The great thing about a television program devoted to the critique of images is that it is, necessarily, composed largely of images itself. That’s what makes looking at “Consuming Images,” a PBS special with Bill Moyers from 1990, such an interesting experience. (The whole thing is available in six parts here, as part of the larger series The Public Mind.) It serves as a handy compendium of the kinds of image-hating that characterize contemporary society, and it also unwittingly subjects itself to its own criticism of visual media. As a prime aspect of its argument, “Consuming Images” employs a number of spots with reasonably well-known media theorists–Neil Postman, Stuart Ewen, Mark Crispin Miller, and Herbert Schiller, among others. What these critics all have in common is a similar feeling about the future of media: one of foreboding, particularly about the role of the image in aestheticizing politics and consumption. The words of these critics are schizophrenically spliced with commercials, footage of media professionals creating images for public consumption, and the folksy stylings of Bill Moyers himself. The whole process is a slyly irrefutable argument using images to assert–and attack–the way images make irrefutable arguments. So rather than trying to rebut the program point by point, I want to follow individually a few of the tangled lines of thought that clump together into the body of “evidence” against images presented by Moyers and co.
Early in the program, Neil Postman comments that people have figured out how to disarm and decode language–that is, we all know how to analyze verbal statements for truth value. Images, however, are a different matter–referring to a McDonald’s commercial of a happy family eating industrially farmed hamburgers, he comments: “the words [true and false] don’t seem to apply to that sort of thing–that just is. [ . . . ] We’re out of the realm of logic, and into the realm of aesthetics.” The same process has been encroaching on politics, he notes: “You either like Ronald Reagan, or you don’t.” This sound bite introduces the two principle fears that dominate “Consuming Images”: the fear that the public will be conned into buying things by images, and the fear that the public will be politically disenfranchised by the magic truthlessness of images. I would argue that these two ideas remain cornerstones of contemporary iconophobia. I would also argue that the political examples given throughout do a good job of illustrating the political nature of both ideas. (Examples of political deception shown in the series include Reagan, Bush 1, and Quayle; Dukakis is mentioned–but only as a target of these horrific image attacks. Nowhere is the infamous Daisy ad, which helped destroy Goldwater and begin negative political advertising as we know it, mentioned. The defeat of Goldwater, incidentally, meant the election of LBJ…whose special assistant and press secretary was, in a stunning twist, Bill Moyers.)
In addition to these two time-tested prongs of image skewering, the Moyers special adds a dramatic background: images were once sacred, things used “for calling the soul upward” in the words of the show. So the real issue here is not with images, but with the co-opting of images, which should be instilled with sacred meaning, for earthly purposes. At the heart of Moyers’s agenda is a simple, down-home kind of religion, a spirituality marked enough to be admirable, but not so much as to offend anybody. In spite of the express warning against graven images in the Old Testament, Moyers feels that images invested with sacred value are the good guys in a war over the acceptable use of the visual. Art is apparently included in Moyers’s “fair use” clause, since–in an unintentionally funny montage of images to a soundtrack of primeval-sounding pipes–the program includes images of the Sistine Chapel alongside cave paintings. It never occurs to Moyers et al. that cave drawings of animals are examples of a kind of primitive acquisitiveness, the same desire for material goods that we experience today, just invested with religious feeling. This same conflation of material goods and religion in the modern world is, by contrast, disgusting. But perhaps Moyers’s issue is with who creates images: the people wishing to bring about their own success in the hunt versus the people made rich by selling images to consumers. In that case, the Sistine Chapel should elicit some raised eyebrows, decorated as it was to wow a populace into forking over their livelihood to its wealthy creator, the Catholic church.
Images that promote consumption are also denigrated because they convince consumers that, in the words of Stuart Ewen, “In a world where many people feel very insignificant and anonymous and unseen and unimportant, one of the main ways we have access to becoming important is by becoming an image.” From my perspective, this seems to be an argument in favor of a visually-based consumer culture: it helps people who feel insignificant, anonymous, unseen to feel important. For this to be a bad thing, two other propositions have to be true. First, images themselves have to be understood as bad, as opposing some kind of flesh-and-blood reality of importance. Second, that kind of importance has to be accessible to everybody. I’m not sure I agree with the first one, but I’m certain I don’t agree with the second. What images provide in place of the second proposition is real importance in an image world, and the image world is clearly important enough that it merits discussion and the creation of programs like this one. Throughout “Consuming Images” runs this very mixed message: that images are all-powerful, and that somehow becoming an image is a bad thing that renders one powerless.
