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March 2015

Vol. 157 / No. 1344


By Simon Watney



In her introduction to a recent book on iconoclasm here under review, Stacy Boldrick sees the growth of interest in the subject as a response to ‘the dramatic increase in deliberate cultural vandalism around the world, from attacks on churches, mosques and synagogues, to the destruction of political statuary’.1 Her fellow contributors take a broad and inclusive view, as befits an expanding area of research and debate within the wider field of art-historical ­studies. This approach takes in many types of deliberate damage to symbolical artefacts ‘from objects to entire landscapes’. Moreover, such an approach is not restricted to deliberate harm but includes ‘actions ranging from damage and destruction to hiding, making, and even relocation and re-framing’, and it ranges in space and time from Prehistory to the present day. Semiotic jargon is frequently employed by some of the contributors to gloss over the controversial, as in Simon Baker’s defence of Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose defacement of Goya’s Disasters of war is described with a tone of specious ­neutrality merely as ‘sign transformation’ (Fig.44). Thus from the stern viewpoint of cultural materialism, nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe from hostile interventions by would-be ‘sign transformers’ whose actions are thereby falsely elevated to the same status as that of creative artists and craft specialists. The book is certainly rich in themes and suggestions, although its very inclusiveness sometimes proves unhelpful.

Leslie Brubaker opens the collection with a chapter on the destruction of images in Byzantium and early Islam, in which she defines iconoclasm ‘as a creative force directed against the past, in order to create a new future’. She subscribes to the currently ­fashionable view that Tudor iconoclasm was primarily political and ideological, for which religion served merely as a cover. This is the flip-side of the equally widely held and misguided contemporary assumption that medieval Christianity was no more than a cynically assumed mask for underlying economic and political forces. She follows the line proposed by Henry Maguire that the Christians who, in the late eighth century, carefully erased figures from the fifty-year-old mosaics in the church of St Stephen at Umm ar-Rasas, in present-day Jordan, were in fact enthusiastic Orthodox iconoclasts. However, it seems far more likely that the Christians involved were responding to earlier and much more limited local prohibitions, as persuasively argued by G.W. Bowersock, whose recent seminal work on Umm ar-Rasas is not cited.2 Indeed, surely it is actively confusing to use the term iconoclasm to refer both to the wholesale destruction of religious images in Byzantium, and to the careful and respectful editing of figurative elements from Christian mosaics in Palestine and Transjordan in response to different edicts with widely differing degrees of prohibition over the course of the eighth century?

Writing on the subject of possible iconoclasm in European ­Prehistory, Henry Chapman and Benjamin Gearey point out that, in the absence of written records explaining intention, ­evidence may be found in the deliberate breakage of symbolic objects such as swords within burials, or votive objects. There is fertile discussion of both, considering many possible motives, from the prevention of tomb-robbery to pre-empting possible quarrels about inheritance, as well as strictly religious functions. Turning their attention to landscape, it is refreshing to find the richly ­stimulating work of the British archaeologist and ­Prehistorian Richard Bradley used here to illuminate wider art-historical discussions. Yet sadly they seem to largely miss the point of much of Bradley’s work, which has encouraged so much recent reflection on prehistoric monuments considered as individual ritual sites participating within larger, slowly evolving sacred landscapes, like the vast symbolic terrain of which Stonehenge is but one key element. The expansion and modification of such sites over the course of millennia seems to be quite distinct from the felling of sacred Druid groves by Roman invaders, which is the only example of iconoclasm in the landscape that the writers provide.

The complex history recounted by Fabio Rambelli and Eric Reinders concerning the surviving seventh-century bronze ­Buddha head in the Kofukuji Temple at Nara in Japan is initially marred by their unnecessarily sneering comments about museums as ‘temples of culture’ in which damaged objects are ‘enshrined’, together with their simplistic assertion that ‘museums function as agents of iconoclasm’. True, they conclude, ‘the material object is preserved – indeed, museums pride themselves on their role in preserving material culture – but there is a certain kind of violence against the meaning of an object’. Thus, we are primly informed, objects in museums are subjected to ‘iconoclastic preservation’, redefined by their display within ‘a new and secular context in which the agent may aim, in certain cases, to give it a clearly ­negative connotation’, though they fail to provide a single convincing example. Amid all their huffing and puffing about the supposedly pernicious role of museums, there is not so much as a squeak about the ongoing threat of de-accessioning, or the ever-threatening closure and sell-off of entire collections.

