The Louvre and Sacré-Coeur

When we discuss International Media, we think first of the big companies and institutions like Radio France and Burson-Marsteller, but I believe our visit to the Louvre is equally important. After all, art is the first medium — the graphical representation of someone’s idea of reality.

The collection in the Louvre is so vast and varied that no one can see and comprehend it in one day, or even one lifetime. And yet, each work of art is a message. A message that says in its own moment and for posterity; “this is what life at this moment is like,” or “this is what the artist, his or her patron/church/movement/government suggests or demands you believe life in this moment means.” Art is about the past, the present, the future, the ethereal and the eternal – or at least someone’s vision of them, a vision they considered important enough to construct and share.

And they could only share that vision after years of training and the cultivation of their talent and the time it took to paint and etch and sculpt.

Religious artwork from the middle ages, with its intricate iconography and subtle symbolic codes (after all, it was produced for a culture that could not, did not and was often forbidden to read) offers visual parables based on historical (or apocryphal) events like the Rape of the Sabine Women or the triumph of David over Goliath.

These images presented a point of view, they framed reality. And that is what connects them to the contemporary media messages, systems and companies were are exploring on this trip: Whatever their era or context, their goal was, in the words of one of the presenters at Burson-Marsteller, to “manage perceptions.”

The popular modern notion of the artist as someone who creates purely for aesthetic effect or for self-expression is too narrow. Artists channel their times — sometimes in the service of their own perspectives,  but also in the service of their faith, their nation, their ideology. Art is the first and purest form of communication. I appreciated the aesthetic value of antiquities from 1600 B.C., which included rough stones etched with alphabetic symbols, but I was struck more by the idea that someone etched those symbols to communicate with his or her fellow humans in a moment that was as real and contemporary and urgent as this moment is to us.

Someone, maybe John Ford, said that the medium of motion pictures, despite its ability to project vast tableaus and panoramic landscapes, was fascinating first and foremost for its ability to capture the human face. What strikes me most about the Louvre is the faces of the subjects of paintings: some regal, some cruel, some heroic, some enigmatic (Mona Lisa), some obviously important in their day and important now only because of the artist who painted them. The paintings of people that capture, conjure and transmit the sensibility of their subjects are haunting. Some are so real, so vivid, you feel as though you could walk into their world, or they could step into ours.

The Louvre is a collection of art, but it is also a library of communication that spans time and space. And, like Le Cinemathque Francais it is also a panopticon of visual entertainment. Allegories like the Agony of Christ or the Death of Apollo are dramatic stories laden with complex symbolism and which call to my mind films like Citizen Kane and Wings of Desire.

Before mass media (popular books, magazines and newspapers) and electronic media (film, radio, TV, etc.) emerged, art was also (along with theater) mainstream entertainment for the masses. Huge canvasses that depict Napoleon rallying his troops or Hercules grappling with Achilles were the “Gone With The Wind” and “Avatar” of their time – epics on an astonishing scale, the Cinemascope and Imax of the middle ages.

Similarly, Sacré-Coeur is a generator of messages. When we visited, Mass was in session. The priest delivered the ritual prayers of his faith, a form of communication that, in the words of communication theorist James Carey, is intended not to transmit information across space but to maintain a belief system across time. Above the celebrant in the great dome of the basilica, and all around him in murals and statues and stained glass and flickering novena candles, were messages intended to persuade, to comfort, to instruct, to caution, to warn.

In short, to manage perceptions.

Images and icons produced by countless artists, craftsmen, cultures, times and places spoke to the people of their times, just as our media speak to us. And just as the antiquities and classical art in the Louvre speak across centuries for the people of those times, our media messages will speak for us to the future.

What will the relics of our mass media say about us to people decades or centuries from now?

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