Images and Ethics

1.The contested relationship between ethics and esthetics

In order to restrict the enormous theme of the ethics of images, I would like to limit it to that of - itself quite vast - the ethical message of art in its relation to Christianity.
We could sum up the situation by saying that Christianity’s ethical commitment presupposes a mistrust or refusal of images and, conversely, when Christianity produces images, the ethical dimension is relatively absent. We are either in the ethical and there are no images ; or we are in the esthetic, and the ethical becomes secondary, or even superfluous. The Bible clearly demonstrates these alternatives :
 Ethics without images : one must evoke the Decalogue’s commandment, where in an absolutely ethical context (about respecting the rules of spiritual, moral and social life), all images are forbidden “you will not make images” (Exodus 20:4 /twenty:four, Deuteronomy 5:8 /five:eight). In the New Testament, the relationship with Christ is oral, of the word, not of the image or the visual (the Resurrected one escapes our view, while however, he speaks and continues to speak to us).
 Images without ethics : most images in the Bible are qualified as idols and this qualification is not annulled with the incarnation of Jesus Christ. For example, in the Apocalypse, every time the word “image” (eikon) is used, it is with negative connotation.

The link between the esthetic and the ethical seems, in the Bible and in Christianity, broken or at least problematic. Any development of the image sooner or later has resulted in a theological and ethical (but not esthetic) crisis. The Reformation only reinforced this suspicion, in so far as its critique of images was ethical, not esthetic. Let me recall the main arguments of the Reformation against images :
 Images are expensive, and it is better to give the money needed for their fabrication (and their upkeep) to the poor.
 Images are the basis of a theology based on merit, fear and taking advantage, which runs contrary to a theology of Grace and the love of God.
 Images lie ; they supposedly translate texts into images, while in fact they betray them.

But at the same time this link, though difficult, between esthetics and ethics is not totally absent :
 For one thing a certain number of images - including in the Bible - are not idols (and, on the contrary, a certain number of idols are not images).
 For another thing - as Martin Luther reminds us - the abuse of images does not invalidate their use : it is not the image itself that is idolatrous, but the rapport we establish with it.
 Lastly - and it is this last point I would like to develop - Christianity has also used images to defend its ethical values in its fight for a world with more justice, more equality for all, more solidarity.

2. The re-evaluation of ethics in images from the Reformation Era

The Reformation, which fought or refused images in the theological or liturgical domain, did however use them in the ethical domain. It even created a genre, the “engaged” or “activist” image (militant in French) ; the goal of these images was not first and foremost to serve in private devotion, or to aid in the liturgy of the mass, nor to be the Bible of the poor (Biblia pauperum), nor to serve politics, but to deliver an engaged or activist message, to defend a cause. The images had a double content : Biblical and ethical. They had to witness both to the truth of the Word of God contained in the Bible, and struggle for a world with more justice, by denouncing the abuses and the wealth of the powerful.
I would like to give two examples of engaged images with strong ethical content, from the time of the Reformation.

 L’Apocalypse (1498/ fourteen ninety-eight) by Albrecht Dürer : this is from before the Reformation ; but Dürer, the greatest German artist of the time, had announced the main ideas of the Reformation in his woodcuts that met with extraordinary success. In several woodcuts, he updated the message of the Apocalypse in an ethical sense : the characters that undergo the scourges of God are none other than the powerful of this world (emperor, kings, rich merchants), and the representatives of the Roman Church (the Pope, bishops, monks), while the simple workers (peasants, artisans) are among the saved, the elected ones.

 The Passional Christi und Antichristi, (1521/ fifteen twenty-one) by Lucas Cranach : This painter, an intimate friend of Luther’s, wrote an illustrated book with him in which he opposes two figures : the Christ of the Gospels, poor, peaceful, loyal to the commandments of God, and the Pope (the antichrist). This pope is an anti-type of Christ ; he copies him, but in fact parodies him, in adopting the opposite values : wealth, power, force, corruption. These woodcuts are beautiful and simple, and at the same time they pass on a direct and radical message inciting one to act. The esthetic quality is at the service of an ethical message.

With these examples we see that the tradition of images with an ethical goal, even if they are in the minority, do exist in Christianity.

