Idolaters and iconoclasts share an unshatterable faith in the value of the image
A man stands in front of a half-destroyed statue. Its paws are almost the size of the man. The front side of its body is missing. It has no head. Like an art historian or a tour guide, the man is giving us information that the creature cannot give itself. The creature is only a stone sculpture; even when it still had eyes it couldn’t see.
“These ruins that are behind me are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah,” says the man. The camera pans across more sculptures. Some seem to have been recently damaged. The man continues, in voiceover: “The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices.” It is unclear whether the ruined sculpture has recently lost its upper body or has looked that way for a long time. Archeological finds are always in different states of ruin; some forms of ruin are enacted by nature, some by men. Ruin is part of the aesthetic.
The man is some kind of spokesman for the Islamic State. He is standing at the Nergal gate, one of the gates on the northern side of the city of Nineveh, the oldest and most populous city of the long-gone Assyrian empire. The creature sculpted in stone is a Lamassu, a winged and bearded human-headed bull; it was meant to protect the city from destruction. It is almost 3000 years old, and though headless, still standing.
Cut. Men are standing in a museum. Music starts playing: the sound of men singing in unison. The men in the museum topple sculptures to the ground. They fall in slow motion, disintegrating on the floor. Cut to men hitting a sculpture with sledgehammers in slow motion. The thumps of the hammers interfere with the music. Cut to more of this. Are we the believers who must be shown that our gods are powerless in front of sledgehammers, even as they are looted away off camera? When the Bamiyan Buddhas were denounced as idols and damaged by the Taliban in 2001, a spokesman claimed the reason they were being destroyed was not for the danger they posed of being worshipped in religious practices, but rather because they had become idols for the West, who had poured millions of dollars into Afghanistan for their preservation. Is the Lamassu a Western idol too?
The man goes on: “Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care what people think, even if this costs billions of dollars.” But he is lying, or maybe he is misinformed. It’s true that IS have released videos of acts of violence performed on these ancient stones, and razed ancient cities. But they have also looted intact archaeological artifacts from the Mosul museum and other sites, selling them to finance their activities. In cases where the sculptures have more value than others, Allah’s commands are being ignored. The sale of some idols funds the destruction of other idols; the value that resides in them can finance war, murder and ethnic cleansing. Do the gods of war demand much else?
These official IS videos of men punishing stones, with added slow motion for maximum effect, are what the scholar of iconology W.J.T. Mitchell has called “secondary images.” These acts of “creative destruction,” while claiming to destroy images, provide new images that are just as potent. The destruction of idols, when staged as a media spectacle, becomes itself an idol, a mute image of violence that is projected back to viewers as a call for outrage and more violence. The destruction of the Assyrian artifacts does not happen in a different world from ours; it is grounded in the realities of global modernity. But of course it also feeds into a popular narrative of the racialized and pathologized religious other, the enemy of modernity, desiring to drag us all into a new medieval age.
In his book What Do Pictures Want, Mitchell describes the first two laws of iconoclasm, the first one being “the idolator is always someone else.” “My” images are always merely symbolic, in Mitchell’s formulation. I may use images in my worship, but I worship through them, not to them. The second law of iconoclasm is the iconoclast’s belief that “idolaters believe their images are holy, alive and powerful. It is a belief about other peoples’ beliefs, projections of a kind of imperial subject, inseparable (in fact, constitutive of) systems of racial and collective prejudice.” An idol is a name you call an icon when it isn’t yours. Idolaters supposedly can’t tell the difference between the animate and the inanimate, they are gullible and weak, and they should be swept aside to make room for our empire.
Mitchell links monotheism to imperialism using Joseph Schumpeter’s definition of imperialism as an “objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion.” Much like monotheism, imperialism cannot be reduced to a specific material object or base. While many cult-sculptures served as symbolic access points to spiritual deities, or as temporary embodiments, many of these deities were linked geographically to temples, cities, and regions. To get rid of a god you had to get rid of its infrastructure. Monotheism, ideally not reducible to its infrastructure, doesn’t have this problem. “The figure of the invisible, transcendent law-giver”, Mitchell writes elsewhere, “whose most important law is a ban on image-making of any kind, is the perfect allegory for an imperial, colonizing project that aims to eradicate all the images, idols and material markers of the territorial claims of indigenous inhabitants.”
Under the term idolatry, generally speaking, two very different concepts have been meshed into one. The first concept is idolatry as the worship of other gods. The second is idolatry as a false practice. Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit describe “idolatry as betrayal” (the wrong god) and “idolatry as error” (the wrong practice). In “idolatry as betrayal,” destroying the infrastructure of the wrong god (temples, sculptures, practices) gets rid of the god itself. In “idolatry as error”, the mediation between worshipper and god is the problem. An incorrect representation or practice is unholy and as such must be stopped. There is no god to get rid of, only dumb objects.
