‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ So declares the Second Commandment, forbidding not only images of God, but any images whatsoever – which means that, for the law on which the three major monotheistic religions are ostensibly based, visual culture is an abomination.
The critique of religion was central to modernity – Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche all treated religion as a symptom of a pathological condition that, they hoped, would be overcome. Yet it now looks as though the withering away of religion that the great thinkers of modernity sought to bring about never really happened. Did we ever reach the point at which religion disappeared sufficiently that it could now be described as returning? Yet the title of this enthralling book pointedly refers to the ‘return of religion’ as a ‘myth’. The question is: in what does this myth consist? Is the myth the claim that religion is returning, or that it went away in the first place? And if we have reached what Jürgen Habermas calls a ‘post-secular’ condition, then has modernity – and even the Enlightenment itself – definitively been defeated?
The Return of Religion ..., part of a project organized by BAK (basis voor actuelle kunst), Utrecht, between 2008 and 2009, deals with such questions with a seriousness that never precludes a lightness of touch. The contributors include artists (Paul Chan, Arnoud Holleman and Maria Pask), art historian Jorinde Seijdel and philosopher and art critic Boris Groys. Apart from Pask’s pointless ‘Beautiful City Book List’, all ten of the contributions – whether concerned with the meaning of the veil in Islam or the concept of iconoclasm – are informative, polemical and lucid. Egyptologist and cultural theorist Jan Assmann devotes his essay, ‘What’s Wrong with Images?’, to disinterring the motives for the monotheistic religions’ interdiction on images. Idolatory was sinful not only because it was false theology, Assmann argues, but because in ‘a disenchanted world, images are unable to establish any contact with the divine and turn into mere matter’. In a world dominated by advertising, Assmann suggests, it’s obvious what the problem with images is: they make ‘magical claims’ which can only be countered by the developing of ‘iconic literacy’. Philosopher Marc De Kesel’s essay, ‘The Image as Crime’, also examines the relationship between images and transgression, arguing that the work of the Vienna Actionists showed that ‘there is something beyond the image that remains inaccessible and prohibited to the image, and that images thrive precisely as a result of that ban’.
For writer Kenan Malik, the forms in which religion has ‘returned’ reflect the media values of consumer culture. ‘The new religions are crafted to help people feel good rather than do good,’ he acerbically remarks. ‘These are faiths fit for the age of Oprah.’ But Malik stops short of a full-on defence of the Enlightenment; its Utopian promise has soured, he claims, and what is required is a kind of neo-existentialist affirmation of human choice. Writer and curator Dieter Roelstraete is not half so ambivalent about the Enlightenment legacy. He admits that he has ‘long entertained the fantasy of switching the lights back on – in museums, art institutions and galleries around the world. Literally so, if necessary.’ Roelstraete makes a rousing call that we should ‘radically re-ignite the legacy of Enlightenment thought as that great unfinished project (or simply procedure) of disenchantment. A radical identification, that is, of art’s secular thought with a defiant, ruthless materialism, with scepsis and godlessness – a refusal of all transcendence.’ After the ‘return of religion’, is such a return to the Enlightenment possible?
First published in Issue 130