- ISBN: 9780226445335
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: June 2021
A heavy, red-linen hardcover book, containing fifty plus images and ten elaborate essays printed on beautiful thick paper, Iconoclasm feels like a monument to the intellectual testimony of David Freedberg. It is the result of a lifelong academic engagement with iconoclasm and art that has been going on for over fifty years. The very short title suggests an all-encompassing work on the phenomenon of iconoclasm throughout different ages and different areas. However, and fittingly in light of the title, this image will be broken down. It is impossible to suggest that such a diverse and ambivalent phenomenon as iconoclasm could be treated in a single collection of essays.
Where most art historians in the 1970s and ‘80s did not see any point in studying iconoclasm—the destruction of images—as part of art history, Freedberg did. “Art, they said, was about the higher reaches of the human spirit, not about the baser qualities. It was about creativity, not destruction” (10). Freedberg began by studying the Beeldenstorm in the Netherlands of the 16th century, a catastrophic “storm” of religious iconoclasm that swept through the Northern Netherlands and Flanders in 1566, with a second “silent” wave following in 1584. In 2014 and 2015, the question of understanding art and destruction became vividly actual with the destruction of art and heritage by the Islamic State (a case of iconoclasm that is not exceptionally Islamic, nor unprecedented).
In this book Freedberg combines his former essays on religious iconoclasm in the Netherlands and Flanders with new essays on the more recent destruction by the Islamic State in Mosul and Palmyra and the downing of Confederate statues in the southern United States. Of the ten essays, only the first two and last two are newly written for this book. The six essays in the middle are already published, neatly recycled and placed next to each other in a new mix. They form the body of the book (published in 1976, 1977, 1985 (during which two were published), 1986, and 2016). The body of the book is wrapped by the four new essays that serve as the introduction and the conclusion. How does this play out?
Iconoclasm has a surprising structure, since (as mentioned) only four of the ten essays are written specifically for this book. Since these essays function as the introduction and the conclusion of the book they essentially contain all the arguments that are made on iconoclasm. When you are new to Freedberg’s work it is definitely worthwhile to look into the older essays as well, it is however not required to do so to understand the point that Freedberg tries to make. In the first chapter, Freedberg states his vision for this book. In light of the destruction caused by the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015, a decent historical and scientific understanding of iconoclasm had become necessary. “The need to see if any lessons could be drawn from the past—as well as from the current science—could not have been more urgent” (3). In order to understand iconoclasm better Freedberg combines his historical studies into, amongst others, the Beeldenstorm in the Netherlands (1566 and 1584) and the Byzantine iconoclasm (754 and 815) with current psychological studies on the workings of the body as a perceiving entity that reacts physically to an image.
One of the main arguments that Freedberg makes about iconoclasm is that it is always ambivalent. Iconoclasm is psychological, emotional, aesthetical, and religious, but also political, organized, staged, and connected to preservation and musealization. In iconoclasm creation and destruction, love and hate towards a piece of art, come together. “These two apparently opposing sentiments are often two sides of the same coin” (36). To destroy one piece of art is to create something new. The videos of the Islamic State and the Protestant drawings of the Beeldenstorm in action are a testimony to this. Often the pieces of art that are attacked are chosen by the perpetrators for their reputation, and thus their destruction generates great publicity. In the attack of the image, the iconoclast testifies to that which is present in the image. The deed of destruction creates precisely that which it seeks to destroy: the power of the image. The image possesses a bodily power that needs to be controlled and destroyed. Often, first the eyes are mutilated, then the mouth, and finally the whole face—the parts of the image that speak of the life present inside. Images are bodied and have a form, generating a psychological, pathological and aesthetic response to the body and the mind of the viewer. “Every iconoclastic attack call, finally, on gestures of the body” (48). According to Freedberg, both the appreciation of and the hostility towards art come from the same psychological, and bodily, response. In order to understand art and art history better, we should also look at the destruction of art, at iconoclasm.
Iconoclasm is an interesting read, full of rich and elaborate essays, ranging from Beeldenstorm and Byzantine iconoclasm to statues of confederates in the southern US to the street artist Banksy. After finishing the book, however, you can’t escape feeling unfulfilled. Freedberg adequately describes and dives into the complexities that are present in acts of iconoclasm. Acts of iconoclasm are ambiguous, blurry, and contradictory. But after elaborating on all this complexity, the author seemingly feels the need to seal the discussion off with remarks about the bodily and psychological aspects of iconoclastic deeds, thereby reducing the complexity of iconoclasm to a bodily response. Besides this tendency toward psychological reduction, the book also neglects the important area of mission and iconoclasm—an area that deserves our attention when we think about iconoclasm and the value of images and image destruction in Western and global art history. The point that Freedberg convincingly makes throughout this book, that if we want to understand the value of images and art history we need to look at the destruction of art and images, is still as strong and exciting as fifty years ago.
Gert Jonathan Naberman is a graduate student in religious studies at Utrecht University, Netherlands.Gert Jonathan NabermanDate Of Review:November 30, 2022