Until recently the eye seemed another mouth. Everyone thought images pass through the eye to the heart as food passes through the mouth to the stomach; that the images become parts of our emotional make-up the way food eventually becomes part of our bodies.
Only in recent years has anyone tried to dispute this notion. Defenders of televised sex, violence and distortion have spoken of the eye as though it were only another fingernail: images bounce off it without ever getting inside. Television’s violence merely reflects society’s, they say. Television does not project violence into us.
Let’s not trivialize this point of view: psychologists and government task forces have mustered numerous studies to support the fingernail theory.
Visual artists, including videomakers, often line up behind the fingernail theory. They do this because they think it’s the only way to defend the first amendment, a thing well worth defending.
When we take this tack, however, we contradict our own deepest intuition. The visual artists know better than anyone else that the eye is more like a mouth than like a fingernail. People working with video readily respond to images, and hope to evoke similar responses in others with their work.
We want to defend our right to express freely, but shouldn’t we shrink from the defense that says our work has no effect on people? Nevertheless, many a producer has gotten into the habit of courageously giving this defense–without showing the pain of having shot himself in the foot.
The winds recently have begun to blow the other way. Congress sits considering new regulation of televised sex and violence, and the psychologists have mustered “new” evidence. Bill Clinton urged Hollywood to take the lead in “de-glamorizing mindless sex and violence.” He sounds as though he believes images do influence our feelings and behavior, that the eye is more like a mouth than like a fingernail. He sounds like he believes what Dan Quayle believed about Murphy Brown.
In 1979 Lawrence Gordon released a movie, “The Warriors.” This showed the antics of violent street gangs. Within a week of its opening, three people were killed in ways reminiscent of the movie. Remembering the film, Gordon said that people went out of the theater pretending to be warriors. That was a rare occasion when a film producer admitted publicly what they all know privately. There’s a connection between what we see and what we do.
Only a couple of years ago, the American Psychological Association released the report entitled, “Big World, Small Screen.” It concluded, “Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive programs also tend to hold attitudes and values that favor the use of aggression to solve conflicts.” Some psychologists have shifted, it seems, from fingernail to mouth.
The winds of popular opinion may blow the other way again. But at the moment the Clintons, the Quayles, the psychologists and maybe even the makers of video and film see eye to eye. We’re rediscovering what everyone’s mother always knew: the eye is like a mouth. You must take care about what you feed it. “What eye admires, heart desires.”
The heart’s desire digests images the way stomach acid digests food. As the heart works upon its received images it spawns new yearnings, new sympathies, new desires. Eventually, these guide our steps into new directions, draw our efforts toward new ends. We become what we see more than what we eat. We mold our souls more by gazing than by grazing.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the videos we make can mold souls and influence people. Beauty, goodness and truth take part in one another after all. “The light of the body is the eye.” Beauty entering the eye sinks into the heart. It feeds truth to the mind and goodness to the hand. As the Hindu proverb has it, “what the eye has seen the hand may do.” The person fed video beauty is more likely to produce goodness than the one dieting daily on video ugliness. Jean Jacques Rousseau, though himself a poor example, saw this: “good is only beauty put into practice.”
There’s more: the videomaker has the power to fool the eye. We can render the good repulsive so as to move hearts to shun the light. We can paint evil seductively, and draw people toward the shadows: “if thine eye be evil thy whole body shall be full of darkness.”
As we yield the power of video, will we use it to enlighten or delude? Will we point our cameras into dark corners or sunny fields? What kinds of videos will we make? Whatever we make will not simply glance off fingernails. It will enter mouths.
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief..