Niall Ferguson Has His Say On the Sudden Collapse of Empire: The Paintings of Thomas Cole


Several weeks ago, I posted some comments about a 19th-century painting depicting the fall of Rome. I later found out that the painting is part of a well-known five painting series by Thomas Cole entitled  The Course of Empire . Cole, of the Hudson River School, painted the series in the 1830s.

At the time, I was interested in the fact that the painting seemed to compress hundreds of years of decline into one apocalyptic moment. And I noted that much news coverage seems to also focus on the dramatic, apocalyptic moment at the expense of the complex, historical context in which institutions and states decline and, sometimes, collapse.  Social problems developing over time often only become widely visible with the arrival of a calamity.

It actually turns out that the five-painting series depicts a more gradual decline,  and the specific painting of Rome collapsing (above) that I happened upon was the one when everything collapses. It turns out, in other words, that — while  my point about the media’s interest in sudden catastrophe still holds — Cole’s vision was, it turns out, one of incremental decline and loss of an agrarian ideal.

But get this: Yesterday, a reader of Media and Mayhem pointed out  to me that the historian Niall Ferguson, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, was also moved by the same image, and the other paintings in the Cole series, to write about how the public perceives and understands the decline of empires. The articles is called Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.

But Ferguson reaches a very different conclusion. Empires, he says,  are eminently capable of quick and catastrophic collapse.  Things can come apart quickly.  Social scientists are trained to look for long-term cracks and fissures in social structures, but sometimes, he argues,  a cataclysmic “final-straw”  brings everything tumbling down.

While I’m still pretty certain that media and culture often elevate the visibility of catastrophe and obscure the subtleties of incremental social change, Ferguson’s argument about the fall of empire is intriguing.

And I find it fascinating that he was inspired by the same painting that led me in a different direction.

What Does a Painting of the Fall of Rome Have to Do With News in the Digital Age?

Fall of Rome

Take a look at this  painting.

It is by Thomas Cole (February 1, 1801 – February 11, 1848),  an English-born American artist who is  regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School.

Rome is collapsing in one giant cataclysm —  drowning, suicide, homicide, every other-cide, fires, floods, and more.  This is a complete collapse that will end in total devastation. By that afternoon, by the way.

Seriously, though, what in the heck does a painting like this have to do with modern mass media?

Here we have a painting that takes 500 years of political and economic and social upheaval and telescopes it into one miserable day when everything comes tumbling down. The problem, though,  is that empires and civilizations don’t just collapse in one day, or even in one week. Weakening institutions, political miscalculations, economic hardship slowly create the conditions that make the collapse possible, and eventually inevitable.

This sounds so much like much current news coverage to me. We see the catastrophic and dramatic incidents in which states are both born and destroyed. A statue is ripped down, a fire started, or an angry crowd overruns the capital and does away with the leadership.  Good old-fashioned reality television.

The problem is that these cataclysms come at the tail ends of long processes in which moral and economic  decline and heaven knows how many other factors slowly plant the seeds of destruction.

From looking at this painting, and from watching the evening news, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is a place without a long complex history, a place where one day there is a  Soviet Union and one day there isn’t, where one day there is an authoritarian state called Romania — run by a tyrant named Ceausescu — and the next day he and his wife are running around their backyard being executed after a revolution.

My point is that much culture — still photographs, paintings, and news coverage — is inherently distorted and ahistorical because , while an image captures a moment, the social change leading to that moment can be long, obscure, and frustratingly incremental.

Television news is great at doing car chases, but scandalously inept at all the pre-history and context and build-up that lead to those cataclysmic moments.

And lest I sound like I am blaming the main stream media, ask yourself this question: Would you rather see a drama about the fall of Rome or a lecture about the complex factors that led to its decline?    Would you rather watch footage of exploding volcanoes and villages being buried or see a documentary on the nature of lava?

Believe  me, there are some times when — given the choice — I’m not  sure how I would answer.

Actually,  Cole was reaching for something more complex than a  one-day, apocalyptic collapse.   In fact, this is only one work in  a five painting series he did called The Course of Empire.  The series depicted society as it evolved  from an initial state of nature to more elaborate social organization to empire and, finally, to collapse.  Cole did the series in the context of a time of dizzying social change when many were concerned that rapid industrialization was destroying the romantic, agrarian ideal.

The point, though, is the extent to which so much art, media, and culture captures discrete moments and gives the distorted and ahistorical impression that our world is an inherently “sudden” place.

Society is a process, not a series of sudden cataclysmic moments.