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ISBN-13: 9780804760430
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 07/18/2011
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Josh Ellenbogen is Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture at University of Pittsburgh.

Aaron Tugendhaft teaches philosophy and history of religions at the Gallatin School, New York University. He was guest curator of the 2008 exhibition Idol Anxiety at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago.

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Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6042-3

Chapter One



The prohibition of images is perhaps the strangest commandment in the Decalogue. It is understandable enough that God does not want other gods to be worshipped along with him; that his name not be abused; that he wants us to keep the Sabbath and to honor our father and mother; and that he forbids murder, adultery, theft, wrong testimony, and the covetous desire for the wife, house, and possessions of others. All this is quite normal and can be found in other cultures. But why forbid images? What does God find wrong with them? And what do we learn about the concept of "image" from the fact that God forbids the making and the worshipping of them?

Let us recall the text of the commandment:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod. 20:4–6; cf. Deut. 5:8–10)

The Decalogue occurs twice in the Bible, in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. Depending on how one breaks up the commandments, the prohibition of images either belongs to the first commandment, the prohibition of worshipping other gods ("You shall not have other gods besides me") and forms its commentary (i.e., "You shall not make for yourself any carved image"), or the prohibition of images forms a commandment of its own. What is the difference between these two ways of reading? If the prohibition of images forms the commentary of the commandment "No other gods!" it means: do not make images, because every image tends to turn into another god. We are here in a world, to quote Hans Belting, "before the age of art"; images are not made for aesthetic pleasure, for decoration and embellishment, but for worship. Worship is the only raison d'être for the production of images. To prohibit the production of images, therefore, means to prohibit the adoration of the visible world. The visible world in its shapes and forms must not be adored and in order to avoid this mistake, it must not be represented in images.

In another passage, Deuteronomy gives a reason for this prohibition—the only passage in the Bible where such a reason is given:

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. (Deut. 4:15–20)

God is invisible. Therefore, he cannot be worshipped in anything visible—be it an image or a heavenly body. It is interesting to note that images are here given the same status as sun and moon and stars. This shows that images have a cosmic status; adoring them means adoring the visible world. This restriction amounts to a radical disenchantment of the world. To worship images means to worship the world, that is, "cosmotheism." The visible forms, especially the heavenly bodies, are given to the other peoples as objects of worship. They are the gods of the others and must not be worshipped by Israel, which has acquired a special status where anything visible is banished from communication with God.

The composer Arnold Schönberg gives just such an interpretation of the prohibition of images in his notebooks, written while working on his opera Moses und Aron. Images, he writes, are false gods: "There is a false god in every thing that surrounds us; he can look like everything, he originates in everything, every thing originates in him; he is like the entire surrounding nature and nature is in him as in everything. This god expresses the worship of nature and identifies every living creature with God." The prohibition of images establishes a new relationship between man and the world. Man is emancipated from his symbiotic embeddedness in and dependence on the world. Instead, he confronts the world as a subject confronts an object. This is the relation between man and the world that underlies the dominium terrae, the commandment to rule the world: "And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth'" (Gen. 1:28; cf. Gen. 9:2). The order of images, by contrast, presupposes divine immanence, that is, an "enchanted world." Images are prohibited because they are all too powerful: they enchant or divinize the world.

If, however, the prohibition of images constitutes a commandment of its own instead of being an explication on the prohibition regarding "other gods," the implication is not so much that every image becomes another god, but rather that no images should be made—including an image of God himself. This is not so much a matter of loyalty, of not worshipping other gods, but of not worshipping God in the wrong way. Yahweh, the god of Israel, must not be represented in an image. Let us keep these two meanings apart by calling the commentary meaning "political," because it is a matter of loyalty and binding, and the other, the independent commandment meaning, "theological," because it concerns the unrepresentability of God. We must not forget, however, that on both readings the prohibition of images is given a political commentary that explains it by reference to God's jealousy and his distinction between friend and foe: "You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exod. 20:5–6; Deut. 5:9–10). God resents the making of images for it is an act of defection and apostasy. This shows that the political meaning was, at least originally, the dominant interpretation. The prohibition of images divides the world into two parties: the idolaters and the iconoclasts, the first being the enemies and the second being the friends of God. So what's wrong with images? They prove that you are an enemy of God.

Before proceeding, let us summarize our results. Images are forbidden for two reasons:

1. Because every image represents a (false) god. This is a question of loyalty. Images are other gods and provoke god's jealousy.

2. Because no image is able to represent the invisible God. This is a question of God's nature. Given the invisibility of God, images constitute the wrong medium to establish contact with the divine.

The concept of medium, as introduced in the second reason, leads us to our next step. If images are the wrong medium, is there an alternative? Is there a right medium of establishing a contact with God, or does the prohibition of images throw us into an abyss of negative theology?

Arnold Schönberg, for one, opted for the second possibility; in his opera Moses und Aron, he interprets the prohibition of images in an extremely radical way. Moses condemns not only the Golden Calf, but the whole Bible as an image: "wrong as only an image can be." Schönberg's Moses despairs of the communicability of any idea of God, not only through images but also through words. At the end of the opera, he collapses with the cry: "O Wort, Du Wort, das mir fehlt! [O word, thou word that I lack]." Such a radical position of negative theology, however, by no means corresponds to what the Bible intends by imposing the prohibition of images. The Bible luxuriates in verbal images of God and these are obviously fully admissible. There is nothing wrong with language. Schönberg calls God not only invisible but also unimaginable. This does not correspond to the biblical view. On the contrary, imagination is everything. The biblical texts constantly invite us to imagine God, to form mental images of God in order to love him, to fear him, to obey him. The visible images must disappear in order to make room for the word and the mental images it evokes. Where images are, Torah shall be. Where Torah is, images must be no longer.

