BY Marina Warner in Features | 25 SEP 15
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Issue 174

Falling Idols

Public monuments, Islamic State and contesting the story of the past by Marina Warner

BY Marina Warner in Features | 25 SEP 15

The statue of a hero is vulnerable to time’s vicissitudes for reasons that have very little to do with its achievement as a work of art: the symbolic core deep in the stone or metal radiates energy from the subjects featured – their deeds and history – not from the statue’s beauty as a sculpture. Aesthetic success is desirable from the point of view of those putting up the statue, since it can help imprint its message more deeply, but it’s not a requirement; as the 19th-century Austrian curator and art historian Alois Riegl pointed out in his book The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origins (1903), ‘memory values’ trump any ‘novelty’ or ‘artistic intention’ at play in the making of public statuary. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) – a hulking, rigid colossus of little artistic interest – is just as potent as David (1501–04) by Michelangelo, whom the Florentines also raised to define the freedom of their republic.

Harbours, piazzas, parks and city streets unfold past exploits in a palimpsestic document – the stories statues tell, in stone and bronze, are simply bedded down, stratum upon stratum, in the built environment’s haunted unconscious. ‘You walk through a great city,’ wrote Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘Salon de 1859’, ‘and your eyes are drawn upwards […] for in the public squares, at the corners of crossroads, motionless characters, taller than those who pass by at their feet, relate to you in a silent language high legends of glory, of war, of knowledge, of suffering […] The stone phantom seizes you for a few instants and orders you, in the name of the past, to think of things which are not of this world. This is the divine role of sculpture.’

Yet most passers-by rarely look up, let alone inquire into a statue’s meaning or remember its history. The summons of the stone phantom often remains unheard, its memories kept by a very few flâneurs, historians, antiquarians and tourist guides.1 Robert Musil, who lived in Vienna, a city of many statues, disagreed with Baudelaire: ‘The most striking feature of monuments’, he wrote in his 1936 essay ‘Monuments’, ‘is that you do not notice them […] Something has impregnated them against attention.’ Statues keep on signalling that the heroes of history long to be noticed, but their bleeping runs beneath the blunt receptors of ordinary curiosity. Until, that is, something happens to change this condition of inconspicuous acceptance.

William Kentridge, Magic Flute, 2006, charcoal on paper, 1.2 × 1.6 m, republished in Marlene van Niekerk, The Swan Whisperer, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Sylph Editions, London.

‘The hour of crime does not strike at the same time for every people,’ announced the Romanian philosopher and essayist E.M. Cioran, in one of his Bitter Syllogisms (1954). The hour of crime strikes for the heroes of one era and a previously hallowed figure will then tilt and fall, while the surrounding scene, with its memorials and its triumphs, now reads differently and feels mismatched and thoroughly alien. The contest then begins to reconfigure the narrative of the past and pull up the old markers.

‘Iconoclash’ is the useful term introduced by Bruno Latour for the exhibition he curated at Karlsruhe’s ZKM in 2002, titled ‘Iconoclash: Beyond the Image-Wars in Science, Religion and Art’; his coinage captures the intensification of struggles over art in public places, its meaning, function and value. The response to statues, especially, reveals how closely the sacred lies to the profane in civil society, as much as in the religious sphere. During the reigns of Henry VIII, his son Edward VI and his daughter Elizabeth I, Reformers hammered off the faces of statues in churches and shrines (such as those in the Lady Chapel at Ely), and put an end to superstitious practices by banning processions and pilgrimages that had focused on relics: to the body of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, for example. Miraculous images might weep tears or sweat blood (in Naples, a crucified Jesus’s hair even grew from day to day); in this way, works such as icons and cult statues shared in the corporeal transubstantiation of the Eucharist, which the Protestants also condemned. The gouges, slashes and blows on the faces of Mary or the beheaded statues throughout East Anglia vividly convey the Reformers’ zeal and yet, at the same time, their very ardour concedes that there is more to the images than inert matter: why otherwise cut off their heads and scratch out their eyes? Perhaps less understandably, the thinking that motivates religious attacks continues to govern secular responses to lifelikeness in images: in the post-Enlightenment Western nation state, interactions between the statue, its subject and the viewer are not limited to merely representational relations – magical sympathy still suffuses the smashing of images. Walter Benjamin recognizes this when he writes in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936): ‘The unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of the original use value.’ The contemporary value of an image in the secular sphere is connected to its ancient, sacred uses: ‘This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty.’ More recently, David Freedberg, who has explored the subject of iconoclasm in seminal studies, declares in ‘Holy Images and Other Images’, a paper he delivered in 1990, that ‘the ontology of a holy image is exemplary for all images’.

