Around the globe a poisonous vapour has been released into the atmosphere that infects the minds of people and drives them mad. Robert Graves described the infection in his novel Count Belisarius:
If the Greens set up a statue of a victorious charioteer and inscribed it: “To the glory of such-and-such, winner of the Foundation Stakes, and the greater glory of Christ single-natured”, the Blues would gather together at night and deface the inscription, then behead the statue and paint it blue; however, the Greens would perhaps retaliate by attempting to set fire to some wine-shop or other which the Blues used as their headquarters. It was not safe to be out in the streets after dark … the war was even waged against the dead.
Neither the dead nor their statues were exempt from desecration during the Victory Riots that swept Byzantium in the wake of Belisarius’s victory over Persians in 528.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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The iconoclasm phenomenon reveals something of utmost importance about sculpture—that it is a porous membrane separating dream from reality. Whether it is mute stone or bronze, sculpture possesses the power to provoke such rage and violence it might well be a living being. The Old Testament was definite concerning the worship of images, though Eastern Orthodox Christianity accepted the use of religious images. The earliest worship of Venus figurines extends back 35,000 to 40,000 years. Ancient Greece preferred human forms to anima cult figures. For Aristotle an image was an appropriate intermediary that “bridges between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of material reality”.
Sculpture is metamorphosis aided by palpability and weight that is apprehensible and powerful. Greek statues of Venus represent love in its most lovely aspect as a sexually desirable object and metaphor whose success was measured by how lifelike it was. The quarrymen at Carrara called the quality pietra viva, living stone. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder speculated: “A statue must live: its flesh must come to life, its face and expression must speak. We must believe that we touch it and feel it warm under our hands. We must see it stand and feel it speaks to us.”
People these days are so inundated with artificial digital images, they no longer respond with such immediacy to sensual stimuli. Reality has become confused by so much false information in a fog of unreality. To people in preliterate oral cultures, a stature of Cecil Rhodes readily metamorphoses to the Rhodes and coloniser of empire, who strode across the landscape of Africa as a demon god destroyer of their world. The story of Pygmalion’s creative dream describes how the sculptor fell in love with the statue he created and the gods, taking pity on him, infused the marble with life.
Pliny the Roman encyclopaedist recounts how the Venus carved at Cnidus by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles seemed so lifelike “that a man once fell in love with it and hiding by night embraced it, and that a stain betrays his lustful act”. The cupid that he carved at Parum likewise suffered when “Alcetus, a man from Rhodes, fell in love with it and left upon it a similar mark of his passion.”
Iconoclasts demonstrate how hatred and passion directed on cold stone and bronze can transform it to flesh and bone and give it a pulse. It is less a tribute to the sculptor’s art, than a testament to how extreme emotion can delude.
Statues of famous historical figures are much more than artistic representations and memorials, they are symbols, symbols that recall heroic events, values and abstract ideas, embodied as a god heroes. Stone, the most durable of memorial materials, meant eternity, a fact that poses a special challenge to iconoclasts.
The widespread desecration and defacement of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures is evidence of the fervid opposition to the idolatry of the Greeks and Romans by early Christianity and later Islam. The Catholic Church defended the use of icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles. In “On the Divine Image”, St John of Damascus defended their use in response to the Byzantine iconoclasm of religious war with the invading Umayyads. Phillip Adams mentions the hammering off of the private parts of 2000-year-old statues as evidence of the Church’s prurience while regretting the same zeal was not applied to priestly misconduct. The prohibition of idolatry relates to the belief that the idols are considered gods, hence it is erroneous to assume that all idolatry is of this type, when in some instances, idols may only have been representations of gods. Just how this can be decided with certainty and defended is a mystery.
In April 2015 the South African novelist Christopher Hope was greeted outside the main campus of Cape Town’s university by surging crowds of jeering black student protesters smearing human excrement over a bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes. The students then commandeered a tow truck to unseat and overthrow the statue from its plinth, “not as genial lord of all he surveyed but as diabolical looter-in-chief”.
Hope’s trip in search of the new South Africa took him from town to town on a journey of desolation and indiscriminate destruction of statuary that encompassed not only Rhodes, though he appeared to be a favourite target, but also Jan van Riebeeck, Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister J.C. Strydom at Krugersdorp; even Robert Broom and “Mrs Ples” at the Cradle of Humankind and Gandhi at Johannesburg came in for the treatment. Paul Kruger at Pretoria had to be hidden behind barbed wire and someone managed to place a minuscule rabbit in Mandela’s ear. Rabbit or hare is haas and also means “hurry”. The war on statues was without end.
In his account of these travels, The Café de Move-on Blues, Hope concluded:
Smashing statues is about argument with history, argument that has gone viral and is no longer contained and confined to academic debate between professors of history where the weapons are papers delivered at symposia and quiet confrontations in hallowed halls, but open warfare by a class who see themselves as victims on the losing side. History is incomplete and, invariably, the point of view taken will depend on who writes it. One of the truisms about this is that history is always written by the victor—hence is incomplete and biased and to be questioned in its veracity.
We all of us have wished at some time to return back in time and rewrite our past, whether a thoughtless remark, some error or mistake, a tragic accident; but the hand writes and moves on in the grand march of History, we cannot erase a single sentence, not one jot to exculpate ourselves. No technology can allow us to cut-and-paste the embarrassing bits.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera declared that the crimes of the Russian empire, the deportation of a million Lithuanians, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles, the liquidation of the Crimean Tartars all remain in memory despite there being no photographic documentation and being declared fabrications. Kundera interpreted the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia as a carnival of hate filled with “a curious (and no longer explicable) euphoria. Photographs, like statues, are witnesses to events and personalities, those that made history.”
