“Idolatry” refers to the worship of images, and especially of false images or chimeras, false gods or idols, and, lastly, false religions. No image could or should be made of the true God, for he was deemed to be invisible. In the age of the Reformation, Protestants, whose churches were free of images, accused the Catholics of idolatry because Catholic churches were full of images.
The former critique of religion (relating to idols and images) has today become critique of the media. In 1956 Günther Anders pointed to television as teaching people idolatry; they were familiar with their idols only as images, but worshipped them emotionally as real people (Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, vol. 1, 1956). The distinction between essence and appearance, between real and fictional, between human being and phantom disappears. In 1967 Guy Debord described the so-called “society of the spectacle” in his work of the same name as a society that exists only in the image and for being in the image. Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra assumes that the difference between true and false images, between image and reality, is destroyed by the image itself (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1994). Thus, the function of images for Vilém Flusser is that “[i]nstead of representing the world, they obscure it.” “This reversal of the function of the image can be called ‘idolatry’ […].” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 2000, p. 10) The global world becomes a ghetto of images that replace reality.
Worshipping idols and images of them these days has sunk from the spheres of religion and politics down to the sphere of the mass media. Celebrities are the new idols. Masses of hysterical fourteenyear- old girls do not fall down on their knees to worship saints in churches, but at concerts to worship their cult stars. Life becomes a simulation of images. Celebrity is a simulated life implanted into a real life that is not real. Magazines, the media of celebrities, are called Illustrierte in German, not because they illustrate the lives of the rich and famous, but because by depicting them repeatedly they produce illustrious – that is, famous – people. The people illustrated in them are made illustrious (in Latin illustris, or “standing in the light”), that is, famous. In so-called celebrity culture, images have obtained a power that was unimaginable even for the worshippers of idols in antiquity. In the age of mass media, idolatry has become the central industry, the triumph of the chimera.