Rage against the image

 

On the night of February 25, 1986, the Filipino people took to the streets to celebrate the downfall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Around ten thousand protesters held a vigil to retake Malacanang, the presidential palace originally built by the Spaniards for the Governor-General of the former colony. The plaza which was once open to the public since the period of decolonization was a forbidden city during the long years of Martial Law.

A number of foreign correspondents were present and their cameras turned towards the people, most of whom had never seen the palace before that night, anticipating how they would seize the seat of power.

The day began with the crowd mingling in the spirit of prayer and procession, kissing the statue of the Virgin Mary, waving little flags, which they paraded silently around the gates as Israelites must have done in the Battle of Jericho. 

It was common knowledge that the American government intervened in the whole situation by offering the former dictator an asylum so the likely scenario of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos being guillotined ala King Louis and Marie Antoinette was avoided. Moments before the crowd had broken into the palace, the conjugal dictators and their families were taken away on a C-130 plane that landed in Hawaii.

The people who jumped the palace’s fences, cut the barbed wires and fashioned them into crowns of thorns. When they opened the doors, they found that the palace had been evacuated. An ABC correspondent’s camera caught among the things they left behind: a thousand pairs of shoes, 888 handbags, 71 pairs of sunglasses, and 65 parasols—part of a lavish inventory that shocked and offended the world more than any past estimates of Marcos’s enormous wealth.

The people feasted on the still uneaten dinner on the table and sandwiches and soft drinks in the huge refrigerator. They took turns posing at the table where more than a decade ago, the president infamously broadcasted the curtailment of civil liberties. After this, they looked for something they could turn their anger to and saw several of Ferdinand and Imelda’s portraits. Two portraits that were taken off the walls and thrown out of the balcony were painted by Ralph Wolfe Cowan, who painted for the royal family of Monaco among many celebrities. He is best known today for painting The Visionary, the portrait of Donald Trump as a young man in his tennis sweater that now hangs in his ranch called Mar-a-Lago. I’ll talk more about this later. 

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Ralph Cowan, portraits for the former President Ferdinand and Mrs. Marcos, c. 1980 

Aside from attacking the stately portraits of the old regime, the people also put up a hand-painted poster patterned after Hollywood movie advertisements of the new leader with the slogan; Now Showing: A New Philippines starring Corazon Aquino.

In the last portions of David Freedberg’s Power of Images, he used an Associated Press photograph from that night of an enraged man holding a wooden club colloquially called in Manila as a dos por dos, the signature weapon of a street gangster, to hit a lifelike portrait of Ferdinand Marcos delivering a speech with a finger seemingly pointing towards the iconoclast. The photographer captured the exact moment when he seems to be responding to the challenge by the portrait of the dictator.

Freedberg observes that quite apart from the political symbolism of his act, “the man clearly feels that the image embodies its subject, that Marcos—like Barthes’s mother—somehow resides in the image.”

The belief that there is life in the image is perhaps as old as human civilization. According to Freedberg, this rationalizes why pictures are often attacked particularly when they are representations or even the symbols of a hated leader or regime. “At the very least, something of the disgrace of mutilation or destruction is felt to pass on to the person represented.” Often, the tyrant or the emperor is believed, as in the old Roman doctrine, to be in his image or to go where the image goes. This is historically recorded in the pre-Justianic Roman Empire and for a long time afterward in the Byzantium.

  Conversely, this sense of the living in the image also lies at the basis of the power attributed to images and the faith in them. Freedberg talks about the “Stendhal Syndrome” that “makes you swoon when you see something wonderful or potentially eschatological […] or the wounded of the ways in which mere dead pieces of wood or stone can save lives and be worthy of being thanked for saving one’s nearest and dearest.”

Iconoclasm and image-worship are the “two sides of the same coin,” and it encompasses belief among various people and cultures. It comes as no surprise that reverence for the image is ingrained from the earliest manifestation of civilization in the Philippines, a land which was first inhabited by Austronesian peoples. 

The Angono Petroglyphs in the province of Rizal north of Manila was made by this ethnic group who were the ancestors of the present-day Tagalog people. On the Petroglyph, there are 127 human and animal figures engraved on the rock wall, that were probably carved during the late Neolithic period, or before 2000 BC. According to archaeologists, the human figures on the wall were infants, and that the ancient Tagalogs most likely believed that drawing the figures of their sick children on the “sacred wall” would clear them from diseases.

