The destruction of the ancient city Palmyra by the Islamic State and the dynamiting of the giant Bamiyan buddhas by the Taliban have shocked and horrified the world. Yet these acts of contemporary vandalism of artworks by today’s religious fantastic are only the latest episode in a millennia-long struggle to control images.
Recently the Bowdoin College Museum of Art invited five Bowdoin professors to speak about the destruction of images for political and religious gain. Presenting were Assistant Professor of Government Barbara Elias Klenner, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Meryem Belkaid, Associate Professor of Classics James Higginbotham, Professor of Religion Robert Morrison, and Peter M. Small Associate Professor of Art History Stephen Perkinson. Museum Curator Joachim Homann moderated the event.
Here are a few quotes from the talk, “Iconoclasm and the Power of Images”:
Barbara Elias Klenner: The smashing of objects, in terms of institutions coming in and taking over territories, is clearly something that has a long history. The United States, for example in 2003, upon the invasion of Iraq, one of the first things the US did was smash the idols of Saddam Hussein, a signaling of power and a change of power. Obviously this wasn’t a global antiquity, but the strategic purpose is very similar in terms of signaling a change, signaling power, signaling conquering, and translating that to an international audience.
Meryem Belkaid: During Tunisian political transition, which we are still living today, everything is contested. After a long time and decades of imposed silence by the dictatorship…public art is part of the debate, and the question of freedom of expression through images remains important and vivid.
James Higginbotham: As an archaeologist…part of me wants to think about iconoclasm in a historical context, and for our students to think and be able to come away with constructive ways to understand what is going on in the world they have today, and to think about how we might move forward and what we can learn from some of these events.
Robert Morrison: There are multiple discourses of images in the history of Islam. There are a lot of Muslims — there’s not a consensus on it. And Islamic law is only one way to think about whether an image is good, or what do images do in Islam. Islamic law isn’t everything for Muslims.
…Here are some things to think about: first of all, you never really see anything as strong [in the Koran] as Exodus 20, verse three, from the Jewish Bible, “don’t make a graven image.” Boom….As a point of comparison, [the Koran] is not necessarily as strong as the Jewish Bible.*
Stephen Perkinson: There are some ironies in the ways in which iconoclasts use images. Iconoclasts want you to know that they’re destroying images, and so they videotape themselves destroying images, and they let you see the image be attacked. The image is still playing a certain role for them.
*Exodus 20:3, King James Version
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…
The talk was organized in conjunction with the exhibition The Temptation of Saint Anthony.