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
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