by: Sven Lütticken

In his controversial Moses the Egyptian, Jan Assman argued that the “Mosaic distinction” between true and false gods, between God and idols, created a kind of intolerance and violence not known before.(1) Until the ban on idols in the Second Commandment, the various gods and their cults had in general – or at least in principle – been compatible with one another. One god could be “translated” and fused with a similar god from a neighbouring region. The Mosaic distinction rejects such assimilation: there is one true God, the others are idols. The one true God is invisible, manifesting himself perhaps in a burning bush, but allowing for no anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representation; visibility is the realm of the false gods with their grotesque or all too human forms.
If hatred for the gods of the others is indeed a product of monotheism, then it is tempting to see Judaism, Christianity and Islam as so many aberrations, as cultural diseases that have to be fought – the position taken by some of today’s self-proclaimed neo-Enlightenment thinkers, who refuse to see their own entanglement in the Nachleben of monotheism. But in praising antique, pre-Judaic religion as tolerant “cosmotheism”, as an inclusive utopia that was to be shattered by Mosaic intolerance, Assmann downplays a form of intolerance that was inherent in “pagan” religion, which usually was the state religion; one had to comply and sacrifice to the official gods in order to be subject or citizen. However, rather than debating whether monotheism or polytheism / “cosmotheism” is more coercive and intolerant one should investigate the use value, or lack thereof, of Assmann’s historical narrative in the present. Is Assmann effectively not saying that today’s religious fundamentalists are right in their interpretation of religion? After all, they are experts in intolerance.

What both religious fundamentalists and western “Enlightenment fundamentalists” like to forget is that “secular” modern theory and modern art – from the Enlightenment and Romanticism to the present – have also in many ways preserved and transformed elements from Jewish and Christian discourse.(2) It is not for nothing that thinkers such as Marx and Freud have often been labeled as iconoclasts – nor that a concept they both use, that of the fetish, was introduced by the French Enlightenment thinker Charles de Brosses to refer to the most primitive form of religion, predating later idolatry.(3) In art, Mondrian claimed that “the destructive element in art” had been too much neglected, but he himself did much to alter that by systematically and patiently destroying much of what had made up the western image in the preceding centuries, including representation itself.(4) In general, symbolic iconoclasm such as this, and that of much modern art, is often collapsed back into “real” iconoclasm; “real” iconoclasm can in fact be used to stigmatize symbolic attacks on the symbolic order as the work of barbarians. But rather than seeing such theoretical and artistic “iconoclasm” as a weak and debased form of strong, religious iconoclasm, one should argue that the true iconoclasm is symbolic rather than physical, and that physical destruction is just a weak and distorted copy of this real iconoclasm.
It is not by chance that Assmann was quoted – one might say: instrumentalized – in the introduction of Bruno Latour’s 2002 exhibition Iconoclash at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, which promised to go “beyond the image wars in science, religion, and art”. Latour proposed an “archaeology of hatred and fanaticism” that tracks the monotheistic tradition into its debased, devaluated, banal afterlife in recent philosophy and theory – the ubiquity of “critique”. Seeing religion criticism and secular critique as being of the same ilk, since one is based on the other, Latour goes as far as to say that “suspicion has rendered us dumb.”(5) Having perfected the art of heaving his cake and eating it too, Latour criticizes the “fanaticism and hatred” of “real” iconoclasm while also bemoaning the devaluation of criticism into meaningless virtuoso performance. Latour is certainly right in pointing to an inflation and instrumentalization of critique, but it is obvious that he also has a beef with criticality as such, and with its root in what he considers to be monotheistic fanaticism. It would surely be the pinnacle of bad timing to abandon critique in an age of triumphant fundamentalisms; in the face of a resurgent monotheistic iconoclasm and of a demagogic use of Enlightenment rhetoric, the answer to an abuse and inflation of readymade criticality cannot lie in the abandonment of critique as such.
