Iconic Iconoclasm: British Suffragettes, Erased de Kooning & The Buddhas of Bamiyan

March 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Last night I got to go to sit in on an awesome lecture delivered by Barry Flood, as a part of the CSDS golden jubilee series. Among other ‘moments’ Barry Flood situated practices of iconoclasm within the dizzying context of pre-reformation Europe— a time that saw an expansion of Europe’s horizons in the form of the exploration of Africa, the discovery of the Americas and deepening relationships with the ‘Middle East’ &c.

All of this talk of iconoclasm got me to thinking about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which I presented to students  when I wanted them to think more critically about the ‘moral outrage’ of UNESCO. Apparently Barry has already written about this, coming to the same conclusions about suffering populations vs ‘threatened monuments’  and the so-called transcendant importance of ‘world heritage’—though this was only one of many arguments in this short and amazingly constructed paper. I think the next time I teach a non-Western course I will include a section with this article, along with the introduction from Arjun Appadurai’s edited collection The Social Life of Things, both of which are helping me develop a more complex position relative to iconoclasm. When I showed the Buddhas of Bamiyan to my students, I couldn’t stop them from thinking about the need to protect the Buddhas, and I was really searching for ways to think of iconoclasm not as a negative act, but rather as an act of creation that we should think of as part of an aesthetic regime. Conversely I was trying my hardest to get them to think of preservation as an act of violence (a view articulated by Appadurai). Granted, this is a very difficult position to take, but it struck me that not a one of my students could even imagine these possibilities. This of course was not their fault, but my own, as I wasn’t able to really flesh out my argument in a convincing way.

In any case, while professor Flood was delivering his lecture, I couldn’t help but think of the only valorized example of destruction that I could pull from my limited memory—Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning” — in which erasure is an act of abstraction/creation. In this case abstraction—being the valorized visual language of modernity signifies the very height of ‘enlightened’ thinking. This piece very powerfully announces itself as an intellectual work.  Here, Rauschenberg attempts to criticize art as commodity fetish, but he utterly fails in this respect as his erasure is today an incredibly valuable relic, or icon as it were. It would be really interesting to find out how much it is insured for. In any case, Flood provokes us to think of the Bamiyan Buddha within the same epistemic frame as the de Kooning—not the frame of an “eternal or recurring medievalism” but as a criticism of a fetishized and commodified object. That is to say the Buddhas don’t exist only as relics of a distant and historical time, but also operate in the globalized present—in the form of widely circulated images—a currency that illustrates the relationship between cultural and financial capital and of tourism dollars that might have been. These forms of currency  allow us to view that part of the world as collectively ‘ours’. Flood stops short of condoning the Taliban’s actions, but still he makes us think. He doesn’t use the de Kooning cum Rauschenberg to illustrate his point (which he mentioned to me, after his lecture was an example that he usually turns to), instead he offers what I think is in the end a far more poignant example. Flood recounts the vandalism in 1914 of the Rokeby Venus by suffragette Mary Richardson, who slashed Velázquez’s masterpiece 9 times with a meat cleaver in order to protest the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. In the words of Richardson:

 “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”


Indeed, Ms. Richardson has a point, a very sharp one indeed (ahem). She was sentenced to six months in prison, the maximum sentence one could receive for vandalizing an artwork. The painting as photographed above is far more affecting than the painting in its repaired state. Annoyingly I found out that Mary Richardson was a fascist, the head in fact of the women’s section of the BUF (British Union of Fascists). Apparently many of the early British suffragettes turned to fascism. That doesn’t however—at least for me—change the validity of her point. At least Emma Pankhurst, to whom the vandalism is dedicated has a solid legacy to lean on…

But to turn again to UNESCO and the violence of preservation… When listening to Barry, I was thinking about how ironic it was that the Qutb complex just recently received UNESCO World Heritage status, considering the fact that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was one of the motivating events behind UNESCO’s ‘protective’ activities. It is ironic because if anything it can be called an ‘iconic’ example of iconoclasm, the mosque at the Qutb complex would be it.


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