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What the history of iconoclasm tells us about the Confederate statue controversy

By admin / Published on Thursday, 02 Nov 2017 06:05 AM / No Comments / 590 views

Over the last few months, a new American civil war seems to have broken out. It isn’t being fought with weapons. Instead, it’s being fought with statues and symbols, and at the heart of the dispute is the question of whether statues of Confederate heroes should be allowed to stand.

After a violent “Unite the Right” rally ostensibly intended to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, an enthusiastic mob pulled down a bronze figure in North Carolina, massive Confederate statues in Baltimore were surreptitiously removed at night and New York City is formally reviewing which of its public statues should be allowed to remain in place.

The President has weighed in, along with his chief of staff, John Kelly, who said their removal would set a “very, very dangerous” precedent. It’s even become an issue in the Virginia governor’s race.

How did a bunch of statues (most of which are conventional in their appearance) become a canvas for passion, vitriol and violence? Are the defenders of the Confederate statues correct when they say their destruction or their removal sets a dangerous precedent?

To answer these questions, it’s helpful to look at the issue through the lens of history – to when the destruction of statues became a political act.

‘I will hack up the flesh’

The art of the cavemen tended to use animals as its subject; the representation of humans – aside from female fertility statues – is rare. The images of people that do exist mostly show them in animal guise or animal costume, presumably shamans. Art was religious but apparently not very political.

This changed with the advent of agriculture and the emergence of Middle Eastern city-states – empires ruled by kings who claimed support from gods and who maintained strict forms of social hierarchy. These rulers asserted their power with statues of themselves and their gods. And it was during this period in human history that iconoclasm – the destruction of images for political and religious reasons – first emerged.

If these kingdoms were overthrown, it was standard practice to subject their rulers and military leaders to horrible forms of public torture and execution: flaying them alive, cutting off of eyes, noses and other body parts and then displaying them.  

“I will hack up the flesh and then carry it with me, to show off in other countries,” proclaimed Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king who ruled from 668 to 627 B.C. (A well-known relief in the British Museum shows Ashurbanipal consuming a sumptuous meal, while the severed head of Teuman, King of Elam, hangs from a nearby tree as a marker of his power.)

Statues and memorials of rulers were subjected to similar forms of mutilation. For example, a copper statue of an Akkadian ruler from Nineveh was famously defaced, very likely when the Medes sacked Nineveh in 612 B.C. The head was severed from the body, the ears were cut off, the eyes were gouged out and the lower part of the beard was trimmed, as if an actual captive were being tortured and humiliated. (Today, its “remains” live in the National Museum of Iraq.)

In many ways, the destruction of a statue mimicked attacks on real people, and this aspect of iconoclasm surely remains central to the practice today.

In videos of the Durham, North Carolina statue of a Confederate soldier being roped around the neck and pulled from his pedestal, what’s striking is the glee of the crowd in mutilating it. Aggressive instincts were clearly at work, not unlike those present in a lynching, or that led to the dismemberment of the Akkadian effigy.