In contrast to this ancient form of image-worship, there is no shortage of the kind of image-hating during the four-day revolution in Manila. The media images I described above resonate with the events of the French Revolution. Throughout its radical phase, iconoclasm was promulgated by members of the government as well as the citizenry. Numerous monuments, religious works, and other historically significant pieces were destroyed in an attempt to eradicate any memory of the Ancien Regime. At the same time, the republican government felt responsible to preserve these works for their historical, aesthetic, and cultural value. One way the republican government succeeded in their paradoxical mission of preserving and destroying symbols of the Old Regime was through the development of museums. The same paradox beset the post-revolutionary society in Manila. After the anger had subsided, the Ralph Cowan portraits of the Marcos couple were found fit enough to be repaired and are now kept in the Presidential Museum and Library.

The case of the French and Filipino revolutions are an exemption. In a lecture for the Asia Society in London, David Freedberg reminds us that in most iconoclastic events, the destruction of the images only preceded the killing of the actual person represented, or the people who were seen to be involved in the preservation of the images. Indeed, in another event in the French Revolution, a statue of King Louis XV in the Paris square which until then bore his name was pulled down and destroyed. This was a prelude to the guillotining of his successor Louis XVI in the same site, renamed “Place de la Révolution” (at present Place de la Concorde).

In Libya where it was once believed that “you can curse Allah but not Gadaffi,” the destruction of billboards of the former dictator proved ominous after the video of his capture and sodomization went viral. People who were only used to seeing their leader in dignified, larger than life portraits were doubtful that the disheveled person who had either taken a bullet or shrapnel was the real Gadaffi. Such was the disorientation in confirming his death, that the interim Libyan authorities decided to keep Gaddafi’s body in an industrial freezer in a shopping center “for a few days,” against Islamic funerary practices “to make sure that everybody knows he is dead.” To which, one might add, not just in images but in the flesh.

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Top: Screen capture of Gadaffi’s last moments.  Below: A soldier kicks a graffiti image of Gadaffi in Libya, moments after the announcement of his death Source: Journal.ie 

I wonder if the same fate would have befallen Ferdinand Marcos who was gravely ill with Lupus and cannot do without wearing adult diapers at the time of the uprising that ousted him. 

In fact, I do not recall a time when Filipinos expressed so much rage for the image than on the night of February 1986. Being a dominantly Catholic country, we revere even representations of the devil. Indeed, the image of Satan figures prominently on the most popular brand of gin called “Ginebra” taken after a famous painting by Fernando Amorsolo of the Archangel Gabriel defeating Lucifer on its label. When pouring the bottle or drinking from it, the image is reversed and it appears as if Lucifer is the one defeating the Archangel. This has led to a superstition that the first shot of gin should be poured on the ground and offered to the “demonyo” (daemon). I’ve seen an actual statue of this reversal of the battle between angels in a cemetery in Manila. Built in 1926, the statue is currently covered behind a metal fence, under lock and key, not so much because people vandalized the image but because it is widely believed that at night, the devil comes alive and walks around the cemetery. 

  An almost supernatural belief in the power of images is definitely alive in the folk imagination even in the so-called educated and upper classes. I came across a bizarre story of one art collector who returned a commissioned portrait because he was painted with his eyes closed. His rage was not so much about the portrait giving him a preview of what he looked like when he laid in the coffin (a memento mori), but the fact that by painting his likeness with closed eyes, “It’s as if the painter already killed me.” 

Indeed, iconoclasm and image-worship constitute one of the oldest paradoxes of image-making and of figuration. To make an image is both to want it and to fear it. According to David Freedberg, “the more it is desired, the more it seems contra naturam.” It often has a vitality that is startlingly at odds with its materiality and its concept. To parse individual episodes of censorship and iconoclasm is to uncover the roots of both the fear of images and the fear of art. 

Now, let’s go back to Ralph Cowan and his portrait of Donald Trump. Ralph Cowan has a simple formula for success at being a portrait painter: by striving to make his subject look more appealing than they actually are. He once said of his portrait of Donald Trump that “Nobody ever dislikes my portraits. I know how to make them ‘healthy’”

The Visionary has been described as depicting “a young, tanned and handsome Donald Trump dressed in a white tennis sweater.” In a profile of Cowan for Oxford American, Nicole Pasulka wrote that his subjects are often depicted “twenty pounds thinner and twenty years younger, often surrounded by heavenly light, riding exotic animals, or framed by mountain ranges.”

