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.
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.
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 roles, challenge perceptions and promote diversity on CBeebies and in the equality and inclusion policies of every FTSE listed company trading in the United Kingdom today. Woke capital is a thing now, and an orthodoxy of unorthodoxy is rising to dominance.
The modern voter-consumer is bombarded daily with messages which would make the soixante-huitards blush. What is encouraged is not only conformity and consumption as the left points to, but also self-actualization, differentiation, dissent and critique.
In the run-up to Christmas, the Pepsi corporation encouraged us to ‘try a new tradition this year.’ Ethereum, a blockchain investment consortium which promotes ways for venture capital to engage with cryptocurrencies, recently ran an advertising campaign with a brown girl in her early teens looking defiant, encaptioned ‘it’s our turn to change the world.’ British Airways celebrates UK garage in its latest publicity spot.
Meanwhile, most of our celebrated artists do little more than find increasingly arch and perverse ways to spread essentially the same messages.
Modernism has been and gone. Dada happened, the barricades of the academies were stormed, and the old rulebook was rewritten. This process produced some extraordinary art, the abstract energy of Kandinsky; the deconstructed sculpture of Joseph Beuys; the vivacious canvasses of Basquiat. All now has been consumed by the mainstream, entrenched in our society’s institutional power base.
To be relevant, art must express something and not merely react against the evils of some imagined previous age. Art that is stuck in an incessant protest against the Parisian Academie circa 1840 is no longer art at all: it is lazy self-indulgence, activism that knows what it is against but not what it is for.
Take, for example, Anthea Hamilton’s ‘Project for a Door’, shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2015. This piece was briefly notorious and is still known on the internet as the ‘bum doorway.’ It’s a very large and crudely but realistically painted sculpture of a human bum, with two hands pulling the buttocks aside to reveal a parting, nearly big enough for a person to get through.
"It smacks of masturbation, occasionally feeling as if the contemporary wishes to exhume the corpse of Brian Sewell, just so we can reanimate him for one last pompous rant."
What does this say? What sacred cows is this tearing down? Which grannies in the home counties is this designed to offend? Endlessly refighting the same battles against a Victorian Values establishment that does not any longer exist is a waste of energy. It might have been a bold statement in 1880, it is not today.
Or take Marina Abramovich’s ‘The artist is present.’ First exhibited at New York’s MoMA in 2010, this consisted of the celebrity artist herself sitting in a chair and allowing visitors to the gallery to interact with her however they wished. It exists to do little more than to promote the brand and personality of Marina Abramovich and presupposes interest in her character on the part of the audience.
It creates nothing, it expresses nothing, it builds nothing. The message to gallery-goers is ‘I am an extremely famous, wealthy and fashionable artist, you should take an interest in me.’ It smacks of masturbation, occasionally feeling like the contemporary wishes to exhume the corpse of Brian Sewell, just so we can reanimate him for one last pompous rant.
Again, it is worth reiterating that these pieces of art were not spontaneous eruptions of protest, regardless of what may have been recorded in the programme notes. To exist and find an audience, they depended on a huge network of official and semi-official patronage, from corporate or private finance sponsorship, to the council and funding boards which manage museums - essentially an arm of government.
Art today rests on a very unsubtle sleight of hand, the pretence that what is presented by formal and informal arms of power as the height of our society’s visual culture presents a challenge to the dominant ideology of the time. On examination, this can clearly be seen to be false.
Western art is stuck on a single set of tracks with no distance left to run. Iconoclasm is reactive and needs something to react against to survive. Much as it might suit various journalists, academics, theorists and artists to pretend that the same establishment that existed when Monet and Degas were first daring to sprinkle paint on a canvass is still in place and needs to be resisted, it is not.
The only sources of dissent against the orthodoxies of our day are low status and circumscribed, lacking any real institutional power and certainly lacking an artistic school. In the art world and the academy, rebellion has been institutionalized and become what it always hated and feared. 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.