The Power of Images: Image as Substitute
Leo Segedin   |   September 14, 2011 |   Print this essay

Merriam-Webster Definition of SUBSTITUTE:
A person or thing that takes the place or function of another

Images are representations which can substitute for what they represent.


We go to art museums for the pleasure of seeing great or interesting works of art, but many art objects in museums were not made to please us. Such objects originally functioned as idols, ancestor figures or effigies in other cultures. Many of them were images that substituted for gods, ancestors or enemies who were not physically present. Although they were usually made of wood or metal, people responded to them to as if they were real. These images were assumed to contain the essences of what they represented and, while essences are immaterial, they gave the images the power to affect people's lives. Nowadays, we see such images as aesthetic or ritual objects. We contemplate them as works of art, appreciate them for their unusual, expressive forms and study them for what they can reveal about their cultures. As civilized people in the Western world, we tend to think that we are beyond these primitive beliefs. However, I will argue that, on the contrary, all cultures including our own use images as substitutes and respond to them as if they were real.


Children, in our society, have always used substitutes for what is real. As a child playing the 'Lone Ranger', I would hide in a doorway, aim my finger at another boy a few yards away and say ‘Bang!’; the other boy would grab his chest, say ‘'You got me!’ and fall to the ground. Then I would mount my faithful broomstick, named 'Silver', shout ‘Hi O Silver, Away!’, and gallop into the sunset.

A little girl rocks a plastic baby doll in her arms and sings a lullaby to put it to sleep. She dresses the doll, changes its diaper and puts it in its crib. To the child, the plastic doll is a baby. We understand this behavior as age-appropriate make-believe, but baby dolls can elicit powerful emotional responses in adults as well. Several years ago, at Northeastern, in a lecture to about 500 students, I had placed such a doll on a chair next to the podium. During the lecture, to make this point, I picked up the doll and smashed its head against the chair. A very audible gasp arose from the students. Their response was just if they had witnessed their professor murder a real child. I was even told that I must hate children or I couldn't have done such a thing. The plastic 'it' had become a living, human 'her'.

We carry photographic tokens of loved ones in our wallets or purses. Suppose a mother shows me a snapshot of her daughter, Jennifer. As she presents it to me, she says, ‘This is my daughter, Jennifer.’ A conventional thing to say when showing photographs, perhaps, but if I were to spit on that photograph or even pantomime such an act, Mom would slap my face and never talk to me again.

My actions would not be seen as critical of the aesthetics of the photograph or the quality of the paper on which the photo was printed. I would be insulting Jennifer. Mom would be offended by such acts and, if Jennifer heard about it, she would be hurt. It would have been as if what I had done to a 2’x 3’ piece of paper was done to Jennifer. A voodoo priest in Ghana sticks pins into a small clay figure and hurts whom it represents. What's the difference?

In all these examples, objects function as substitutes for what is not present. These objects require only those characteristics that are necessary to achieve their purposes. The finger is pointable and shootable, the broomstick is rideable and the plastic doll is rockable, clothable and diaperable. In the same way, both the photograph and the clay figure are recognizable as people.


The Senufo craftsman knew that his ancestor figure was carved from wood. Nevertheless, he believed that it contained the spirit of his ancestors. Although we know that a photograph is a piece of paper, we believe that it contains the appearance of what is in front of the camera. Unlike ancestor figures, photographs record real light reflections from real objects, but, as neither the wooden carvings nor paper photos contain actual ancestors or the persons in the photograph, both spirit and appearance are equally immaterial. In spite of the absence of anything physical, the Senufos believed that both were literally real. In fact, for them, appearance was spirit. At one time, they refused to have their photographs taken because the camera would capture their spirit.

On the other hand, we know that images aren't literally real, but, like the Senufos, we also unconsciously respond to them as if they are. We speak of 'capturing' and 'preserving' a precious moment when we take its photograph. Most of us would never dream of defacing or discarding a photograph of a loved one. We watch a pixel image on a television screen of President Obama giving a speech and think that we are really watching him give a speech. The real TV screen, which is what we actually see, has disappeared from our consciousness and the pixel image has become our reality. While Senufos make offerings to wooden images of ancestors, Republicans have been known to throw beer cans at video images of Obama. A Senufo ancestor spirit may not be as real as Obama, but their images often function as if they both are.