Statues are witnesses to the past. We can hate them, wish them gone, but their removal makes no difference, it is a senseless violation and protest that attests to our rancour at how badly history has treated us. Like knocking out teeth, it leaves gaps that remind us forcefully of what has been removed and is now missing. The gaps themselves are irritating reminders of what is false.
Christopher Hope’s journey in search of the new South Africa took him to town after town where statues of Rhodes and Kruger had been mutilated and destroyed in an unprecedented spontaneous wave of enraged iconoclastic violence directed against past symbols of oppression. It was not so much the idea of revenge against hated symbols, the letting-go of pent-up fury over decades of discrimination which poured out across the nation, as the unthinking nature of the violence, that comes through—it was the indiscriminate fury that struck him. It achieved so little and did nothing to improve the lot of the people it engaged. Perhaps it is left to the outsider to see such anger vented on the symbols of injustice, to question its less than constructive outcome. The statues were mere objects, Rhodes and Kruger were long dead, they were beyond harm, a part of the history of South Africa, no matter how many of their statues were torn down, broken, upturned and violated. It was up to historians in their quiet studies to judge them and their actions in retrospect, to approve or disapprove, not a mindless mass of humanity filled with hate such as Hope witnessed outside the Cape Town university campus.
Iconoclasm is a periodic phenomenon extending as far back as ancient Egypt, with erasures and defacement of Pharaonic hieroglyphs and statues, that breaks out from time to time from religious, political, ideological or theological disputes, the overthrow of some hated ruling regime when the power vacuum left is filled by social unrest and violence. As Shakespeare eloquently expressed it, “Let loose the dogs of war”.
What is it about sculpture that makes it such a popular target? There are other less violent, less destructive ways to protest. The simplest answer is that sculpture is more public, more vulnerable, and more readily attacked.
Iconoclasm is a contagion that demonstrates more than any other the public character of sculpture as a readily comprehended symbol. Icons seem to be just as irrepressible as sculpture. As much as it seeks to suppress it, idolatry finds expression in Hollywood cinema idols and celebrity culture. The hero with a thousand faces, Joseph Campbell called the composite character in mythology. One series of idols is replaced by another. It is in human nature to represent abstract thought in physical objects as bridges linking ideas, beliefs, sentiments and emotions.
Statues are objects that link us to abstract ideas and heroes. Buildings and sculpture are public art whose common denominator is they are plastic three-dimensional objects. Like two inseparable sisters, it is sculpture that is the purer, higher, more vulnerable, and architecture that is more practical and useful of the two. In his film The Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein has a lion sculpture at the foot of the Odessa steps rise up in protest at the senseless shooting of the mother by the Tsarist troops as she chases her runaway pram. An architect by training, Eisenstein understood the visual power of sculpture. He could have dwelt on mutineers overthrowing statues, but instead he created one of the most memorable scenes in cinema by making a stone lion rise up against the violence, as we in the audience grieve at the slaying of innocence. Eisenstein presents us with a positive and artistic image whose creative power grips us so we too rise up in protest against the brutality of the Tsar’s forces.
In a cathedral in St Petersburg in the 1970s, I saw old women, who had lived through the Revolution and kept their faith, kissing and embracing icons of saints on the thick pillars as though they were not icons but living flesh. Art transports us by taking what previously was in the mind as thoughts, memories and feelings and externalising and giving them aesthetic form, thereby intensifying them.
The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution led to attacks on sacred statuary in Bruges well away from Paris:
The heads of the statues taken from the town hall were brought to the marketplace and smashed to pieces by people who were very angry and embittered. They also burnt all traces of the hateful devices that had previously served the Old Law, such as gibbets, gallows and whips. Throughout these events the whole market square echoed to the constant cries of the assembled people, “Long live the nation! Long live freedom!”
Freedom is often more abused than honoured; freedom for one group can mean the enslavement of another, which was as true in ancient Greece as it is today in America. Smashing the statues of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, or the Bristol slaver Edward Colston may be momentarily gratifying, but it does not alter the past one bit and, in addition, carries the echoing sound of freedom betrayed, just as it did at Bruges all those years ago. Whose freedom is it that is defended—yours or theirs?
There are invariably several sides to every argument. I received this message from a distinguished English academic in Bristol:
The Colston statue was not a particularly distinguished one as it had a rather awkward pose, but it did serve to remind us all that human motives are always mixed: he may have traded 80,000 slaves, but he also spent £100,000, a huge sum in those days, on charities and endowments, some of which are still functioning. I do not believe in historical revisionism, or attempts to airbrush the past to suit minority sensitivities (the black population is 2.8% in Bristol and 3.6% for the UK), let alone victim culture—a totally non-productive stance. So yesterday I baked a Colston bun in silent protest (they used to be given away to poor children); my brother and his wife came to tea in the garden, and very good it was.
Awkward in life as he was as sculpture—but what did overturning Colston’s effigy and hurling it into the Bristol harbour achieve? It let out anger on the day, but what about the next day and the next? Must people destroy good, as well as bad, art in order to feel good? And where does it all stop? The statue of Colonel William Light, who laid out Adelaide from Montefiore Hill, was daubed with the words “No pride in genocide” and “Death to Australia”.
Philip Drew is a Sydney architect