The concept of iconoclasm entails a contestation over–and destruction of–images coinciding with a belief in the fallacious nature of their representation. The objection to the representation can stem from any number of factors–disagreement over the truth of the representation’s referent, with the manner in which the referent is depicted, etc.–but the commonality between all of these factors is that the violence tends to be directed upon the medium itself, though the wielders of the icon or its referent are also sometimes included in the violence. The Oxford English Dictionary explicates this aim against the medium itself in its definition of the term “iconoclast”: “1) A breaker or destroyer of images; spec. (Eccl. Hist.) one who took part in or supported the movement in the 8th and 9th centuries, to put down the use of images or pictures in religious worship in the Christian churches of the East; hence, applied analogously to those Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries who practised or countenanced a similar destruction of images in the churches, and 2) One who assails or attacks cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the ground that they are erroneous or pernicious”. As can be seen from this definition, the physical destruction of the medium and its content–here images and pictures–is labeled as the primary definition of “iconoclast”, while the notion of attacking belief only emerges in the secondary definition and without a corresponding mode of action (i.e. how can one attack insubstantial beliefs, save by destroying the representations of that belief?).
The competition over images can be traced back as far as Plato’s dialogues and the Biblical prohibition against graven images. Plato denigrates the status of the image in his Republic on account of its derivation from an original ideal model. By characterizing images inside the “world of sight” as a “prison-house”, Plato reduces images to a mere secondary value, beneficial only in accordance with its similitude to the original (517). Plato’s iconoclastic arguments therefore focus upon visually imitative media such as the plastic arts, but he also condemns written representations that do not have any moral purpose. This dichotomy between visual and written media illustrates a fundamental differentiation between the purposes of these media to Plato’s philosophy: visual imitation is inherently fallacious, since it is only a copy of the original model, while written representations are acceptable to long as they promote philosophical knowledge (only immoral written representations are fallacious). It is significant to note, though, that while Plato’s philosophy denounces the image, he does not advocate the physical destruction of images. Rather, his position aligns him with a line of philosophers suspicious or outright hostile to the image, progressing through Pascal and Kant and culminating in Nietzsche (a position better termed “iconomach” than narrowly “iconoclast” [Aston, 18]).
The Biblical prohibition, on the other hand, explicitly forbids the creation of images–the 2nd Commandment–and depicts repeated destructions of idols, ranging from the melting of the golden calf in Exodus to the breaking of the Philistines’ idols (see Exodus 32 and 2 Samuel 5 for examples; for a further discussion of Greek and Christian impacts on the status of the image, see Alain Besen&ccidil;on’s The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm). In this case, there exists a strict division between the production of graven images–statuary–and the linguistic representations of Yahweh depicted in the Bible. Indeed, the Bible privileges linguistic–and specifically textual–representations as the source of God’s law, whether in the oral proclamations associated with the tale of Moses and the burning bush or the textual rendering of the Ten Commandments’ tablets. In contrast to this, statuary images are depicted as undermining the relationship between worshippers and God and thus must be destroyed, regardless of who possesses them (e.g. the Jews or the Philistines).
To turn to the evolution of the term iconoclast, it was first used as a proper name to distinguish a heretical movement in 8th century Byzantium that viewed any image whatsoever to be a violation of the Bible’s second commandment (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”, Exodus 20.4). Edward James Martin traces this movement to an Islamic influence on the Eastern Church, which was subsequently adopted by Emperor Constantine V and provoked a rash of destruction, particularly of images in public places (31-2). In this context, the media being attacked are primarily the statuary icons condemned in the Bible, though pictures also fell under the prohibitions enacted. This destruction occurred in waves from the period 726-843, until the desecrations were finally ceased by the restoration of orthodoxy (on the first Sunday of Lent in 843). These years were subsequently labeled as either the Iconoclastic heresy or the Iconoclastic controversy, after the resumed orthodoxy and the Western Church denounced the destruction that had accompanied the theological doctrine.
The semantic range of the term iconoclasm increased during the years of rise of Protestantism and the Catholic Reformation. The Protestant movement advocated a sense of religion in which personal contact with God was achieved through reading the Bible alone, thus shunning the more numerous mediations in the Catholic Church (religious hierarchies, the pantheon of saints, and mediatory images other than the Bible). The term thus became a label for any destruction of religious icons in the name of religious “sensibility” (a term ascribed by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit; see their book Idolatry). It is significant to note in this regard that the Eucharist was seen as one of these idolatrous elements; indeed, the Eucharist and the crucifix were two of the most hotly debated issues during these years of religious unrest. Through such attacks, reformers followed Calvin’s example in an attack on symbolic images in general, as opposed to the more narrowly defined category of religious icons in the Byzantine case (pictures, statues, etc.). Still, this mode of iconoclasm remained concerned with material icons; indeed, a corresponding increase in the valuation of linguistic representation occurred in this period, with reformers such as Luther and Calvin emphasizing the primary role of the Bible in religious life.
While this term remains consistent after the religious upheavals of the 16th and 17tth centuries, the objects denounced as false images alters dramatically with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. As Aston points out in her study England’s Iconoclasts, the term “image” originally designated only statuary, then gradually broadened to include any visual form of representation (though written representations were curiously absent from this prohibition, as pointed out by Halbertal and Margalit and witnessed in the Protestant privileging of the Bible [17, 2]). In the context of the Enlightenment, the false images associated with erroneous belief expanded beyond deviations from the “correct” religion to the supposed erroneous belief in religion in general. Thus beliefs in the efficacy of science–and in particular its demystification of nature–corresponded to an assault on the images of religion in general, rather than specific uses of religious images. For instance, Bruno Latour argues that scientific iconoclasms–which he terms iconoclashes so as to highlight their contestation –differentiate facts (scientific beliefs) from fetishes (religious beliefs) in order to attack religious images as manifestations of naÂ•ef (“A Few Steps Toward an Anthropology of the Iconoclastic Gesture”). It is important to note that these religious images can be linguistic as well as visual–the Bible is one of the key objects of criticism–but that iconoclastic gestures still tend to be focused upon material objects associated with religious belief.
