Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality

By Dick Houtman; Birgit Meyer | Go to book overview

Idolatry
Nietzsche, Blake, and Poussin

W. J. T. Mitchell

Idolatry and its evil twin, iconoclasm, are much in the news these days. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the current Holy War on Terror is just the latest engagement in a religious conflict that dates back beyond the Middle Ages and the Christian Crusades in the Middle East, one that centrally concerned itself with the idols worshipped by one’s enemies and with the imperative to smash those idols once and for all. While one should be skeptical about reductive ideological scenarios like Samuel Huntington’s notorious “clash of civilizations” thesis, it seems undeniable that this thesis has manifested itself in the actual foreign policies of great powers like the United States and its allies, and in the rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalism in its calls to jihad against the West. The fact that an idea is grounded in paranoid fantasy, prejudice, and ignorance has never been a compelling objection to its implementation in practice. The Taliban did not hesitate to carry out the destruction of the harmless Bamiyan Buddhas, and al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center was clearly aimed at an iconic monument that they regarded as a symbol of Western idolatry.1 The War on Terror, by contrast, first called a “crusade” by the president who declared it, has been explained by some of his minions in the military as a war against the idolatrous religion of Islam.2 Among the most striking features of the hatred of idols, then, is the fact that it is shared as a fundamental doctrine by all three great “religions of the book,” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where it is encoded in the second commandment, prohibiting the making of all graven images of any living thing. This commandment launches the age-old paragone between words and images, the law of the symbolic and the lawless imaginary that persists in numerous cultural forms to this day.

Among those cultural forms is, of course, art history. Whether regarded as a history of artistic objects or of images, more generally, art

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