During the French Revolution, the effigies of the kings of Judah that once stood on the 13th-century facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris were beheaded and then buried out of sight. No kings of any kind, then, could be allowed a visible presence, and a magical conflation of name, story and image led to these stone phantoms being treated as if they were live royals sentenced to the guillotine. The statues remained undiscovered until 1977, when nearby building works uncovered them. Twenty-one heads – chipped, noseless and bearing the marks of the hammer and the saw – are now mounted for display in the Musée de Cluny, in their grave state of damage as melancholy as trophies on spikes.

Jake and Dinos Chapman, On account of a knife, 1993, ink and gouche on found etching, 24 × 35 cm. Courtesy the artists.

In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and all over Eastern Europe, the massive statuary dictators raised to themselves and to their mentors and predecessors came under attack: defaced, beheaded, toppled in acts that were beamed across the world to convey, in a symbolic pageant for the media, the end of the old order. ‘Killing’ the statues was a ritual act, standing in – though not always substituting altogether – for doing away with the principles and the persons they represented.

When I was in South Africa in spring this year, the University of Cape Town was in turmoil: students were demanding that a statue of Cecil Rhodes on campus be removed. Unveiled in 1934, the monument – which was sculpted by a British woman medallist, Marion Walgate – is resolutely bland in its aesthetic concept, yet had become politically inflammatory. Rhodes is portrayed seated, overlooking a grand view of the Cape Flats towards the sea. The plinth’s inscription is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s 1922 poem ‘The Song of the Cities’:

'I dream my dream, by rock and heath and pine, Of Empire to the northward. Ay, one land From Lion’s Head to Line!'

In March this year, the statue was smeared with shit and then bagged up in black bin-liners; it looked like a crude imitation of a Christo sculpture. Whiteboards stood around the plinth where students were debating the issue. Many denounced Rhodes for what he indeed was: a racist, land-grabbing, diamond-fortune hunter, unscrupulous and belligerent. Not even the imperialist government back home in Britain whole-heartedly supported what he did as he went about amassing immense power and wealth in Southern Africa.

The protestors – a few white but mostly black – were demanding that the campus recast the narrative of its monuments, inscriptions and buildings, which has remained pretty much unchanged since the end of apartheid. The debate was keen. One student cautioned: ‘Erasing the history is not change,’ while another made a comparison to the Taliban. At some point, the tone of the demonstrations turned nasty and was apparently racist on both sides. The university officials took away the whiteboards, then assured the students that the statue of Rhodes would be removed. Indeed, on 9 April it was taken down. The university council did not accept a proposal, although it received strong support, to install it in a museum of shame, alongside other evidence of past history and its wrongs.

Defaced head of a King of Judah, c.1220–30, taken from Notre-Dame de Paris and subsequently exhibited at Musée de Cluny, Paris. Courtesy RMN and Musée de Cluny, Paris.

‘The world of symbols is not a tranquil and reconciled world,’ warned the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his book The Symbolism of Evil (1967), reminding us of the dangers of letting image-languages harden, of complacently leaving things where they are. ‘Every symbol is iconoclastic in comparison with some other symbol,’ he goes on, ‘just as every symbol, left to itself, tends to thicken, to become solidified in an idolatry. It is necessary, then, to participate in the struggle, in the dynamics, in which the symbolism itself becomes a prey to a spontaneous hermeneutics that seeks to transcend it.’

Artists have always intervened in this historical process, and are more than ever engaging now in iconoclashes, resisting and revising the symbolic language of the public arena. Their responses include acts of defacement and appropriation, leading to the paradoxical situation that the destruction of images – iconoclasm – has itself become a powerful, persistent force in contemporary cultural expression. When Douglas Gordon, in his film The End of Civilization (2012), incinerated a grand piano in a sublime landscape on the border between Scotland and England, he was identifying his personal iconoclash territory and firmly connecting it with ethnic and national politics – and this before the Scottish referendum. He was bringing down his own Vendôme Column.

