Stalin and Mao on currency, 1950:
I post the above currency image because I’ve been thinking about how images function to make the individual viewer feel like Dorothy before the Wizard of Oz (small and weak before The Great and Powerful). In the above image, for example, Stalin and Mao are Godzilla size, more massive than the buildings.
So much of art functions like this, suggesting, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, some favored hierarchy, some totalitarian (or at least totalist) structure to which resistance is obviously folly. Thus in medieval art, Jesus, the angels, and the saints hold center stage and you aren’t shit. And the inter-generational cathedrals of Europe also dwarf your short and insignificant life. In royalist art, the Sun King takes center stage in his furs and tights, and again, you aren’t shit. The architecture of the Palace at Versailles also has this effect (as does Paris, for that matter, with all its massive and implicitly totalitarian neoclassical columns everywhere–a city of stone penises before high walls).
And going back to Versailles for a moment, even its very gardens send a message: the Sun King is not content to rule only man, he must assert his dominance over Nature. Likewise Romantic painters, rebelling against the royalist impulse, enthrone Nature over all (God, king, and man). From the paintings of Turner and Friedrich to the photographs of Yosemite by Ansel Adam and the deep space images of the Hubble telescope, the message is the same: there is something very large and you are very small.
One reason scientists promote deep space images to the public is what they imply about who should have power in society. The Christian era had its priests, the royalist era had its court, the democratic era had The People (and the democratic era’s communist countries had their Dear Leaders). But Nature is the new totalist Big Thing and the Book of Nature requires its own priesthood, the scientists who read the road and drive the spaceship (think of Carl Sagan in Cosmos).
Contemporary art sometimes attempts to meet the scientist’s vision of deep space and deep time through impenetrable abstraction, via negativa, and silence (as with The Rothko Chapel). And sometimes it captures Nature ironically (Damien Hirst’s shark).
Kant wrote that the sublime is about an encounter of a single human mind–with its infinite imagination reaching for the infinite–standing before what is colossal or monstrous (infinite) and feeling the vibration and tension between these two infinite things. I guess I’m asking why this phenomenon even exists. What is this overgoing within us and outside of us? And how absurd it is if, in the end, we discover that there has never really been any worthy emperor anywhere (neither within nor without) and that God does not even exist.