Icon and Idol: Revisiting Vervaeke & Peterson On Art & Propaganda


“Art is the icon. Propaganda is the idol.” That conclusion—one reached by Jordan Peterson in response to a series of claims made by fellow University of Toronto professor John Vervaeke on his podcast, Season 4, Episode 34—constituted a penetrating a-ha moment in a two-and-half-hour-long conversation replete with similarly provocative assertions. Upon making these two equivalencies and striking the contrast, Peterson then referenced his collection of socialist-realist paintings, indicating that many times in the past he had pondered upon the [con]fusion of the iconic and the idolatrous within them.

If icon and idol can be fused and or confused, then this statement does not offer the art critic or theologian a clean binary. What it does, however, if true, is tell us something interesting about human artistic output, its function, and its effect, especially when coupled with the thinking of Pope Saint John Paul II, as expressed in his 1999 letter to artists concerning the nature of art, the role of the artist, and the saving nature of beauty.

Prior to unpacking this claim further, it is prudent to first define key terms.

An icon: "is a representation…of sacred events or especially of a sacred individual…used as an object of veneration or a tool for instruction." Note the distinction between veneration and worship. The icon, unlike an idol, is not the thing worshipped, but rather something that excites the profound respect and enthusiasm of the viewer for the subject represented—for truths, beauty, and love that resist capture.

Propaganda, on the other hand, is “material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause.”

Finally, an idol, which Peterson and Vervaeke mark as equivalent to propaganda, is “an image used as an object of worship; a false god.”

It is not immediately clear how a work of propaganda is a false god or an object of worship. Moreover, it is not clear how, given the definition above, any work of art is not a form of propaganda. After all, whether the cause be emotional, political, spiritual, or otherwise, is an artist not advocating some feeling or aim through the production and demonstration of their work?

A key I find helpful in better understanding the relationships between icon and art, and idol and propaganda, comes in the form of a 1991 letter to the editor of The New York Times. Red Rorem wrote, perhaps anticipating agreement with a Toronto psychology professor 30 years later, that “propaganda is direct, while art is reflective.”

The directness of propaganda concerns some immediate near-term aim and fosters spiritual near-sightedness. Think in terms of advertising or election-year political leaflets. Conversely, art reflects something transcendental, something universal, something timeless, and or something true. “Art,” wrote Pope Saint John Paul II, “must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, God.” Unattractive distortions along with objects intended or treated as aesthetic / spiritual dead-ends are markedly direct. The idea appealed to is captured in the image or form.

The icon, on the other hand, does not capture the idea appealed to—it certainly does not capture God. Its power, however, is its ability to reference something real, resistive to totalizing brush stroke or construction. Pope John Paul II crystallizes the Christian and Judaic rationale for this point: “God transcends every material representation” (though we recognize the exceptional case of the Incarnation whereby God became visible in His Son Jesus Christ). Peterson, fleshing out the equivalencies and contrast, similarly notes that the icon does not capture the divine, but instead relates the observer to the intangible.

Pornography, for instance, is direct, making no higher appeal even if living icons of the divine are involved. The tangible depicted therein is made the object of worship, and the aim, besides hedonic delight (i.e. sin), is profit. In fact, the strongest case for the tie between idol and propaganda is probably pornography, not the least because the pro- or co-creative act is rendered lifeless.

Philosopher Alva Noë comes at this question, asked differently, from a different angle, but provides a supporting argument, paraphrased by Big Think:

“Porn is an instrument with a certain function in mind (sexual arousal) and works of art are not instruments. They are not tools.”

Revisiting Rorem’s point on the directness of propaganda, it becomes clear that the political leaflet, like pornography, is created with a singular or set outcome in mind. It is not like the icon, a window, but rather a tool for a purpose, the outcome of which is entirely mundane and secular: a black hole for wasted devotion.

Probably the most recognizable Biblical example of an idol, which serves also as a great example of propaganda, is the golden calf (alt: the molten calf) in Exodus 32. The calf—produced by the Israelites' melted-down gold while Moses was receiving God's commandments—was made the object of worship. No higher reality was appealed to; no greater truth was revealed. The message and relation was direct; simply graven evidence of a people's impudence, impulsiveness, and impatience. It was propaganda, an instrument with a certain lowly function in mind; an aim of "mischief" executed by Aaron on behalf of the Israelites who wanted gods made "to go before us."

The calf was unreflective, at least of anything transcendent, and its manufacture and worship was identified by the Lord as a "great sin," which the Catechism defines, in part, as "a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience...a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God." Art and icon, by comparison, would instead channel, extol, or relate to reason, truth and the divine.

It would seem that we are today, perhaps more so than at any time before, surrounded and inundated by propaganda, by idols. Curiously, to the extent that any are reflective, they are reflective of other idols, other propaganda, thus creating a false sense of transcendence, which has the opposite effect that real art has or ought to have. Such direct appeals, at best, keep our eyes level and fill us with fleeting satisfaction, whereas reflective appeals yank our attention skyward and fill us with gratitude, wonder, and awe.

It is important to seek out icons reflective of truth, beauty, love, and the divine, and just as important for artists to heed Pope Saint John Paul II’s call: “May your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”