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University of Basel

Perceiving the world

Text: Ralph Ubl

There are images of freedom that we create for ourselves, as well as the freedom that we gain through images. This overview of the topic draws on image theory and thoughts on current affairs.

Prof. Ralph Ubl. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Ralph Ubl. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

To question the relationship between the image and freedom is to face a bewildering range of different viewpoints. However you choose to define the terms freedom and image opens up a further set of problems. Freedom may be understood as an uprising against political oppression, the exercising of civil liberties, or a kind of moral autonomy – but it may also refer to the unfettered ventures of economic powers or the autonomous development of the arts. No less multifarious is the use of the term image: For one person, it may mean objects that are collected and exhibited in an art gallery; for another it may be data that is stored as TIFF or JPEG files, or “interior” images of thoughts or fantasies for someone else.

A careful definition of terms is needed to relate these two complex and much-discussed concepts to one another in a productive way. It is worth noting that their relationship has rarely been purely theoretical. Humanities scholarship never begins with an ideal standpoint around which a perspective could circulate unimpeded. Rather, topics tend to come to light, and then take on a new shape or character under the circumstances in which they emerge – and in this process their meaning may change drastically as a result of unexpected developments. When the Council of Europe decided to dedicate the 21st Council of Europe Exhibition to the topic “Emblems of Liberty” in 1986, none of the curators could anticipate just how relevant this show would prove to be when it opened in 1991 at the Bern Historical Museum following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Images and violence

Current affairs continue to subject theoretical discourses about images and freedom to new, rapidly changing challenges. These developments are distinctly less encouraging than those of 1989. For over a decade now, images have played a critical role in cultural, political and violent conflicts in which the future of freedom is at stake.

One of the promises of progress that modernity offered was an end to violent clashes in which images were abused and censored. The iconoclasm of the Reformation, and later of the French Revolution, led to the founding of public collections and state museums. They served to protect those images that an enlightened public ought to reject for religious or political reasons. Taking an interest in the idols and symbols of power of the past at a distance, permitted one to enjoy one’s own religious and political freedom. The museum became a place in which a society – that considered itself because of its freedoms to be progressive and reflective – collected and studied the pictorial records of distant histories and cultures.

This liberal bourgeois “containment” of images was not only fundamentally questioned by the pictorial propaganda of twentieth-century revolutions, totalitarian states, wars and genocides – it also provoked backlashes that were as vehement as they were diverse.

The avant-garde scorned the idea of historical and aesthetic distance as a renunciation of the future. Postcolonial critique illuminated how autonomous art is tied up with the violent dispossession of non-Western cultures. And despite their differences, the political events of recent history that involve images – from the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues and the photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib, to the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the horrific videos from the so-called Islamic State– have made one thing clear: that the relationship between images and freedom was in no way resolved by the modern pacification and distantiation of images.

Distance from reality

Do images produce their own kind of violence that was only barely brought under control during modernity? Are we, as enlightened Europeans, forced to accept that images are not simply representations but rather themselves agents that interfere with our social and political realities? This common assumption must be countered by the fact that the overwhelming majority of all images lie idle and ignored in the memory of our smartphones and in other archives. Only a small minority of images are afforded particular authority under specific circumstances. On the contrary, most images that are created and saved today are testimony to a new kind of freedom that we take for granted to such an extent that we hardly perceive it.

Whether images represent an expression of human freedom is a critical question in image theory. It is evident that an image opens up a distance to reality that enables its observer to reflect on – and potentially change – his or her own position. Witnessing a shocking event first-hand paralyzes us. A journalistic photograph of the same event is unlikely to leave us cold, but offers a foreign perspective on the event, namely that of the photographer, and we are free to accept or reject this perspective. If this image particularly emphasizes the viewpoint of the photographer, e.g. through the framing, it may lead us to conclude that every event can be captured in entirely different ways. It allows us to realize that we are only able to perceive the world in fragments – and thus differently.

This way or that

Such a freedom of images becomes especially conspicuous when an image displays a new or unusual viewpoint. However, it is not just a feature of especially sophisticated artistic or documentary works, but is more deeply entrenched in contemporary life. Around 600 years after the discovery of perspective, the majority of images that we encounter on a day-to-day basis from all over the world are automatically generated according to its rules. Distinguishing and modifying viewpoints, distances and frames does not demand any special expertise, but is rather part and parcel of the digital modification of photographs and films. As consumers of digital technologies, images allow us to view the world this way or that at the click of a mouse.

This freedom can serve different purposes. Whether it promotes moral, political, or artistic freedom can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. Yet, given that technology now allows all of us to switch between different viewpoints, to modify these for ourselves and for others, and to manipulate them and criticise them, undoubtedly has consequences for our understanding of freedom.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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