The Crowd and Its Image

Juan Genovés, Resistencia, La Fabrica, 2019

The Crowd and Its Image

 by David Campany

First published in Juan Genovés, Resistencia, La Fabrica, 2019

The Crowd, suddenly there where there was nothing before, is a mysterious and universal phenomenon. A few people may have been standing together—five, ten or twelve, not more; nothing has been announced, nothing is expected. Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction. Most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are. There is a determination in their movement that is quite different from the expression of ordinary curiosity. It seems as though the movement of some of them transmits itself to the others. But that is not all; they have a goal, which is there before they can find words for it.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960

The crowd, ordered or chaotic, is perhaps the twentieth century’s emblematic image type.  It is difficult to imagine the last one hundred years without it. It is also the image of ambiguity par excellence. Its visual charge is matched only by its inability to convey clearly the motivation of either the participants or the image-maker.

Both the political left and right have mobilized crowds, and the imagery of crowds, in the service of their agendas and ideologies. In the same years that Hitler’s troops marched in formations choreographed specifically for multiple camera angles, there were mass women’s gymnastics displays at London’s Wembley Stadium, and Busby Berkeley’s patterns of dancers, moving like clockwork machines, enthralled movie audiences worldwide. Other crowds surged in political rallies, youthful ebullience, or flight from oppression. And all the while, via cameras and screens and pages, crowds watched the crowds.

The image of the crowd may signify a democratic impulse, or its opposite. Freedom, or its opposite. Emancipation, or its opposite. Conformity, or its opposite. Euphoria, or its opposite. And the very same images of crowds—in streets, public squares and at the undefined edges of cities—can be deployed by different sides, to defend or denounce.

To observe a crowd is to separate oneself from it. And one cannot truly be a part of a crowd and photograph it at the same time, certainly not from above. Thus, to look at a photograph of a crowd is to be doubly removed. To make a painting from that photograph of a crowd is to be removed threefold. To look at that painting of a photograph of a crowd is to be removed fourfold. An ambiguous image distanced, distanced, distanced, and distanced again. If the image is large enough, and compelling enough, a crowd may gather before it. In a gallery, perhaps. And while the layers of distance are always there, the raw and rampant psychological force of the crowd, in its specific time and place, comes through. Times stands still, and history hangs in the balance forever. Which of course never happens in real life.

While any crowd has a motivation, an intention—perhaps a political intention—the image alone is barely able to convey it. So an image of a crowd will always raise the spectre of politics but it will not be able to meet the political demands either of the crowd depicted or the crowd viewing it. This is not a failing. It is a virtue of representation, of art, that it both connects us and offers the necessary distance and openness required for thought and contemplation. And that is why the artist—whatever their political commitment, and however their politics appear or don’t appear to manifest in their work—is the opposite of the crowd.

It is easy to denounce the abuse of power. You just say: “The abuse of power is bad and here’s why.” This—it seems to me—has little to do with art. But at times of crisis (are we not always in crisis?) artists are often expected to declare their politics unequivocally, unambiguously, as if the equivocation or ambiguity that is the essential condition of any and all pictures is a dangerous indulgence, even a capitulation to the bourgeois salons of power. At moments of crisis the pictorial in art is denounced. At moments of crisis painting is denounced the most. It’s been this way for a long time now. But that denunciation is itself a symptom of the crowd at its worst, at its most reactionary, at its least thoughtful, at its most complicit with the crisis in the first place. The unthinking mob mentality.

So let us replace the pious demand for artistic responsibility with what the composer John Cage once called response-ability. After all, meaning resides not in the artist, nor in the artwork, but in the viewer. The aesthetic demand and the political demand are made of us. Alone and together.

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count. Not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960



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