June 9, 2020

Iconoclasm in the eyes of the beholder

Illustration of the Beeldenstorm
F. De Witt Huberts
The siege of Haarlem.
Op/Ed - By Lynda Albertson

History tells us that our predecessors had a word for iconoclasm, εἰκονοκλασία. In Ancient Greek it gets its roots from two words:

εἰκών - figure, image, likeness, portrait

κλάω - to break, to break off, to break into pieces, to be broken or deflected; to break, to weaken, to frustrate.

The Romans referred to it as Damnatio Memoriae; condemnation of memory.  In a world with no photography, and with what little remains of writing from that period, anything that was erased during these periods was likely lost from public memory.

The OED, the definitive record of the modern English language, defines an iconoclast as an individual who challenges "cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious".

During war, much has been written about protecting the history of our vanquished enemies.  Article 56 of the regulations respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV) speaks to the property of municipalities and calls for penalties for the prohibitive seizure, destruction or damaging of cultural property protected by international law.  Likewise, the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunal regarded the pillage and destruction of foreign property, including cultural objects, as a war crime.

But things get blurry when civil conflicts are the cause of iconoclasm, especially when the incidences are internal to a country's borders, politics, or religion. Or at least so thinks the iconoclasts involved, who see their actions as wholly reasonable, and in some cases downright righteous.   

A little more than 500 years ago, Augustinian friar Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses against the Church's indulgences to Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg.  This event is believed by some to have fuelled the start of the Bildersturm, the "picture storm" of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and the Netherlands.  Later and for many of the same reasons, the wave of Puritan religious fervor carried over to England, sometimes using state-approved civic channels to remove objects that no longer sat well with the majority, as was the case with the removal of the Cheapside Cross, voted on and approved for demolition by London’s Common Council on 27 April 1643.

Crowds tear down the Cheapside Cross, 2 May1643
Other incidences were religiously-sanctioned, handed down to churches in the reign of Edward VI, like the defacing of the 14th Century devotional statue of St Margaret and thousands of others ecclesiastic artworks which once highlighted English churches in the late medieval period.  Destroyed with the formal approval of Anglican reformers, Edward VI’s 1547 instructions ordered the devout to "to take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition so that there remain no memory of the same within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their houses."   After this purge, so little religious art was left, that it would be easy to assume that there was no native painting and very little sculpture in pre-Reformation Britain. 

Watching their past pulled down and in some cases white-limed, those in disagreement, sometimes, tried to save what they had been mandated to destroy. Church monuments were hidden away haphazardly from the angry iconoclasts when and how they could.  Sometimes, they even buried them in the ground, perhaps as one last defiant act of solemn funerary respect, or perhaps hoping the artworks could be retrieved once the anger-fueled storm had passed.  

In the wet soil of England, moisture, as well as time, wreaked havoc on these once venerated objects, stripping them of their finishes and leaching away much of their vibrant color.  Time erased what artists had worked so hard to create, as the statues and icons were never meant to be subject to the dampness of English weather. 

Saint Margaret at St Andrew Church, Fingringhoe, Essex
Some, like St. Margaret, depicted above, were found years later on church grounds, then painstakingly restored, as best as was possible, to sit once again inside the church they once decorated.  Others, less fortunate, eventually traveled miles from their sacred homes, turning up on the art market at European art fairs like BRAFA or TEFAF.  These traveling masterpieces were snapped up by specialized galleries, like Fluminalis and Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe, who long have known that selling Art médiéval, touched by iconoclasm, can earn a dealer a princely sum for the pains and remains of the past. 

And while these Christian Reformations are now a distant memory, we watched in digital horror recently, as history repeated itself in new and even more disturbingly theatrical ways, at the hands of the Islamic State.  The group's own brand of religious politics, like others before them, believed that rending asunder a past incongruent with the caliphate's beliefs was righteous; so much so that they digitally curated their destructive handiwork at well known cultural heritage sites like Palmyra in Syria, the Mosul Cultural Museum, Nineveh, and Nimrud in Iraq rather than retain them for posterity.

Da'esh militant taking a pneumatic drill to the last fully preserved colossal Lamassu.
Nergal Gate, Nineveh
And while it is easy to see the wrongness of denominational iconoclasm throughout history, a portion of the public, and even some academics, have recently shown that they view ideological iconoclasm through differing filters, picking and choosing what is worth retaining and what is worth destroying, based in part upon the stresses and tears an object creates in the social fabric of society in a given place or time. 

Take for example the reliefs of victory and torture illustrating the futile cycle of the rise and fall of empires of long ago, etched onto the walls of Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal's grand royal residence in the citadel of Nineveh.  One depicts the Assyrian battle at Memphis in 667 BCE.  

