Author Camille Paglia vividly describes, and makes the case for, three areas of disconnect in the modern visual environment, and the generation growing up in it: between contemporary culture and history; between image and language; and between the multiplicity of images and the ability to really see them.
“Young people today,” she says, “are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them.”
The solution she proposes is the historical and cultural grounding of the basic education of today’s students, whom she portrays in bold strokes as “unmoored from the mother ship of culture” and “riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.” Truly an artist with words, Paglia advocates the use of “exemplary images” from the canon of Western art to help students develop their visual, analytical, and verbal skills, which she says have been degraded by their usage of modern media, in particular the television and computer.
It is interesting to note that half a century ago, the German philosopher Josef Pieper already observed that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” In “Learning to See Again,” an essay he wrote in 1952, he notes, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see…(the) visual noise of daily inanities makes clear perception impossible.”
Paglia’s concluding paragraph, however, gives me pause – particularly her last sentence: “The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.” I agree with her on the importance of having solid cultural and educational formation so that we are able to analyze data, think critically, form our own ideas, and articulate them effectively. I find it ironic, though, that she devotes a good part of the article on the merits – indeed, the necessity – of educating students on Western art, then wraps up by saying that that images need an “antidote.” Why would they need an antidote? Isn’t it true that even in – especially in – today’s fragmented world, there are still some things that just cannot be expressed in words? To turn again to another of Pieper’s essays (“Thoughts on Music,” 1952) we can name certain constants of the human condition: joy, hope, yearning, grief, despair… “To articulate such intimate realities,” Pieper says, “the dynamism of human existence itself, the spoken word proves utterly inadequate. Such realities, by their very nature (and also because of the spirit’s nature) exist before as well as beyond all speech.” These intimate and inexpressible realities are precisely why we can and do find pleasure and catharsis in music and visual art. A logical argument, a well-organized essay, a finely crafted piece of literature – all of these of have their own undeniable value. But there are moments when a picture is still worth a thousand words.