REAR WINDOW / The fickle finger of . . . what exactly?

A digital renaissance
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The Independent Online
IN THE lavish television advertising for the new National Lottery, a giant forefinger appears out of the night sky to pick the lucky winners and astonish them in the humdrum middle of their modest lives. This is the fickle finger of fate, dressed up to look friendly and rather jolly after (no doubt) a great deal of hard work by the advertising agency, during which previous versions of the finger have been rejected as too scary or too stern or too divine. It is safe to assume that the agency's artists were told that the National Lottery's finger should not suggest chance as in heart attacks or slips on the stairs; nor should it seem to belong to the hand of God, and thus risk blasphemous presumption on the part of the Government (''Almighty lends Tories a hand in bid to save arts'').

None the less, the National Lottery's finger cannot but help to remind us of these bleak or numinous ideas, and 30 or even 20 years ago such an advertising campaign would have been unthinkable. In the late 1960s, Terry Gilliam animated his famously capricious fingers and brutal feet for Monty Python's Flying Circus, and their omnipotence - commanding and crushing their victims with a grunt and a squelch - was then thought the cutting, dangerous edge of comedy.

A history of the finger in art and society has yet to be written, but when some academic gets around to it (as one will), then the 1960s will be seen as the beginning of the Digital Renaissance, the time of the finger's rebirth. Divine fingers have been with us since Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, but the heyday of the instructing finger (as revived by the Python team) came in the 19th century, when fingers guided the newly mobile populations of industrial countries across unfamiliar landscapes and complex institutions. Some were painted, some were carved from wood. They appeared on country signposts, city hospitals, railway junctions and transatlantic quaysides, guiding the lost to the nearest town or public lavatory, to expresses to the North and ships sailing west. Kitchener's summons to join up - the finger as command - took this form to its peak in 1914.

And then the abstract arrow took over and made naturalism look Victorian. Arrows still hold sway, guiding us down motorways and towards X-ray departments. But the finger is clearly fighting back, as a gesture of defiance and triumph (see any street disturbance or sports match); as an instruction (see your computer software); and now, thanks to the National Lottery, as the symbol of manna from earth and undivine providence.

Fingering, a short history of the erect single digit. Clockwise from top left: the summoning finger of Lord Kitchener, the choosing finger of the National Lottery, the instructing finger (out!) of the cricket umpire, the directing finger so popular with Victorians (and Monty Python) but latterly usurped by the arrow, the creating finger of God and Michelangelo, the celebrating finger of goal-scoring Ian Wright and Arsenal

(Photographs omitted)