James Putnam
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In conversation with Professor Ernst Gombrich, July 1998.


James Putnam: I recall that you wrote in the introduction to Art and Illusion - "Never before has there been an age like ours when the visual image was so cheap in every sense of the word." Certainly mass reproduction has reduced the former representational magic of the image and photographs of celebrities have become like contemporary icons. I am interested to discuss with you the relationship between the idea and its representation which has been interwoven with religious beliefs since prehistory.

Ernst Gombrich: All this has to do with and takes us back to the basic root of the whole question, to the decalogue or the Ten Commandments. You should not make yourself a graven image because god cannot and should not be represented and he shouldn't even be named.

JP: Why do you think these anti-image beliefs prevail in certain religions?

EG: On the whole, the ban on images which exists in Islam and Judaism has to do with the feeling that it is an a profanation of the holy if you make an image of it....I think the tradition of the ban on images from Judaism and Islam takes us to the very core of religious art. One can reflect on it and also naturally on the problem of why art in Byzantium, after the great Iconoclastic interlude, was hedged in by many taboos.

JP: Although it might appear simplistic, it has enormous political implications since the controlling interests over these kind of images had to remain in the hands of the priesthood. Sometimes the ruler himself acted as chief priest like the pharaoh in ancient Egypt.

EG: This brings to mind an account by Herodotus, the Greek historian writing about Egypt in 450BC. In an appropriate passage concerning an Egyptian deity, he talks about the distinction between how a god is conventionally represented and what he is believed to be really "like". So in the same way, God the Father is not really an old man with a long beard as he is traditionally represented in Christian images.

JP: The Church was naturally apprehensive about the depiction of religious images, since once subject to artistic licence it might tend to lead to ambiguities in the interpretation of sacred texts.

EG: Well of course. As it comes down from the Church Fathers, Gregory the Great, in a famous text, had an argument that became the defence of the images against the iconoclastic movement in the East. I also wanted to remind you of what seems to be a crucial passage in Dante's Paradiso (Canto 4, verses 42-46). In this he mentions that the intellect cannot grasp the true nature of god without the sensual or the mind can only grasp the sensual which the intellect can then process as it were. This is known to theologians as the doctrine of "Accommodation" which permits us to speak of the hand of God without implying that God has real hands. This allowed for the representation of God the Father with hands and feet. There were accusations against artists who created such images then defended themselves with this doctrine.

JP: There is this fear of encroaching upon the deity's divine prerogative as sole creator. In your writings you also refer to what you call "Pygmalion's power" or the primordial belief in the magical property of an image or effigy. This idea is clearly illustrated by the Ancient Egyptian word for a sculptor, sankh which means he who gives life to an image or vivifier. Do you think this concept is still valid?

EG: Well it so happens that my son, who is professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, told me about witnessing the consecration of the Buddha image, in Sri Lanka. When the artist makes it, it is just a Buddha of stone, it becomes something else when the artist puts in the pupils of the eyes. This is such a sacred act that he is not allowed to look himself, he does it in a mirror and over his shoulder. It is a very interesting story. So in a way this life giving gesture or magic if you like, probably existed in many cults for as you know both the figure of Christ and of the Buddha, were not represented at first, they were replaced by symbols for a long time, the lamb or a cross for Christ. Certainly the Crucifixion was only represented in the fourth century. It's particularly intriguing with the Buddha, because the one thing that every Buddhist knows, is that Buddha has entered Nirvana, and no longer exists, but even so you pray to the Buddha image you see or you can donate it flowers. So I'm sure that such contradictions pervaded all faiths.

JP: The religious images we've been discussing had a specific function but is generally believed that the earliest peoples made no distinction between sacred and secular. In the Neolithic period, for instance, tools, weapons and clothing were probably imitations of divine prototypes. Even houses were not just functional and by orientation, they were thought to be linked to the cosmos. So there is a long tradition of art serving both a utilitarian and ideological purpose and as I recall St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that 'there can be no good use without art' . Nowadays art has no apparent function and we have a very clear distinction between fine and applied art. Do you think that since most art has lost it's directly religious role it has declined in quality?

EG: Of course not, because where would we be? I mean what would we do with the Impressionists and their glorious landscape paintings for instance. Maybe we should remember the words of the great composer Johan Sebastian Bach. He said all music that is not to the honour of God or permitted recreation of the mind is the devil's work. So you see he makes a distinction between sacred music and other permitted recreations. In his view you are certainly allowed to listen to and enjoy the minuet and he would not have condemned a landscape painting either.

JP: So in this way we could still claim that the higher function of art is to express and communicate ideas and to represent things that cannot be seen except by the intellect.

EG: Absolutely, recreation or more than that. It may be a little bit over the top, but I always speak of consolation. I think it's a marvellous thing if one stands in front of a masterpiece to think that human beings can do such things.

JP: ...I think that nowadays people are clearly obsessed with what could be called the cult of the genius and the idea that the artist is a very special kind of person.

EG: In one view an artist must experience what is called inspiration and this is something that is thought to come from above.

JP: Yes the definition of inspiration in the dictionary is "supernatural divine influence". This is probably closer to the true origin of the word genius, what St. Augustine calls 'ingenium' or in Sanskrit 'inner controller', a kind of consciousness. The idea that human individuality is not an end but only a means.

Professor Ernst Gombrich

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