Fundamental power of art

Images such as those in paintings and sculpture are able to inspire us to worship, desire, rage and destruction.

March 18, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

It's just a picture, we say. Or, just a statue. A nude woman reclines on a bed in a painting, her gaze unflinching. A giant Buddha carved in the fifth century in a sandstone mountain north of Kabul looks through a gilded mask at caravans passing in the desert.

These things are not real, we think to ourselves. They are just images. But if that is true, then why do we accord them so much power? How many of us have pondered what Mona Lisa is thinking as she so enigmatically smiles? Have prayed in a church filled with images? Have speculated about whom Edouard Manet's "Olympia" is regarding as she leans against the cushions? Have had the feeling that the eyes of the portrait above the fireplace are moving?

In 1989, art historian David Freedberg wrote: "People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; and they still do."

Those words form the opening of his book "The Power of Images," a work that describes the relationship between people and images throughout history. His ideas now have particular resonance as we mourn reports of the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

Freedberg focuses not on our intellectual responses to images, but on the extraordinary psychological effects they may have on us. Throughout history, people have accorded all sorts of powers to images. They have believed that pictures or figures can affect health, fortune or the future. And they have believed that images can cause harm or incite us to sin.

Imprinted on the seed

The art historian retells a third-century romance about Persina, the queen of Ethiopia, who bears the king a white child. How did this happen? According to the story, Persina was gazing at a picture of a goddess (who was white) when the child was conceived.

In the 1600s, people believed that "lascivious pictures" should be hung only in bedrooms not solely because they served to arouse their viewers, but because they also "make beautiful, healthy and charming children," according to one writer. How? "Because the parents imprint in their seed what they see in the object or figure."

Despite ourselves, we look at what we know to be inanimate and we imbue it with life. In his book, Freedberg points out that when viewers are moved to strike out at an image, they frequently will attack the picture or statue as though it were alive: by gouging out the eyes, maiming its face, slashing the mouth or injuring its genitals. In 1972, a man attacked Michelangelo's Pieta with a hammer -- breaking the statue's nose and destroying its beauty. In 1977, a viewer attempted to ruin a 17th-century painting from the Rembrandt School, titled "Seated Old Man (Or Apostle Thomas)," by pouring acid on its head. "What would the danger be of leaving it whole if it were simply dead to begin with?" Freedberg wonders.

Religious pictures and statues have perhaps the greatest hold on us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all prohibit idol worship, and that is where the tension lies: Is an object image? Or idol?

"There long has been a fear that creation of images leads to worship of images," says Rebecca Leuchak, assistant professor of art and architectural history at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. "Over time the Catholic and Christian traditions have come down on the side of creation of images, whereas the Islamic and Jewish traditions have prohibited them. What the Taliban is doing reflects an anxiety that is very much shared in all of our religions."

Again and again in history, pictures and statues have been destroyed in the name of faith. In the Old Testament, when Moses descended the mountain with the Ten Commandments to find the Israelites worshiping a golden calf, he broke the tablets and the calf. In the eighth century, the Eastern Orthodox Church systematically attempted to wipe out depictions of the human form. In the 16th century, Protestants in northern Europe roamed the countryside destroying whatever images they could find within Catholic churches.

Blasphemy, in the eye of the beholder

Two years ago, New York City's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani objected so strongly to an image of the Virgin Mary that he attempted to cut off city funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The offending work, created in 1996 by Chris Ofili, depicted Mary made from a paper collage and paint on a linen background and decorated with elephant dung. Some Catholics reacted to the image by protesting outside the museum, and one man attacked the painting by smearing white paint across Mary's face.

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