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“The Visionary,” by Ralph Cowan, portrait of Donald Trump, c. 1997

 

In his 1997 profile of Trump for Playboy, Mark Bowden described Cowan’s appeal to Trump as “The kind of painter he can appreciate, one who truly sees Trump the way he sees himself in the mirror.” Bowden likened the portrait to a “Sun God,” feeling that it portrayed a “wide-shouldered, thin-hipped Donald, his youthful face eclipsing the sun itself, his skin glowing like the top floors of Trump Tower at sunset, the color of warm bullion.”

However fantastic Cowan portrayed the current US President, he committed one big, or should I say little, faux pas when he intentionally left Trump’s hand in the portrait in a state of underpainting. It has been described as resting “imperially but incompletely on his thigh.” Cowan had done so without malice. He had started a signature move of sketching a portrait where one hand is finished and the other isn’t. Of course, Donald Trump “didn’t get” the underpainting of his hand, and would ask him “When are you going to finish my painting?”

 When the size of his hands came to the public’s attention during the 2017 US Presidential Elections, Cowan commented on the size of Trump’s hands claiming that “he doesn’t have little hands, like people have said. They’re perfectly proportioned.”

With the preponderance of portraits as a symbol of power and authority, it is interesting how art is often misunderstood as a disinterested activity. We can see from examples above that no art is innocent in aiming for eternal and ideal beauty, nor for pure pleasure. The irony is that despite an awareness of a long history of rage against the image, dictators seem to make the mistake of producing so many likenesses of themselves, which only serve to make them vulnerable for political and physical attacks. Don’t you think, there’s a good reason why until now, it is considered rude to take a photo of the Emperor of Japan?

The portrait of dictators is not so much a representation of the world but as an action on the world. This is what Freedberg calls in his concluding chapter the “reality of the image.”

For the most part, I agree that an image should be viewed with what Freedberg says, its “object opacity;” the impact of an object loaded with experience, with ritual practices: an image captured in its anthropological thickness. But I am worried how ideological state apparatuses are already miles ahead in this endeavor. 

In today’s mass media culture, punishing a criminal, a political opponent, or any other public enemy is often achieved by exposing his image. In third world dictatorships, members of the political opposition would be made to go to the police station just to get their mugshots taken for trumped-up charges of libel or slander. These mugshots would then be posted online as a form of public shaming.

With the proliferation of smartphone cameras, the concept of having images for “personal use” that should be kept in a private folder, or only to be sent in messaging platforms that have end-to-end encryption gives us a preview of how the shape of our belief and relationship with images might look like. I do not need to elaborate on how certain images from our past if exposed, might be equivalent to being cursed, disfigured, or destroyed. We all have that photo! In the exponentially malicious minds of state propagandists, these images are the perfect material for blackmail. 

It is believed that hackers were employed to extract the contents of private conversations of a vocal critic of President Rodrigo Duterte. While there is nothing morally wrong or shameful about a husband and wife doing what they do in the bedroom, it appears that the critic was silenced by the spread of his videos having video sex on Facebook messenger. 

Dictators have excelled in every use of images in the age of digitization. It’s exploited for propaganda and made even crueler and terrifying with the effectiveness of images in conveying a sense of the living body coupled with the multiplier effect of social media.  The horrendous extra-judicial killings in Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war were preceded by the spread of dehumanizing photographs of drug users, and proliferation of CCTV footage of petty crime being committed, and of accused criminals put behind bars. The use of images stands at the center of a campaign to elicit fear and malice. Photographs of drug suspects or political opponents were released in so-called “drug matrices” with no less than President Duterte, announcing that none will be prosecuted or he would personally pardon anyone if they killed persons in the list. Once their images were vilified, without due process guaranteed by the law, it was not difficult for people to openly attack and consent to their murder.

In the age of digitization, we see more examples of people being reduced rather than being elevated to the status of images (idols). Even more easily destructible than they have always been. There is no doubt that we will see more events that demonstrate how the old conflation of the image and the living in the image form the basis of authoritarian iconoclasm:

Mass-produced drones equipped with facial recognition technology will rival coronaviruses in stealthily destroying targets anywhere in the world. We live in an age when humans have achieved the ability to destroy both images and people with equal ease. “We can both promote ourselves and remove others with the press of the trigger, or a button on a digital camera, the computer, or a bomb.” 

While iconoclasm has always gone together with mass murder, we have only recently witnessed it unfold at the speed of hyperlinks. The conflation of representation and reality has been achieved, smoothed by the ease with which we digitize everything, by which images have been reduced to mere matrices and mere “unembodied ciphers.” 

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