closely enough on their faces, and we’ll be treated to buffoonish stares.

Balancing this, a new field of human enterprise arises, governed chiefly by Hollywood. Dignity itself is a matter of indifference, but with proper training, control of paparazzi, and editors willing to select, they may guide the ascent of the “cool” person. In the Natted States, Obama, in Canada, young Justin Trudeau, were sold to the electorate by means of this directorial process. To my mind, neither man is abnormally evil. Both strike me as mere airheads; but tutored by the pros on the keeping of appearances.

We celebrate, in art and elsewhere, the destruction of “bourgeois values.” This seems to move us closer to the truth. Really it moves us towards levels of hypocrisy that the actual bourgeois — the simple shopkeeper of former days — could not imagine, let alone reach.