At one time, a man's soul was believed to reside in his image; sometimes, images contained demons. Ex-representative Anthony Weiner would have no problem with this! In twittering intimate pictures of himself to young women, he obviously believed that images contain personal essences that have the power to affect people. His images on their screens were assumed to contain not only his physical appearance, but also his sexual aura and his lustful intentions. Because of this content, Weiner thought that these images had the power to sexually arouse their recipients; the public feared that they had violated innocent adolescents. Weiner's intentions and the public response were realized entirely in images. He himself did not ring a doorbell and expose his private parts to the person who opened the door, but, in effect, those pixel pictures, acting as his substitute, did. However, there remains a profound difference between pixels and penises.

The actor, Alec Baldwin, went even further. On CNN a few months go, while commenting on Weiner, he said that the Internet is not only a great tool for sharing information, but also a way for us to send 'our thoughts and feelings, our very spirit, over the airways.’ ... ‘at times, as human beings, we want to attach the body to the feelings, as well. Photos of ourselves and loved ones… photos used to sell something… Photos to find love… to find sex.’ Notice that in these comments, Baldwin is not only assuming that images contain spirits, he is also extolling the virtues of attaching feelings to a digital image of a body as if it was a real one.

Reacting to a representation as if it was its subject has caused other political people public problems. At a drunken party in 2008, Jon Favreau, an Obama speechwriter, groped a cardboard cutout of Hilary Clinton; a photograph in the Washington Post showed him cupping the breast and kissing the cardboard Clinton. Another photo showed him gliding across the dance floor with the then senator's facsimile. Favreau was forced to apologize when the photo appeared on Facebook. In other words, the speechwriter had to beg for forgiveness for fondling and dancing with a piece of cardboard. Even though he never touched the real Hillary, he was perceived as being improperly intimate with her.


Thus, as we have seen, people not only believe that images contain the essence of what they represent; images are given the power to affect people's lives by their essence. For this reason, some people consider images to be alive. Like humans, images are loved if they are benevolent; people will travel great distances to ask for their favors, but they can also be dangerous. Such images, whether of live, dead or imaginary people, have been 'blinded', 'castrated', 'decapitated' and 'deposed' to prevent them from doing harm. In ancient Egypt, statues of pharaohs were demolished by their successors so that they could not see and judge what was being done after they had died. In ancient China, the eyes in statues of deposed emperors were gouged out for the same reason. In 1968, pictures of the first Mayor Daley were used as dartboards (with little effect).

If we cannot destroy our enemies in person, we can always attack their substitutes. Last month, Libyans shot at pictures of Gadhafi, pounded them with their shoes and decapitated his statues. We can burn our enemies in effigy. The most famous example is the burning of effigies of the 17th century British, Catholic conspirator, Guy Fawkes, - made of straw and old clothing - which are burned every year on Guy Fawkes Day, at one time, along with effigies of the Pope. Effigies of Presidents Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Obama, as well as dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Mubarak have suffered the same fate. Also, in the past, criminals sentenced to death in absentia might be officially executed in effigy.

And then there is apparently gratuitous vandalism. Images of beautiful, smiling women in Colgate toothpaste ads on 'L' platform billboards have their teeth scratched out.

The Old Testament prohibition against the making of graven images is based on the belief in the power of images to substitute for spiritual entities and is, therefore, seen primarily as a ban on idolatry. Moses destroyed the Golden Calf because it was a physical substitute for a non-physical God. As such, the Golden Calf was an idol. During several periods in Byzantine history, paintings and statues of Christ were destroyed by Iconoclasts on the grounds that Christ was spiritual, not physical, and, therefore, all images of Christ were idols. Muslims during the Ottoman Empire and Protestants in England, from the time of Henry VIII to after that of Cromwell did the same thing for the similar reasons. According to one commentator, ‘It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say that the English Civil War was fought over the issue of images… ’

Some people find all images idolatrous and, therefore, blasphemous. One Islamic oral tradition has it that ‘all the painters who make pictures would be in the fire of Hell’.

The Taliban destroyed 150 statues of Buddha.


