The Problem with Image Over Substance

568 The Problem With Image Over Substance

The Problem With Image Over Substance / 2016 / acrylic on wood / 5.5″ x 6″

THE MINIATURE BUT STRIKING painting, The Problem With Image Over Substance, minimally depicts in black and white an iceberg emerging from the depths. The flatness and bareness of the form makes recognition of its iceberg identity difficult, making the viewer initially uncertain about what they are seeing. The title also presents another conundrum: what is “image over substance”, and why is this a problem?

The idea of “image over substance” says that the way an image looks takes precedence over any content or meaning it might be able to convey. The aesthetics of an image trump that of the necessity of purpose. An image and its substance are inseparable–for one generates the other–but the problem arises when the image–the way something looks–is deemed more important that what it actually has to say.

Back to the iceberg. Everyone knows the idiom “tip of the iceberg”, and this applies to images as well. The iceberg, most of it’s body submerged in icy depths, screams, “things aren’t what they seem!”. By the nature of an iceberg, what you see above the surface–that which is within immediate grasp of conscious awareness–is only a minute part of the whole. The problem arises when you try to understand the iceberg by just looking at the tip.

So why is this relevant, besides the fact that the polar icecaps are melting, receding into the depths out of plain sight? We now live in an image-centric culture. Never before in human history have images played such an overwhelming role in the shaping of our society, how it operates, and how individuals navigate their existence. The media is built upon images. The internet is built upon images. Social interactions are built upon images. Political campaigns are built upon images. Democracy–the foundation of the United States of America–is built upon images.

America was built upon an image–a vision–of freedom, democracy, equality. New things must start with a vision, an image, a “Word”. Freedom, democracy, and equality are good things in concept, so how could this present a problem? It took many years to put some measure of these principles into place; many wars were waged to brutally conquer differences and solidify a consensus.  Slavery didn’t just magically disappear. Women didn’t always have the right to vote. Native Americans were forced out of their homelands in the image that was to be America. Just because a concept is declared, doesn’t mean it automatically practices what it preaches. With this in mind, the substance of the American image is up for question.

Fast forward to now. We are now in the midst of an election which, though they are routine every four years, is unprecedented in its scale of absurdity and extremity. It’s hard to say what the worst thing about it is: anything from it distracting people to the fact that the bulk of it comes off as entertainment. But there is one massive problem (which guises itself as a tiny iceberg tip): the candidates are utilizing the mechanism of image over substance.

That is, they are building their campaigns mostly on a created image, with the actual meaning behind said image being guarded and kept under the surface. This may seem obvious to some, but I believe it hasn’t always been this way. Effective and positive leaders say what they mean, take action and create change based on that. What appears on the surface is backed up by a strong foundation which they stand upon. Neither Trump nor Hillary present themselves as saying what they mean–their iceberg tips (how they present themselves) have no iceberg body (substance) underneath them. Hillary banks on the fact that she is a woman, and therefore different and somehow more worthy of being president in the eyes of the progressive-leaning. Trump props himself up on his financial and business credentials, however corrupt they may be. Both candidates toot their Democratic or Republican horns, certain of the fact that voters will look at that instead of paying attention to what they are actually communicating through their words, actions, and image. Thus the decline of the bipartisan system, the red, white and blue now rendered stark black and white.

Within our image-dependent culture, it has become unnecessary to have substance backing up your image. We can weave images of ourselves in the virtual realms of Facebook and Instagram, and have our followers believe instantly what they see. We can post in a matter of seconds for a matter of seconds on Snapchat or Twitter what we are doing at that moment, only in reality to only be doing just that: posting a fabricated image of ourselves on the internet for all to see. We take it for granted that what someone says about themselves–either as a political candidate or any random person–is the substance of the image they are presenting. Many registered democrats believe that if a candidate runs for election, they must by default embody Democratic principles. When a woman runs for president, progressive-minded people fall into the trap of believing she is inherently progressive. Fans believe that if Beyonce posts an Instagram of herself in an art museum, that automatically means she is interested in art and knowledgeable about it, and should be respected in that vein.  Within 20 minutes of posting an Instagram photo of herself next to art, Beyonce is declared to have artistic taste that is “exquisite” and “beyond reproach”  (to quote an article from an arts publication). This has cascaded  into a multitude of random and famous people declaring they are artists without actually making any art. Posting a photo of oneself at an art opening posing with other art-goers is enough to prove that you are the real deal–either that you are with the in-crowd, knowledgeable about art, intelligent, or that you are a diehard artist yourself. The image is subsumed into one’s self-identity, which is spammed to the world. A quickly snapped and posted image is now enough to prove oneself beyond questioning.

When people make these assumptions based on what is immediately before them, rather than thinking about the  image-creator’s intentions, we get people in power who have no substance backing their image–no actual message other than “look at me and believe what I present to you”. We get a blind faith in false-images, with the winning religion having the most followers. We get vapid icons and dishonest leaders. We get a society of people basing their actions on what is shoved in front of them rather than thinking for themselves about what they are consuming. We get a society worshiping the tip of an iceberg whose parts are unnaturally exclusive of each other, black and white, whose base is corrupt and melting. An insubstantial foundation, destined to collapse and leave us in the icy abyss.

How to avoid this ultimate demise? How to see the real substance behind the image? Don’t get on that iceberg tip! Don’t believe that the iceberg is substantial because there are already a million people on it. Don’t immediately believe what you immediately see. THINK about what you are looking at, rather than just accepting it as it wants to be seen. Do not consume things as they appear to be–do not believe everything you are told. Think and feel for yourself. See for yourself.

Perhaps there is an inevitable collapse of images. Perhaps it seems that images are no longer valid because their power has been sapped, abused, and manipulated by the media, by social media, pop culture, advertising, politics–everything that creates the matrix of our present society and culture. But the fact remains: history has accumulated in such a way that we are the most image-centric and image-dependent humans ever, and the images don’t appear to be disappearing anytime soon. The potency of images as a deep form of human communication is ironically more true than ever before–ironic because the substance of our images has whittled away to a minimum, if not into complete vapidity. Now that our ignorance has lead to the icecaps melting into the abyss, it is our challenge to build images which have substance beneath them to support our cultural ecosystem.

Icebergs are like images. What you see initially is only a small part of the whole. When we focus too heavily on what an image presents itself to be–the tip–we lose sight of what it actually is. The whole is fragmented into black and white opposing parts which cannot be reconciled. At best the image is meaningless; at worst, manipulative and dishonest. When we are dishonest about what we see, we cannot experience ourselves or the world as it is. We must exercise our innate human capability to see what is below the surface, and to create images which go beyond the superficial and false.