Opposed to the idea of becoming an image or a consumer of images is the idea of becoming an active citizen in a democracy. The notion of an active citizen is threatened by advertising images. “Democracy,” Ewen says, “begins to be understood as consumer choice over a given variety of goods and is less and less about people taking the process of history in their own hands.” While Ewen may be right about the way people make decisions in our current democracy, I think he’s overlooking something important–consumers have an extraordinary impact on the future of their own society; perhaps an impact greater than, and as unforeseeable as, the future they choose when they take part in a democratic election.
The other major political objection raised in the series is Postman’s, in which he notes that images can’t be subjected to standards of truth like language can. He’s right that advertisements, political or otherwise, are composed largely of aesthetic components. But he turns a blind eye to the fact that rhetoric and eloquence are also a blend of the aesthetic and the factual. If you want to wring your hands about how people will evaluate truth in rhetorical messages, fine, but don’t claim it’s a problem rooted in the visual. What’s the truth value of the Gettysburg Address?
By contrast, the media professionals whom Moyers interviews are surprisingly canny about their industry. The editors and executives at Conde Nast point out that they only provide images chosen by the people, for the people, and that “if [Conde Nast] really showed what was really going on [ . . . ] people might be a little discouraged and put off–they get to see that every day.” In short, they recognize that media images are very much a daydream created in response to the desires of those who consume them. They provide a fantasy world for people, and people respond by paying good money to hear about this world and–to the extent that they can–to participate in it. If giving people what they want in this case isn’t a blameless activity, it’s certainly an activity in which blame deserves to be shared between the producers and the consumers. As a result of this new image consciousness, “people have become very aware of the signals that they’re sending out by all this and the power that those signals have.” In other words, visual media provide image awareness, which provides another arena for control and empowerment on the part of the consumer. One particularly lovely scene depicts a number of magazine staffers (almost entirely women), sitting in a dark room in front of a screen showing potential photographs for publication. As the images come up, the staffers begin speaking for the images, channeling what they seem to say in an almost Sybilline way. For me, this scene expresses the quasi-religious relationship we still have with images, media images included, and the way we are invested with them to the extent that their destruction is neither possible nor desirable.
When you begin to look at all these different arguments individually, it becomes clear that Moyers never really puts together a coherent case against images. One pattern that does emerge, however, is a general distrust of capitalism. The underlying problem with participating in the image world, like becoming a choosy consumer, is NOT that it is somehow less real or less important than “Truth” or the democratic process. The problem is that not everyone can participate equally in it, because not everyone has an excess of what both of these worlds demand: disposable income. (The point when Moyers’s fear of commercialism most obscures his logic is when he discusses Andy Warhol’s art as social commentary, insinuating that Warhol would have been horrified to see how his critiques ended up being bought and sold. “In the end,” Moyers says dejectedly, “his art became commerce too.”) Weirdly, the issue of financial limitations only bubbles to the surface once in the episode, but it’s quickly replaced by more attacks against images. The program is built around obscuring this fundamental issue by attacking the images instead of the system that uses them.
Images could just as easily be praised as a means of resistance against apathy and socio-economic monopolies. Contrary to what some theorists say, caring about images doesn’t preclude caring about the “real” non-image world. In the words of Michael Singer, a reporter and television news producer in LA who provides one of the more illuminating interviews in “Consuming Images”:
The relationship between people and television is far more complicated than talking about it in terms of consumer product. The relationship between people and information and images is not that simple. People are moved by what they see on TV. They’re moved to act. Moved to do things.
As evidence, he cites examples of people calling in to follow up on stories they’ve reported on. More recently, we’ve got examples of people mobilizing over images they’ve seen on YouTube and other examples of emergent democratic movements–whatever your political opinion on them–that could never have existed without a mass image culture. Weirdly, the Moyers special allows those professionals actually working in visual media to make these points, then simply steamrolls them with one iconoclastic theorist after another. This is the clincher of an argument Moyers never makes: given enough images and words that appear to support each other, discrepancies and counterarguments don’t even have to be refuted. They can be crushed under a mass of hypotheses and illustrations hand-picked as confirmatory evidence. That’s a timeless rhetorical strategy that “Consuming Images” never investigates, but employs with abandon–a warning it never mentions, but the one its viewers most need.