Smashing Idols, Then and Now

Robert Siegel talks with Anthony Julius, author of Idolizing Pictures, about art, idol-smashing, cancel culture, anti-Semitism, Christopher Columbus, Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot and Robert E. Lee.

The demolition of a statue, the withdrawal of public adulation for the erstwhile hero the statue commemorates, has echoes of a fundamental Jewish principle: the injunction against graven images. In religious school, I learned the story of young Abram—not yet renamed Abraham—smashing the idols his father sold and reproaching his father’s customers for worshiping them. It was taught along with the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark (although, in fact, it’s not actually in the Torah, but in a rabbinic midrash, or commentary).

The act of rescinding veneration also raises a fundamental Jewish dilemma in the modern world: How do Jews relate to historic monuments or worldly reputations that might inspire us or our gentile neighbors, but that commemorate people who, in addition to their monumental achievements, were also anti-Semites? Are Shakespeare’s plays and Beethoven’s symphonies rendered cultural traif by The Merchant of Venice, or by Beethoven’s anti-Semitic aside in a personal letter? Such questions come to urgent life at a time when any and all reputations seem up for rethinking and possible “canceling.”Anthony Julius strikes me as the ideal person to talk with about such things.

Julius is a London lawyer and scholar who famously defended historian Deborah Lipstadt in 1996 in the libel suit brought by the Holocaust denier David Irving (a story retold in the 2016 movie Denial).

In addition, Julius has written a book, Idolizing Pictures, about idolatry, iconoclasm and Jewish art, and another—which began as his doctoral dissertation in English literature about the significance of anti-Semitism in the poems of T.S. Eliot. He spoke with Moment from London.

When you wrote Idolizing Pictures in 2001, the most important contemporary images you addressed—and described as idolatrous—were of Stalinist and Nazi imagery. After the Soviet Union fell, many newly democratic governments or local leaders pulled down the statues of Communist dictators that had long dominated their public squares—to general applause. Do statues of Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee deserve the same scrutiny, the same dismantling or mockery, as those images of 20th-century mass murderers?

Well, context is everything. I don’t want to give the same answer for Columbus and for Lee, or for Columbus and Stalin. You used the phrase “mass murderers.” So far as we know, Columbus wasn’t a mass murderer, although no doubt it could be said that he and other explorers were complicit in, or enablers of, the genocide of a large part of the indigenous population and even, in some sense, of the Atlantic slave trade. But still, distinctions have to be made. The principle of l’havdil, the making of distinctions, is as critical in historical inquiry as it is in the Havdalah service.

It’s an easy and compelling case to make against Columbus that were it not for him, then a certain history of genocide and slavery would not have happened. But that requires the weighing in the balance of the benefits and catastrophes associated with the colonization of America. That’s a huge topic.

The Robert E. Lee case is quite different. First of all, there is no weighing required in the case of Lee and the cause that he led. It’s entirely negative. Second, and much more important, the statues seem still to be rallying points for neo-Nazis, so-called white nationalists, fascists of one kind or another, racists—just the kind of awful minority that infests the political culture of the United States, but not only the United States. Removing those rallying points seems to me an important political intervention that could only be a good thing.

That’s before one even talks about the continuing offense and pain that Black citizens must feel when they see these statues. I couldn’t imagine seeing comparable statues in the streets of Israel’s cities, for example. It’s unimaginable.

Many Americans who favor taking down the statues of Confederate generals and slave owners, even if they were historically important or founders of the country, say we should remove them from the public square and put them in a museum. But what kind of museum would that be? What would you do with those statues?

There are museums of this kind in Eastern Europe that commemorate the events of the Communist period. But what happens to a statue when it’s relocated from a public square to a museum? Is it neutralized in some way? Is there something defanging about redefining a historical statue as a piece of museum art? That’s an interesting and complicated question.

There’s a poem by Robert Browning in which the poet imagines an Italian landowner who sells part of his land to Jews. Then, because the landowner is an anti-Semite, he puts a picture of the Virgin on his side of the boundary, to goad and bait the new Jewish owners. But then the Jewish owners acquire the picture and put it on their wall in one of their homes and show it to him. This shocks and perplexes the Christian landowner. Essentially, the Jew is saying, “This is what I think of your iconography, your sacred person. I use it to decorate my wall, like a painting from Greek mythology.”

So Browning, in this mid-19th-century work, is feeling his way toward something that later becomes a cultural reflex for us, the sense that art is a context that’s strong enough to hold, safely, so to speak, the most radioactive material. Whether that’s right is an interesting question.

