I'm fascinated by the relationship between secular and religious iconography. Obviously the ancients understood the compelling and irresistable power of icons.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, 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...
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 profoundly "handicapped" as an agnostic, a cynic and 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: symbolizing uptown, adventure, the future, influence and glamor. Returning from trips to other countries or the mainland, this dominating beacon represented home and the supremacy of my special island. I can't speak for out-of-towners, but for a New Yorker, the Empire State Building signifies power, wealth, stability, excitement, history, continuity, culture, majesty and pride.
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 "whole" nature of the divine, sensing both the masculine and the feminine in the world's most famous erection? Does an architectural erection's "she-ness" signify the penetration of space? Are we reacting to the erection itself or to the visual power of the space that it fills and occupies?
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 merely stood tall, 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 were still beating 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 59 years and no other icon fills me with such pride, satisfaction and grounding. I can walk 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 felt the power of religious iconography. Is the passion I feel for the Empire State Building, the same passion the devout feel for the great portraits of saints? Does Michelangelo's iconic Pieta evoke the same power for the Christian faithful as the Empire State Building does for me?
As a photographer, the challenge for me--a challenge I never quite feel I 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 do that with an icon? Was that on Warhol's mind when he did Monroe? Was Warhol's solution to Monroe's overwhelming iconic power, the power of repetition? I think artists mostly avoid icons because of their dominating power; even a sliver of an 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 marvel and wonder at the power this icon has over me and as a man of reason, I cannot fully explain her spiritual command. And as I stand on the roof of my building, 45 stories above the city and gaze out upon this thing that is simply a building 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 the lost potency and supremacy of religious art.