Elementsof the visual construct have shaped society and human thought from the dawn ofcivilisation to the present day. The realisation that individuals can be influenced,directly and indirectly, by what they see or read has been a source of powerfor monarchies, empires and societies for centuries.
The power of vision hasshaped the visual arts, as well as providing a natural platform for disseminatingpolitical messages. Whilst the relationship between vision and power can beseen in literal terms through the all-seeing principle of the Panopticon, forexample, it is the visual arts that best explore this dynamic, and it isespecially evident in painting, sculpture and even architecture. Imagery isboth a direct and supportive medium for nations and individuals to expresstheir power, providing subtle and suggestive influence through the impressionsthey leave in viewers’ minds. This relationship of vision and power isespecially evident when observing monarchies, who for centuries have exploitedtheir power through art. They used grandeur, wealth and nobility to emphasisetheir position as heads of state.
Through art, their nobility is reinforced,and their power is increased. This is especially evident during King Charles II’sreign. After a decade of republicanism in England following the civil war andsubsequent execution of Charles I, the re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660saw the return of Charles II to the throne. Charles II wished to portray theproper image of kingship, re-establishing the splendour of the monarchy andthis was largely achieved through the use of art.1It was the visual arts which played the crucial role in rebuilding the King’s sovereigntyand legitimacy.
Charles wishedto use art to express power and at the Restoration Court, art and power wereinseparable. Charles also began to rebuild the art collection which had beensold off to pay for Charles I’s debt after the civil war. This large artcollection included paintings including the masters of Raphael, Titian andRubens.
2Additionally, Charles commissioned a large number of portraits of both himselfand other members of the Royal Family. A notable portrait, although not believedto be a royal commission, is John Michael Wright’s Charles II (Figure 1). This painting is a great example of theclose relationship between vision and power. Charles here is seated on histhrone, dressed in parliamentary robes over the costume of the Order of theGarter, with the crown on his head and holding the new coronation orb andsceptre. This extremely large portrait emphasises how the visual medium of artcan be especially powerful, not only in its sheer size but also the imagery ofsplendour and nobility which are representative of the power of the new andrestored monarchy. Moreover, the extravagant style of the English Baroque and theconfrontational pose of Charles II only further emphasises how this monarchyhas used art as a visual medium to express its power.
Where the English monarchy in theseventeenth century used artistic grandeur in particular to express its power,the art of the early twentieth century used very different methods to expressthe relationship between vision and power. For powerful political states suchas Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, for example, the use of symbols wasextremely valuable to express the power of their nations and the messages thattheir leaders sought to project. One example in particular which grasps the importanceof these visual symbols and power was the 1937 Paris World Exposition which sawthese two rival states face off in a show of dominance and power on a colossalscale (Figure 2). The 1937 ExpositionInternationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne opened in Paris inMay, lasting for six months. This large world exhibition contained over three-hundredpavilions, however, it was the pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Unionthat were the most important and gathered the most attention. These two immensestructures used art and architecture as a way of showcasing their country’s economic,technological and cultural dominance to twenty-four million visitors over thecourse of this exhibition, thus clearly underlining the strong relationship sharedbetween vision and power. These two towering pavilions created a strikingvisual impact as a means of demonstrating their nation’s power. Facing eachother on either side of the Trocadero Fountains they shouted “efficacy, ingenuity, and power”, and subsequently theexhibition became “almost war-like.
“3 The Soviet pavilion was designed by BorisIofan and was topped with a six-storey high sculpture by Vera Mukhina of a Worker and Kolkhoz Woman holding up thesymbols of communism; the hammer and sickle. These iconic symbols serve aspowerful visual imagery, towering over the exhibition goers. This constructaimed at projecting size, material and social progress4and all are clearly achieved here through this visual masterpiece, furtheremphasising the connection that vision and power share. The German pavilion,however, surpassed that of the Soviet’s, towering over the Paris site at onehundred and fifty-two metres. Designed by Albert Speer, the pavilion aimed todemonstrate the economic and technological strength of Germany and this was undoubtedlyachieved with this structure. Speer managed to obtain architectural plans forthe Soviet pavilion prior to its construction and therefore ensured Hitler thattheirs would overpower their rival’s design.5Speer topped his architectural triumph with an eagle and a swastika, the iconicsymbols of Nazi Germany. It is these symbols, as well as the large scale ofthis construction that again emphasise the close connection of vision andpower.
Projections of power often comehand-in-hand with elements of the visual object. The two opposing pavilions ofthe exhibition of Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Modern emphasised the influence of two nations and how they usedvisual symbols to represent the power, leadership and meaning of their country.However, the relationship between vision and power can also be more literally interpretedthrough the power of sight. This was explored with Jeremey Bentham’s Panopticonconcept, in which he uses architecture to enforce the power of vision.
