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The Power of Images in Relation to Starry Night

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Pictures depict meanings, communicate as symbols and signs and have the power of affecting human behavior and emotions. A picture is viewed as an expression of the desires of an artist or even as a mechanism that elicits the beholder’s desires. Pictures or images also give universal meaning to the words which they represent. It is for this reason that human beings behave as if pictures are alive, have the power of influencing us, persuade us, demand things from us and can even lead us astray. According to Mitchel, images are not just inert objects but are animated beings that have needs, desires, demands, appetites and drives. It is for this reason that gives us powerful and extraordinary responses to the pictures and images we see in our everyday life. This paper will discuss the analogy of the power of images in relation to The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.

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Images have the power of convincing us about what they are. According to Mitchell, images can denote a physical object which can be a sculpture or painting, an imaginary and mental entity, memories, visual contents of a dream or even a perception (Mitchell 2). Images also play a crucial role in both verbal and visual arts. Images can also be used in depicting a verbal motif, and this makes images metaphorical. The painting Starry Night is metaphorical as the artist has used it to designate his verbal motifs. The artist wants to verbally inform the audience of the differences that exist between his asylum room and the comfort in the village. He also wants them to know that his current situation is not permanent; instead, it is a bridge to his bright future.

Images are vital signs that have a pivotal role in our social life, and they generate a surplus value to us, and they symbolize living things. According to Mitchell, images have the power of attracting and even illuminating our daily lives, and even though they may get destroyed, the images continue living on to inspire, tempt, haunt or frighten us. Mitchell argues that pictures make sense to use as they are like life-forms that are driven by appetites and desire. To show the power of images in our daily lives, he asks, ‘ Why is that people have such strange attitudes towards images, objects and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray?’ (Mitchell 7). These words are aimed at emphasizing on the lives and loves for images and stress on the non-human desires of images. This is to show that images are analogies or metaphors of living images. In the Starry Night, Van Gogh uses expressive and exaggerated brushstrokes to visualize his emotions and reveal his personal impressions of the subject. The artwork is characterized by emotions of insanity and isolation that underlie the artists struggle with unappreciated work. The night sky brims with shining stars, whirling clouds and bright moon. The swirling brushstrokes act that the guide to the eyes of the viewer and around the painting. The village in the painting seems very peaceful compared to the dramatic night sky. The church steeple seems to dominate the whole village, symbolizes the unity of the town and gives a sense of isolation. This artwork is, therefore, some kind of life form that was driven by the desires and appetites of the artist and hence, it makes some sense in terms of its intended meanings. Looking at the painting, one would behave as though it is a live thing; it seems to come alive and want things.

In addition, a picture has the power of providing a comprehensive and global view of a given situation and also taking a snapshot of a certain moment. In Preface, Mitchell says, ‘To get the whole picture of pictures, then, we cannot remain content with the narrow conception of them, nor can we imagine that our results, no matter how general or comprehensive, will be anything more than a picture of images, objects and media as they appear to some of us at this moment’ (Mitchell, Preface xvii). This makes a picture a very paradoxical and peculiar creature both abstract and concrete and both a symbolic form and individual thing that embraces a totality. The artwork, The Starry Night, is a snapshot of a specific moment. It is a description of a moment when the artists had a view of his asylum room and the whole village at Saint-Remy-de-Provence from the east-facing window which happened before sunrise. The painting captures this moment and the different weather conditions under which he viewed the asylum and the village, and as a result, it provides the viewers with a global as well as a comprehensive view of the situation that he wants to depict.

Further, images have the power of bringing in vitality as they are symbols of life. Starry Night brings in vitality as it seems to participate in the life process which it stands for. The image of the village and the asylum are ‘living symbols’ which have an organic connection with the subject of the biography, which is the artist in this case. The painting is a symbol of life which is admired by the artist. The contoured forms use in the painting are a means of expression which conveys Gogh’s emotions. The artist’s turbulent quest to overcome his illness is clearly reflected in the sky night, which is dim. The village is painted using dark colour but with a brightly lit window which creates a sense of comfort, which the artist so desires to have. The village in the painting is therefore treated as though it is a human agent or a living symbol of the goodness of the village compared to that found in the asylum.

Also, pictures are depicted as having overtones of vitalism, animism as well as anthropomorphism which makes people consider and treat them as though they are living things. The Starry Night seems to have been anthropomorphized through cloning, enabling the artist to treat them as though they are some form of special species or hybrid class which are greatly admired or wished for. Mitchell says, ‘Harris notes that we often talk about buildings as if they were living things, or as if their intimate proximity to living beings made them take on some of the vitality of their inhabitants’ (Mitchell 14). The author argues that there exists an analogy between buildings and living human body as they are usually conceived in the architect’s mind, grows up from the ground and ends up becoming a habitat for other living organisms. This is the case with Gogh’s painting as it seems to have been cloned to meet the architect’s aim of showing the goodness and comfort of the village compared to that of his asylum room. The luminous sky in the painting depicts his future which for him is brighter since it is a representation of heaven and the town is a representation of his past and his health which have acted as a bridge to hope and brought him close to heaven. The artist, therefore, seems to have cloned the village that he saw from the window of his asylum room. He clones it with the aim of showing how his current situation is a bridge to his bright future as depicted by the bright sky.

However, he believes that our attitudes towards images are very powerful, and they affect the way in which we view and understand images. Even though images are powerful, human beings usually have ‘double consciousness’ about them, and this makes them get attracted to them and become sharply critical and distanced from them (Mitchell 8). This double consciousness about images affects their responses to representation, and most of it originates from sophisticated beliefs about arts, reflections provided by theologians, reactions to different religious icons and the circulation of archaic racial stereotypes among many others. It is for this reason that Mitchell proposes a ‘third way’ that goes beyond the idolaters that just celebrate images and recommends the use of Nietzsche’s strategy of using ‘tuning fork’ to sound the idols of philosophical language. This would be a very delicate critical practice that would strike images with the adequate force for making them resonate but not too much as in to smash them. This would, therefore, help them experience the true powers and importance of images in their daily lives.

In conclusion, the powerfulness of images is symbolic. Images are quite powerful as they help in verbally designating a motif, they are vital signs that illuminate our daily lives, provides a comprehensive and global view of a given situation and also taking a snapshot of a certain moment, are symbols of life and overtones of vitalism, animism as well as anthropomorphism which makes people to consider and treat them as though they are living things. These attributes of images are important in explaining what images are and what pictures want. That, therefore, means images have power in individual, cultural and social lives. Pictures and images are pictures of the human mind, and they are essential as they constitute the reality in terms of views of the world. The author has, however, been very successful in convincing readers on the importance of taking pictures seriously. Mitchell’s categorical distinctions are quite enlightening and useful. It is true that sometimes we abuse, hold in contempt and denigrate images, but one thing is for sure, images are very powerful and depict different aspects of human life.

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