A generally held perception is that images of naked women are sexually arousing for men. (I found little data regarding how women respond to images of naked men) This power to arouse has its genesis in the belief that the image of a naked woman contains her sexual essence. Because of their power, these images can function as substitutes for real women. Men are known to kiss and caress them, masturbate before them, even sleep with them. This belief in sexual essence in images has a long history. In fact, humans have been making sexually explicit images ever since there have been humans. Prehistoric caves 15-20,000 years ago have representations of vulvas and erect penises. Greek pottery and Roman murals depict very specific sex acts. Renaissance paintings and engravings describing sex acts (among Classical gods, goddesses and their associates, of course) were popular among the aristocracy who could afford to buy them. For thousands of years, being sexual aroused by such images was an acceptable norm.

For some men, however, sexual arousal was a sin to be avoided. Celibate Byzantine saints were said to fear Classical statues of naked women because their sensuousness aroused their desire and, thus, encouraged improper thoughts. This power was seen as a sign of their unchristian paganism. Some public authorities believe that all erotic thoughts provoked by images are obscene and, since the public must be protected from their harmful power, these images must be censored or destroyed. As far back as the 15th century, under the influence of the fanatical Dominican reformer, Girolamo Savonarola, many of the greatest painters in Florence, including Sandro Botticelli, threw thousands of their masterpieces into a burning pyre called the Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola ranted that:
Immodest figures should not be painted, lest children be corrupted by the sight. What shall I say to you, ye Christian painters, who expose half nude figures to the eye? But ye who possess such paintings, destroy them or paint them over and ye will then do work pleasing to God and the Blessed Virgin.
Savonarola was burned at the stake for heresy in 1498.

In the 19th century, Savonarola's super vigilance around erotic imagery was taken over by the famous postal censor, Anthony Comstock. In a diatribe against what he called pornography, he wrote that sexually explicit literature and pictures:
defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, scars the conscious, hardens the heart, and damns the soul. It unnerves the arm, and steals away the elastic step. It robs the soul of manly virtues… The family is polluted (by the traffic in obscene publications and pictures), home desecrated, and each generation born into the world is more and more cursed by the inherited weaknesses, the harvest of this seed-sowing of the Evil one.
Even today, some such images are considered so dangerous that even their presence in a computer file is illegal.


Paintings, photographs and sculpture of nude men and women in museums are exempt from this prohibition because in such institutions - and in art books and in visual projections in classrooms - they presumably are denied the power to arouse us. In museums, these images are to be contemplated and appreciated, rather than fondled. Museum goers are expected to be impersonal and objective and see the image of a nude woman aesthetically, not sexually. An observer with an adequate background in 19th century French art would look at Manet's paintings and respond to his use of Renaissance imagery, his elimination of half tones and his relationship to other Impressionists.

On the other hand, someone with less extensive background might have been offended by the nude woman surrounded by well-dressed men in Manet's painting, 'Luncheon in the Grass', when it was first exhibited in 1863. As one contemporary, classically oriented, art critic wrote of the painting, ‘The gentleman has not even removed his hat’.

Knowledgeable observers should respond to Titian's paintings in terms of their composition, their expressive brush strokes and especially to their lush, Venetian reds. But less knowledgeable viewers see — naked ladies. Here is Mark Twain on Titian's Venus of Urbino in the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence: You enter and proceed to the most visited little gallery that exists in the world — the Tribune — and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed — no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I venture to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl — but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over if they want to — and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her — just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world… yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words… There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question, it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public gallery.

For Twain, an 'it' had become a 'her'; the painting had become a person. He responded to it as if the painted canvas was an actual woman and he is concerned with the power of the woman's erotic pose on innocent viewers. Twain himself may have been pleasantly aroused, but, like most critics, he thinks that such arousal in others to be impure and, therefore, harmful.

Paintings in museums may have been exempt from censorship, but mass- produced and distributed photographs of the same paintings were not. In 1880's Hamburg, black and white photographic reproductions of that Titian's Venus were confiscated as obscene. One reason was that, in such photographs, all that would be recognizable to a mass consumer would be the body of a naked woman just as it would have been in a photograph of a real woman. The photograph was seen as more like a real woman than the painting. Because men were assumed to have the same sexual response to such photographs as they would to actual women, the photographs were considered obscene. In his tirade against eroticism, Comstock was referring not only to realist literature, but also to the recently popular photographs of erotic subjects.