Megan E. O’Neil provides a far more thoughtful interpretation of the breakage and re-use of monuments among the Classic-period Maya, focusing on deliberate damage to carved ruler portraits aiming ‘to change the status of things, diminish or reactivate a monument’s potency, maim or kill the monument, or hurt someone or something else by proxy’. She also considers more severe damage to stelae associated with local warfare, concluding with a timely note on modern looting. Meanwhile, Anna M. Kim considers the iconographic theme in the art of the High Renaissance of representations of earlier iconoclasm, beginning with examples in the decorative scheme of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican Palace in order to explore ‘a shift from a medieval perspective that justified, and celebrated, the destruction of pagan idols to a specifically Renaissance critique’. Thus, she argues, the innovative representation of scenes of early Christian iconoclasm during the Italian Renaissance served as a warning against the risk of contemporary damage to the surviving but vulnerable monuments of Antiquity. She perceptively observes how in Vasari’s 1550 edition of the The Lives of the Artists Ghiberti’s ­earlier disparaging account of the Emperor Constantine ‘undergoes ­revision, from angry iconoclast to cagey connoisseur’.

Lauren Dudley writes in her chapter about the Allegorical tomb of Lord Somers of c.1726, a painting by Canaletto, Cimaroli and Piazzetta, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which depicts an imaginary view of the former Lord Chancellor’s tomb standing amid classical ruins, together with various onlookers. The painting is linked to Somers’s celebrated defence of the Seven Bishops who had been tried for sedition in the reign of the ousted James II for their opposition to the king’s proposed second Declaration of Indulgence. Dudley thus regards Somers as a hero of aggressive Protestant anti-Catholicism, in spite of the fact that the Declaration had in reality attempted to provide freedom of worship both to non-conformists and Roman Catholics alike, much to the fury of the Anglican establishment, leading directly to James’s deposition and his replacement by William and Mary. It seems odd that Dudley only refers in passing to the fact that the picture was originally one of a set of large allegorical paintings of imaginary tombs commemorating prominent British figures, by artists including Francesco Monti, Donato Creti, Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Canaletto and others, which were commissioned by the theatre impresario Owen McSwiney for the 2nd Duke of Richmond’s dining-room at Goodwood House. She struggles to unearth themes of iconoclastic significance from the picture, with lengthy excursions into contemporary beliefs about Roman Britain, eighteenth-century landscape ­gardens and theories of the Picturesque, and the enduring popularity of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is read here as a precursor to the ‘overthrow of Catholic idolatry’ which she associates with the events of 1688. She appears content to regard the painting as participating in the political mood of extreme anti-Catholic nationalist fervour associated with James’s deposition, but is seemingly indifferent to the implied ­celebration of Puritan iconoclasm that this would suggest. All this, moreover, is accompanied by piously sweeping generalisations about ‘the British aristocracy’ and so on, to say nothing of her cheerful endorsement of the ‘originality’ of Jake and Dinos ­Chapman’s merry tinkerings with Goya.

Meanwhile, Richard Clay writes about the destruction of the shrine and human remains of the seventh-century patron saint of Paris, St Geneviève, in relation to the wider theme of iconoclasm and what he terms ‘the transformation of signs’ in Revolutionary Paris. Thus he typically describes the burning of her relics as an act of ‘sign transformation’ rather than of sacrilege, although he is clearly well aware that ‘just as Catholics were divided over the revolution, revolutionaries were divided over Catholicism’. I was intrigued to learn that prior to the burning of the saint’s bones outside the Hôtel de Ville, they had been tried and found guilty according to one contemporary account both of ‘collaboration with the royal authorities [. . .] and the crime of ­participating in the propagation of error’. Almost as soon as the de-Christianising regime came to an end in 1794, the saint’s cult was resumed in both Paris and her hometown of Nanterre. Clay is sceptical about the authenticity of the relics that were put back on display in the church of St-Etienne-du-Mont, but it would not be all that surprising if some portion had been saved, although I suspect this would be contrary to the main thrust of his account of the actions of the ‘de-Christianising revolutionaries’.

