Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa: Her enigatic smile conveys the highest gentleness to which a human being can attain

From Christ to Coke

A new book on icons stretches the definition too far. Unlike the Coca-Cola bottle, true icons have power and stand at the border of forbidden things
August 24, 2011
The Christos Pantokrator of the Eastern Orthodox Church decorates a hundred ancient apses—and lives in the minds of ordinary believers. Image: © Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai

The Greek word “icon” (eikon, or image) now seems to denote any thing, person, or idea that is, for whatever reason, a centre of attention, and which has acquired a significance that raises it above the flow of ordinary events. It may be difficult to put this significance into words; but the crucial thing is that an icon is common property. You and I can both refer to it, and know instinctively what we mean, even when we have no other way of saying what we mean. Such, paradigmatically, is the Christos Pantokrator (“Jesus Almighty”) of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose unforgettable image, displayed on a hundred ancient apses, lives also in the minds of ordinary believers, and in some way gives additional reality to the Saviour whose love they pray for and whose commands they strive to obey.

For Martin Kemp, however, the religious icon is only one example of a much more widespread phenomenon, addressed in his new book Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (OUP). Images lodge in the mind and remain there, influencing our thoughts and actions, governing our tastes and purchasing habits, and drawing on deep and hidden emotions for their power. There is the famous image of Che Guevara, adapted from a fleeting photograph taken by Alberto Korda, and used to give sex appeal to the posturing of bourgeois revolutionaries. There is the cross that gave victory to the Emperor Constantine, worn as a sign of obedience by Christians everywhere, and which is now marked out for persecution in the European courts. There is the heart, universal symbol of love, and adopted by New York City as its own special brand. There is the Coca-Cola bottle, instantly recognisable, triumphantly marketable, and never driven into second place by Pepsi, although the two products can be distinguished only by the bottles that contain them—bottles that are now made of plastic, and which are therefore joint enemies of mankind. Kemp extends his discussion to the double helix of the DNA molecule, and even to an abstract idea, the equation e = mc2, which he thinks can be meaningfully compared, in its ubiquity and associations, to the talismans that spread their aura through the lives of religious people.

Each of Kemp’s examples lies at the centre of a story, and much of his book consists in telling these stories. Some are interesting: for example the story of the Stars and Stripes or the far-reaching narrative of the lion as universal symbol of valour. Kemp risks his reader’s patience, however, by devoting 22 pages to the discovery and patenting of the Coca-Cola bottle, by giving us yet again the anecdote of Einstein’s brain and the tired account of Watson, Crick and the double helix.

Kemp is a distinguished art historian, and the best chapters are those devoted to art—notably the discussion of the Mona Lisa, on which he is the world’s expert. But by stretching the concept of the icon to include everyday objects like bottles, bombshell images like Nick Út’s photograph of Vietnamese children burned by napalm, scientific discoveries like the structure of DNA and trash art like Andy Warhol’s silk-screen Marilyns, he raises the question of what all these have in common. His disappointing answer is “nothing.” The category of the icon is what he calls “fuzzy,” and he uses this idea (roughly that of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance”) to justify a discussion that puts anecdotes in the place of definitions.

Nevertheless, Kemp recognises that images which owe their impact to the thought that “this is how things really were,” like Nick Út’s war photos, or even Felix de Weldon’s photo-inspired sculpture of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, have a completely different significance from works of imaginative art. It is true that a work of art can also show us “how things really were”—Leonardo portrays the actual face of Lisa Gherardini: this is the woman, as she looked. But that is not why we look at her portrait. For all we know or care, there was no such person. The significance of Leonardo’s portrait is not specific but general. Lisa appears in the picture as the ideal of herself. She is both present and absent; her enigmatic smile is not a specific smile from her to us. It conveys the highest gentleness to which a human being can attain—a gentleness almost divine. Mona Lisa looks into the heart of the viewer in something like the way Christos Pantokrator looks into the soul of the one who worships him. This image fascinates us because it steps out of our world, unlike the Coke bottle, which insistently belongs within it.

You can see the difference by recognising that the Mona Lisa, unlike the Coke bottle, can be desecrated. Indeed, she has been desecrated: by Marcel Duchamp, who facetiously adorned her with a moustache and a beard. Only what is consecrated can be desecrated, and although the Mona Lisa is not a liturgical object she is consecrated in our feelings. Her image resides in a higher realm, where our aspirations find their fulfilment. Even if the painting were destroyed, the image would remain in that realm, alongside the Venus of Botticelli and the David of Michelangelo, as a “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” Nothing like that is true, or could be true, of the Coke bottle.

Kemp’s moving descriptions of the painting, invoking Dante’s lovely simile of the eye and the mouth as balconies of the soul, shows that he perceives this. But having perceived it, we must surely recognise that there is much more to this picture than familiar usage. Something deep is at stake in the emergence of the genuine icon, and it is this deep thing that is missed by a theory that sees the Coke bottle and the double helix as on a par with the Mona Lisa or with Van Eyck’s Head of Christ. Images can be familiar. But they can also have power. Sometimes this power is a spiritual power; and sometimes it is dangerous. Hence icons stand at the border of forbidden things.