In your book on art and iconoclasm, you identify a Jewish aesthetic rooted in the second commandment, the ban on idolatry. You say it’s related to irony, as in the impulse some people felt after the fall of Communist regimes to mock images that had been deified, to paint silly mustaches, for instance, on statues of Joseph Stalin. Would mockery be a possible way of dealing with Confederate statues? Or is it, to use a phrase from your book, a feeble alternative to physical destruction?

I don’t think mockery is appropriate for these kinds of cases. Scrutiny, yes. But mockery is a strategic decision. It depends on what one’s objective is, and to a certain extent, it depends on timing. When the Stalin-era statues were first pulled down, in 1989 and 1990, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it seemed right to do that, to remove them from the public square. Later, in the late 1990s and 2000s, when the former Iron Curtain states seemed to be heading in a definitely liberal-democratic direction, mockery seemed a more appropriate and more confidently liberal-democratic way of engaging with history.

What happens to a statue when it’s relocated from a public square to a museum? Is it neutralized in some way? Is there something defanging about redefining a historical statue as a piece of museum art?

For instance, there was a statue in Poland of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, the Soviet state security apparatus, and architect of the Red Terror. In the first month of the Polish emergence from Communism in 1989, it was pulled down—not by a crowd, actually, but at the administrative direction of the Solidarity-based government. First, its hands were painted red to indicate his murderous guilt. And then the statue was taken down. It would have been absurd to paint a comical mustache on him. So I think context is everything, and no single answer fits every situation.

You say that sacred art might be rejected by Jews as idolatrous because it is a portrait of the divine, or because it is artwork that’s appreciated for its style, for its technique, and not for its devotional importance. When I read that passage of yours, I thought of the kind of secular adoration that UNESCO assigns to so-called World Heritage sites. We don’t worship in these ancient temples; we marvel at their architecture, their ornamentation, perhaps the little bit of time travel that they afford us.

Let me address the question of the difference between secular admiration and worship. Two things are interesting to me about it. The first is how difficult it is to be truly secular—that what we regard as secular still draws much of its energy from earlier religious impulses. But the second is that you can flip it and say that actually, both of those kinds of admiration—the partly secular admiration and the more fully religious worship—may both flow from a broader sense of the numinous or the sacred. Religion isn’t a more primary expression of that sense of the sacred than is the secular admiration of art.

One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1963 (left) and after destruction in 2008 (right).

Take a slightly different example. Does Michelangelo’s horned “Moses,” for instance, at some time cease to give offense, because the offense was presented so long ago with such brilliant artistry?

As far as the Michelangelo “Moses” is concerned, as is well known, it’s a mistranslation in the King James Version of the Bible of the Hebrew word for the rays of light that were emanating from Moses’s head when he came down the mountain. The mistranslation has produced this rather extraordinary hybrid imagining of a person whose actual appearance is unknown—if he ever even existed. Michelangelo does his best to naturalize the horns; they’re more like teenage curls of hair. So I don’t think it sits in the same category of offensive art as some of the other examples.

To move on to a different, less literal form of iconoclasm: In your book about T. S. Eliot, you insist that the dozen or so references to Jews in his poems are central to the art of those poems. You also note Eliot’s plea in a speech for religious uniformity, the exact opposite of diversity, and dismissive remarks of his about secular Jews. But you’re careful to write that your purpose was to censure Eliot, not to censor him. How do you reconcile yourself to that expression of anti-Semitism, which contributes powerfully to the art of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but that should not, to use the verb of the moment, “cancel” it from the culture?

The anti-Semitic poems actually come from a relatively brief period in his literary life that precedes the writing of his masterpiece, The Waste Land. It’s not that I think Eliot became a liberal by the time he wrote The Waste Land. Rather, I think that he exhausted the resource that anti-Semitic language represented for him in the writing of poetry, and so he moved on. But there’s no doubt that these poems, and in particular one, “Gerontion” [in which “the Jew squats on the window sill”], are of considerable concern to anyone who loves Eliot as much as I do, and to anyone who admires and is engaged with the history of 20th-century English literature.

So the question is, why continue to read Eliot? The answer is that Eliot was a creative genius of the first order, whose works are outstanding contributions to literary culture. They need to be read and studied. To live in a world in which those works are withdrawn from us would be to live in an impoverished world. But to live in a world where our posture toward them is of unreflective reverence is to live in an intellectually diminished world. So my sense is that one needs a kind of critical engagement, which combines admiration and a certain skeptical disengagement.

I was struck by what you wrote about Jewish critics, especially in the late 1940s—which is to say, after the worst anti-Semitic catastrophe in history—who seemed almost obliged to downplay the anti-Semitism of these poems of T. S. Eliot, as if doing so was a ticket of admission to the academy. At a time when Jews were suspect, as if a Jew couldn’t understand English literature because he didn’t have a Christian background, it seemed best to nod acceptingly of the odd anti-Semitic remark here and there. Do you think that time has passed? Have we gotten beyond that?