3. The renewal of the ethical message in twentieth-century art

This tradition continues in the twentieth century, with, however, an important change : the images with strong ethical content, engaged or activist images, no longer come from Christianity, but from non-Christian contexts, even anti-Christian ones. These creations rest on other ideological foundations : the workers’ movement, Marxism, pacifism. In the twentieth century, Christianity was no longer the source of inspiration for artists. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, art concerned with social realism developed, showing the hard reality of working the earth, the misery of the conditions for workers : we can name, for example, Courbet, Millet, Daumier in France, Goya in Spain, Fritz von Hude in Germany. This art possesses strong ethical and political content, yet without being an art of propaganda, because its point of departure is the sole conviction of the artist ; he or she alone is committed, courageously, and sometimes risking his life, to the message he wants to spread by the means of his art.
But - and here is where our subject lies - this engaged art, politically committed to the defense of oppressed peoples, continues to be inspired by Christian themes, even though it refuses Christianity as an institution, as a belief or as a patron of the arts. In fact, thanks to Christian art of centuries past, a certain number of Christian themes have become universal themes, whose symbolism reaches far beyond just Churches and Christians.
Here are two examples :

 Christ with a gas mask (1927/nineteen twenty-seven) : This is a lithograph made for a pacifist journal. Its author, George Grosz, politically aligned with the left and opposed to Nazism, led a pacifist battle against the (re)militarization of Germany. Grosz wanted to combat military violence and social violence solely through the force of his art. This lithography landed him in court, and 285 (two-hundred-eighty-five) of his works were then removed from German museums. In representing Christ crucified with a gas mask and soldier’s boots (accompanied by the slogan “shut up and keep serving” “Maul halten und weiter dienen”), Grosz’s creation was both esthetically and ethically shocking. He also reminds us of one of the Gospel’s foundations : the true witness of Christ is the one who gives his life for others, not the one who destroys the life of others ; his ethical message is much more loyal to the Gospels than that of the Churches of the time, who blessed the artillery. Happily for him, Grosz left Germany for the United States in 1932 (nineteen thirty-two).

 Guernica (1937/ nineteen thirty-seven), by Pablo Picasso : this is without a doubt one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century. Its author was a convinced atheist, a member of the communist party. It is a politically-engaged painting, in so far as it denounces the bombing of a small Spanish Republican town by the German and Spanish Fascist aviators on 28 (the twenty-eighth of) April 1937 (nineteen thirty-seven). Any religious concerns are distanced. However, there are a certain number of themes inspired by Christian iconography, giving an additional symbolic force to the painting : the woman holding her dead child in her arms (the pietà) ; the figure appearing at a window carrying a light (an angel) ; the sun in the form of an eye that illuminates the scene (a metaphor for God) ; not to mention the very form of the painting, a triptych, which is borrowed from religious painting.

4. Biblical resonances of the ethical message in twentieth-century art

The ethical dimension of art that is more directly founded on the Bible has not totally disappeared in the twentieth century. To the extent that a certain number of human acts are also scandalous for Christians, certain - unfortunately a minority - oppose them, including with the language of art. The two engagements - political and Christian - can thus come together in the same language, that of art. Everyone wants to build a world with more justice, a more fraternal world, a more egalitarian one, even if the way to build that new world differs. It could even be that the power of politically-engaged art has in turn inspired a certain number of artists attached to the Bible. This meeting of the Bible and ethical or political commitment is reinforced by the violence of unacceptable historical situations. Here are two examples :

 La Crucifixion blanche/ The White Crucifixion (1938/nineteen thirty-eight), by Marc Chagall. Chagall was not a Christian but Jewish, even if he often represented the crucified one : but his work shows Jesus the Jew crucified, not Christ, son of God. His White Crucifixion (1938, Art Institute, Chicago) is a political work. It denounces the tragedy of the ninth of November 1938 (nineteen thirty-eight), “Kristalnacht”, during which most of the synagogues in Germany were burned and many Jewish shops were pillaged and Jewish families thrown out of their homes. In this painting, three stories (or histories) overlap each other : - the story of the Jewish people of the Bible ; - the story of Judaism in twentieth-century Central Europe ; -the personal and dreamlike story of the painter himself. The political signs (the red flags of the revolution) and Christian signs (Jesus crucified) give to these stories of the Jewish people a universal dimension.