The Mona Lisa can be desecrated, unlike the Coke bottle; Berlin graffiti showing the heart, the universal symbol of love

The second commandment forbids “graven images.” Yet what is the offence: the image, or the graving? Kemp sees the importance of this question and draws attention to the tradition of the sudarium, the image supposedly implanted on the handkerchief of St Veronica, applied to the sweating face of Christ. The Veronica has been regarded as an object of legitimate veneration, Kemp tells us, because it is acheiropoeiton, not made by hand, and therefore a “true image,” a direct manifestation of the divinity and his presence among us. The Turin Shroud is another such record of the divine presence, as are the magic icons that used to abound in rural Greece. Even if a painter once put his hand to them, the icons were subsequently taken over by the saint or the divinity, to become not just symbols but manifestations of a real presence.

This real presence, or shekhinah, is central to the story of the Torah, in which God exists among his chosen people only because he is also hidden from them, concealed in the Holy of Holies, neither named nor depicted. (We know what He looks like, however, since the Torah tells us that we were made in His image.) This “revealing by concealing” is the central mystery in sacramental religions. Christos Pantokrator, whose eyes follow us around the church, is both present and absent, looking at us in this world from a place beyond it, where he is hidden from all but the eyes of faith. The same mystery is displayed by the Christian Eucharist, which became a vehicle of controversy at the Reformation for that very reason. Protestants and Catholics both believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the communion. But the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was condemned by the Protestant sects as superstition and idolatry. God could enter the soul of believers, the Protestants argued, as they ate the bread and drank the wine; but He could not become bread and wine, any more than the Virgin Mary could be identical with her picture.

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 (L’image 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 God’s 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 McDonald’s 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, many of them animated, and the worst of them involving a Coke bottle, all inspiring, in me and everyone I know, a seething iconoclastic rage—a rage against desecration.

Those controversies tell us something about the gulf between the sacred icon and the secular brand. Icons invite desecration, since they demand a veneration that we may be unwilling or unable to give. Brands invite anger because they are already desecrations—whether of the place to which they are affixed, like the digital billboards of Bucharest, or of human life itself, as Marx, Adorno, Packard and Klein in their several ways claim against the commodity culture. According to its opponents the brand image is a kind of psychic invasion that uses every available device to fix itself in our consciousness and to create and capture our desires. It is part of the ubiquitous enslavement that comes about when we allow image to veil reality, and temptation to extinguish need.

Such reflections, more notable for their exuberance than their reasonableness, go in quite another direction from the one taken by Kemp, though he does notice in passing the observation made by Walter Benjamin that in the age of “mechanical reproduction” images are losing their “aura”—in other words, images are ceasing to exalt the things they portray and have begun to cheapen them instead. Who can doubt that something like this has occurred with sex, from which the aura has been wiped away by photographic images? And who can doubt that those images are addictive, exerting their corrosive power throughout our society, desecrating the human form and changing the way in which sex is experienced? OK, you can’t blame Coca-Cola for pornography; but you can blame the addiction to images, which has grown in part from the branding habit, and from the way in which we freely litter the world with captivating pictures of the human form.

Kemp touches on the “real presence” idea only once, in the course of describing the reaction of ordinary Americans to the desecration of their national flag. “Behind the rules” governing the treatment of the flag, he writes, “is a big belief system, what I am calling the metaphysics of the flag. This decrees that the flag is not simply a piece of symbolic cloth that signals an identity but that it somehow embodies a ‘real presence’—some kind of spiritual essence of the USA as a God-given entity.” To put the point more simply, the ordinary American regards the flag as sacred, and therefore as capable of desecration. Someone who desecrates what I hold to be sacred is attacking me, in the deepest part of my being. For those things are sacred to me that represent, in heightened form, the identity and obligations that define my place on earth. As Durkheim pointed out, sacred things are “set apart and forbidden.” Only the initiated can make full use of them, and the use is carefully hedged by taboos. Sacred things define what we are, and to expose them to profanation is to bring them down from the transcendental to the empirical sphere—to deprive them of their permanence and “aura,” and therefore to expose both them and us to destruction.

"Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" by Joe Rosenthal: the sacrifices of generations of soldiers, sailors and airmen are distilled in the American flag. Image: © Martin Kemp

Things become sacred when sacrifices on behalf of the community have been distilled in them, as the sacrifices of generations of soldiers, sailors and airmen are distilled in the American flag. And sacred things are invitations to sacrifice, as is the flag in time of war. Sacred things create bridges across generations: they tell us that the dead and the unborn are present among us, and that their “real presence” lives in each of us, and each of us in it. The decline of religion has deprived us of sacred things. But it has not deprived us of the need for them. Nor has it deprived us of the acute sense of desecration we feel, when facetious images intrude at the places once occupied by these visitors from the transcendental.

Flags represent ancient claims and loyalties, and owe their power to what they mean, rather than to what they look like. It so happens that the American flag is a lovely design, though a shade less lovely, in my eyes, than the Union flag. But that is no explanation of its appeal. The American flag does not show us specific realities, and in this it is entirely unlike the photographs from Vietnam or the Iwo Jima monument. It is an image that owes its power to its use; and this is something that it shares with the icons of saints in the Eastern Church, and with the sacred vessels that embellish every altar. Moreover, even if Benjamin was right about photographs, that they lack the “aura” that attaches to images in the old traditions of painting, he was surely wrong in thinking that mechanical reproduction is everywhere the enemy of aura. The American flag has retained its aura, even now when it hangs from a million suburban porches. That is why people are always burning it.

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