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David Morgan

The Visibility of the Invisible: Art and Idolatry

The Golden Avant-Garde: Idolatry, Commercialism, and Art, by Raphael Sassower and Louis Cicotello, University Press of Virginia, 147 pp.; $17.50, paper

The central conceit of this book, signaled in the "golden" quality of the "avant-garde" as well as first word of the subtitle, is the golden calf wrought by Israel as Moses tarried on Sinai in the presence of the mysterious and terrible Jahweh. Down below, left to themselves, consumed in the ordinary, the people wanted Aaron to fashion an idol to replace the vanished leader and his God.

In the biblical telling, of course, this act of idolatry is condemned and punished, but Raphael Sassower (a philosopher) and Louis Cicotello (an artist) had a different moral in mind when they appropriated the story. In our time, Sassower and Cicotello say, "we have lost our trust in religious institutions as a means to a spiritual end," and hence "we desperately need art, among other cultural expressions," to take the place of religion—to produce golden calves, as it were, offering "alternative means through which to reach our spiritual destiny."

In short, Sassower and Cicotello are all for idolatry—but not just any idolatry will do. They want to persuade readers to reject the naïve form of idolatry inscribed in the myth of the avant-garde and the cult of the genius, illusions in which artists and their public are complicit. The purpose of art is not redemption. The artist has no magic wand, is neither a glorious savior nor a gloomy prophet with divine law in hand. None of that works anymore. Instead, the authors call for an ironic, disenchanted form of idolatry.

Sassower and Cicotello are at their most persuasive in undercutting the pretensions of the avant-garde. This is a French term meaning "advance guard," originally a military movement of mounted soldiers who charge the opposing infantry in order to break a hole through which their own rank-and-file infantry can follow. In the early nineteenth century, the term was ...

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