In Iconoclash and elsewhere, contemporary authors like to reveal the iconoclasts’ naiveté and iconoclasm’s paradoxical nature by pointing out that (physical) iconoclasm always produces images. However, this is not an insight that can be used to show iconoclasts’ naiveté, as is sometimes done; even the Taliban are well aware of this mechanism, as they showed when distributing footage of the destruction of the Bamyian Buddhas. However, it is the remains rather than the spectacle of destruction that seem most interesting, enabling historical connections between various periods and contexts, and showing the anachronistic and – dare we say it? – critical potential of iconoclasm.

During the past few years, as part of a wider project on historical turning points, Gert Jan Kocken has photographed the remains of Reformation iconoclasm in Holland, England, Germany and Switzerland. A picture taken in Utrecht cathedral shows a coloured and gilded gothic stone relief of an enthroned Saint Anne in the midst of a company including Mary and Christ, with God the father appearing above the throne. The chipped-off faces create an uneven yet quasi-regular pattern of raw stone parallel to the picture plane. Strangely, the face of God the Father, whose representation is theologically most dubious of all, is the only one that hasn’t been completely removed; his eyes remain. While this may be due to practical factors, to his literally high position in the church, such factors play no role in another image photographed by Kocken: a painting on wood of the Mass of Saint Gregory. That the face of Christ on this panel is unscathed, still looking straight at the viewer out of he painting’s space, clearly reflects the iconoclasts’ reluctance to harm the Saviour’s icon – even if they disapproved of it. The Mass of Saint Gregory is a common type of image in the late Middle Ages, which was particularly prone to attack by anti-“popish” iconoclasts: it shows the miraculous apparition of Christ during a mass said by Pope Gregory.
Christ is displaying his wounds and the instruments of the passion. Among these is the Veil of Veronica, on which Christ’s face appeared after he used it to wipe his face during the walk to Golgotha. Not only is the Christ that appears before Gregory untouched, the same goes for the face of Christ on the veil. The faces of most of the onlookers, by contrast, have been severely attacked; they represented various local religious and secular grandees.(7) This should serve as a reminder that the Reformation did not arise out of some “pure” theological debate about images, but from the rejection of the church’s hierarchy and its use of rituals, objects, and visual propaganda. Kocken’s photos demonstrate the numerous choices iconoclasts needed to make, either in the rush of the moment or after some deliberation – for Reformation iconoclasm occurred both in spontaneous outburst and in more controlled actions led by local magistrates. In England in particular, the removal of images was a top-down affair, ordered at first by Henry VIII’s first minister, Thomas Cromwell.(8) A prime target were images of an English saint, Thomas Beckett, the archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered on behest of one of Henry’s predecessors; Kocken’s series includes a disfigured Beckett, whose upper body is turned into an informe blot, from the church St Andrew in North Burlingham.
Such a photo is rather suggestive of Wols or Fautrier, and in fact Kocken’s iconoclasm photos frequently recall modern and contemporary art. Perhaps the best example of this is the stunning picture that shows part of a wall and a pillar in the Grote Kerk (or St. Michaëlskerk) in the Dutch town of Zwolle. Part of the wall is occupied by a white stone relief that has been chipped off considerably by the iconoclasts; probably an epitaph representing a deceased donor surrounded by his patron saints, with the Virgin Mary appearing above, one now sees little more than a vague figure suspended in mid-air, in front of gothic church architecture. Little more, that is, except for the irregular surface of the “modified” parts of the relief, which enter in a complex dialogue with what remains of the representation; the illusionist space of the relief interrupts the shallow space of the chipped parts, and vice versa. Furthermore, this relief is set in a whitewashed wall next to a column, creating a montage of surfaces that is held together (just barely) by some painted red lines. Associations with abstract paintings and collages of the 1910s and 1920s are unavoidable. Such associations were made even more explicit in 2006 collaboration of Kocken and Krijn de Koning, an installation which combined three of Kocken’s iconoclasm photographs with a mural that framed those pictures with a meandering meandering blue-and-white geometric pattern by De Koning – a bulky, modern ornament spreading out over the walls and ceiling.