Parts of this extraordinary relief are mesmerizingly graphic, as well as tragically poignant.  The panels vividly document the Assyrian aesthetic of memorializing its violent and gruesome deeds in furtherance of their rule.   This panel explicitly illustrates the fate that awaited the defeated soldiers of King Taharka.  Five of the captured Nubians can been seen being marched off single-file, handcuffed, humiliated, and bare-footed. At the rear of the line, two Assyrian soldiers triumphantly hold the decapitated heads of two of their vanquished opponents. 

"Panel 17, Room M" of the North Palace at Nineveh
On display at the British Museum 
Another relief, from King Sennacherib's Palace Without Rival at Nineveh. illustrates the conquest and destruction of Lachish after the siege of 701 BCE.  Likewise, it is meticulously carved in grisly detail, with parts of the relief depicting the unfortunate members of Lachish's ruling government being tortured to death.  Nearby, what remains of the city's townspeople, are seen as they are led away into a life of slavery, dominated by their conquerors.  Yet today these images are seen as a record of histories long past.  

The defeated citizens of Lachish led away as prisoners by the Assyrians.
On display at the British Museum 

Neither of these artworks evoke a visceral horror as they would, had the events occurred in the more recent past. Seen with eyes unmoved by emotions, they are considered, simply, historical representations of war, or even art.  As ancient artifacts they are admired for their violent realism, and take pride-of-place in some of the world's prestigious museums.

Perhaps these reliefs are treasured because the footprints of the citizens of Memphis and Lachish who fought in these battles, and the cemeteries where their corpses lie, are not our own forefathers.  The blood of these historic fighters has long since soaked into the ground where other civilizations took root, grew and now walk.

But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic killing, some pains are fresher, and instead of suggesting unifying ways to reconcile ourselves with our own distasteful pasts and presents, some professors and curators have seen fit to encourage their own iconoclastic storms.  One, in a series of tweets, even provided a "hypothetically" detailed instructions on how to destroy public monuments as a public service announcement.

Others don't even hide behind carefully-worded innuendo. Instead, they go straight for enhancing the public spectacle of destruction even using the skills they were taught in conservation and historic preservation, but now turned towards demolition.

But as proper historians know deep down in their entrails, ridding ourselves completely of unwanted history is farcical.  And while the new vanguard of undoing a wrong, by removing monuments to oppression might come from a good place, and might make us feel like we are contributing to something good, the act itself will not bring absolution.  Nor does it pay sufficient penance for the years we stood idly by, remaining silent, while others were mistreated, abused, and killed.

Citizens standing over a toppled statue of Joseph Stalin
23 October 1956
History is littered with the broken statues of distasteful oppressors, toppled time and time again, in justifiable anger-filled rage and resentment.  Some are bashed to bits by angry mobs, others are discreetly removed, sometimes under the cloak of darkness, to be tucked into less offensive spaces in deference to those injured by what the statue represents.   But even if we could deface, pull down or blow up every morally reprehensible visual representation of the world's tyrants and bullies, we won't ever be washed free of their sins, or our own complacency in idly letting their atrocities take root and happen.

Tweeting out instructions for taking down statues seen as images of slave oppression will not erase the shattering consequences of that era in America's history.  Nor will it stop tomorrow's injustices when it comes to race, or tomorrow's killing of another black man at the hands of police brutality, or when George Floyd's name joins the list of the only vaguely remembered black men who have been abused or killed, while little else changes.

Erasing the history of the confederacy and the South's poor choices in these monuments won't erase the racial hatred which historically allowed these monuments to be erected. And time would be better spent wrestling with the present and asking why, in 2020, we still have an environment that allows racial and ethnic hatred which kills.

Having said all that, let me be clear, I am in no way advocating for the preservation of these morally repugnant monuments. If I had my druthers, they would be procedurally and physically dealt with in a way that addresses the painfulness of the argument listening to the voices of the voiceless.

What I am against are these kinds of performative acts which are often more about political capital than the hard-grinding work of enacting real social change.  We need change much more than simply sweeping old bronzes under unresolved rugs, where the undercurrents of racism still creep and grow, like bigger and bigger dust bunnies, threatening to choke us all.

The end of a statue is not the same as the end of the bitterness and in the end toppling them does little to heal anyone.

We need to do better.  We need to be better.  We need to do better.  Every single one of us, needs to do better. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written and well-said, we need to make real changes and just tearing down statues, which are visible symbols of a horrific past, won't change anything. Real change is necessary and one that will have an impact on society for the future of us all. Until every human being is treated the same in this world, there will be no change.