Any study of iconoclasm is premised upon a bifurcation, that is, that iconoclasm is a historical event or that iconoclasm is a cultural attitude or idea. As a historical event, iconoclasm can be interpreted or categorized as being either active or passive. The former category would include legitimate accounts of the damaging of images; while the latter category would correspond to the promulgation and the contents of religious doctrines. Any evaluation would incorporate the motivation, meaning, and result of either form of the iconoclastic enterprise. As a cultural idea or attitude, however, iconoclasm would require analysis from the perspective of the valuing of art and imagery within the individual culture, the formative role of religious values on that culture, and the role of the visual within that religious tradition.
The primary reference for iconoclasm has been religion, and in particular, western monotheism. Such a reference raises several issues for consideration in any discussion of the meaning of iconoclasm in world religions. Foremost among those issues is the role of religious belief in the formation of cultural and individual identity. If the procedures by which an individual learns about, assents to, is initiated into, and becomes a member of a religious community is analogous to those for entry into political and social communities, then such a socialization process orients perception. The procedure by which we come to see and interpret what we see is predicated upon our disciplined sense of values. Orientation into a religious confession privileges the acceptance of the normative and appropriate, and simultaneously defines the abnormal and inappropriate.
However if the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, the art historian Moshe Barasch, and the historians of religion Mircea Eliade and Marshall G. Hodgson, to name only a select few, are correct, then how do we resolve their commitment to the fundamental human activity of “symbol making” with the privileging status of religion in the process of seeing and the discussion of iconoclasm. If iconoclasm as either an activity or a concept, or both, is limited to the preconceived categories of western monotheism, then how does that work with the otherwise universal relationship between art and cultural memory, and religious traditions? As it is within the fundamental nature of human beings to make symbols—the visual as well as the auditory and oral presentation of symbols–then imaging or art making can be defined as an universal human activity.
All world religions have an attitude toward art, imagery, and the visual modality; some have a bifurcated view while others have a single lens through which they see and define the role and place of art. The remaining religions vacillate throughout their individual histories, and might be characterized as being ambiguous or ambivalent towards imagery. Nonetheless, art and cultural memory are embedded within religion and encoded with religious meaning and value. This reality must be evaluated within the late 20th- and early 21st-century recognition that there is no innocent eye; rather feminist, deconstructionist, and post-modernist scholarship have argued persuasively in detailed analyses of le regard that “the gaze” is clearly much more than an engendered gaze. Rather, le regard offers a non-religious basis for the recognition that there is a right and a wrong way to look, and that the process through which one comes to see properly and to recognize impropriety is socialization, whether into a social, political, or religious system.
This text is excerpted from my “Iconoclasm: An Overview” in the Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition (New York: Macmillan Reference USA/Thompson-Gale, 2005), 6:4279-89.