I’m sure, like me, you’re lying awake contemplating the French Revolution and iconoclasm. Well, you’re in luck; There is a great intro a study on that very topic! 

Dario Gamboni takes on the subject in a book called, boldly, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution. Now, that link is only the introduction to the book, but even the introduction is enough to shed more light than has been shed on the current wave of iconoclasm and vandalism underway than hours of Fox News or CNN.

Our latest “revolution” has included a fair amount of statue smashing. The French Revolution was replete with this kind of behavior, not limited to art but to relics, clothes, and just about everything else. A great many items — like the Bayeux Tapestry I visited last year — were spared. Many were not. 

This introduction places this fascinating behavior of statue smashing into context. Think about the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular I remember the positive association I had with the removal of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, which stood in Lubyanka Square. It was a powerful moment, one we cheered. It was the end of communism. Speaking for myself, it was the end of a period of tension in which we all assumed the end of the world was only minutes away, one crisis, one misunderstanding from total annihilation. You can imagine what scenes like this, for me, meant.

I was relieved. We could come out of our crouch, our poise of defensiveness. We won! The destruction of those statues behind the current felt great. For years we lived in fear, now that fear was gone. The fall of these public and government sanctioned objects confirmed it, made it real.

Gamboni notes, “that the French Revolution would not have been so extreme in its iconoclasm had the French monarchy not resorted to art as a political instrument to the degree that it did.”  

This point makes more sense when one considers the example I mention, one that Gamboni points too as well, writing that “the link between Communist monumental propaganda and the wholesale pulling down of statues in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 is readily apparent.”

During the reformation, 200 years before the French revolution, images and statues were even put on trial. The author cites the destruction of images then, and how 

In order to prove their powerlessness, images were not immediately destroyed: first they were profaned and degraded – often in ways that mimicked judicial processes of
the day or the martyrdom of the saints they represented – and summoned to react. The idea was to reduce them to a material status of non-symbolic objects (wood, stone), and a rigid distinction between the profane and the utterly immaterial, non-human realm of the sacred was redrawn.

Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution.

But doesn’t it matter what the image is? Isn’t it stupid to tear down a statue of Ulysses Simpson Grant, the winning Union general of the Civil War? Sort of. Except that as in the French Revolution it’s about more than just the person depicted; it’s about the ancien regime, the old order. 

Destruction of images, especially spontaneous destruction is an expression of the breakdown of a society’s social cohesion. These things happen when one system is failing, and the public destruction of images becomes a symptom of that collapse. 

From the beginning of the nineteenth century on, the recourse to violence against art must therefore also be understood in relation to the possibility or impossibility of access to legitimate means of expression, as a dark spot in the economy of the relationship between art and the public.

Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution.

Perhaps the best example of how this has played out over time in older democracies is the Colonne Vendome.

The most symbolically loaded target of the Commune was the Colonne Vendôme, a derivation of Trajan’s Column, erected by Napoleon I on the site previously occupied by a royal statue and refurnished with an effigy of the Emperor by his nephew Napoleon III. It was condemned by the Commune as a nationalistic ‘symbol of tyranny and militarism’ and solemnly pulled down on 16 May 1871

Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution.

Go to France today, and the column is there, rebuilt in 1874. 

I’m ambivalent about the statues and destruction of other representations in the latest spasm of our decline. On the one hand, I myself am deeply attached to objects, and not just the obvious ones. When I took the Studio B tour in Nashville, the studio where Elvis and many others recorded, I cried. Hype? I suppose. If for some reason the studio was burned down, I’d be unhappy.

Physical representations are not just a articulations of an idea in stone or wood, but they establish a relationship between our experience of our life and our individual and collective past. Remember what I said about ordination: we are the link between the past we know, and the future we don’t. We’re responsible for both. 

Yet, as Vendome illustrates, and as Donald Rumsfeld said at the looting of museums in Iraq, “Stuff happens.” I appreciate this sentence from this chapter, and it sums it up well. 

The menace represented by such violence makes it all the more important to remember that even if there are many worlds of interpretation, they come into conflict in one and the same world.

Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution.

Violence against objects presages violence against people. But which people? The people we don’t like? The bad people? The people we hate? As I wrote three years ago, I think this latest surge of iconoclasm ought to be tolerated. Tearing down statues of generals, politicians, and men who more often than not were cynical in their dispatch of young lives into the breach of death hoping for personal glory. Let them fall. But it is important to see this as a symptom of a deep disease in the body politic.