I think so, yes, although I think that the anti-Semitism in the English literary tradition is something that has not yet properly been engaged with. It’s slightly curious, but anti-Semitism hasn’t been one of the elements in the literary tradition that have most bothered people and academic movements campaigning for the decolonization of literature. They have not, as far as I’m aware, been particularly concerned or interested in the question of the Jews. It’s slightly puzzling to me. Nonetheless, it’s certainly true that we’re not in the same cultural moment that Jews were in in the 1940s. Because that cultural moment was particularly dismal, you could say progress has been made.

You remark that one could say in defense of Eliot that, well, he was just like the people of his time, of his class, of his place. But indeed, there were people of his time, place and class who objected to it. I had not known that an earlier brilliant figure in English literature, Charles Dickens, was so struck by the criticism he received about the character Fagin [the unsavory Jewish gang leader in Oliver Twist] that on reprinting, he asked that the word “Jew” be removed from the text. Then he later went on in Our Mutual Friend to create a hyper-admirable Jewish character. 

So clearly, there was some sensitivity to the question, even in the 19th century. Of course, in moral terms, it’s always a choice whether to be an anti-Semite. I mean, even people who say anti-Semitism was, so to speak, the ticket of admission to the modernist club—thinking about Ezra Pound, for example, or Wyndham Lewis—miss the fact that a modernist of at least equal rank to Eliot, James Joyce, was an ardent admirer of and friend to the Jews. In aesthetic terms, it was certainly not an obligation on Eliot’s part to commit himself to Jew-hatred, which nonetheless he did. And yet his work has continued to be of aesthetic value in many ways.

Turning back to statues, monuments and idols, when I think of the most dramatic tearing down of a monument that I’ve ever been aware of in my life, it was in 2001 when, acting on an extremely powerful reading of the graven image injunction by Muslims, the Taliban blew up two monumental Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Buddhas. They considered these the idols of a formerly dominant faith in the area—still present as a religious minority. They said, “These are false objects of worship,” and gave them the Abraham treatment. It made me think: Does the vanquished American South deserve its monuments less than Buddhists deserve their Bamiyan Buddhas?

Once again, let me say how important it is to make distinctions. My sense is that the so-called vanquished South, certainly its white population, has yet to free itself of the benefits it unjustly accrued in the Reconstruction period. So Southern whites are not living as a religious minority under a successor regime, as could be said of the Buddhists in the Taliban-occupied territory where the monuments were. That’s the first distinction. The second is that even the most idiotic Southern Nazi does not think that a Robert E. Lee statue is an object of actual religious worship. The Taliban act was a deliberate act of political and religious aggression toward a minority group, as well as being an act of cultural vandalism. There’s absolutely nothing to be said for it. What Abraham did to his father’s idols was a piece of violence, as he was acting out his own intergenerational conflict with his father. There’s no element of that in the Taliban activity.

When it comes to dealing with the idols of another religion, I prefer the story in the Talmud where a rabbi is chastised by his students for going to a bath where there’s a statue of Aphrodite. How can he bathe, his students ask him, when there’s a pagan idol so near to him decorating these public baths? He says to them, “People do not say, ‘The bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite,’ rather, ‘Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath.’” That is, he is not there to worship her. There’s a kind of humaneness and a sense of moderation in that response, which I really admire. It’s so unusual a note for any religion to strike. I think one should recognize and appreciate it when it is struck.

Watching the statues of Confederate generals being removed from American cities, I’ve been reminded of the Italian-Jewish author and journalist Dan Segre, whom I met in Jerusalem many years ago. For centuries, Italian Jews would not walk under the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Roman sack of Jerusalem. When the State of Israel came into being, the Jews of Rome, Dan Segre among them, paraded under the Arch of Titus. There you have a case of a noxious, triumphant monument standing for so long that the losers of the war it celebrated outlived the victors by a couple of millennia and could let the memory of Titus know that they were still around. It seemed in that case, there was some virtue in the survival of the odious monument so that the survivors could have the last laugh.

If that’s an argument for keeping the Robert E. Lee statues, it’s too long term a perspective. It reminds me of that remark by the economist John Maynard Keynes when he was told that in due course, in the long term, the markets would adjust themselves. He said, “There is no such thing as the long term. The long term simply consists of a series of short terms.” (He also said, “In the long term, we are all dead.”) In other words, when it comes to planning, and moral response, one doesn’t have an obligation to think beyond the short term.

Former NPR host Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment

Opening picture: Statue of Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol. In June 2020, activists toppled the statue following the killing of George Floyd.

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