There is a strong contrast between iconoclasm as wholesale destruction (sacrifice), however, and iconoclasm as the accrual of meaning through interventions such as graffiti, appropriation and reframing. In its extreme form, the assault on false idols and false consciousness aims at starting from scratch to inaugurate a new world, by consigning all antagonists and oppressors to a vanished past, beyond even the recall of memory. But the attempt will often excite resistance and acts of vandalism, like censorship, can awaken a keener consciousness of its targets than existed before. The very urge to destroy statues paradoxically accentuates their power: it takes an iconoclast to abolish a heroic statue’s invisibility.

The South African writer Marlene van Niekerk was angered by the events in the wake of the Rhodes statue protests: ‘There is a hectic re-racialization of the political discourse in South Africa, and they need a face to shout against […] They don’t think: “Let’s put up two pink quotation marks around Rhodes and put him in a pair of jockey underpants painted in green glow-paint. And then let’s have an incredible satirical play about his inordinately conceited attempts to rule Africa.” They think: “Let’s fetch a pile of shit.” I think we can do better […] What’s needed is another story, and that is the point […] We need another normative horizon […] Can we mean the same thing as in the 1960s? No, no, we need to find another story.’2 When Van Niekerk calls for a fiercer spirit of invention, irreverence and travesty, she is rejecting total erasure in favour of evident traces of transformative action: through parody, satire and blasphemy, commenting visibly on what has gone before, transmogrifying the past rather than burying it. Iconoclasts often reassign the artefact’s meaning – think Marcel Duchamp’s painting of a moustachioed Mona Lisa, l.h.o.o.q. (1919), or the Chapman Brothers’ 1993 defacing of Francisco de Goya’s series of prints, ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’ (Disasters of War, 1812–14).

Douglas Gordon, The End of Civilization, 2012, video still. Courtesy the artist, Great North Run Culture and Locus+ Archive.

Van Niekerk has recently published a story, The Swan Whisperer (2015), which is illustrated with drawings by William Kentridge; his processes of serial marking, erasing and montage, which he applies to the making of installations, stage sets and animated films, offer another way of retelling the old histories. Kentridge speaks of ‘thickening time’ through ‘imperfect erasure’, revealing the unfolding of his thoughts, rubbing out and leaving charcoal smudges like aftershocks. In this way, he instils his work with a sense of the longue durée, or long term, crucial to developing an ethics against forgetting. Borrowing from archaeology, he calls this method ‘vertical thinking’, and he sees it as a way of capturing the past in the static moment of an artefact.3 Erasure fulfils another purpose in the photographic war memorial Profiles (2011), created by David Birkin to remember civilians killed in Iraq; they are each evoked in a shade of red, chemically generated from the victim’s id number. Here, aniconic erasure paradoxically serves as a monument to the faceless, often forgotten dead. Changing the context by reframing and displacement offers another approach, alongside Kentridge’s exposed archaeologies of erased time, to give statues a new story. In Budapest, ‘Memento Park’ displays ‘Giant Monuments from the Soviet Dictatorship’. They’re all here: the heroic peasants and the founders of the fatherland, Comrades Lenin and Stalin – the latter figured only by his boots, which were all that was left of him after revolutionaries in the city pulled him down in 1956.

Retiring boastful heroes has also been adopted as a solution in India, where the statues of viceroys and other servants of the Raj, once scattered all over the imperial possessions, have been put out to pasture in Delhi’s old parade ground, the historic scene of so much extravagant, ornamentalist imperial pomp and ceremony. These new conditions keep the statues telling a story, but they’re owning up to it, meeting the needs of the new era – and they’re a popular success, too. The British historian David Priestland commented in the Guardian on 13 April this year: ‘History is therefore respected, but in a way that provokes critical reflection; this avoids pretending the memorials never existed, or leaving them in place, as if the wounds of the past don’t matter.’

Iconoclasm swept through Europe during the Reformation, Britain during the Commonwealth and France during the Revolution and, later, the Commune (when several artists took part in bringing down the column in Place Vendôme); another acute phase is again under way, as the recent reports from Mosul, Palmyra and other places record, spreading through regions under the sway of Salafist adherents of a ferocious and puritanical interpretation of Islam. On the one hand, the wreckage is sparked by revulsion against acts of idolatry; on the other, by fury against the message enshrined in the work of art. Statues can embody both aspects.

Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an doesn’t explicitly prohibit representation and images; however, in the Hadith, or Sayings of the Prophet, several anecdotes record Mohammed’s disapproval: he has statues taken down from the roof and pictures from the interior of the Ka’aba in Mecca; and, in several sources, he remarks that ‘angels do not enter a house’ in which there are images and dogs as it is polluted. He especially singles out statues as idols, and orders their heads to be removed, so that human figures become like trees, which it is permitted to depict because trees do not have rūh or soul. The taboo falls on three-dimensional and life-size images of living creatures, for they produce an illusion – eidolon being the Greek root of ‘idol’, meaning illusion or phantom – of lifelikeness, and it is God alone who can create living forms and breathe life into artefacts. 

The site of the larger Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan after its destruction by the Taliban, photographed in 2005. Courtesy Getty Images.

The official iconoclastic policy of some branches of Islam today has taken these traditional prohibitions to the extreme of the letter. In Syria, the statue of the 11th-century blind poet Al-Ma’arri was recently beheaded, because any statue of a human figure is now deemed blasphemous. However, Al-Ma’arri was also an independent, imaginative writer, sceptical and controversial: his Epistle of Forgiveness narrates a descent into hell, where, like Dante 200 years later, he meets a host of suffering sinners – figures of his own time, mostly writers like himself – and hears their sharp and satirical accounts of their struggles.

In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mali, as well as in Syria, the tombs of saints and prophets and other holy places and their contents have been wrecked. In Mecca itself, beloved cult sites have been razed. These include the reputed houses of Mohammed’s mother and of his wife Khadija – destroyed as impious and superstitious in the same spirit as that of the English Reformers who scoffed when it was claimed that the shrine at Walsingham possessed the very stool on which Mary had sat when the angel appeared to her. The current rage against idolatry has close historical precedents in the 11th century, when the Almoravid Berber dynasty swept through, purifying Andalusia, and in the Wahhabi iconoclasm of the 1880s, but is otherwise no closer to centuries of Islamic tradition than the Holy Rollers lie to Rome. Any glance at Islamic art will reveal numerous forms of figural imagery, from the sumptuous narrative miniatures of the Persians and the Moghuls to the huge photographs of the ruling sheikhs of the Gulf.

In his important book Art and Agency (1998), the anthropologist Alfred Gell argues that the methods anthropologists use to understand the meaning of art and aesthetics in a culture that is not their/our own should be extended to explore contemporary practice at home; artefacts are as instruments made in order to exert influence, either to make things happen (assure health, fertility, luck in love, wealth, cleanse a pollution) or to stop things happening (prevent death, destroy enemies, ward off nightmares, avert revenge) or to tell the story of a people’s history and relations to existence. ‘I cannot tell’, he writes, ‘between religious and aesthetic exaltation; art lovers, it seems to me, actually do worship images in most of the relevant senses, and explain away their de facto idolatry by rationalizing it as aesthetic awe. Thus to write about art at all is, in fact, to write about either religion or the substitute for religion which those who have abandoned the outward forms of received religions content themselves with.’

Low church Reformers in Britain and the Netherlands in the 17th century developed a scribal aesthetic of great refinement, replacing statues and pictures with panels, densely inscribed with the Commandments and other Biblical texts; these calligraphic artefacts resemble the elaborate blazons of God’s names and Qur’anic surahs in the Muslim tradition (though very little work has been done on the possible cross currents of influence at work). Also, it is not clear that aniconic works of art are motivated less by a sense of purpose; they may indeed share the talismanic functions of the rejected pictorial icon. In a celebrated paper, ‘The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology’ (1992), Gell takes the prows of Papuan war canoes as his prime example of magical prophylaxis: the brain-teasing involutions of the carving were intended to bamboozle hostile forces. Intricacy and skill in craftsmanship often occur, he suggests, when the art is attempting to bring blessing and protection on the community, as in the vigorous tradition of complex magical talismans in the Middle East.

