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W. J. T. Mitchell

W. J. T. Mitchell teaches literature, art history, and cinema at the University of Chicago. He is the author of numerous books on image theory, including Iconology, What Do Pictures Want? and Image Science. His most recent book is Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia.

Sounding the Idols

Idolatry and iconoclasm are evil twins. They need each other, feed on each other. The idol is said to demand human sacrifice. The iconoclast responds by sacrificing idolaters, or (more likely) exterminating them without the dignity of sacrifice. See Exodus 32, in which Moses melts down the Golden Calf, forces the idolatrous Israelites to drink it, and massacres half his people. When Poussin paints this scene, he cannot help himself. As a painter, he must glorify the Calf and its maker, and shroud the furious Moses in darkness. Why does Aaron, the artist who made the idol, get away scot-free? Was Milton a true poet, and of the Devil’s Party?

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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