Popular Culture

Our world is drenched with images. Knick-knacks, plaques, shirts, art prints, tattoos, coffee mugs, wall calendars, newspapers, greeting cards, book covers, magazines, billboards, murals, television, movie and computer screens, comic books, coffee table books, cereal boxes, neckties, scarves, toilet paper, wrapping paper, grocery sacks, and the chipboard, polystyrene and paper that everything we consume comes packaged in - we are swimming in images. How different this is from the world of our European predecessors - at least the vast majority of them who were not members of the privileged classes.1 In that long window of time between tribal life and the Renaissance, the spaces inhabited by peasants - their huts, barns, taverns - were image free. Art and cultural historians tell us that even folk art was virtually unknown until the recent past. City-dwellers might have seen the occasional stone arch, monument or fountain with relief engravings, but they could not enter the palaces, burial grounds, and assembly halls where the aristocracy displayed the paintings, tapestries and sculptures produced by the guilds and academies of artists. There were no public museums or galleries. Public murals were uncommon, particularly in areas with peasant traffic. Until the invention of woodblock printing in the fifteenth century, which made it possible to reproduce images, the only place where common folk could see visual art was in places of worship. Historian Luc Sante underlines the exuberant significance of this exception:

The church or temple was not only the most notable piece of architecture around; it also concentrated in a single place all the sculpture, painting, mosaic work, tapestry and metallurgy available to the public eye. Churches and temples were in effect the first museums. Consider, for example, the Gothic cathedral, with its array of side chapels, each containing some combination of statues, paintings, carvings, reredoses, tombs, baptismal fonts and sacristies.2

Given the desert of images everywhere else, this exception helped to imbue these worship spaces with an atmosphere of otherworldly resplendence. But this was it, the single place where images could be viewed, and solidly associated with the idea of worship. It was only with woodblock printing that images became more plentiful and portable so that they began appearing outside of the sanctuary, most typically in the form of illustrated broadsheets depicting scenes from the Bible, or propagandistic pamphlets containing early cartoons etched by leading artists of the day (Cranach, Dürer, Holbein) and displaying the turpitude of the clergy and nobility. This was very likely the birth of mass media in the West, as Jacques Barzun has observed.3 But the real ascendance of imagery came in the eighteenth century with two developments: the turning over of royal art collections to the public in the political revolutions across Europe and the invention of offset lithography which made it possible to reproduce more images at low cost and with greater precision. In time, photography and color lithography were developed, and the floodgates opened - from inspirational pictures of saints and newspaper photography, to nationally circulated magazines, advertising, greeting cards, coffee table books, family photo galleries, art prints, celebrity posters and wallpaper. Images inundated the homes, workplaces and retail spaces of the masses.

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