Icons, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, are pictorial representation of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or some other sacred figure and they too are treated as if they are what they represent. As such, they are believed to have the power to perform miracles; they can bleed, cry and exude myrrh, a fragrant, healing oil. The Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, tells this story about, when he was an adolescent, kissing the miracle working icon of the Vladimirsky Virgin from the Oransky Monastery, which was annually carried through his village:
She'll probably cause my arms to wither for carrying her with dirty hands. I loved the Virgin… and when the time came to kiss her, I tremblingly pressed my lips to her mouth, not noticing how the grown-ups did it. Someone's strong arm hurled me into the corner by the door… You simpleton! Said my master in a mild rebuke… For several days I waited like one condemned. First I had grasped the Virgin with dirty hands; then I had kissed her in the wrong way… But apparently the Virgin forgave my involuntary sins.
For Gorky, the painting was 'the Virgin' and he responded to it as such. But what is the appropriate way to kiss the Virgin? With reverence, of course, but the Virgin is also described as a beautiful woman and beautiful women are supposed to arouse men sexually. Thus, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the erotic and the spiritual. Remember, though, that we are really discussing responses to a painting — an object made of paint on wood - not an attractive woman arousing a man. The painting has become a substitute for a woman. Again, an 'it' has become a 'her'.


Stories can be found in the history of many cultures in which images are substituted for living entities. This is especially true where an image is responded to as if it was the actual object of desire or lust. For example: In the 5th century BC, in the ancient, Greek settlement of Knidos on the coast of Turkey, a life-size statue of a naked Aphrodite became so widely known and copied that it was said that the goddess herself came to see it. A young man was so aroused by its (her?) beauty that he sneaked in one night and tried to copulate with it leaving behind the actual traces of his lust. The statue was later moved to Constantinople where it was probably destroyed by the Byzantine iconoclasts in 6th century AD riots because it was pagan.

From ancient Iran: A man was inflamed with passion by the figure of a female cupbearer, supposedly that of the mistress of a king, so its nose was struck off in order to prevent this from happening again. Both the man and those who mutilated the statue believed her to be alive. They mutilated it to prevent others from falling in love with it.

From 4th century AD China: K'ai-chich, the creator of the famous picture-scroll in the British Museum, painted a picture of a girl who had rebuffed him. He affixed it on a wall with thorns, one of which pierced her heart, whereupon she immediately fell ill of a pain in her heart. She recovered only when the thorn was removed from the painting.

From 15th century Renaissance Italy, in a poem written by Leonardo Giustinian:
I have painted you on a small piece of card As if you are one of God's saints. When I rise in the sweet morning, I throw myself on my knees with desire. Thus I adore, and then I say, O clear star When will you make my heart content? Next I kiss you and caress you tenderly: Then I go and take myself to mass.
In Act 4 of Shakespeare's 'Two Gentlemen from Verona’, Proteus pleads to Silvia:
Madame: if your heart be so obdurate, Vouchsafe me yet your picture for my love, The picture that is hanging in your chamber; To that I'll speak, to that I'll sigh and weep; For since the substance of your perfect self Is else devoted, I am but a shadow: And to your shadow will I make true love.
In Act 1 of Mozart's Magic Flute, Tamino's aria begins:
This portrait is bewitchingly beautiful, Such as no eyes have ever seen before, I feel how this divine image Fills my heart with a new stirring. This something I can scarcely name, Yet I feel it burning here like a fire. Can this sensation be love? O yes, it is love alone. If only I could find her O if only she just stood here before me! I would…I would warmly and purely… What would I do? Full of enchantment I would Press her to my ardent breast, And then she would eternally be mine!

In this essay, I have tried to show that all cultures have used images as substitutes for what was not real or physically present, but were responded to as if they were. Whether in the lives of children and adults, in tribal cultures, in politics, religion, sex and in the visual and verbal arts - whether in Africa, Asia, the Middle East or Europe - whether in the past or present - such images have always had the power to affect people's lives. Such use, therefore, is not an indication of a primitive culture. It is, rather, a universal way of utilizing and responding to their power.

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