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New Left Review 44, March-April 2007

Amid rhetorical dust-storms over purported Islamist threats to Western values, Sven Lütticken finds antecedents for contemporary struggles over the image in Judaic and Protestant bans on idolatry. Multiple meanings of the veil and varying forms of iconoclasm, under the aegis of the spectacle.



Contemporary art has long claimed the privilege—indeed, the duty—of criticizing the images produced by the mass-culture industry. [1] A revised version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for example, edited by Maria Hlavajova, Rosi Braidotti and Charles Esche, as part of the Dutch contribution to the 2007 Venice Biennale. Now, however, both media images and works of art are increasingly coming under attack for religious reasons. It often seems as if Islamist fundamentalism has effectively conspired with the Western media and their Enlightenment rhetoric to create a culture war that perpetuates itself from one event to the next. These events (and pseudo-events) range from the dramatic murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the Danish cartoon riots, Jack Straw’s remarks on veils and the decision of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin to cancel a planned staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo—in which the severed heads of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha were to be shown alongside that of Poseidon. Sometimes there need be no event at all: media reports that some British banks no longer hand out piggy banks to children, so as not to offend Muslim customers, turned out to be just as unfounded as the end-of-year hysteria over the alleged banning of Christmas by overzealous, politically correct bureaucrats and managers.

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Sven Lütticken, ‘Idolatry and its Discontents’, NLR 44: £3

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