In his account of iconoclasm and the ‘Enlightenment Museum’, James Simpson is from the outset determined to question the idea that Enlightenment museums provided refuge from iconoclasm, regarding instead the Enlightenment itself as iconoclastic in three principal ways. First, philosophical, opposed to idolatry or ­‘ideology as false consciousness’; secondly, by changing images and objects into ‘Art’; and thirdly, by the manner in which Enlightenment taste ‘commodified the image under the market’s hammer’. It has clearly not occurred to him that the auction house may be a place of much greater safety and scholarly probity these days than some British university-based departments of art history. It might have helped if he had taken the trouble to explain what he means by ‘the Enlightenment Museum’ in the first place. It remains doubtful if we can draw any useful conclusions about the Enlightenment as a whole from a single, albeit fascinating, example he explores, which is a detail depicting a painting within an early seventeenth-century painting, namely a scene of Protestant iconoclasts who appear as cats and donkeys enthusiastically destroying paintings in a gallery, which is included in Hieronymus Francken II’s and Jan Breughel the Elder’s The Archdukes Albert and Isabella visiting a collector’s cabinet (1621–23), now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

James Noyes’s account of twentieth-century warfare and iconoclasm follows Rambelli’s and Reinders’s insistence elsewhere that iconoclasm should be understood primarily as ‘a taxonomy of effects’ rather than in relation to its motives, a dubious assertion which would doubtless go down well with the ISIS forces busy blowing up early mosques and churches in Mosul. Much of his essay concerns the ‘industrialised iconoclasm’ of ‘the century of world wars’, but it is all written at a frustratingly high level of ­theoretical abstraction and generalisation. This contrasts strongly with the detailed and nuanced account provided by James J. Elias of the context of the destruction of the celebrated fifth-century AD Buddha statues at Bamiyan in modern Afghanistan in 2001 (Fig.45). While it is perhaps naive to expect any degree of subtle well-informed theological understanding on the part of most Western press reports, about which he complains, the account he provides of the divisions between the local Persian-speaking Shi’a Muslim population and the invading Pushto-speaking Sunni Taliban forces is important, as are the illuminating contemporary local Afghan press accounts that he has examined. But his description of the Wahhabi-influenced fundamentalist Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam as a ‘somewhat puritanical reform movement’ is surely a rather striking understatement, while his argument that the destruction of the Buddhas, and much else besides, should not be viewed simply as a result of classic iconoclasm, but within ‘a complex interplay between local religious, ethnic and political differences’, is hardly controversial. When is this not the case in such affairs? However, to my mind he quite rightly questions the ethical priorities of Afghan-led proposals to create costly replicas at Bamiyan, although in the context of the ongoing suffering and poverty of the local population I do not think there is much point in contrasting actions that balance ‘human lives against inanimate artefacts’, since potential funding for people in need very rarely comes from the same sources as funding for large-scale cultural projects. However, he is clearly right to wish to make distinctions both within and between the two great strands of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, helpfully drawing attention to continuing, energetic vandalism in Mecca and Medina spearheaded by the House of Saud.