This trend can be seen even more dominantly in the writings of Marx and his followers, in which images within capitalist societies are relegated to the status of mere products of ideology (i.e. false images). In particular, Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish attacks the notion of value invested within any given material object that functions as a commodity. Instead of being valued for its utility, Marx argues that the commodity becomes valuable only insofar as it contains the objective products of labor as value, thus imbuing commodities with the social relations of individuals (see Capital, Vol.1, p.231-43). This theory attacks material objects–commodities–as being the recipient of a fallacious belief on the part of capitalist society, epitomized in the monetary system that has no value whatsoever outside of exchange.
Despite this evolution of the terminology in question, many of the symptoms witnessed in iconoclashes have remained consistent throughout the periods in question. The interaction of political and religious thematics in iconoclashes, for one, has been present in nearly all of these conflicts. In order for the iconoclast to regard the subject of his aggression as having naïve belief in an image, there must be an assumption of something transcendent residing within the object that imbues it with significance (even if the “believer” in fact views it only as a representation). At the same time as eliminating these “naïve” beliefs through aggression, however, the iconoclast imparts his own practices on the believer, thus enforcing a political force as well (see Latour, as well as Halbertal and Margalit). Instances of the political aspect can seen as the effects of a particular regime (àˆ la the Church in the Middle Ages or the Soviet Union during the Cold War) or as implicated in a political economy of signs (as in the case of avant-gardist opposition to the dominant economy of signs, particularly the surrealists; see Sloterdijt). Perhaps the most explicit example of this interrelation can be seen in ancient Israel, in which the name for idolatry also designated trading agreements between Israel and foreign nations (Halbertal and Margalit, 5).
Another common characteristic of iconoclastic gestures is their public performativity. In such disparate circumstances as 16th century England and post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the predominance of iconoclastic defacement and destruction within public areas has been overwhelming. For instance, Joseph Koerner has noted the “resemblance between iconoclastic riot and carnival”, in which scripted public shamings are enacted in an almost formulaic manner (189). Far from fading into obscurity with the rise of more politically-oriented and ideological-driven iconoclasms, this carnivalesque atmosphere can be observed in the defacement and dismantling of monuments from Soviet-era Eastern Europe, many of which were destroyed in mass-participation spectacles. This emphasis on public performativity may reveal the basis for the prejudice against visual images often associated with iconoclasm, since verbal and auditory media cannot be subjected to a visual spectacle in this manner. An important qualification to make, however, is that iconoclasms often emerge from discrepancies between official culture and mass participation, and therefore the carnivalesque theatrics can be a product of either an official script, an implicit script of participation, or a combination of both (see Aston, 15, and Latour, “What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?”, 36-7).
A somewhat complicating factor emerges, however, in the discrepancy between what constitutes an “image” or the destruction of an image, and who is creating these distinctions. Michael Taussig argues that the defacement of icons is in fact the condition of the unmasking of their secrets and that such actions stand “in juxtaposition to exposure, which … would only destroy the secret” (2). This sense of a productive defacement–Taussig calls it “negative energy” (1)–aligns quite closely with Latour’s notion of the iconoclast’s “double bind” (“What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?”, 23). Latour proposes that iconoclastic destruction cannot be separated from a production of a new image–a condition that creates an irreconcilable contradiction between the destruction of mediations and the proliferation of images. For example, the destruction of the image by avant-garde artists can be regarded as an iconoclastic gesture–especially by classicist artists–but they are also creating other images in the process. Thus what constitutes an iconoclasm and what constitutes an image can be relative based on their placement within this process–a point brought out well in Latour’s term “iconoclash”–or can even be the same thing. In this mode, Koerner describes the breakers of crucifixes as defacing “a representation from the start”, which then becomes a “representation once again” as exemplary of mere wood (183).
One final point that needs some further explication here is that the destruction of images is always linked to an opposition to certain practices and individuals. In a sense, it is not about the image itself at all. Instead, the image is only a means whereby one imposes one’s beliefs forcibly on another or attempts to inflict harm to an individual through the mediation of their images. It is significant to note, however, that whether or not the iconoclast naïvely “believes” in these images, his belief in their ability to harm his opponent signals a belief in their mediatory power between him and his opponent. If the iconoclast did not believe thus and did not feel a need to impose his own practices upon another individual or group, there would be no point at all in destroying the image. As Halbertal and Margalit comment, iconoclasm is a method whereby the practices of a group of people are forcibly aligned with the practices of another group through the destruction of their images–a destruction that limits the practices available to the believers (9).
Aston, Margaret. England’s Iconoclasts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Besançon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Halbertal, Moshe and Margalit, Avishai. Idolatry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Koerner, Joseph. “The Icon as Iconoclash.” Iconoclash. Ed Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
Latour, Bruno. “A Few Steps Toward an Anthropology of the Iconoclastic Gesture.” Science in Context 10.1 (Spring 1997): 63-84.
—-“What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?” Iconoclash. Ed Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. 14-37.
Martin, Edward James. A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1978.
Marx, Karl. Capital. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Plato. The Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941.
Sloterdijk, Peter. “Analytic Terror. Keyword for Avant-Gardism as Explicative Force.” Iconoclash. Ed Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
Taussig, Michael. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.