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Slash and Burn: Burgeoning new interest in iconoclasm

Two books and a recent exhibition at the Tate Britain explore the subject matter but remain within already established grounds

From deliberately broken swords flung into Bronze Age peat bogs to the sledgehammers taken to Sufi shrines following the Arab Spring, iconoclastic acts have a history as long as humans have been creating artefacts. It is as ancient a practice as it is modern.

Given its ubiquity, iconoclasm has not been a much-studied phenomenon. England’s Iconoclasts by Margaret Aston (1988) examining the history of Protestant image-breaking was seminal; then, in 1997, art historian Dario Gamboni published The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution. These important books informed my own 2006 study on the destruction of architecture in conflicts.

Now, however, interest in the subject is burgeoning with the release, at the turn of the year, of two books on the subject and an extensive catalogue that accompanied the recent Tate Britain show Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm.

This may reflect the perspective that since the toppling of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the World Trade Center within months of each other, there has been an apparent upswing in iconoclastic activity at the hands of hard-line Islamists. But this perspective forgets a record of destruction over the last century and one carried out in the name of ideology and conquest rather than religion. The burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and campaign of deracination in Tibet, and Russia under Stalin are just some notable episodes.

It was the comprehensive attack on emblematic architecture in the former Yugoslavia, however, that really stirred fresh interest in the subject. In parallel with this erasure of material culture we have seen the rise of ‘iconic’ architecture to the point where icon status for an edifice is demanded from inception rather than earned over time.

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The empty niche where one of the Bamiyan Buddhas stood until blown up by the Taliban in 2001, and the ruins of Gisborough Priory in Yorkshire, destroyed by Henry VIII.

The books seek to provide that longer perspective: Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present edited by Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker and Richard Clay (Ashgate) builds on a 2009 conference that led to the formation of the interdisciplinary Iconoclasms Network in 2011 and whose members wrote the essays in the book. Boldrick, a curator at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, was one of the curators of the Tate Britain show and co-editor of its catalogue of the same name. As well as releasing The Politics of Iconoclasm (IB Tauris) almost on the same day as the Ashgate title, James Noyes contributes an essay to Striking Images and draws on the research of his co-authors.

Such an enmeshed academic world has led to a shared perspective. A key concept is Richard Clay’s term ‘sign transformation’. This usefully allows comparative investigation of such disparate acts of iconoclasm as the Roman armies chopping down the Druidic sacred groves of Anglesey, the scratching out of eyes of paintings and the careful burying of broken sculptures − as carried out by Calvinists and the Pre-Columbian Mayans respectively. The iconoclastic-like consequences of relocating an object from pre-revolutionary cathedral to Enlightenment museum, thereby supplanting an object’s ritual function with an aesthetic one, is also addressed. In short, iconoclasm need not completely destroy an object or building to transform and disempower it.

This approach clearly has its roots in the semiotic strand of Postmodernism − so tempting given the subject area − as do the grasping claims of contemporary iconic architecture, for that matter. While a useful analytic tool, this approach means the resulting essays while being rich in interest and detail often have that characteristic separation between art historical or anthropological critiques and the real world power play involved in the control, destruction and transformation of images. Power politics is present but often scurrying around in the background rather than clearly heard.

Jamal J Elias’s essay on the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, is a comparison of the English media’s coverage and that in Islamic countries to deliver a nuanced take on exactly what the Taliban meant by their actions. This is interesting but an understanding of iconoclasm as an act of violent propaganda is not new and Elias, like many writers on the Afghanistan, neglects to place the violent removal of the statues in its proper context − the Taliban’s territorial ambitions and ethnic cleansing across the wider Bamiyan region.

Which is why the focus of Noyes’ work sounds so promising. As a scholar with a background in a theology department, the book has an armature that intertwines Calvinist and Wahhabist preaching against idolatry (both with their origins in the Mosaic story of the Golden Calf). He then seeks to demonstrate how these played out among the emerging bourgeoisie of Calvin’s Geneva and the centuries-slow shift from nomadism to an urbanised Saudi state and then the contemporary destruction being wrought by Wahhabi-influenced Islamic fundamentalists. There is much to commend in these sections.

Tantalisingly, Noyes touches on how these issues are played out spatially but there does not appear to be an architectural mind at work here. This especially frustrates in later chapters dealing with, for instance, the Nazi plan to eradicate Warsaw and the Serb destruction of Bosnia’s Muslim heritage; Noyes’ armature isn’t elaborated into something fully three-dimensional.

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Both Islamic fundamentalists and Protestants were ultimately inspired by the same iconoclastic legend: the story of the Golden Calf. They were also asserting their political autonomy

There is not a great deal that I would regard as truly original in these 20th-century sections and although sometimes Noyes can be fulsome in his debt to others in the Iconoclasm Network, he can also be parsimonious with attributions − whole arcs of arguments can have a familiar ring.

What the book doesn’t do is what its title suggests: explore the politics of iconoclasm and the way that territorial and class politics often hide behind the mask of doctrine. The scriptural remains to the fore.

Tate Britain was wise then to organise its show and book into three clear themes − religion, politics and aesthetics. In a crisp introduction the gallery’s director, Penelope Curtis, notes that the Tate’s is a post-Reformation collection (its earliest work is from 1545) and that we in Britain take for granted the separation of fine art and the church.

Art Under Attack then takes us on a journey from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (more realpolitik and asset-stripping exercise than reformist fervour − not so the actions of his children) to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s use of plates from Goya’s The Disasters of War disfigured with Steve Bell-like cartoon faces.

However, the inclusion of conscious fine art practice, such as that following from the 1966 Destruction in Art symposium, or the iconoclastic in its broader, anti-establishment meaning as well as the use of the word to describe press vitriol about particular artworks as if it were the same as a physical attack, serves only to make already muddy waters still murkier. There is a slipperiness to the subject matter that it will take any number of books before its overlapping religious, theological and political purposes can be fully grasped. Slippery definitions are not making that task any easier.

Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present

Author: Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker and Richard Clay

Publisher: Ashgate

Price: £58.50

The Politics of Iconoclasm

Author: James Noyes

Publisher: IB Tauris

Price: £58

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm

Author: Barber & Boldrick

Publisher: Tate Publishing

Price: £24.99

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