[Writer and critic, b. 1939, rural Texas, lives in Los Angeles.]
As a step-child of the Factory, I am certain of one thing: images can change the world. I have seen it happen—experienced the “Before and After,” as Andy might say—so I know that images can alter the visual construction of reality we all inhabit, can revise the expectations that we bring to it and priorities that we impose on it—and know, further, that these alterations can entail profound social and political ramifications.
“If images don’t do anything in this culture,” I said, plunging on, “if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them? And if they only do things after we have talked about them, then they aren’t doing them, we are. Therefore, if our criticism aspire to anything beyond soft-science, the efficacy of images must be the cause of criticism, and not its consequence—the subject of criticism and not its object. And this.” I concluded rather grandly, “is why I direct your attention to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!” I made a voilá gesture for punctuation, but to no avail. People were quietly filing out.
...there are issues worth advancing in images worth admiring; and the truth is never “plain,” nor appearances ever “sincere.” To try to make them so is to neutralize the primary, gorgeous eccentricity of imagery in Western culture since the Reformation: the fact that it cannot be trusted, that imagery is always presumed to be proposing something contestable and controversial. This is the sheer, ebullient, slithering, dangerous fun of it. No image is presumed inviolable in our dancehall of visual politics, and all images are potentially powerful.
In images,… beauty was the agency that caused visual pleasure in the beholder; and any theory of images that was not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begged the question of their efficacy and doomed itself to inconsequence.