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The controversy over the image extended from the Byzantine iconoclastic debate to that of the Reformation, from the temporary prohibition of graven images in Islam to artistic iconoclasm. Some authors have suspected that the controversy over images is essentially a rationalization of political conflicts, and hence a disguising and redressing of social movements and revolutions. During the English Civil War in the seventeenth century, the controversy over images concealed the struggle between monarchists and reformers (Hill, “Eikonoklastes and Idolatry,” in: Milton and the English Revolution, 1977; Cooper, The Journal of William Dowsing, 2001). In eighteenth-century England, the aesthetics of iconoclasm and the recreation of images mirrored the politics of revolution and restoration.

The most famous form of iconoclasm, of course, derived from the French Revolution (1789–1799). One of the Jacobin clubs wrote: “Destroy those signs of slavery and idolatry which only serve to perpetuate ignorance and superstition. Replace them with images of Rousseau, Franklin and all the other great men, ancient and modern, which will fill the people with a noble enthusiasm for liberty.” (Paulson, “Revolution and the Visual Arts,” in: Porter and Teich, Revolution in History, 1986, p. 245) From that time onward, destroying (religious) images and destroying idols were associated with the rhetoric of enlightenment and freedom. The ideas of revolution and of iconoclasm moved in parallel. The revolutionaries wanted to destroy actual power along with or by means of the images of political power. The Roman emperor Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE) was the first to celebrate political power as visual power (Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 1990).

Clearly, political reformers always wanted to destroy the images and statues of the previous ruling class, from the dismantling of the Vendôme Column on May 16, 1871, in Paris at the instigation of the painter Gustave Courbet, the destruction of countless statues of Lenin and Stalin in the postcommunist era, to the demolition of the statues of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001. Iconoclastic conflicts, which we call iconoclashes (Latour and Weibel, Iconoclash, 2002), thus correlate with social conflicts. The representation of politics is present in the politics of representation.

The essence of English iconoclasm was the replacing of visual motifs on church walls with words (Paulson, Breaking and Remaking, 1989). Even more recently, a British artists’ group called itself Art & Language and not Art & Image. For Vilém Flusser, writing is part of this tradition of cultural iconoclasm. In his view, the alphabet was invented “in order to destroy images”; it is a code that “permits us to replace visual, imaginary, magical thinking by a different way of thinking, namely, a conceptual, linear-discursive one” (“Zum Abschied von der Literatur,” in: Merkur, no. 451/452, 1986, p. 897; translated from the German). For him, writing is iconoclastic. “Inscriptions are the torn pieces, the cadavers of images; they are images that fell victim to the murderous incisor teeth of writing […].” (Does Writing Have a Future?, 2011, p. 14)

Radical iconoclasm means not trusting any kind of representation and rejecting all mediation. Radical iconoclasm is a belief in the possibility of seeing without eyes, of obtaining images of the world without instruments. Science was already showing this kind of iconoclastic tendency as early as 1800, rejecting every image and every graphic symbol. The world could only be represented in mathematical form. One of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of the eighteenth century, Joseph-Louis de Lagrange, wrote, in a scientific source code of the modern era: “No figures will be found in this work. The methods I present require neither constructions nor geometrical or mechanical arguments, but solely algebraic operations subject to a regular and uniform procedure.” (Lagrange, Analytical Mechanics, 1997, p. 7)

German Romanticism (1790–1830) was a conservative reaction to the Enlightenment and the rationalism of science. It returned to the image and pursued idolatry again. By contrast, modern art – from Alexander Rodchenko and his monochrome paintings to Lucio Fontana and his slit canvases – is due almost entirely to iconoclastic impulses. In 1921 Alexander Rodchenko exhibited three monochrome paintings – Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color – and claimed to have brought painting to an end by doing so: pure plane without any depiction of reality other than color.

Original article by Peter Weibel

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iconoclasm.txt · Last modified: 2021/11/05 17:47 by