By Daniel Gurpide
Art is the celebration of life, and the exploration of life in all its aspects. If life is unimportant—a mere diminutive prelude to the real life which is to begin with death—then art can only be of negligible importance.
Greek humanism was superseded by Christianity: by a religion which divided man against himself, teaching him to view his body with shame, his emotions with suspicion, sensuality with fear, sexual love with feelings of guilt. This life, it taught, was a burden, this world a vale of tears—our endurance of which would be rewarded at death: the gateway to eternal bliss. This religion was, inevitably, anti-art and anti-life. The alienation of man from his own nature, especially from his emotional nature; the all-pervading hypocrisy to which this gave rise throughout the Christian era; the devaluation of life and of the world—and hence, inevitably, their wonderfulness; the conception of man as not a god but a worm, and a guilty one at that: all this is profoundly at odds with the creative impulse and its subject matter.
The importance of the desert in biblical symbolism is clear: a desert that erases all representations and rejects them on behalf of the invisible and the uniform. Yahweh’s believer must consent to transforming the imagination into a desert, and this implies a ban on all representation.
Not only are depictions of Yahweh forbidden, but also images of all worldly things—starting, of course, with man, who was created in God’s ‘image.’ It is not hard to find a clear anti-aesthetic bias in biblical iconoclasm.
Christian art began as heresy. Transported to an art-loving people, Christianity became a religion more artistic than would have been the case had it remained in the hands of the Judeo-Christians. However, this came only from a long, slow process. In the Christianity of the first centuries, iconoclasm was the rule: the Mosaic prohibition of image representation was widely observed. The idea of the great ugliness of Jesus was also widespread (e.g., Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria). Only when the Church, following the compromise of Constantine, became more pagan did the birth and development of a Christian iconography become apparent. However, traces of iconoclasm may still be found in Byzantine ritual as well as Protestantism.
Iconoclasm is also present in Islam, where the rare Arabic Muslim thinkers who concerned themselves with aesthetics tended to envision art only in abstract form.
The emptying of human representation goes hand in hand with the abandonment of human particularity and diversity, for these are themselves images.
Extensions of—and contemporary points of comparison with—the Mosaic ban on representation have often been sought, for example, in respect of abstract art, whose birth and development coincide, metaphorically, with that of Post-modernism and—experienced in concrete terms—with the internationalist ideal of the abolition of borders. ‘An entire aspect of Western modernity finds resonance with the old iconoclast exigency, and from this point forward, thinkers of Judaic filiation actively intervene at the tip of this modernity to mark out where it is going, not truly in opposition to it but rather in advance of it.’ (Jean-Joseph Goux, Les Iconoclastes)
The contrast with the Indo-European world is striking. In the Bible, the beautiful is not necessarily good, and the ugly is not necessarily evil. It may even happen that good may be so precisely because of its ugliness, and, similarly, that evil is handsome precisely because it is evil. Lucifer is an angel glowing with light. The Devil will adorn himself with all the paraphernalia of seduction, whereas the arms of Yahweh, says Isaiah (53:2), have grown ‘as a root out of a dry ground, without beauty or comeliness to attract our eyes.’ In paganism, however, good cannot be separated from beauty; and this is normal, because the good is in form, the consummate forms of worldly things.
Consequently, art cannot be separated from religion. Art is sacred. Not only may the gods be represented, but art is the means of their representation; and insofar as men perpetually assure them of representation, they possess full status of existence. All European spirituality is based on representation as mediation between the visible and the invisible. Beauty is the visible sign of what is good; ugliness is the visible sign not only of what is deformed or spoiled, but of what is bad.
For the ancient Greeks, solemnity is inseparable from visual, tangible representation. It is through the fusion of the aesthetic and the sacred that religious sentiment attains its peak.