 Hommage to Martin Luther King (1968/nineteen sixty-eight), by Alfred Manessier. Manessier was one of the rare and great Christian artists of the twentieth century. At first essentially liturgical and Biblical, his quasi-abstract painting became more and more political, as the artist tried to live concretely his faith in the middle of the dramas and joys of his era. In response to the assassination of the black American pastor, Manessier shut himself up in his studio for several months to execute this large-format painting. He had in front of him a photo of Martin Luther King Junior and his speech “I have a dream” that he then glued on the back of the painting. The three messages in this painting cannot be separated : -the Christian message of waiting for redemption ; - the ethical message which is the denunciation of the assassination and the Baptist pastor’s participation in non-violent activism ; and finally the esthetic message : the violent expression created by the red and blue marks and patches, like splashes or stains, and at the same time the impression of a tipping over, created by off-balance forms.

There are numerous other examples I could show, especially of art inspired by the Bible, rather neutral to begin with, but increasingly received as art with an ethical message, even a political one. I am thinking of works by the German Expressionists Emil Nolde and Ernst Barlach, as well as of the Crucifix by Germaine Richier at the church of Assy in the French Alps.

5. Art at the service of activist causes at the beginning of the twenty-first century

There are plenty of activist causes at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To the still existing older causes (the struggle for peace, for human rights, against the oppression of peoples, torture, hunger in the world) new ones have been added (the struggle for equality of the sexes, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities ; environmentalism, the fight against AIDS, financial corruption, etc).
These multiple social, economic, human and political questions can only encourage engaged, activist art, even more so now that the great political ideologies have collapsed ; the risk is thus lessened for art to be used for ideological ends, as was the case in the past (whether these ideologies were political or religious).
Today we are no longer faced with two main schools of thought - Christian and atheist - that are action-oriented and that could either oppose each other or meet. Rather we are witness to a multitude of struggles, of engagements, of actions using the means of art, in which Christianity can be present in at least three ways :

 Explicitly, through an explicit artistic presence, activist and accepted. Take, for example, the film director Wim Wenders, whose socially-engaged movies are linked to his clearly stated Christian convictions.
 Implicitly, through activist action in the service of humanitarian and social causes, without an explicit Christian message being voiced or demonstrated.
This kind of engagement or activism can be shared by Christians and by Churches, who can then be inspired by or use these religiously neutral artistic creations. I am thinking, for example, of Land Art, works that do not have an explicit Christian message but that have some themes in common with Biblical themes : the world as creation, the protection and saving of a world that was given to us to take care of, not to destroy or pillage ; the fragility of creation, like that of the human being who is at the core (see some examples of Land Art : the Scot Andy Goldsworthy, or the Polish artist living in Brazil, Franz Krajcberg)
 Culturally, when Christian figures or themes are shown, in order to give a more universal symbolism to a specific cause.
For example, take the black American artist Renée Cox and her Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996/ nineteen ninety-six) ; a premonitory work, if one thinks of Barak Obama’s 2008 election. The exhibition Corpus Christi, organized by the Museum of Photography in Jerusalem and which traveled to a number of European cities, showed this phenomenon of the universalisation of Christian signs, symbols and themes in photography. The organizer Nissan Perez showed that Judaism - and not just Chagall - can be inspired by the figure of a suffering Christ, in order to fight better against injustice and express suffering linked to a situation of social exclusion (for example homosexuality, AIDS, physical or mental disability).

Let me mention a last, rarer but still existing, case. It also so happens that cultural borrowing functions in the opposite direction : that Churches or Christians are inspired by a political or engaged figure who is universally understood and elevated to the rank of popular icon, in order to explain their own Christian engagement. An example : The portrait of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara as a messianic figure (here we have a rather complex case of reciprocal influences, because the death of Che was staged in a Christ-like way).

6. Reconciliation of esthetics and ethics

I would like to finish by coming back to theology. Esthetics and ethics, artistic creation and engaged commitment, have been opposed in Christianity for too long. And yet, esthetics and ethics are two dimensions that should be complementary, but not contradictory. What do the examples we quickly looked at say about this necessary complementarity ?