Both accusations have political uses, but the conflation of these two kinds of idolatry also confuses the status of the images and objects involved. Do idols invite destruction or deserve preservation because they are potent or because they are impotent? The drawing of a line across the throat of an image or the blotting out of its eyes can be seen as both an indication that it is powerless, and as an attempt to deprive it of its power. But does the power lay inside the idol, or is it somewhere else?
For theologian and philosopher Jean Luc Marion, it’s the way you look at an image that turns it to an idol. Marion’s work interprets the experience of icons and idols in terms of the relationship between gaze, image, and invisibility. Asking what makes an idol is a question that is less invested in the idol itself, and more in the gaze lent to it. In Marion’s conception, we cannot speak of icons and idols in themselves, only of iconic or idolic gazes. When you experience an icon, you are experiencing something through an image; something is looking at you, but it remains invisible and not reducible to its object, “It shatters the aims of the observer and reverses intentionality,” writes Marion. The icon transcends its materiality and allows the viewer to encounter something invisible behind it. In a manner of speaking, it is not “flat” even if it is only a picture. The idol, on the other hand, is a visual representation designed to cater to your needs. An idol doesn’t exceed your expectations, but fulfils them: “It mirrors the limits of the observer.” It represents the invisible and displays the properties of the invisible to you. An idol is flat. An icon is looked through; an idol is looked at.
If we take Marion’s formulation at face value, recalling Mitchell’s second law of iconoclasm—a belief about another’s belief—we could say that an idol is what an icon feels like when it falls flat, is unconvincing, and doesn’t work; a failed icon. Paradoxically, when an image is experienced as flat, you can finally “see through it”: the purpose it is meant to serve and the power it is meant to hold becomes explicit when it fails. This is the difference between the teenager conjuring Justin Bieber’s desire by plastering images of him on their bedroom walls, and their parents’ vision of the posters as “what they truly are”: images of youth, of desire, of sex, photoshopped for maximum effect. The parents are unable to experience Bieber’s gaze from the other side of the image, so they can only see the captivated gaze of their child as irrational and idolic.
In the IS video, music and slow motion effects point at the possibility of seeing through the footage into something powerful that lies beyond it. The experience of watching the destruction of the idols is reminiscent of YouTube videos of skateboard accidents replayed in slow motion to show the precise moment of “fail,” only to reveal that it cannot be reduced to a single moment, moving us to watch it again. In the video, the slow motion promises to reveal the decisive moment of the idol’s destruction, the precise frame where its power evaporates, but the promise isn’t fulfilled. The power may have never been there in the first place, or it may be that images are unable to show anything definitive about power. The slow motion allows us to see that some sculptures have metal poles running through them: they are modern copies. These idols are fakes; we can finally see through them.
The question of the right way to look at Assyrian sculpture is not new. This is not the first time the relics of this long-gone empire find themselves at a threshold between a preconfigured us and an overdetermined them. In fact, these winged bulls, even before being discovered in the 19th century, straddled this imaginary divide. “I had the first revelation of a new world of antiquity,” wrote the excited Paul Emile Botta, the first excavator of Mesopotamia, in 1843, on unearthing an Assyrian palace complex in a mound in Khorsabad. “A new world of antiquity,” a new standard against which the achievements of modernity could be judged. This new antiquity was a complement to the idealised fantasy of modernity, itself produced through violently opening up “new worlds.” In the following years there was a competition between Botta and Austen Henry Layard, and by extension France and England, over who was entitled to take more of this new antiquity back to their respective museums, and who could do it sooner. The first value of these new idols, and the reason their excavations were funded in the first place, was as imperial trophies.
Up to this time, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is modern day Iraq, had been seen by European travelers as a remote and unwelcoming desert befitting of the notable evils ascribed to its ancient populations in the bible, and proof of the divine punishments said to have befallen their ancient kings. “What was not there was taken to prove what had been,” wrote the art historian Frederick N. Bohrer. “Here, then, is the first and most obvious binary involved in the constructed image of Assyria, in which Western achievement is contrasted with Eastern ruin and taken as an index of the morality of the former versus the immorality of the latter.” Before its discovery and excavation, Assyria itself was a destroyed idol. Its absence was proof of its valuelessness—it was iconic.
In Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth Century Europe, Bohrer charts how the reception of Assyria, a “new world of antiquity,” both challenged and illuminated structures of power and knowledge active at the time. Entering into discursive landscapes governed by a progress-oriented chronology supposedly representing the whole of humanity, from crude Egyptian beginnings to Greek refinement, Assyrian sculpture got caught somewhere in the middle, “connected to both but belonging to neither.”