Simon Baker is a Curator of Photography and Contemporary Art at Tate Modern, and his chapter on the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman is from the outset somewhat compromised by its having first appeared in a commercial catalogue of their work published by White Cube gallery, which represents the artists in London. It is difficult to know quite what to make of the seemingly approving claim concerning the ‘collusion’ of the Chapmans’ 2005 Etchasketchathon series ‘in a predetermined ­stagnation where repetition renders internal iconographic references increasingly desperate’. The resuscitated writings of Georges Bataille are invoked at mind-numbing length to no great purpose that I could ascertain, other than to justify or validate the Chapmans’ ‘collaborations’ (as they apparently like to describe them) with Goya and others. Baker expresses much enthusiasm for the notion of collaboration since, as he revealingly puts it, this ‘neatly avoids the tired discourse on vandalism, iconoclasm and the destruction of art’. Thus vandalism, we are earnestly informed, is a concept ‘born in the late-eighteenth ­century out of an ignorant horror at the sophisticated ways that French revolutionaries were re-signifying spaces and objects’, while the term iconoclasm similarly ‘fails to account for the ways in which “iconoclasts” marshal existing representational codes in the service of new meanings’. In this account, the ‘deeply problematic and value-laden’ concept of iconoclasm is replaced by the idea of ‘a process of sign transformation’, quoting two of the editors of this collection.3 Rather than the historical figure of Goya celebrated by despised humanist critics, Baker prefers the idea of ‘Goya’ (imprisoned within inverted commas) as ‘the holding concept used to organise a corpus of work’. Poor Goya is thus as neatly and efficiently dehumanised as so many of the victims depicted in The disasters of war, and his achievements trivialised. Bataille apparently thought that Goya’s work involves a ‘leap into humour’ and hence, apparently, we should all leap to applaud the Chapmans’ supposedly daringly subversive ‘improvements’ to Goya’s unparalleled images of human suffering, towards which Baker confidently claims, without a shred of ­evidence, Goya was himself supposedly ‘indifferent’. This wilfully confuses iconoclasm, which I take to mean theologically or politically motivated damage or destruction, with the merely iconoclastic, as used in everyday speech to refer to all manner of irreverent or flippant self-promoting behaviour and actions, and this, moreover, is hardly a trivial distinction.

Simon Cane and Jonathan Ashley-Smith are respectively the Emeritus Head of Conservation at the Victoria and Albert Mus-eum, London, and the Acting Director of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, and their chapter considers circumstances in which conservation and restoration might be thought of as forms of iconoclasm. Conservation is of course one of the three main aims of most museums, alongside (though sometimes in conflict with) display and collecting. It includes ‘indirect actions’ intended to reduce natural deterioration and the effects of ageing, while it also involves complex questions concerning authenticity and original appearances, balanced by an ethical imperative to respect an object’s history, including accidental or deliberate damage. Yet excessive respect for the integrity of the many changes wrought by time and vandalism can nowadays lead to frankly preposterous conclusions, such as the recent decision, which the writers accept, not to straighten out the fine ceremonial gold cross from the important Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Horde discovered in 2009. This had been tightly folded, probably for its potential value within the Viking bullion economy which lacked its own coinage. It is currently displayed in Birmingham Museum in a sadly crumpled state (Fig.46), next to a rather sterile replica of the cross as it would have appeared to whoever looted it in the first place. But even the painfully folded original on display is not exactly as it was found since the original excavator had straightened it out, to an extent which is not disclosed, and it has obviously been cleaned of mud and site debris. An entirely new notion of authenticity has thus been introduced. If generally applied, such criteria would mean that there would be no displays anywhere of restored ­metalware from the ancient world, since it was almost invariably badly damaged when found. We know that even in the comparatively recent past conservation could depend far too much on the whim of the individual conservator or restorer, but it seems the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction of ­supposedly ‘objective’ science.

A discussion of the clear ethical codes which regulate the work of professional conservators would have been helpful. These vary in different countries, although the principle that all conservation should be reversible is enshrined in numerous internationally agreed professional charters not mentioned here. Indeed the Institute of Archaeology of the University of London offers an M.A. in Principles of Conservation, which is a necessary prerequisite for their M.Sc. in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, one of several such courses in Europe. Rather surprisingly the writers make no reference to recent discussions among archaeologists and ethnographers concerning the ethics of displaying human remains in museums, and I am mindful in this context of the words of the Revd Dr Martin Henig that respect ‘for those who lived in this world before us helps us to respect those who live with us, and those who will follow us’.4 What are we to make of the widespread re-use of symbolically significant materials and objects so frequently removed from their original contexts, and generally referred to as spolia, like the Byzantine silver bowl found at Sutton Hoo, or the wholesale use of Roman intaglios and coins throughout Carolingian and Ottonian art in order to signify the emergence of a stable new social order on a par with Antiquity? Is this iconoclasm in the same sense that applies to the destruction of the ancient royal regalia of England in 1649?