 The ethical message of esthetics

Art can, of course, have an ethical dimension, can lay claim to a clear and explicit message without ceasing to be art. Theology’s situation as a servant (ancilla teologiae), which was also art’s role for too long, as well as a rich, powerful and dominating Church that financed the arts, made all art with a message seem suspicious. The contents of a Christian work became suspect, and then the contents of any work tout court were. Conversely, the Kantian idea of art devoid of any end (“a finality without end”), as well as the development of non-figurative art (in which not only is there no longer any message, but no longer any figure, any title, any naming possible), would make even more suspect the idea of an artistic message that calls for action.
However, as we have seen, this criticism is contradicted when actually experiencing art : there were indeed in the twentieth century, and there still are today, artistic expressions that are in an indivisible way both work of art and engaged or activist message. Furthermore, those who would argue for art’s absolute neutrality should no longer be able to look at a Christ on the cross because giving one’s life for others is the very paradigm of social engagement, the ethical message in its very perfection.
A work of art is perfectly capable of referring to a human being’s and a Christian’s responsibility in a threatened world, and can push us to act to better or protect our world. Esthetic shock is not incompatible with ethical awareness.
When the Christian message of art is explicit, or even implicit, this recalls among other things the strong ethical dimension of Christianity. The Christian message must lead to a solitary action of attempting to transform the world. Christ did not call upon his disciples to listen to him, but to leave everything behind them to follow him.

- The esthetic message of ethics

That’s not the whole story. If a work of art, especially in the contemporary context, can and must recall ethical demands, be “oneself as another”, as Paul Ricoeur put it so well, the opposite is also true. Christianity’s ethically-oriented message also has an esthetic dimension. I will even posit the thesis that the message cannot have a veritable ethical dimension if there is not an esthetic dimension. The esthetic, like the ethical, allows for idealism to be left behind, for the human being to be accepted in his or her reality, that is, in his or her veritable humanity. I will give two examples of this complementarity between esthetics and ethics, one taken from the Bible, the other from Christian theology.
 In the Bible : Paul was made the herald of the Christian message’s ethical implication. As a man of action he not only spread the Gospel beyond Judaism and Palestine, but he also adapted it to diverse community situations. For Paul, it was not just about listening to the resuscitated Christ’s words ; one had to put them into practice in personal and community life. Thus a strong ethical dimension, and not an esthetic one.
Except that there is of course a Pauline mysticism, without which his ethical message would be transformed into a simple set of moral standards. And this mysticism is also based on esthetics. Paul is the only New Testament author to have rediscovered the visual theme of the Imago Dei, the human being in the image of God. In Christ and by Christ, the human being is not only a new creature, but is also the image of God, or rather an image of the image of God (the image of God is Christ). Thus Paul can say this magnificent phrase, full of hope, but which includes esthetic content : “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Developing the esthetic dimension of Paul’s thinking brings me to speak about his eschatology, which would mean opening up a vast and rich theme. That is why I will instead go to the second example, the Reformer Jean Calvin.

 In Christian theology : If you regard Jean Calvin as a Pauline thinker, you will not be surprised to find in him at once a strong leaning toward the ethical and a truly developed thinking on esthetics. This year, 2009/two thousand nine, the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the French reformer exiled to Geneva (who was also the pastor of this parish in Strasbourg where we find ourselves right now) is being celebrated on five continents. It is the occasion to say a word about his thinking on esthetics.
With Calvin, too, strong ethical demands were counter-balanced by a spiritual vision of God, the world, the community of believers ; it is the Soli Deo Gloria : the glory of God is everywhere, and in the end transfigures the ugliness of the world. Formally, Calvin’s thinking on esthetics was based on the abundant use of metaphor, and on a theory of signs. Theologically, two domains were particularly promoted in his thinking on esthetics :
 Creation : the world was perceived as a “beautiful masterpiece” whose author, God, was sometimes compared to an artist.
 The Sacraments : The sacraments were not only audible words, but also visible an even palpable, testable.
For Calvin every sign - if God so wants it - could become a sacrament. In the act of believing, the human being, by nature a sinner, bad, bent down upon him or herself, incapable of doing good, became beautiful in Christ, that is, God. I quote this beautiful judgment, one among many : “It is true that we can contemplate God in all his creatures, but when he manifests himself in man, then it is as though we were looking him in the face, whereas in viewing him in other creatures we see him obscurely and as if from the back... but in man we see, so to speak, his face.” (Congrégation sur la divinité de Jésus-Christ, Opera Calvini 1968, 480-481).

We left theology in order to explore the ethics of images, but the study of the language of art brought us back to theology. It is in fact the sign that the two fundamental dimensions of the human being - the esthetic and the ethical meet and connect without becoming mixed up. That is why when certain Churches and certain Christians had forgotten their ethical values in certain places in Europe in the twentieth century, artists were among those who were there to point this out to them.

Translation from French to English : Inge LINDER-GAILLARD