By Alex Solovyev and Michael Moore-Jones, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2019
In March 2001 the Taliban government of Afghanistan destroyed the two monumental Buddhas carved into a cliff in the Bamiyan province of central Afghanistan. Less than a year later, Professor Finbarr Barry Flood, Professor of Humanities at NYU, wrote an article for Art Bulletin responding to the widespread public perception of Islamic iconoclasm that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas engendered. He wrote in that article, in 2002:
To many commentators, the obliteration of the Buddhas seemed to hark back to a bygone age, reinforcing the widespread notion that Islamic culture is implacably hostile to anthropomorphic art. Even those who pointed to outbursts of image destruction in medieval and early modern Europe saw these as stages on the road to Western modernity; the persistence of the practice in the Islamic world seemed to offer implicit proof of an essential fixation on figuration fundamentally at odds with that modernity.
Bamiyan Buddhas, 6th century, before and after destruction, © AP/AFP
Eighteen years after that episode, Professor Flood delivered his Slade Lectures in which he returned to these questions, critiquing the commonly held paradigms of so-called “Islamic iconoclasm”. He asked, in the first lecture, whether Islam has an “image problem”—a double entendre suggesting both the difficulties of the Islamic world’s theory of images, and the response that Islam’s seeming anti-modernity generates in the “West”. Over the next eight weeks his Slade Lectures examined in detail the Islamic world’s theory of images, and then moved outwards to ask some of the largest questions of art history: how questions of iconoclasm and iconophilia affect our understanding of Enlightenment epistemologies; how an Islamic theory of the image could be described; and what the role of Modernity and modern museums are in the response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Islamic art as a whole. These were lectures that focussed in immense detail on textual and visual sources, but brought these back in the end to the largest questions that art history as a discipline should attempt to answer.
Ibrahim destroying the idols of his people, Al-Althar al-Baqiyya, NW Iran, early 14th century (EUL MS 161)
Take, for instance, the image frequently used by Professor Flood to demonstrate the paradoxes within “Islamic iconoclasm”. In an early 14th century manuscript from north-western Iran there is an image of “Ibrahim destroying the idols of his people”. It depicts, clearly enough, Ibrahim destroying images—but from here, all kinds of paradoxes and complexities stem. On the surface, the image seems to depict an iconoclastic act, an act of image destruction, in the same vein as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Yet clearly, since this is itself an image of image destruction, the underlying theory of an image cannot be so simplistically or nakedly iconoclastic. Even iconoclasts need images—in wanting to destroy them, they only make more apparent their power.
The complex relationship between image creation and image destruction was highlighted in Professor Flood’s fifth lecture of the series, entitled “Grammars of Defacement: Censors and Redemption.” Starting with the assertion that a geographically, ideologically, and historically varied set of beliefs dictated whether certain figural images were defaced or not, Professor Flood sought to ask an even more difficult, often impossible, question: when were figural images in manuscripts and on other objects defaced? Most frequently, it is, indeed, impossible to ascertain at what point in an object’s history it was defaced or altered. In other instances, some conclusions are more accessible, as with, for example, the case of an illuminated manuscript page representing the portrait of a steward c. 1530. At the moment of its creation, this image and its subject were deemed acceptable to represent. At some point after its production, the face of the steward was removed by scraping after the steward had fallen out of political favour. Such an alteration demonstrates both the socio-political importance of figural imagery and the changing history of the art object as it faces alteration over time. Citing Stephen Greenblatt, Professor Flood posited the history of art objects as temporal rather than static, as a history in motion rather than one concentrated in the moment of creation.
Portrait of a steward, detached folio, c. 1530, British Museum. © Alex Solovyev.
In the final two lectures of the Slade series, the Islamic “image problem” collided with the problems of Modernity and modernism in the nineteenth century through to the present day. Though many of the same questions and debates about the representation of figural images persisted from medieval Islam to the modern period, Professor Flood argued against the reductive label of the “transhistorical” that had been applied by the West to the Islamic “image problem” as recently as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. In the Western perception of Islam, past and present, acts of “Islamic iconoclasm” were understood as de-historicized incidents, all guided by the same, anti-modern impulses. In contrast, Professor Flood laid out what he characterized as a diverse and nuanced spectrum of responses and motivations that guided alterations and other iconoclastic acts. In the modern era, a comprehension of these nuances is essential to understand the role of iconoclastic acts in the anti-colonial landscape, specifically to understand the place of monumental statuary in Cairo, Algiers, and Istanbul in the nineteenth century. Professor Flood asks us to witness a nuanced legal, religious, and ideological debate around these statues, far removed from the reductive dichotomy of the secular and modern West contrasting with the religious and traditional East.
The same questions which Professor Flood addressed in his 2002 articles and with which he began his first Slade lecture were returned to in his eighth and final lecture, intriguingly entitled, “Beyond Enlightenment? Towards a Conclusion.” Bringing the series full circle, he returned to consider the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, an event that was recorded and widely shared on YouTube. The complexities and paradoxes of iconoclasm, aniconism, iconism, defacement, and alteration that are present in so many other Islamic manuscripts, statuary, and objects are visible too in the contemporary medium of video. Indeed, to focus on the act of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Finbarr Barry Flood argued, is to ignore the centuries of iconophilia the Buddhas were subjects of. An image that proudly depicts the destruction of images, whether in a 14th century manuscript or twenty first century YouTube, is somewhere between iconoclasm and iconophilia and is clearly more than aniconism. As Professor Flood summed up in his final lecture, “There are no straightforward acts of iconoclasm.”
© Alex Solovyev
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