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Iconoclasm And Orthodoxy: Art’s Perpetual Insurgency

Updated: Jan 23, 2020

by Lewis Evans

"An iconoclasm of today would not emerge from within the art establishment, but rather take the art establishment as one of its main targets. There are few who could really say it didn’t have it coming."

Exeter Cathedral is a well-preserved 13th century building with one very obvious flaw.

Though the spire, gothic details and flying buttresses are all intact, creating a powerful and cohesive impression as the viewer approaches across the Cathedral yard past the statue of the Protestant theologian Richard Hooker, the closer you get the harder it is to ignore the fact that the faces have been gouged off the statues of saints that adorn the exterior of the main building.

It might almost be possible to imagine werewolves or gremlins clawing at these features, representations of a sacred world that fell, suddenly and violently, during the English Reformation. The crude nature of this work of destruction is preserved for the viewer to see and touch to this day.

We have a word for this phenomenon: iconoclasm. It’s a word loaned from Greek, tied to a specific episode in the 8th century Byzantine empire. There, seized by similar zeal which animated the various apprentices, journeyman and footloose young men (for they were almost all men) who attacked Exeter Cathedral, many Christians took against the common Greek practice of painting icons of saints and key biblical figures.

A photograph of Exeter Cathedral's vaulted ceiling.
Exeter Cathedral's vaulted ceiling.

These images are emblematic of Greek Christianity: haunting representations of incarnate divinity. The melancholy eyes of the Theotokos, mother of God, or the Pantocrator, king of the Universe, can compel the viewer into an intimate sense of the sacred. At some point in the 700s however, huge numbers of people felt the need to burn, smash and otherwise desecrate the icons.

They became known as iconoclasts, which roughly translates as ‘icon opponents.’ Theie opponents, the iconodules (‘icon proponents’) would eventually win the intricate theological debate that underpinned the dispute, but only after countless artistic treasures had been lost.

Iconoclasm is not just a product of Christianity. Destroying ‘graven images’ gripped parts of northern Europe through the 16th and 17th centuries. This was echoed in the French Revolution, which turned cathedrals into secularized ‘temples of reason’, and the Russian Revolution, which simply dynamited them.

Radicals and reformers haven’t just stopped at critiquing the doctrines of their ideological opponents.  Their visual representations too have come under attack, depriving enemy beliefs of any symbolic power they might possess.

Civilizations find power not only in institutions but also in shared notions of what is sacred and what is profane. In Medieval Christendom, the tangible power of thrones and altars was backed by chain mailed knights and liveried law enforcers. An intricate language of symbolism and spirituality evolved, which put the Catholic sacraments and visual representations of Christian religion at its core.

This spiritual universe, still visible in the art and architecture of the period, was attacked first in the name of Christianity, and then despite of or in opposition to it. By the 19th century, liberalizing reformists attempted to reduce the latent influence of the Church over political affairs. Doing so, it was assumed, would free the individual – body and mind – from the baroque burdens of the soul. Christian iconography was replaced in the public space with aesthetic visions of patriotism, romantic sensibility, or individuality.

Whether they realized it or not, the angry young men who believed they were creating a purer form of Christianity by destroying icons and statues in the 1500s were prefiguring the secular projects of the 1900s.

That artists need patrons, was understood just as well by the Soviet Politburo as the Medici. We cannot live by bread alone, nor can we subsist on turpentine fumes and graphite.

Art divorced itself from formal orthodoxies well over a century ago. Artists no longer need to worry about what some bishop or aristocrat wants them to paint. The most common assumption is that this liberates the imagination and enables a more vibrant and pluralist art to emerge, one which questions orthodoxy and resists formal institutions.

A photograph of Marcel Duchamp's 1917 'Fountain'. It is a urinal.
Duchamp's 'Fountain' (1917) (Image: Tate)

There are some obvious touchstones to pass over in a grand tour of this development: Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, Magritte’s ‘Treachery of images’, Picasso’s ‘Ma Jolie’ and ‘Weeping Woman.’ Conventions were challenged and expectations subverted: job done, go team.

The reality, of course, is more complex. Art can never entirely separate itself from institutions or wider ideological power structures. That artists need patrons, was understood just as well by the Soviet Politburo as the Medici. We cannot live by bread alone, nor can we subsist on turpentine fumes and graphite.

Moreover, artists need inspiration and these come, even in an age as iconoclastic as ours, from institutions. Whether it is the Church and the Crown, or a complex network of QANGOs, private wealth funds and PR gurus is unimportant. Art must be funded if it is to exist, and the people who fund, commission, sell and display it get to determine (directly or not) what it ends up saying.

This presents an interesting paradox to the 21st century radical. If the role of art, self-conceived, is to question orthodoxy, then what orthodoxy is our art currently questioning? You will find messages that question gender rol