From Christ to Coke | Prospect Magazine

From Christ to Coke

From the page: “….This raises again the question of the forbidden image. The second commandment does not merely forbid graven images purporting to represent God. It forbids “any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” A hadith of Muhammad forbids pictures in the home, telling us that whoever makes a picture will not only be punished on the Last Day, but will be forced to give life to the thing that he has created.

These strange interdictions remain in force, as we know not only from the recent controversy over cartoon images of the Prophet, but also from the long tradition of Islamic art and carpet-weaving, in which figurative elements are avoided, or else deliberately geometrised and thereby deprived of their nafs, or soul. Image-making has been contentious in Christian culture too, spells of iconoclasm alternating with periods of devout religious imagery, as in ancient Byzantium and post-Reformation Europe. The consecration of images seems everywhere to tempt people towards their desecration, whether in the joking spirit of Duchamp, or in the spirit of malicious self-intoxication that animated the 17th-century Puritans who destroyed the religious art of England.

In a wide-ranging study (Limage interdite, 1994) the French philosopher Alain Besançon has argued that the fear and suspicion of images has influenced the development of religion and philosophy throughout recorded history, and has not disappeared merely because we are now surrounded and distracted by images on every side and at every moment of the day. Indeed, much of what disturbs people in our image-saturated culture is what disturbed the theologians of Islam: namely, that the “graven image,” which begins as a representation, soon becomes a substitute. And substitutes corrupt the feelings that they invite, in the way that idols corrupt worship, and pornography corrupts desire. For substitutes invite easy and mechanical responses. They short-circuit the costly process whereby we form real relationships, and put mechanical and addictive reflexes in their place. The idol does not represent God: it defaces Him, in something like the way pornography defaces love.

Hence we should not be surprised by the rage with which iconoclastic movements assert themselves. The central thought of the iconoclast is that the image has captured the soul of the one who worships it. The idolator has tied himself to a bauble, and in doing so has taken the name of God in vain and polluted the worship that is Gods due. Kemp does not say much about iconoclasm, though it has been a constant movement within the Christian churches, both eastern and western. Nor does he mention the fact that his contemporary “icons,” the Coke bottle included, have been the object of a similar condemnation. The growth of the advertising industry and of the marketable image has been greeted from the very beginning by protests from social commentators, fearing what Marx called “commodity fetishism””in other words, the diversion of our energies from those free activities that are “ends in themselves” towards the world of addictive desires. Marx took the idea of fetishism from Feuerbach, who believed that all religion involves this state of mind, in which we animate the world with our own emotions, so placing our life “outside” of ourselves, and becoming enslaved to the puppets of our own imagination. In a similar way, Karl Marx believed, the world of capitalist commodities invites us to “animate” it, so that we attribute our desires to the fictitious sphere of commodities, which gain power over us in proportion as we lose real control of ourselves.

The theory is far from clear; nevertheless it is highly infectious. You find versions of it in Lukács and Benjamin, in Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. And in a powerful work, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), Vance Packard made a case against the advertising image which has lost none of its force since the invention of the TV commercial. According to Packard (whose argument was endorsed by economist JK Galbraith), advertising aims to invent the desires that it offers to satisfy, and in this way fills the market with illusions, to which we gradually become enslaved. The complaint has been extended to the commercial logo by Naomi Klein in No Logo (2000), and even if you think the iconoclasts are losing the battle, you should take note of the local skirmishes, such as that fought by the slow food movement in Italy, which began as a protest against the McDonalds sign in the Piazza di Spagna. And maybe you should have a look at the outrageous treatment of Bucharest, which has ceased to be a human habitat and become a vast display of images,

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