Monthly Archives: April 2012


[A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…]

My art history class is coming back to haunt this blog.

That last chapter on the power of art has been gnawing at me, and I recently came across the word “iconoclast” being used to describe someone as a non-conformist. I would like to know how that word went from describing a person who destroyed art which didn’t conform to religious ideology, to describing a person who is a “non-conformist.”


I can kind of understand how it could have happened, I think, but it irks me. And I’d like to know for sure but that probably isn’t really possible.

Ok, Art History 101: Iconoclasm was the cultural war within the then-newly-officiated Christian church, which pitted traditional artists who used iconic images in their religious artwork against the Byzantine emperor (Leo III, in 726) who banned icons in religious art. The iconophiles were those who sought to preserve the existing iconic art (or even create new pieces), and the iconoclasts were those who followed the emperor’s orders to destroy all iconic works of art.

So, I can see how iconoclasts might have seen themselves as destroying (a heretical) tradition, which could then lead to “iconoclast” being construed as as person who rebels against tradition… except, that makes my brain hurt. They weren’t destroying ‘tradition’ for the sake of being unencumbered by it – they were destroying things which didn’t conform to a new, more restrictive set of rules. They were enforcing a greater conformity by destroying works of art.

Imagine if a modern ruler decided that there should be no graphic representation of Jesus, and set out to destroy every work of art that contained a graphic representation of Jesus’ face. We would not call that ruler’s henchmen “non-conformists” who rebelled against the restrictions of tradition, as though their work were something brave or praiseworthy in any way. We would call them… well, a lot of bad words. In my personal opinion, the destruction of art should be considered an international war crime.

The iconoclasts lost that war, by the way.

And now people are using “iconoclast” to describe themselves as non-conformists, without the destructive connotations?


I do get it, really. If you look up the word “iconoclast,” most of the definitions you get say, “i·con·o·clast ( -k n -kl st ). n. 1. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions. 2. One who destroys sacred religious images.”

(So, if you pretend that definition 2 has no bearing on definition 1, then you’re all set!)

Or something like that. And who – besides word geeks like me – is interested in etymology?

All that aside, the discussion of this topic got me thinking: what does art mean to pagans?

The philosophical crux of the conflict between iconophiles and iconoclasts rested on their differing theories on the power of art, and the nature of gods.

Iconoclasts opposed the use of icons because it was thought that worshippers would focus more on the image than on the deity represented (Jesus, in their case); worshippers were supposed to worship Jesus, not his picture. The use of icons in religious art, for them, was a form of idolatry.

Iconophiles thought that the deity was inseparable from the deity’s image, and thus any honor given to the image, was thereby given to the deity. Again, in their case the divine being in question was Jesus.

What do we, as pagans, think?

So many of us use statues, statuettes, and any of a myriad of material representations of divine energies, that I wonder where we all might stand in this debate. I’m certain, by the way, that not one of us would stand in precisely the same spot as any other, but I wonder where we might each stand, as individuals.

Personally, I use icons to help me concentrate on whichever aspect of the divine I’m seeking to communicate with at that time. I would not worship a painting of a horse, but I might use it to help me focus on Epona, for example. And, the care I take in creating that painting could be a form of worship, so that honor might indeed be conferred to Epona. If I had a good luck charm, I might ascribe a certain amount of power to that item, which might then make me an idolater by definition. Fortunately, I don’t consider idolatry inherently bad. Of course, there’s a wide gulf between honoring an image and worshipping the same. Perhaps that’s really the key. Intent, I think, makes all the difference.

This blog post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, and was inspired by… well, actually it was inspired by my art history class, but then it conveniently fit into this week’s letter, which was I.
Also, it’s important to note that my information
on iconoclasm and all related academic-y topics,
not otherwise linked to a source in this post, came from
Janson’s Basic History of Western Art, Eighth edition, 2009.

art history = dangerous

My online art history class is about to invade the blogosphere. You’ll see why.
Each week we have to respond to a forum question. Yesterday, we were given an choice between two questions:
Choice 1: The iconoclasts changed the art of Byzantium for over a century. There are other examples of artistic expression being the victim of censorship. Can you think of any? Is art dangerous? Why do you think art is seen as having such influence?

Choice 2: Discuss the history and beauty of Islamic art and architecture. What aspects of Islamic art do you like? How does Islamic art reflect Islamic culture’s knowledge of science? What’s your opinion of not allowing depiction of people or animals? What does Islamic art say about Islamic culture?
Choice 1 caught my attention with “dangerous.” Choice 2 offers an opportunity to answer the same banal questions this chapter would elicit in every single art 101 class ever (or 107, in this case). Guess which I chose? To be fair, I ended up answering parts of Choice 2, also.

‘Can you think of any examples of artistic expression being the victim of censorship?’

…uh, duh…

But my favorite part of the question is, “is art dangerous?” Ha! Well, yeah! If you’re, you know, threatened by freedom of thought.

My actual (in class) response follows:

There is no form of artistic expression which has not been subjected to censorship at some point – concurrent or not (even children’s books!). Of course art is dangerous! It challenges people’s conceptions, changes the way we perceive things and holds a mirror to our own humanity for better or worse. Many times, people don’t care to see the ‘worse’ parts, or even to see a perception that contradicts there own. When those people are given an ounce of power, censorship happens. Art is seen as being influential because it is. What we see changes our neurochemistry. Maybe only infintismally, maybe too little for us to notice, but maybe not. The fears of tyrants ride in the art of the bold.

Islamic art represents, in my opinion (and among many other things that it represents), an explicit cultural recognition of the power of art over the human mind. They knew that art could change how people thought about their god, and they acted to prevent that by incorporating their artistic guidelines into the mores of their religion when their religion was still in its infancy. That’s a highly effective method, especially in collectivist cultures because the welfare of the group is more highly valued than the welfare of individuals, and individuals are less likely to question rules set by the authority figures of the group. Had Islam’s natal culture been more individualistic, it may not have worked.