Iconoclastic attacks on works of art are revealing, for they expose a devastating sensitivity to the active power attributed to images. Perpetrators single out a work precisely because it is so very special, considered so very valuable, so beautiful: Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498–99), Diego Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647–51); in some cases, the iconoclast adds his or her own signature, as did the man who defaced Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958) at Tate Modern in 2012.

In Afghanistan, the gigantic Buddhas had stood unharmed in the cliff face at Bamiyan for over a millennium, ever since Islam had become the official religion of the region. The Taliban’s ideological battle with the West, however, precipitated them into a new visibility, rendering them suddenly abominable – and useful – spectacular propaganda, oddly foreshadowing in visual rhyme the attack on the Twin Towers. Mullah Omar declared: ‘We do not have a single Buddhist […] so why preserve their false idols? And if they [the statues] have no religious character, why get so upset? It’s just a question of breaking stones [...] How could we justify having left these impurities on Afghan soil?’ The Taliban leader was being disingenuous, since it took a huge amount of manpower, explosives and determination to eliminate the Buddhas, in a time of scarce resources for the Afghan people. But the very dynamiting of the statues in March 2001 was a challenge to the West, precisely targeting a locale of pre-eminent worth in the value system of its enemies, the things that we, in economically developed countries, cherish and lavish money on: art, heritage, the story of the past embodied in stone.

Detail of the defaced statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town shortly before its removal, 2015. Courtesy Getty Images

In his article ‘Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm and the Museum’, which was published in The Art Bulletin in December 2002, the art historian Finbarr Barry Flood unfolds the thinking that led the Taliban to choose this particular act of war. For the value of the colossal sculptures did not inhere in their religious reference, their ontological appeal to the holy beings they represent; the Taliban were prepared to give considerable resources to destroying the Buddhas, he writes, because their leader wanted to speak on the world stage against the meretricious value ascribed to art, as he saw it. The idols weren’t Buddha but, when seen as more than stones, they were art. In an act of expressive iconoclasm – utterly useless except as a grand gesture – the regime in Kabul performed a material but super-charged ritual sacrifice, and they enacted it during the holiest period of the Muslim calendar. That is why the Taliban scorned offers to ransom the statues. Flood writes: ‘The timing of the edict [to destroy the Buddhas] and the fact that it reverses an earlier undertaking [given only the month before] to protect the Buddhist antiquities of Afghanistan, suggest these events had less to do with an eternal theology of images than with the Taliban’s immediate relation to the international community, which had recently imposed sanctions in response to the regime’s failure to expel Osama bin Laden [...] This was a performance designed for the age of the internet […] one can make a good case that what was at stake here was not the literal worship of religious idols, but their veneration as cultural icons.’

When the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei dropped a 2,000-year-old ceramic vase and filmed the act of destruction (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995), he was making an analogous claim: that when your liberties and your survival are endangered by state oppression, there are higher values than respecting centuries-old heritage. Privileging an artefact over the liberty of the human spirit is tantamount to worshipping false gods, to which the only riposte is an act of irreversible profanation.

The late archaeologist and art historian Oleg Grabar noted that iconoclasm breaks out belatedly in the history of dynasties, empires and regimes, and his words apply to the current intense iconoclashes.4 Yet, the return of a ferocious strain of iconoclasm is rooted less in religious teachings than in a development in attitudes to the power of images, not only among the new brand of Islamists. Living as we do with news streamed 24/7, cascades of advertisements, celebrity worship and demands that politicians be telegenic, we are increasingly submitting to images that have explicit and covert designs upon us. Not all statues are art but, at certain points of crisis, whatever their aesthetic status, they will no longer be treated as inert. Mysteriously, even uncannily, an artefact, especially a life-like human figure, persuasively stands in for what it represents. When that stone phantom seizes you, the instinctive response is to struggle free.

1 Regarding the history of public statues as female allegorical form, see Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female, London, Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1985
2 Marlene van Niekerk, interview with Marina Warner, 20 May 2015, for BBC Radio Four series ‘What is a Story?’
3 William Kentridge, Six Drawing Lessons, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 90–97
4 Oleg Grabar, ‘Islam and Iconoclasm’, in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 1 April 2003, Issue 43, pp. 5–11

Marina Warner is a writer based in London, UK. Her most recent book is Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists (2018). She is currently writing an unreliable memoir, Inventory of a Life Mislaid.