In France, though displayed in the Louvre, the new finds were shared only among a very small number of elite authorities. In England the reception was completely different, since the finds were, from the beginning, championed by the popular press for their aesthetic appeal, even if the British Museum, meant to mediate between the sculptures and the public, felt differently. The British Museum revealed its new Greek revival architecture in 1827, and presented the neoclassicist narrative of the time before the arrival of Assyria to its halls. All the arts of antiquity were seen in terms of ancient Greek art, perceived as the origin of European culture. In a chain of art leading from primitive darkness into light, Greek sculpture was one end of the spectrum, the highest form of art, possessing ideal beauty and holding intrinsic value, while Egyptian sculpture held the other side of the spectrum, as its binary other: certainly not art, and not meant to be experienced aesthetically, but of interest to antiquarians.
What of the new antiquity revealed by western Europe’s discovery of the Assyrian statues? Where did it belong on the spectrum? Austen Henry Layard wrote from the scene of excavation in 1845:
To those who have been accustomed to look upon the Greeks as the true perfecters and the only masters of the imitative arts, they will furnish new matter for inquiry and reflection… they are immeasurably superior to the stiff and ill-proportioned figures of the monuments of the Pharaohs. They discover a knowledge of the anatomy of the human frame, a remarkable perception of character, and a wonderful spirit in the outlines and general execution. In fact, the great gulf which separates barbarian from civilised art has been passed.
Layard’s views on the aesthetic qualities of the new finds were picked up and circulated widely through popular media. The representatives of the British Museum, receiving the crates arriving one after the other, as well as the people who funded Layard’s excavations, were less than impressed. The British ambassador at Constantinople wrote to Layard, “I still think the Nineveh marbles are not valuable as works of art. Can a mere admirer of the beautiful view them with pleasure? Certainly not. … your winged god is not the Apollo Belvedere.” To the ambassador and others like him, Layard’s vision of the sculptures was “idolatry as error”; these ruins were not meant to be experienced aesthetically.
British bureaucrats disparaged the Assyrian sculptures, but the British public loved them. The arrival of the Assyrian art in England prompted the biggest growth in general admissions in the history of the British Museum. The number of visitors was held by the popular press as proof of the value the objects had, the power they yielded. The press promoted aesthetic appeal as democratically empowering, allowing a viewer with no special expertise to enjoy and appreciate the statue without the mediation of antiquarians or art historians. But what was this new kind of value to be found in experiencing non-Greek art?
The emergence of “age-value” at the beginning of the 20th century seems to have consolidated this new shift in worship in a way that is still felt in museums today. In his influential essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” Alois Riegl, an Austrian art historian, parses out the kinds of values that monuments hold. Riegl distinguishes between “artistic value”, “historical value” and “age value.” The first two are self explanatory, but the third one is a new kind of value embedded in idols. Riegl defines age-value as the result of nature working over time to disintegrate an object. Age-value is found in “the dissolution of completeness as a symbol of an equally necessary and lawful decay.” Age-value is special, in that “it claims to address everyone.” Age-value can be defined by its immediate accessibility to perception. It embodies “an immediate emotional effect which depends on neither scholarly knowledge nor historical education for its satisfaction.” As such, “it can be appreciated even by people whose minds are otherwise absorbed completely with constant worries about their physical well-being and the material production of goods.” It’s for an everyone, or for an us. “Even the most limited peasant will be able to distinguish between an old church tower and a new one.” If art-value and historical-value are outside of the object but accessed through it by the specialized few, age-value is in some way embedded within it as an experience available to all.
Project Mosul, an electronic preservation project aimed at the protection of cultural heritage, has been digitally restoring the artifacts damaged by IS, creating 3D models based on photos taken before the objects were damaged. It goes without saying that a 3D rendering of an ancient object, though perhaps more useful in many ways, does not hold the same value that the original object has, even if both are representations. Though a 3D model of the repaired Lamassu will live online forever, it will not be able to guard the gate where its paws still stand.
Breaking an object in slow motion on camera might be one way to make its age-value fully visible. Walter Benjamin described aura as “the distance of the gaze that awakens in the object looked at.” He could have been thinking of age-value as he described the decline of aura in industrialised society, with its mass produced objects of newness. Just as Benjamin’s aura can only be grasped at the moment of its historical erosion, the same contradictory logic falls on the object imbued with age-value. While art-value and historical-value are dependent on the preservation of the object embedded within their discourses, age-value grows the more the object that holds it disintegrates. This is the value in the aesthetic of ruin, in flattened stones everywhere where neither art nor history find any value. In the IS videos, it is what is meant to disappear from one frame to the next. It is the power that idols hold that is most difficult to destroy, the icon that’s made of their rubble.