“If the Egyptian army had started shooting at the crowd in Tahrir Square,” says David Hockney, “it would have been hard to keep that secret because people had mobile phones. They could have described what was happening by text and sent a picture. That is, confirmation.”
Right now, we are seeing just such images of state violence in Libya.
There has been plenty of debate about the causes of the events rippling across the Middle East. The basic factors, of course, are the courage, anger and frustration of the populations involved. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are believed to have played a role in spreading information. Hockney, as a visual artist, suggests another important element is involved: namely, pictures.
Indeed, he sees pictures -- or, to be precise, control of the display and distribution of images -- as an overlooked factor in history. Hockney, 73, argues that this always has been a source of political and religious power.
In Europe, for hundreds of years, he says, “the Church was the main supplier of images. If you wanted to see images, churches were where they were. Churches had effective social control.” There you saw heaven, hell and martyrdom.
The point about pictures is that they pack far more emotional force than words. As the art historian David Freedberg wrote in his book “The Power of Images” (1989), “People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures, they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them and incited to revolt.” That was true in the past, and it’s still true.
The world-changing events unfolding were touched off by a young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, setting fire to himself on Dec. 17, 2010, in the town of Sidi Bouzid. According to Khaled Koubaa, president of the Internet Society in Tunisia (quoted by Peter Beaumont of the Guardian newspaper in a Feb. 25 article) there had been a similar case three months earlier in Monastir. “But no one knew about it because it was not filmed. What made a difference this time is that the images of Bouazizi were put on Facebook and everybody saw it.”
Hockney argues that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the social control of the church waned and was replaced by that of the mass media: films, newspapers, magazines and eventually television. These distributed the images of glamour, power, stirring and emotive events. That’s changing.
“What we are now seeing is that old mass media are crumbling,” Hockney says. “The power is shifting again, in a way that will have unpredictable consequences. It is spreading to the masses themselves. We don’t know where that will go.”
The defining image of the turmoil in the Middle East, Beaumont suggested in that Guardian piece on new media and the Middle East revolutions, is “a young woman or a young man with a smartphone.” They are holding it aloft and taking moving images of what’s happening around them -- in Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi, Bahrain, Oman, the list extends by the day.
Refugees from Libya reported that their phones and SIM cards were being confiscated in an attempt to prevent the spread of images. But that was too late. Once a population has access to portable media and the Internet, no government can control the free flow of images. “Obviously, something has happened that’s new,” says Hockney. “I’ve no idea whether its long-term effects will be good or bad. But it’s there.”
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)