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  • Making, Breaking, Loving, and Hating Images:Prelude to a Theology of Iconoclasm
  • Natalie Carnes (bio)

It may well indicate we are lost in a dark wood of idolatries and iconoclasms when two sophisticated and much-lauded scholars sketch, in the same year, opposite cartographies of these landscapes. In historian James Simpson's book Under the Hammer (Oxford 2010), the way of iconoclasm inevitably begets further image breaking, while anthropologist Bruno Latour insists in his book On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Duke 2010) that the path of iconoclasm generates, despite itself, further image making. There are ways their stories converge, too, but such convergences occur largely over the ambiguities of iconoclasm. What makes iconoclasm so tangled and rough, so difficult to discern and describe?

I suggest that, anesthetized for decades—centuries, even—to our own iconoclasm, we Westerners are still full of sleep as we grope toward a path through icons, images, and idols. My goal with this article is not to shine a beam of clarity onto iconoclasm. It is instead to do two things. First, I want to awaken us to the ways that it is more difficult than it may at first appear to identify iconoclasm. In doing this, I will dip briefly into historical and current events, not to offer definitive interpretations of them (should such a feat be possible), but [End Page 17] to constellate them in ways that disturb prevailing notions of what and where iconoclasm is occurring. Second, I want to begin beating a path through this thicket by generating a typology of iconoclasms that distinguishes them by the kind of "breaking" they entail.

I will begin with descriptions of contemporary image controversies, review the importance and limits of Simpson and Latour's theses about iconoclasm, and then propose my non-exhaustive taxonomic approach. Along the way, I hope to demonstrate that iconoclasm is deeply embedded in modern Western society, not because the modern West hates images, but because iconoclasm is intrinsic to iconophilia. Such work, I hope, will clear the way to ask more nuanced theological questions about iconoclasm—not questions of whether we should be iconoclastic or how we might avoid being iconoclastic, but questions about what kind of iconoclasm we should practice and under what conditions such iconoclasm might help us learn to love certain images better. I hope to display the way hating and loving images, making and breaking them, no longer present themselves as two poles on a spectrum, competing options we can and must choose between. More than ever before, iconoclasm and iconophilia come to us knotted together, so that iconoclasm needs to be reinterpreted for a new age.


To understand the ambiguities of the image in contemporary society, I take us back to the end of the eighteenth century and across the Atlantic to France, image-maker extraordinaire of the Western world. The French Revolution was a decisive moment in the history of images. The revolution began, as revolutions often do, by breaking images of the former religio-political order. Following the revolutionaries' assembly vote to destroy signs of the old regime, the summer of 1793 was hot with iconoclastic fervor. Enraged mobs dug up the ornamented tombs of kings, pulled down royal statues, and vandalized Notre Dame Cathedral as they sought to instantiate a [End Page 18] new order of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Not all revolutionaries enthused over the destruction of old masterpieces, though. Those troubled by their fellow revolutionaries' image breaking found in the suggestion of Pierre Cambon an alternative to destroying images. They transformed the Louvre Palace into a museum where such masterpieces could exist comfortably, having had their role as signs of the old regime's power safely curtailed.1

Did, then, the museum prevent further acts of iconoclasm? Or was creating the museum itself an iconoclastic gesture, one that silenced images even as it left them intact? Ensconced in the museum, images were politically and religiously neutralized. They became fine art that could be appreciated for what was now being called their aesthetic value; they called for a disinterested gaze that could, for example, appreciate the skill, the genius of paintings of the Madonna without finding it...


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