Iconoclash –Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art
Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel [editors]
MIT Press, 2002
This book is the most comprehensive anthology ever published about the image wars, as it joins for the first time different cultures from West to East, different epochs from middle ages to modernism, different practices from science to art, in the search for an understanding of the nature of the image. This question is more actual then ever, because the question of the image, always answered differently from different political and cultural perspectives, is central in a society built more then ever on visual media for the question: what is reality? Today, in the era of new instruments of image making in art and science, from media to medicine, the functions of the image have changed radically. The name of the multiple transformations of the image in the technical universe of today is called »crisis of representations«. Iconoclasts and Iconophiles fight on the field of representation, denying or believing in the possibility of representation, in the referential functions of chains of signs. This book offers new insights from new perspectives from the front of the image wars governing the actual world in the field of politics, religion, art & science.
This richly illustrated book has been made at the occasion of the international exhibition Iconoclash which takes place at Karlsruhe in Germany at the ZKM in May 2002. It is not however a mere catalog of the show but a book in its own right which explores the long history of the human passion for images—for their destruction as well as for their careful fabrication. The word 'image' is taken, throughout the book, to mean not only paintings, work of art, but also representation, intermediary and mediation of all sorts of shapes.
The general drama that is being set in the book is the sort of double bind in which we are put by two contradictory injunctions : »If only we could do without images !«, »We cannot do without images !«. The first injunction is an appeal to get rid of all images, to become an iconoclast ; the second is an appeal to respect images as our only possible mediation, to become an iconophile. The quandary of the many artists, saints, scientists, militants who populate the chapters of this book is that they are taken in between those two contradictory urges; this is what we call an iconoclash, that is, a deep uncertainty on the power, sanctity, violence of images.
This uncertainty is what is explored by criss-crossing the boundary between four domains of iconoclasm and iconophily which are rarely brought together, namely the world of scientists and their instruments, that of artists and their works of art, the realm of the devout and their faiths, the domain of politics and their many representatives. In each of those different worlds the same questions arise about the power and necessity of images but the answers are entirely different. Some images attract our rage, spite and suspicion; others, on the contrary, are deemed beyond dispute; still other leave us indifferent. It is the interference patterns formed by those differences types of diffidence and confidence that we are deploying in the book from the agony of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet to the »end of painting« in modern art, passing through the fierce disputes among mathematicians between formalists and intuitionists; from the destruction of Stalin statues after the fall of the Wall to that of the giant Buddhas by the Talibans or the complete metamorphosis of pictures into pixels on the World Wide Web; from the built-in iconoclasm of Christian images to their destructions by various reformers and revolutionaries to the self-destruction of critique itself and the missionary urge for fetish burning; from the accusation of blasphemy generated by unbearable music to the dissolution of the avant-garde in contemporary art or the transformation of scientific instruments from image to data.
The book, however, is not a cabinet of curiosities of all the conflicts generated by images from Akhenaton to September 11, it tries to move towards a rigorous solution to one of the questions that has besoted the West from the beginning : what is hidden in the urge to smash images, or idols down? Can we transform iconoclasm from an indisputable call to arms into a problematic endeavour? Can we construct the anthropology, the archeology, the history of the iconoclastic gesture instead of simply repeating it ? Hence the organisation of the book into the problem zones: 'Why do images trigger so much furor ? Why are images so ambiguous? Why do Gods object to images? How can an image represent anything? Are there limits to iconoclasm? Has the critique ended?' These are some of the chapters that lead through the general question : what is an iconoclash ? to a possible solution : we can go beyond the image wars. Each chapter is made by one longer lead article written by one of the curators of the exhibition followed by shorter essays each commenting on a powerful image.
Whether we are religious, militants, scientists, artists we are all heirs to generations of some kind of image-smashers —and also the heirs of those who have seen their most cherished images smashed to the ground. For those who believe that, because of this double history, »there is something rotten in the realm of critique« this book provides an indispensable pause, a moment of reflexion and evaluation of the heavy heritage weighing on our shoulder —before we can go beyond. The best specialists in each of those many domains, have been brought together to provide, thanks to a beautiful lay out, a powerful visual and intellectual experience on how different civilisations have answered the strictures of the Second Commandment.
[The MIT Press, Cambridge, USA]