The Panopticon was an institutionalbuilding theorised and designed by Bentham in the late eighteenth century inwhich the concept was to grant a watchman visible contact to all inmates of aninstitution without them knowing whether they were being watched or not. Thedesign (Figure 3) is in the round and was mostly associated to a prison,however, it could also be applied to other institutions such as hospitals orschools. The structure, therefore, gave an all-seeing ‘power’ to the centralwatchman. Here, the relationship between vision and power is seen in itssimplest form. The relationship is not abstract or expressed through meanings,rather it is definite. It is the watchman who has power though vision over theinmates. The French philosopher Michel Foucault was greatly interested in therelationship between knowledge and power and especially howsocial institutions instil order,exploring the concept of panopticism as a socialtheory.
He said of Bentham’s penitentiary: “The Panopticon must not beunderstood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of powerreduced to its ideal form”6 The Panopticon concept explores the relationshipbetween an individual and the masses. Here the watchman has all the power,witnessing how people behave when they are always anonymously watched. Benthamcreated the Panopticon in relation to the ‘Inspection principle’7in which he believed that society will function better if people are undercontrol. The idea is that people will behave in a certain way if they arealways being watched. Bentham’s Panopticon could, therefore, be considered as aperfect example to demonstrate the close relationship between vision and poweras it is in its simplest and most ideal form.
Here it is the implicit power ofsurveillance which expresses this relationship and this has been achievedthrough the architectural design of Bentham’s penitentiary. Thepromotion of power through the visual constructs of art and architecture aswell as the all-seeing power of the watchman are not the only expressions ofthe relationship between vision and power nor are they relics of history. It isinteresting to examine how modern governments, companies and other lobbyists takeadvantage of this close relationship in how they operate today. This isparticularly the case for news media, where the information they produce isread by millions of people daily. In an information hungry world, print andonline media companies have enormous power. This power stems from the directand subliminal influence of the news items, reports and imagery they contain. Newspapers use visual stimulants to gain theattention of their readers through their bold front-covers and captivatingimages. The general public’s appetite for what is happening around them meansthat news companies need to make their stories stand out and confront theviewer, almost shocking them.
Thiswas especially the case following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the UnitedStates (Figure 4). Newspapers globally used the shocking images of the attacks todraw attention to the situation in the United States. The imagery and headlinesencouraged readers to form opinions or challenge existing concepts and thelinkage between vision and power, in this case, the power to influencethinking, could not be clearer. Media companies clearly recognise this powerand they exploit it by drawing in their readers through dramatic imagery andbold texts. In today’s fast changing world, this possibly provides the mosttelling example of the intertwined relationship of vision and power.Mankind has been influenced by constructs of thevisual from time immemorial and those in power, or seeking to build it, havenot been slow to recognise this. Whether this relationship is explored through theseventeenth century royal portraiture, the imposing structures of the earlytwentieth-century superpowers or the late-eighteenth century concept of theall-seeing Panopticon, power is enhanced by the visual imagery surrounding it.
Suchvisual constructs have evolved and often become subtler over time but theystill retain the potential to exert significant influence over their viewers. Visualconstructs, both real and contrived, images or text, continue to be anessential part of how power is communicated and perceived, and the relationshipbetween the two remains inseparable.1 Rufus Bird and Martin Clayton, Charles II: Art and Power. (London: RoyalCollection Trust, 2017).
2BBC Arts, Art as a power tool: HowCharles II overruled austerity. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1SRz5c8y5HPyj4bd03sDRNC/art-as-power-tool-how-charles-ii-overruled-austerity?tblang=english-ca)(Accessed 27 December 2017)3 Anne O’Hare McCormick, National Exhibitionism at the Paris Fair. (NewYork Times, 1937) 14, quoted by Robert Karagon in “Modernity à la Français: The1937 Paris Exposition” in World’s Fairson the Eve of War: Science, Technology, and Modernity, 1937-1942.(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) 18.4 Robert Karagon, 2015.
20.5 Albert Speer, “The GreatestAssignment” in Inside the Third Reich,translated by Richard and Clara Winston. (London: Orion Books, 1970) 81.
6 Michel Foucault, “Panopticism” in Disciplineand Punish: The Birth of the Prison 1975. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)205.7 Jeremy Bentham, “Letter I: Idea ofthe Inspection Principle” in ThePanopticon Writings, edited by Miran Božovi?.
(London: Verso, 1995) 35.