EXODUS 20:2-14: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
I’m fascinated by the relationship between secular and religious iconography. In particular, I have an intensely passionate emotional and intellectual relationship with one of the world’s most compelling and famous secular icons: the Empire State Building and it is through that passion that I’ve come to understand something more about religious iconography.
When it comes to religious iconography I am seriously handicapped as an agnostic, a cynic and as a Jew. This subject is particularly challenging for a Jew, secular or otherwise. Even a secular Jew grows up “understanding” that iconography is simple-minded at best, blasphemous at worst. The truth is found within our hearts and minds and to seek the truth through images is false, intellectually lazy and in opposition to the absolute word of God.
But my life long relationship with the Empire State Building has defied my Jewish perspective and seditiously lured me into the world of image worship. (Just one of the commandments I routinely break.)
Having grown up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in the East Village, the Empire State building quickly became one of my powerful childhood visuals. I think I instinctively bonded to her like a duckling to a mother duck. Her image stood for the complex and exhilirating promise of “uptown”. Returning from trips to other countries or the “mainland”, this dominating and majestic beacon would welcome me home and proclaim the supremacy and grandeur of my special island. I can’t speak for out-of-towners, but for a New Yorker, the Empire State Building shines with a special aura of power, wealth, stability, creativity, history, continuity, culture, majesty and pride.
I remember when She was first illuminated with lavender lights for Gay Pride. As a gay man, nothing before or since had more emotional impact for me. When she stood for gay pride, the circle felt completed.
Her commanding phallic nature is undeniable. In fact She, the Empire State Building is one of the world’s most obvious phallic symbols. I’ve often wondered why we refer to her as a she. Why do we, at least in English, refer to architectural erections in the feminine? Are we, on some primitive and ancient level, signifying the “wholeness” of divine nature, sensing both the masculine and the feminine in the world’s most famous erection (pun intended)?
In the early 70s, as the Twin Towers rose to challenge her supremacy, we learned that size isn’t everything. They were taller, they were two, but she remained New York. Her name was Manhattan and the Twin Towers stood tall because they were proud to be in Her company. And when they fell on 9/11, we all looked to Her. She was defiant; the Towers had come and gone but WE were still here, standing as tall and as proud as ever. The Twin Towers were a terrible hurt, but our heart and soul remained strong and proud on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.
On holidays, she shines with the appropriate colors making the city Easter, Christmas, Gay Pride, Thanksgiving and Independence Day. She singularly leads the skyline in celebration.
Even King Kong understood that She was the noblest and most important place to make one’s last stand.
I have lived in this town for 58 years and no other icon fills me with such pride, satisfaction and grounding. I can be walking in any part of this city and there she’ll be, in all of her glory or just winking at me from a distance between a jumble of other non-descript buildings.
I am not a religious man and have never emotionally understood the power of religious iconography. Is the passion I feel for the Empire State Building related to the passion the devout feel for the great portraits of saints?
As a photographer, the challenge for me–a challenge I never quite feel that I’m able to meet–is to capture an image of the Empire State Building that is out of the ordinary, not a postcard, not another one of the thousands of photographs published by the New York City Visitor’s Bureau. How does one create a work of art that includes an icon and that is not overwhelmed by the icon? Was that on Warhol’s mind when he did Monroe? Was Warhol’s counter-balance to Monroe’s overwhelming iconic power, the power of repetition? I think artists mostly avoid icons because of their dominating power; even a subtle hint of a true icon commands and demands the viewer’s complete focus. How can an artist’s sense of color or composition compete with the visual dominance of a true icon.
Even as a secular man, I almost superstitiously wonder at the supernatural power this icon has over me. And as a child of the age of science and reason, I cannot fully explain her spiritual command of my psyche. And as I stand on the roof of my building, 45 stories above the city and gaze out upon this thing that is ostensibly nothing more than a pile of steel and stone, I begin to sense the overwhelming majesty and power of a Stonehenge or a Chichen Itza in a world before modern science. And I think I better understand the lost potency and supremacy of religious art and architecture.