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The Power of Images

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Works of art always form part of a whole cultural structure being both expressions of its religious beliefs, moral codes, aesthetic preferences, and of its social system with its ranks, marginalizations and exclusions, as well as being a means of maintaining and perpetuating them. When not explicitly didactic, expounding and illustrating religious or political messages, their effect may be all the more insidious. The persistence in European art of an ancient Greek ideal of physical perfection has encouraged racial prejudice - the notion of white superiority in intellect and morals as well as physical beauty. Nor has this, along with other survivals from a male-dominated society, been without influence on the subject of gender in the visual arts further emphasized by the use of distinguishing materials. In some places laws regulated the size of houses and their exterior decorations according to the social class of the people who lived in them. Need for shelter is no more than a point of departure for buildings and in most cultures architecture has been concerned mainly with the creation of a human environment and thus involves the manipulation of space as well as mass, answering a need for a defined spatial frame within which human actions can both literally and metaphorically'take place'. The lay-out of a settlement corresponds to its inhabitants' conception of their relationship with one another and with exterior forces. Order is established by planning, and a grid-iron or chequer-board plan was often adopted in absolutist states where land-ownership was vested only in the ruler and portions were parcelled out among subjects (although it also came to be adopted simply as a convenience for new towns in ancient Greece and colonial North America). Strong axes or paths control movement towards a goal or outwards from a central point. Very often and in different parts of the world individual buildings and whole cities have been oriented on astronomical phenomena (sunrise and sunset or the movement of the stars) to maintain harmony between life on earth and the heavens above. The west-east axis of a Christian church has cosmic significance combined with the symbolism of the believer's path from initiation to salvation and eternal life. Such spatial organization provides, as it were, the grammar of an architectural language. Symbolic meanings are spelled out. Domed roofs, for instance, usually reserved for regal and religious structures, reflect the hemisphere of the firmament, as is often made clear by the painted or mosaic decoration of their interiors - indeed they were often understood as symbols of'the dome of heaven', and not only in Western architecture. Articulation of mass can create such effects as those of processional movement along a horizontal path or up one of aspiring verticality. In this way a building is given architectural expression or character within the spatial field which it dominates or helps to define.

Architecture has often been employed to assist as well as signal the subjugation of one group of people by another. Muslims who conquered most of northern India in the twelfth century made their presence felt visually by building mosques which differed conspicuously in form, extent and manner of building from Hindu temples, many of which were demolished to provide material. The arch, vault and dome were so obviously associated with Islam that, despite their practical advantages, they were shunned in the Hindu-ruled southern states of India. (Muslims remained a minority of the population in China, on the other hand, and constructed mosques in local styles with minarets in the form of pagodas!) The British occupation of India was signalled architecturally by Neo-Gothic railway stations and imperial Roman administrative buildings. Wherever Western imperialism spread, buildings in European styles marked its arrival. And not only buildings. Sculptors were enrolled in the process of making colonized territory - in the words of Franz Fanon (born and brought up in French Martinique) - 'a world of statues: the statue of the general who carried out the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge; a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with stones the backs flayed with whips'. In Europe and North America also, statues of white men, rarely women, larger than life-size and raised high on pedestals, asserted the ambitions of those who commissioned them.

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