Watching You



Reality-Symbol Association in Culture

If it is impressed on our minds in infancy, that a certain arbitrary symbol indicates an existing fact; if this same association of emblem and reality is reiterated at the preparatory school, insisted upon at college, and pronounced correct at the university; symbol and fact–or supposed fact–become so intimately blended that it is extremely difficult to disassociate them, even when reason and personal observation teaches us they have no true relationship.
Eadweard Muybridge, the famously enigmatic British photographer in America, wrote this in the late 1870s about animal locomotion that had remained elusive to painters until the publication of his epoch-making locomotion photographs in 1872 and its subsequent publicity throughout Europe and America. Painters before that had been representing the gallops and motions of animals erroneously–they failed to reproduce the exact/real positions of the legs and the bodies at different phases of locomotion. As a result, humans had hitherto been having an erroneous idea of the physics of animal movement.”
What Muybridge said about animal locomotion applies to culture as well–our association of ideas with symbols, such as mother/father with a country, language with mother, certain idols with gods, flags with nations/states, etc. I personally don’t give weight to these arbitrary associations. Muybridge continues:
So it is with the conventional galloping horse; we have become so accustomed to see it in art that it has imperceptibly dominated our understanding, and we think the representation to be unimpeachable, until we throw all our preconceived impressions on one side, and see the truth by independent observation from Nature herself. During the past few years the artist has become convinced that this definition of the horse’s gallop does not harmonize with his own unbiased impression, and he is making rapid progress in his efforts to sweep away prejudice, and effect the complete reform that is gradually but surely coming.
David Company, in his Art and Photography (2002), quotes Georges Memeny’s account of Meissonier’s reaction. Meissonier was a painter who had been struggling to represent the gallop of the horse exactly:
The great painter Meissonier … came to our laboratory concerned with the gaits of the horse which he was trying to represent exactly. When he saw the first photographic analyses that we presented to him, he gave a cry of astonishment and accused our camera of seeing falsely. When you give me a horse galloping like this one–and he showed one of his sketches–then I shall be satisfied with your invention. But photography has proved the painters wrong and they have had to modify the gaits of their horses and like the others, Meissonier obeyed the photograph in the end.