In The Electronic Golden Calf Gregor Goethals examines the meaning-making power of religion and images. The artist of today is equivalent to the prophet of the ancient world in his or her ability to render visible the invisible or ineffable realities in life. Television serves the role today that stained-glass windows did in the Middle Ages and sculptors did before that: mass communication of communal ideals that transcends individual literacy.
The early church was opposed to images. Being Jewish in nature they rejected any visual representation of God that might become an idol. Gradually, though, the desire to communicate the life of Christ outweighed this fear. Elementary or primary level of symbolism is where we refer unfamiliar images to what we already know—a stick figure of a man and woman, and a squiggly snake. Then we move to the secondary level where recognition comes only after mythic, ritual, or cultural indoctrination has taken place. So the stick figures become Adam & Eve with Satan(20). Various church leaders and reformers had different stands regarding aesthetics within a worship service. Luther was in favor of the Arts as a devotional aid; Calvin and Zwingli were not. Generally speaking, the visual arts were “purveyors of religious meaning as Christian culture assimilated two contradictory aesthetics: the aniconic tradition of Judaism and the iconic conventions of the classical world” (51).
Once America was founded, a reformulation of religious art began to take shape. Nature was a source of inspiration for painters who wanted to glorify God but not make distracting religious idols for churches. This began an individualistic shift: “clearly the burden of meaning is transferred from the icon to the view. As artists moved away from traditional or biblical iconography, viewers had to assume an increasing responsibility for the interpretation of symbols” (76). In 20th century America’s secular, pluralistic environment, effort was made to assign religious significance to landscape paintings via analogies of theologies and nature images. Once artists were freed from traditional icon, ordinary images were able to be imbued with the presence or power or glory of God. Further questioning of traditional art (Warhol’s brillo pads) continued open up the possibilities of what was a possible representation of the Divine.
Public communication of myths, once communicated by high art in earlier centuries, are now transmitted through images in popular culture (107). Television in particular tells stories which are universal and offer comfort and reassurance. It speaks to a human need for individual and communal identity. Popular shows like Dallas and The Cosby Show are analyzed. The morality play of soap operas dramatize the interaction between good and evil and, unlike traditional myths, they are not episodically resolved but more open-ended, like life itself (116). The commercial is just the opposite: twenty seconds to telescope and compress a narrative that is meant to draw us in and compel us to action. In premodern times religious and political leaders carefully selected the events that were publically proclaimed that would shape the lives of everyone. The contours of reality were formed to include the time and space of two spheres—natural and supernatural. Today, however, no overarching canopy of religious belief circumscribes and explains the whole of daily life (122).
No visual art can present the whole of reality. Any cultural text must be selective in what it chooses to include, and in doing so shapes the worldview of its viewers (communicating what matters, what is good, etc.). Photography, film, and television appear to be more objective than abstract painting or music because they seem to convey pure material existence (126).
Goethals also discusses how Reagan’s activity as a “great communicator” demonstrated television’s enormous power to create modern icons of political authority. Television in America promotes faith—faith in the American way of living, America as the promised land of opportunity. The free press represents one face of our faith in America as a pure and uncompromised society.
The visual arts over time have acquired not only independence from institutional religion, but also two roles associated with it; one is the offering of salvation, the other is offering of an account of reality which enables individuals and groups to place themselves in a social as well as eternal scheme of things (160). Mass media, and television in particular, is extraordinarily powerful at legitimating certain American values and promoting both secular and religious ideologies. These two ideologies, though potentially disparate, converge at four points: charismatic leadership, polarization of belief, conversion, and sacramentalism. Any successful attempt at persuasive imaging will address those key points. In addressing the latent religious function performed by mass media today, Goethals demonstrates the power of contemporary communication technologies to construct images of authority and constructing, shaping, and challenging societal norms and values.
Goethals, G. T. (1990). The electronic golden calf: Images, religion, and the making of meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications.