Someone who opposes the veneration of religious images is called an iconoclast. There are some people who go a step further than this and oppose the making of any images whatsoever, even non-religious images for non-religious purposes in non-religious buildings. I do not know if a word exists to describe such people or not. I just call them the anti-imagery folks. Their opposition to images is based on their understanding of the Biblical commandment in Exodus: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus 20:4).
The anti-imagery folks believe that this Bible verse is a blanket condemnation of all images, regardless of the image-maker's reasons for making the image. The anti-imagery folks believe that making or possessing any image is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments.
Every now and then I meet one of these people. They live under a continual cloud of guilt because they cannot totally purge their lives of all images. There are pictures on the money they spend. Most of the food and household products they buy have images on the packaging. One woman recently told me that she felt guilty about having a driver's license because it has her photo on it. To relieve her guilt, she reminds herself that she is not the one who produced the image. A man that I know ended his moral struggle over his driver's license by convincing himself that his driver's license really belongs to "the state" instead of to him, so he doesn't really "own" it. This same man's wife is depressed because they cannot have any photos of their recently-born first grandchild, who lives some distance away. This doting grandmother has great difficulty finding baby clothes or toys to buy for their granddaughter, because nearly all baby merchandise has images on it. Unless this couple changes their theological outlook, they will never be able to give their granddaughter any dolls or stuffed animals or children's books with pictures.
I do not mock the anti-imagery folks, I pity them. Their aberrant view of the Biblical prohibition against images causes them to live in a constant state of condemnation. They suffer from a neurotic paranoia of anything with images on it.
I am a visual artist and I am also a man who believes in obeying the Ten Commandments. So, how do I reconcile the making of images with Exodus 20:4, a commandment that forbids the making of images? In theological circles there is an oft-repeated maxim that states, "A text without a context is a pretext." A look at the context of the prohibition against images shows that Exodus 20:4 is only half of the Second Commandment. The very next sentence speaks about not bowing down and worshipping the images in question. So in its proper context and in its entirety, the prohibition against images is limited to only those images which are made for the express purpose of idol worship.
This is really the only feasible way to understand the Second Commandment, because several other Bible passages describe God condoning, and in some cases even commanding, the making of images. The Tabernacle and Temple were filled with imagery: cherubim, bells, pomegranates, oxen, trees, flowers, etc. According to the Bible, all this imagery was commanded by the same God who gave the Ten Commandments.
Images were found outside the places of worship, too. Moses was commanded to make a brass serpent in the wilderness. Ezekiel was commanded to engrave a picture of Jerusalem on a tile in Babylon. King Solomon had twelve carved lions on the six steps leading up to his throne. If God condemned all image-making at Mount Sinai, and afterward commanded His people to make images, then God is fickle at best and schizophrenic at worst. I prefer to understand the Second Commandment in a way that harmonizes with all the positive references to images. This view does not make God look like a Schizophrenic Supreme Being.
Charles McCollough, an artist and theologian, shared some interesting insights a few years ago in the magazine ARTS (The Arts in Religion and Theological Studies). Like most people involved in both the visual arts and theology, McCollough has had his share of encounters with the anti-imagery folks. McCollough points out that the most important commandment, according to the Bible, is to love God with all the heart, soul, and mind. McCollough then reminds us that the right hemisphere of the brain is where the visual/spatial functions of the mind occur. Loving God with all the mind requires using the right side of the brain as well as the left. McCollough writes: "By avoiding images and subordinating art, we have left the right hemisphere of the mind dormant, focusing almost exclusively on reading, writing, and speaking words -- all functions of the left hemisphere of the mind."
Images can be abused and misused for evil purposes, but so can words, McCollough tells us. Putting together materials to make a visual statement is no more intrinsically wrong or right than putting together words to make a verbal statement. It is the content and the purpose of the statement that make it right or wrong or neutral, not whether the statement is visual or verbal. McCollough points out that only one of the Ten Commandments warns against abusing images, but two of the Ten Commandments warn against abusing words. ("Thou shalt not bear false witness" and "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.")
Images can be misused, of course. Even good images can be turned into unhealthy obsessions. The brass serpent that Moses made had to be destroyed centuries later, because the people began bowing down before it and burning incense to it. They turned an instrument of God into an idol. I have told my anti-imagery friends that I will destroy my paintings when people start bowing down and burning incense to them. Until that happens, I intend to go on painting.
The Anti-Imagery Folks:
A Step Beyond Iconoclasm
an Essay by Daniel Botkin
The above essay by Daniel Botkin was published in Art Calendar, a business magazine for visual artists. The author grants permission to reprint his essay with the following conditions: The essay must be reprinted in its entirety without any form of editing and must be attributed to Daniel Botkin.