"Ceci n'est pas une pipe."
Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte with his iconic painting of what seems the perfection of a pipe makes a valid point: Even the most authentic rendition of a natural object i s n' t that object. It remains an image of it.
Why does that matter?
Because these days one single image can re-define how we view the world.
Think of the iconic image of President Trump at the G7 meeting in Canada. It pits the three European leaders Merkel, May and Macron against a US President, whose body language encapsulates everything that went wrong at this G7 summit: A US President isolated, sitting apart, arms crossed, stubborn, pouting.
Multilateralism hits rock bottom.
One image. Simple, yet powerful but as well...dangerous.
An image dangerous? How?
For three reasons:
First, because we do not take the time anymore to consume more complex stories. We are conditioning our brains to look for oversimplified, black-and-white, instinctively understood explanations.
Second, because we are indirectly undermining the power of the written word. Ever since Gutenberg's first Bible prints it has been the written word that allowed for an unprecedented movement of education of the masses. The power of images can do without words and is highly reductionist in this regard.
Third, as parents of adolescent kids will readily confirm: pictures are the new currency!
Where does that leave those whose story does not lend itself so readily to be told in a few images?
Those who simply do not have the time or the means to document their life stories in glossy pictures?
What about those who refuse to walk through life a selfie-stick in hand, to expose more and more of themselves, to display their prowess in mastering this and that narcissistic "challenge".
White House Reality TV Presents
Back to world politics, June 2018, where a New York Reality TV star meets a North Korean dictator, who with an iron fist upholds in its 70th year one of the most oppressive authoritarian regimes on the planet.
Kim Jong-un, singlehandedly, keeps a 25-million people and the Western world hostage – the former through the tight control of his brutal police state, the latter with threats to develop and deploy nuclear weapons.
The images of the summit, strategically held during US prime time, are carefully selected to depict this meeting as "history in the making" – no matter the outcomes.
Why is that a problem?
Because for starters, these images star Donald J. Trump in the role of soon-to-be Nobel Peace Prize candidate.
More than that, they elevate the brutal dictator and global pariah Kim Jong-un to a respected statesman and equal peer of the West.
A not uncommon strategy when negotiating with hostage-takers who oftentimes crave that type of recognition and legitimacy.
Images are Trump's medium. Both for receiving information and for transporting his own messages to others.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that his interaction with Kim included showing the man from isolated and technologically backward North Korea a four-minute movie trailer, exclusively produced for this occasion.
Filled with corny images and cliches, it was meant to lure its audience into believing that a deal with the United States equals a ride on Hollywood Boulevard, in glamour and fame.
Again, "ceci n'est pas une pipe." One would almost want to warn the fresh-off-the-boat dictator that this is a movie, a vision maybe, but certainly nothing more.
What is for certain is that the imagery of this meeting has been so suggestive and "visionary" that what has actually been happening at the Trump-Kim meeting can by no means live up to the oversized expectations created.
It remains to be seen if Trump's unconventionally dramatic one-off move can yield results in a universe that, as game theorists would call it, is one of repeated games.
Even North Korea will by now have noticed how Trump "honors" deals, be it with perceived enemies such as Iran, be it with long-time partners such as Europe and Canada.
It may be the irony of our time that trust in the "leader of the free world" may be at similar levels as that in a dictator and known mass-murderer.
The Emperor's New Clothes
Which brings us to probably the single most important reason why overly relying on images may be dangerous: it skews our perception of reality.
We start to believe that "ceci est une pipe", the image is the object it represents.
That Donald Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong-Un means a peaceful resolution of the Korean Peninsula's conundrum and the end of the nuclear threat.
"Ceci n'est pas une paix – ceci est l'image d'une paix." This is no peace – this is an image of peace. At best.
Interesting. So, what are we going to do about it?
Not much for right now.
Other than calling it out – like the weavers called out the inept king in Andersen's tale The Emperor's New Clothes. A must-read by the way.