Iconoclasm (Reading The Forbidden Image by Alain Besançon)


Alain Besançon’s Forbidden Image is subtitled, An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. If you read it backwards, it’s quite splendid until it bogs down with the Hebrew Bible, the second commandment, and the so-called ban on images (the Bilderverbot). Especially good is the discussion of the image and its evisceration into the concept in the philosophy of Hegel.

About the Hebrew Bible, the book’s disucssion rests on all the old cliches. Primarily, it confuses the ban on worshiping images with a comprehensive ban on image making  tout court. Besançon sees in the biblical ban an “absolute prohibition” (p.65). This designation leaves him unable to explain the appearance of plastic images in the Bible (the cherubim over the cover of the ark, the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses, the ornamental detail in Solomon’s Temple).

The facts that the study is mostly devoted to Greek philosophy, the philosophical concept of “representation,” and Christian intellectual history, especially post-Reformation, suggest that the Hebrew Bible and Judaism have very little if anything to  do  with iconoclasm.

Insofar as Jewish sources look to plastic expression, mostly in the form of architecture and ornamentation  of sacred space, what’s more fundamental than “representation” is “presentation.” Starting with the Hebrew Bible, the fashioning of plastic objects takes shape in Judaism as platforms for the presentation of deity, not its mimetic representation. And if not deity, then the holy, and if not the holy itself than at least a sense and semblance of the holy.

None of this has anything to do with a comprehensive ban against all forms of plastic image-making, as is typically said of the second commandment. At least in Jewish philosophy, it tuns out that iconoclasm is a philosophical fetish without which one is better off than with. “Presentation” makes much better sense of the data than “representation.”

What I do take from The Forbidden Image is precisely the opposite, i.e. the definition of “the orthodoxy of art” as a “benevolent attitude” towards creation. I say this understanding that it’s too much of a stretch to say that all art that embraces the sensual world is in some sense “religious,” even when that art is indifferent or hostile to religion (pp.276, 265).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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