How are we to interpret such a juxtaposition? A substantial contribution to the theoretization of possible connections between the Reformation and modern was made by Werner Hofmann with his 1983 exhibition Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst (Hamburger Kunsthalle) which argued that one of the consequences of the Reformation for art was that it was released from the grip of the church; it was the Reformation that enabled modern art, and the modern, secular and critical approach to images in general. Far from equating the Reformation with physical iconoclasm, and condemning it on those grounds, Hofmann places great emphasis on Luther’s insistence that art itself is neither good nor bad, and that art could also be shown in churches (including depictions of Christ, but not of God the father). Images are now dependent on context and use, and Hofmann states that it is with this redefinition that modernity begins.(9) In a sense, this was a more radical iconoclasm than that of Calvin or Zwingli, who insisted on art being banished from churches, and who condemned representations of Christ. Although Luther’s rejection of iconoclastic fury was tied up with a conservative social attitude – he rejected iconoclastic destruction at least in part because such actions could lead to full-scale revolt against the existing order – it is true that his non-physical iconoclasm, his ruling that images are neither evil nor necessary, destroyed the images’ traditional place in the cosmic and social hierarchy more effectively than outright bans.
In his slalom-like historical argument, Hofmann also argues that Calvin’s rejection of art from the church and his strict insistence on only representing the visible world fed into modern art through Dutch painting, which emphasized realism from the Reformation to Van Gogh and beyond; in Saenredam’s paintings particular the church itself became an apparently purely physical space, defined by geometry, resulting in compositions whose subtlety still could be read as glorifying God’s creation. However, the danger of freely drawing such long-distance historical connections is that they are used to construct simplistic genealogies of modern art in the manner of a Rudi Fuchs, in whose writings it is a mere step from Vermeer to Mondrian and from Rembrandt to Karel Appel, all in the name of a seamless tradition of Dutch art. Rather than contributing to such oneiric ideological constructions, Kocken uses the art context to reflect on the returns and transformations of iconoclasm. In this respect, Kocken’s work is closer to the recent study of German Reformation art by Joseph Leo Koerner (a participant in Latour’s Iconoclash), which also focuses on the Reformation’s Nachleben in German Romanticism and in Modernism.(10)
Apart from pictures of the traces of Reformation iconoclasm, Kocken’s exhibition at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam also includes a photo of an enlarged microfilm of the September 11, 2001 New York Times front page – which only shows news that would become rather irrelevant that very same day, when Islamist iconoclasm brought down the Twin Towers. Kocken’s work does not draw an uncomplicated line from Calvin to modern art but investigates its recurrence in various contexts, religious and secular, and symbolic as well as physical: Mondrian meets Bin Laden.

Reading art
Someone who wishes to learn more about the specific circumstances of the German or the Swiss Reformation needs to consult specialist literature. In Kocken’s series, images from Henry’s England and from Calvin’s Basle exist side by side, abstracting from specific social circumstances, and only hinting at the theological-political debates about images, and the question which types of images were to be banned. While some of Kocken’s pictures could also function as illustrations in (art) historical publications, they are presented in a different context, in which they do not illustrate any texts.(11) Furthermore, as high-resolution photos made with a large-format camera, they have a different scale than illustrations; Kocken usually prints them at the same size as the objects they depict. Rather than reducing these objects to disembodied representations, the photos zoom in on their physical qualities. Kocken’s camera is usually stationed not centrally, right in front of the motif, but slightly to one side; this brings out the shadows and results in an emphasis on texture and relief, while the use of perspective correction makes sure that the motif still appears parallel to the picture plane.
The enhanced materiality of the image helps to undermine the hierarchy between the “original” image and its modification. In all putting iconographic elements and iconoclastic scratches and blots on equal footing, Kocken encourages the viewer to look at the image as a sum of additions and erasures, of construction and destruction, representation and abstraction, symbol and blind indexicality. In modern art theory and criticism, the “readability” of art has often been disparaged: ever since Romanticism, it has been a central tenet of the modern ideology of the aesthetic that a work of art should not be reducible to a clear-cut representation of a narrative, or to a discursive statement. Even in Conceptual art, the use of language is usually anything but conventional and transparent. In this context it is intriguing that Kocken’s work also includes instances of “textual iconoclasm”: one photo depicts an opened copy of an English missal (a book containing all the prayers for the liturgical year) with some stained passages, while another shows a crossed-out passage in which Erasmus discussed Luther (the alteration in this case presumably having been made by Catholics rather than by Protestants).