Between these two meanings of the prohibition of images—the political one and the theological one—lies a shift in religious orientation which may be described as a shift from monolatry to monotheism. Monolatry means the exclusive worship of only one god while acknowledging, in principle, the existence of other gods. Monotheism means the denial of the existence of other gods. Jealousy is only possible where other objects of love and worship exist. Jealousy belongs to monolatry, not to monotheism. Therefore, the Bible, to a large extent, presupposes the existence of other gods, but forbids worshipping them and explains this interdiction with the idea of God's jealousy. Only in its later stages, with Deutero-Isaiah, is the existence of other gods denied, and with this step the motif of jealousy disappears. There are no other gods. With this denial Israel achieves the shift from monolatry to monotheism.

Let us have a look at what may be considered the "primal scene" of idolatry, the forbidden worship of images: the story of the Golden Calf. The scene occurs while Moses is atop Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." So Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" (Exod. 32:1–4)

Meanwhile, God informs Moses that the people are committing a great crime. God wants to destroy the people and to found a new one for Moses, but Moses prevails on Him to forgive and to give the people a second chance.

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.... And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. (Exod. 32:15–16, 19–20)

Moses destroys both the tablets and the calf, the one out of anger and the other to humiliate and punish. What could be the meaning of grounding and diluting the Golden Calf and of making the people swallow it? The eating of sacred animals is—in the Egyptian imagination—the worst possible religious crime. Drinking the diluted calf seems to be the equivalent of eating a sacred animal. Again, we meet with the strange power that is attributed to images. The image is treated like a sacred animal in the Egyptian sense—not as a representation, but as an incarnation of the divine, not as a copy of a divine body, but as a divine body itself. But Moses does not rest here. This is not enough. He also orders a massacre.

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, "Who is on the Lord's side? Come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, "Thus says the Lord God of Israel, 'Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.'" And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. (Exod. 32:26–28)

The execution of this punishment is presented as a model of "zeal": human zeal and divine jealousy are cognate words in Hebrew. El qanna' means "jealous god"; qana'im is the denomination of the zealots. Moses and the Levites act as qana'im in making themselves tools of God's jealousy. This is what it means to be a zealot. The story teaches that God's distinction between friend and foe prevails over human bonds of kinship and friendship. What's wrong with the Golden Calf? It represents another god, a false, a forbidden one—and representing and adoring another god is the greatest sin that an Israelite can commit.

Why this desire for representation? Why is it necessary to create an image in order to establish contact with the divine? Let us return to the question of medium. Contact with the divine—what does this mean? We must place ourselves back into a world, several millennia distant, where any contact with the divine is culturally institutionalized. There is no way of entering a temple and praying to God the way we are accustomed to do in our churches or mosques or synagogues. Any contact with the divine is institutionally framed in the form of a cultic scene. The cultic scene is cut out from the continuum of space and time as a frame of intervision, interaction, and interlocution. There is something to be seen, to be performed, and to be said. In the Greek mysteries, this triad of intervision, interaction, and interlocution or interaudition is called deiknymenon (what is shown), dromenon (what is performed), and legomenon (what is spoken). In this conception of the cultic scene, everything is symbolic. The image represents the deity, the priest represents the people, and the words to be spoken bestow the sacramental significance to the performance. In the scene of the Golden Calf, the calf represents the deity, the action consists in a sacrifice or sacrificial meal and in what the Bible calls "playing," a euphemism for erotic pleasure. The spoken element occurs in the declaration: "These are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from Egypt!" (Exod. 32:4).

The new religion that God and Moses are negotiating on Mount Sinai deprives the cultic scene of the element of intervision. There are rites to be performed and words to be spoken, but there is no image to be seen. God must not be represented. This is a revolutionary innovation. Moreover, the cultic scene is no longer the only medium and frame by which to establish a contact with the divine. Now, instead of the cultic image, there are the tablets with the word of God that Moses shall explicate as the commandments and prohibitions of the Torah. Every Israelite is expected to learn this Torah, or instruction, by heart, to study it day and night and to transform its prescriptions into lived reality. Instead of the priest before the image, the new religion sets the human being before God. We are now in a position to better understand the principle, "Where images are, Torah shall be." The images must disappear to make room for the word. And the word will not be confined to the sacred space and time of the cult; rather, it determines the whole of life. The monopoly of the word amounts to a complete restructuring of sacred space. The whole world becomes sacred, all of life becomes a service to God, and the whole people become priests—"a kingdom of priests" (Exod. 19:6).


Excerpted from IDOL ANXIETY Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contributors vii

Editors' Statement xi

Introduction Josh Ellenbogen Aaron Tugendhaft 1

1 What's Wrong with Images? Jan Assmann 19

2 The Christian Critique of Idolatry Marc Fumaroli 32

3 The Painter's Breath and Concepts of Idol Anxiety in Islamic Art Mika Natif 41

4 Idolatry: Nietzsche, Blake, and Poussin W. I. T. Mitchell 56

5 Dreadful Beauty and the Undoing of Adulation in the Work of Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles Rachael Ziady Delue 74

6 Iconoclasm and Real Space David Summers 97

7 How Many Ways Can You Idolize a Song? Rose Rosengard Subotnik 117

8 Iconoclasm and the Sublime: Two Implicit Religious Discourses in Art History James Elkins 133

9 What We See and What Appears Jean-Luc Marion 152

10 On Heidegger, the Idol, and the Work of the Work of Art Daniel Doneson 169

11 Beyond Instrumentalism and Voluntarism: Idol Anxiety and the Awakening of a Philosophical Mood Daniel Silver 184

Notes 203

Index 235

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