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James Hall argues in defence of iconoclastic art

A response to critic Andrew Graham-Dixon’s opinions on the power of images as expounded in his current BBC tv series

If you were looking for a watershed between the 1980s and the 90s, April 1989 is as good a moment as any.

This was the month when the Mississippi-based American Family Association got wind of the inclusion of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in a museum show that had received public funding. Piss Christ, just to refresh your memory, is a gorgeously glossy, 60 x 40-inch photograph of a crucifix dipped in a tank of the artist’s own urine.

Pre-Serrano, modish apologists used to assert with blithe insouciance that contemporary works of art were arbitrary constellations of signs with no fixed meaning. Thus Gerhard Richter’s series of photo-paintings about the murder or suicide of Baader-Meinhof members in Stammheim prison was described in its 1989 catalogue as “history paintings that problematise the possibility of representing history”.

Post-Serrano, this post-modern pussyfooting has come to seem all too glib. Critics and artists increasingly pontificate about the power—rather than the powerlessness—of images.

Last month, a five-part BBC tv series focused on the alarming ability of images to inspire hate as well as love. Written and presented by the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, “A history of British Art" was structured around the idea and act of iconoclasm. The first programme explored the “wholesale destruction of art” during the English Reformation, and the last revolved around the bull-dozing of Rachel Whiteread’s “House” in the East End of London in January 1994. The fearful symmetry underscored Graham-Dixon’s conviction that the British response to images shows greater extremes of love and hate than anywhere else in the west. In the 90s, then, images mean and matter.

The series was very provocative, but Mr Graham-Dixon’s understanding of iconoclasm seemed unnecessarily narrow. He did acknowledge that iconoclastic urges can be creative as well as destructive: at one point in the first programme he made a great leap forward and claimed that the minimalism of American post-war art derives from the same impulses that led the puritans to white-wash their churches. But this still implied that iconoclasm was primarily an Anglo-Saxon problem.

I would argue that the whole of the Renaissance—in Catholic as well as Protestant countries—is predicated on iconoclasm. The Renaissance in Italy was driven by equally powerful iconoclastic forces. In the 14th century, the modern, “gothic” style of art and architecture was rejected in favour of an older and more austere style—that of antiquity. But it wasn’t just gothic culture that was eliminated in order to make way for the new or old style. The ruins of ancient Rome were ransacked.

As Roberto Weiss pointed out: “despite its emphasis on classical learning, the Renaissance proved undeniably far more destructive, where ancient remains were concerned, than the preceding centuries. Nor should this surprise us, since the Renaissance passion for building and town planning inevitably brought with it the sacrifice of much of the old for the new.”

“During the Middle Ages”, he continues, “an ancient temple was often turned into a church. But in the Renaissance when a new church was built, any ancient remains which happened to be on its site would be demolished and used as materials for the new building rather than incorporated into it”.

In the next age, the most infamous incident was the melting down of the Pantheon’s bronze ceiling by the Barberini Pope in order to make Bernini’s Baldacchino. It gave rise to that wry aphorism: “The Barberini did what the Barbarians didn’t do”.

So there are always heavy casualties when there is artistic self-assertion. That’s why virtually every stylistic category, from gothic and mannerist to rococo and fauve, started life as an insult. Iconoclasm is essential to the Darwinistic march of western art.

Rachel Whiteread’s most recent work, exhibited last month at Karsten Schubert’s gallery in London, suggests a subtle awareness of the destructive urges that go into the making of a work of art. It is a portfolio of twelve screenprints based on photographs taken in the East End of London, not far from the park in which “House” stood.

The photographs show tower block demolitions, and each building is represented intact and in mid-explosion. In the best of these, three tower blocks stand in a park bordered by lush and bushy trees.

The explosions swathe the building in white dust. They have a spectral beauty. Momentarily, inner city eye-sores are naturalised, and become cloud-bursts in a landscape that could have been painted by Constable. This isn’t a puritan or a catholic art, but it is the product of an imagination that is still broadly Christian. The three sagging tower blocks are the protagonists of a modern Calvary: from their destruction a new, and more radiant reality is born.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Art needs iconoclasm"