In tracing the reversal of writing into surface or pattern, Kocken can be said to further distance his work from art-historical illustration. Although it is a product of the modern ideology of the aesthetic, the discipline of art history has secured its academic status by subjecting the visual to language and reducing its complexity.(12) Panofskyan iconology is a prime example of this tendency. But resisting this iconological reduction and trying to salvage the complexity of the image – as Georges Didi-Huberman does in contemporary art history and theory – is not without its dangers either.(13) Opting for the tools of Marxist iconoclasm, one could state that “complexity” and “resistance to readability” are perfectly compatible with the reduction of the work of art to a highbrow commodity fetish with plenty “theological whims.” Attempts by the great artistic iconoclasts to counteract commodification have in the end only strengthened it, just as the introduction of photography as a cheap and “deskilled” medium in conceptual art has led to the triumph of big and technically perfect art photographs – like Kocken’s.
All this may be all too true, but it is what Marx’s idealist teacher would call an abstract negation: a purist iconoclasm that does not bother to salvage what is worth keeping in what it seeks to negate. But perhaps what Kocken’s work shows us most of all is that negation can never be really abstract, that no break can be absolute: Latour’s grandiloquent claim to “go beyond the image wars” could not be more irrelevant. There is no way out of the looped now-time of iconoclasm, but there is difference in its repetitions, if one chooses to see them and create them. Seeing them is creating them.

Sven Lütticken is an art critic and art historian who teaches at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. He is author of Secret Publicity. Essays on Contem- porary Art (2006) and a regular contributor to Artforum, New Left Review and Texte zur Kunst.


1. Jan Assmann, Moses der Ägypter. Entzifferung einer Gedächtnisspur, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer, 2000 (first American edition 1997; first German edition 1998), p. 242. For Assmann’s response to the controversy sparked by his book, see Jan Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monothe ismus, Munich, Hanser 2003, especially pp. 28-29.
2. While the term “Enlightenment fundamentalists” was popularized in 2006-2007 by Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash in their criticism of authors such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it had already been in use for some time. For the polemics sparked off by Buruma and Garton Ash, the “The Multicultural Issue” at, features/1167.html
3. Karl-Heinz Kohl, Die Macht der Dinge. Geschichte und Theorie sakraler Objekte, München 2003, pp. 69-115.
4. Mondrian, quoted in “Interview With Mondrian (1943)” in: Harry Holtzmann and Martin S. James (eds), The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, New York, Da Capo, 1993, p. 357.
5. Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?”, in exhib. cat. Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art, ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2002, pp. 14, 25.
6. Na de beeldenstorm (“After Iconoclasm”) is the title of a book on recent art by Carel Blotkamp, published in 1970 by Openbaar Kunstbezit.
7. See also Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, London, Reaktion, 2004, pp. 101-102.
8. See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, New Haven / London, Yale University Press, 1992.
9. Werner Hofmann, “Die Geburt der Moderne aus dem Geist der Religion,” in exhib. cat Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 1983, p. 46
10. Koerner, The Reformation of the Image. Koerner is at his best when discussing Caspar David Friedrich and German Romanticism in relation to the Reformation; when being confronted with Jenny Holzer, the analysis becomes rather less subtle (pp. 295-296).
11. The works’ titles are minimal, and this essay only contains the historical facts that are relevant for my analysis.
12. Many modern art historians have often made disparaging remarks about the imposition of linguistic sense on the realm of the sensuous in German Reformation: Koerner suggests that this betrays anxiety about the fact that their own practice involves a similar operation. See Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, pp. 29-37.
13. Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant l’image, Paris, Minuit, 1990.