"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Iconoclasms Past and Present, East and West, Christian and Otherwise

The field of iconoclasm studies has been putting out several interesting books and articles in the past few years. I earlier noted James Noyes's recent book here. Then, this past weekend, I had an opportunity to finish another recent study, a collection of articles edited by Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker and Richard Clay, Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present (Ashgate, 2013), 236pp.

About this book we are told:
All cultures make, and break, images. Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present explores how and why people have made and modified images and other cultural material from pre-history into the 21st century. With its impressive chronological sweep and disciplinary breadth, this is the first book about iconoclasm (the breaking of images) and the transformation of broader sets of signs that includes contributions from archaeologists, curators, and museum conservators as well as historians of art, literature and religious studies.The chapters examine themes critical to the study of iconoclasm: violence, punishment, memory, intentionality, ruins and relics and their survival. The conclusion shows how cross-disciplinary debate amongst the contributors informed Tate Britain's 'Art Under Attack' exhibition (2013) and addresses the challenges iconoclasm presents to the modern museum.By juxtaposing objects and places usually considered in isolation, Striking Images raises provocative questions about our understandings of cross-cultural differences and the value of representational objects from the broken swords of pre-historical bog graves to the Bamiyan Buddhas and contemporary art. Are any such objects ever 'finished', or are they simply subject to constant transformation? In dialogue with each other, the essays consider this question and expand the field of iconoclasm - and cultural - studies.
This collection is valuable for several reasons, not least that it reveals that "iconoclasm" is not merely an episode in eighth-century Byzantine history. Indeed, as Leslie Brubaker's short introductory article makes clear (too briefly, in my view, which is why you'd be better off buying her recent, and vastly more affordable, book discussed here), the whole idea of "iconoclasm" is a twentieth-century neologism. The East-Romans never knew the term, and instead spoke of "iconomachy" or "image struggles."

But apart from Brubaker's chapter, almost none of the remaining chapters treat Christian iconoclasm. Instead they look at examples from other cultures and traditions, ancient and modern, taking a welcome and expansive view of the destruction of images variously conceived. One consistent theme is how often iconoclasm is a prelude to, and indeed already a part of, an ascendant new political ideology, again variously conceived. This book, while not inexpensive, would nonetheless make a good survey text for introductory courses on iconoclasm and art history more generally, helping students and general readers see that neither Christianity nor Islam has a monopoly on the destruction of art that conflicts, or appears to conflict, with regnant political and ideological arrangements.

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