In their Conclusion, Stacy Boldrick and Tabitha Barber note the vulnerability and unpredictable fate of all historic cultural objects in their quest to construct ‘a narrative for British iconoclasm over centuries’, from the Reformation to the present day. I can readily believe that this ‘presented a challenge’ as they explain, since I have serious reservations about the fundamental validity of this underlying aim, not least because I do not believe that iconoclasm has a coherent history beyond a chronological sequence of relatively distinct events and episodes, and it seems altogether unhelpful to lump together all instances of secular and religious iconoclasm across all cultural and historical boundaries. To take just one example, the iconoclasm that took place in ­England during the reign of Edward VI was in many respects quite unlike the iconoclasm which took place in the 1640s and during the Interregnum, just as iconoclasm in Lutheran Denmark has a very different history to that in Calvinist Scotland, where the destruction of religious art was almost total. Boldrick and Barber end with a lengthy quotation from James Simpson claiming that the ‘very existence of the art gallery, we can now see, is itself part of the story of iconoclasm, or our iconoclasm’, as if the work of museums was merely a continuation by other means of the iconoclast’s deliberate obliteration of cultural memory. Indeed, the frequent carping attacks on museums and galleries made by several of the contributors to this book strongly suggest that they are indifferent to the multitude of pressing threats to such institutions themselves, both from policies dictated internally by PR and sales departments, to funding cuts and de-accessioning on the part of cash-strapped local authorities, as in the recent scandalous case of the sale of the Northampton Sekhemka statue.

Striking Images presents a thoroughly secularised reading of world culture, and there is little interest displayed in these pages in questions of sacrilege or blasphemy. There is no curiosity about possible psychological motivation on the part of iconoclasts, unlike the earlier pioneering ethnographic work of David Freedberg.5 It follows that there is no awareness of the possibility of identifying the distinctive pleasures associated with iconoclasm on the part of iconoclasts, ranging from the sense of relief concerning fears of eternal damnation associated with idolatry, or in averting pollution, to the gratification of attention-seekers of many different types. Strangely, this is iconoclasm without a human face. Several contributors seem to considerably exaggerate the intellectual sophistication of most iconoclasts. Thus in Britain the main historical motives for iconoclasm appear to have been base financial greed and irrational fear. The dour Calvinists who took their hammers to religious statuary, or who threw bricks through figurative stained-glass windows, superstitiously attributed far more power to religious iconography than the devout Anglicans or Roman Catholics whom they so despised. After a while it all begins to read rather like the art-historical equivalent to a North Korean government re-education programme, rigorously exposing the thought-crimes and delusions of hopelessly recalcitrant old-fashioned humanists, and expecting recantation and expressions of gratitude from convicted offenders. Finally, I feel obliged to note that I do not recall more than a fleeting note of regret anywhere in these pages concerning the ongoing destruction of so much of world culture in the twenty-first ­century, or any other era, which reflects rather sadly on the attitudes and beliefs of some contemporary art historians, who even appear at times to celebrate rather than deplore the iconoclasm they describe.

1    Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past And Present. Edited by Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker and Richard Clay. 236 pp. incl. 4 col. + 48 b. & w. ills. (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Farnham, 2013), £65. ISBN 978–1–4724–1367–3.
2    G.W. Bowersock: Mosaics As History, The Near East From Late Antiquity To Islam, Cambridge MA 2006; see especially ch. 4, pp.91–113.
3    S. Boldrick and R. Clay, eds.: Iconoclasm Contested Objects: Contested Terms, ­Farnham 2006, n.p.
4    M. Henig: Letters, The Times (Monday 12th January 2004). accessed 10th September 2014.
5    D. Freedberg: The Power Of Images, Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago 1989.