Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jacques Barzun on the Role of Image in our Culture

I have been recently reading Jacques Barzun's cultural history From Dawn to Decadence, and I've found it interesting and entertaining.  Barzun is one of those writers who makes you want to read all sorts of other books that he mentions.  I was struck by his commentary on contemporary culture found in the last chapter, "Demotic Times."  (I especially love how he writes about it in the past tense.) Here is a representative bit on the role of image:

"Self contempt was redoubled by knowing that performance was of slight value compared to Image.  That inclusive word could be defined as a set of indicators that suggest but do not indicate, the thing sought.  Judgment of people by signs was not a new habit; it is almost inevitable and it is fair enough when the signs are an outward growth of personality.  But the period required the contrived; one made one's way by image-building-and-tending.  This duty was not limited to persons: businesses, political parties, schools, museums, churches--any institution that had a public--must present the type of image favored at the moment.  The craft of public relations was there to help manufacture the facades, and the onlookers confessed that 'Perception is all.'  Or not quite all, if one looks into another corner of the demotic mind.  There, disgust at playacting, a surviving sense of the real, a spurt of true independence caused in the sensitive conflict that bred guilt" (Page 786).

"One made one's way by image-building-and-tending."  Lamentable but true in our culture--saddest of all perhaps in churches and Christian institutions where we profess to not be "conformed to the world."

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