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The New Iconoclasm and the Absence of Meaning

by Ed Lengel February 5, 2021

Revolutions destroy. And with many of the participants in the Black Lives Matter and associated protests, in the summer of 2020 being self-described revolutionaries, it was inevitable that statues would topple. Iconoclasm, whether practiced by the Byzantine iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. (who lent the word its meaning); Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century; or the French revolutionary sans-culottes of the eighteenth century; entails both erasing the past and radicalizing the future. It boils down, ultimately, to who holds the reins of power—to who will decide what people, values, and traditions will be exalted, and which shall be cast down in the name of progress.

In that sense, then, the iconoclasts of 2020 hardly did anything new. They followed, rather, a hoary, even atavistic tradition that equates destruction with progress—ironically looking reflexively but not reflectively backward, rather than forward. Nor did the indiscriminate fury with which activists attacked symbols of the Confederacy or of, in some cases, progressives and abolitionists, represent anything terribly different from what has happened in the past. What mattered, ultimately, is not necessarily what the statues stood for, but that they were old and so represented past people and times for which the protestors could not conceive understanding, let alone empathy. Fortunately, the lost Confederate and other statues generally had very little artistic value compared to what other iconoclasts have destroyed in the past.

What does differentiate the iconoclasts of 2020 from those of past centuries is what, if anything, they proposed to erect in place of that which they destroyed. Byzantine and Protestant iconoclasts sought to create new, more austere religious orders. French revolutionary iconoclasts, wonderfully fertile of imagination, created new calendars and secular saints, and turned cathedrals into Temples of Reason as they fought to establish a new Brotherhood of Man. Even the Russian Bolshevik revolutionaries of 1917 attempted to build a new Communist edifice replete with ritual and symbolism. The same might be said, of course, of the American revolutionaries who pulled down the statue of King George III in New York City in 1776. They tore it down; but they also replaced it with a new set of heroes, ideals, and symbols.

If the new iconoclasts have a symbol, by contrast, it is the empty pedestal. It is the anti-history, the anti-value, the anti-purpose. It does not represent austerity or purity; it does not present a blank slate; it is not even a symbol of anarchism which, after all, at least has a sort of definition. Perhaps we might call it The Monument to the Great Unknown. The “Washington Football team” offers one ludicrous anti-symbol of the new Age of Absence, which looks set to degenerate into an Age of Farce.

The first halting attempts to replace, for instance, the statues of the old Confederacy—which careful reflection, after all, would also have endorsed removing—have only highlighted the new iconoclasm’s fundamental thoughtlessness. In Richmond, a hologram of George Floyd was projected in place of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (a mural will also be raised in Washington, D.C.). George Floyd has certainly become a symbol, and a martyr to police brutality against African Americans; and previous revolutionaries had their martyrs too—like Nathan Hale. George Floyd’s brother Rodney said that “the hologram will allow my brother’s face to be seen as a symbol for change in places where change is needed most.”[1]

Change, however, requires much more than simply the absence of the past. Quite the opposite, it requires deep understanding of the past. Even the most radical of French, Russian, American, Chinese and other revolutionaries were avid students of history. Right or wrong—and many were very wrong, indeed—they all understood that the intimate understanding of human nature that the study of history provides is the prerequisite to building anything of lasting substance. Civil Rights leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and radical Women’s Suffrage pioneers (and also sometimes violent iconoclasts) such as Emma Goldman used the past to inform their visions of the future.

No such interest in the past, or in the study of humanity, seems to motivate our modern-day iconoclasts. It’s all very well to say that George Floyd symbolizes change—but change for what, or toward what? And perhaps most to the point, change by what means? Holographic projection is by nature a transient thing. But where are the sculptors? And if, in time, they arise, what program, what philosophy of change, will their art represent?

A reflective, enduring movement might be expected to erect intimate, meaningful statues or other visual representations of Dr. King; of Booker T. Washington; of Rosa Parks; or of inspiring Medal of Honor recipients such as Freddie Stowers, Roy Benavidez, or Daniel Inouye, all of whom overcame tremendous obstacles to serve and build a better country. Instead—so far at least—the symbol of the new tomorrow remains for the most part an empty space, only occasionally lit by the flicker of meaning or inspiration.


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