Monday, May 16, 2005

What Happened to the Human Image

by Karen J. Hammer

When the Bamiyam Buddhas in Afghanistan were dynamited by the Taliban a few years ago, I felt a real sense of horror and outrage about that, as did many around the world. At the time, though, a few of my Protestant acquaintances (who were non-artists) suggested that this destruction was of no spiritual consequence, as these were only pagan idols that should have been destroyed anyway. I could understand the reasons behind their simple iconoclasm—idolism is to be abhorred and avoided--but I thought at the time that the Buddha statues didn’t really represent demon idols that enslaved others with witchcraft, but that these were icons of the idea of transcendent man carved in stone. The Buddha statues depicted, for the typical Asian, the possibility of salvation by a work of contemplation to tame the passions that tear man apart. That the Taliban (just one modern incarnation of the Furies) saw fit to destroy them and ALL the other artifacts of man’s long history in Central Asia showed me that they would think nothing of purging the last potent image, that is, man himself.

The West, in the last 100 years, has practiced a more subtle kind of iconoclasm, since it had dawned on our culture (about mid-19th century) that man really isn’t the center of the universe, nor does our culture seriously believe that he can be saved. Between the world wars, the visual arts have largely deconstructed the image of man, often to express its modern pessimism, to make a sour political point to show how inhuman we’ve become, how tragic. The trend is not without a reason. We live in a time of extreme passions, a time of breakdown and coming apart. I can understand why the German expressionists or Dadaists for instance, would find this human deconstruction fascinating; when those schools of art came into being after WWI. It was after that terrible experience there was truly no more room for humanist optimism, when hopes seemed to have died. Some have said that it have even begun much earlier than that, when the Grunewald cruxifixion was painted showing a decomposing Christ, a painting so out of kilter with the usual icons of the Cruxifixion, that it horrified Dostoyevsky with its despair.

But how to explain the deconstruction in our own American culture that has been spared famine and warfare on our own shores until recently? For the last 15 years or more, when I watch TV or a movie these days, I see a similar kind of iconoclasm in how the human image is depicted. Now we can see on TV 24/7 depictions of extremely graphic violence that has gradually come to include more and more dismemberings and beheadings, the ultimate human deconstruction. There are also computer-generated mutilations of faces and human forms (so-called morphing) that I see used in the commercial art, film and other media. A face or human form is now something to manipulate at will and for any purpose—a new pornography that is everywhere. I've seen some of this deconstruction spilling over into Christian art. Is the human form no longer allowed to be beautiful? Is there no hope of glory?

I hear this deconstruction and dissolution in our popular music, too. Even pop music isn’t what it was 40 years ago, when it mostly sang silly songs of puppy love—now the sounds and verses are full of pit bulls mauling human relationships. It didn’t take long for that descent into darkness to happen, just a few years passed for Sid Vicious to sing his harrowing and demonic rendition of “I Did It My Way”, and now such pop music and our other media form just about the only cultural backdrop young people know (as too many aren’t taught anything else). The frenzied agitation is piped in at you everywhere as if to say there’s no escaping it. How can one contemplate anything remotely transcendent with such pervasive cacophony, even in church, which ought to be not of this world or willingly subject to its passions and furies.


Michael Dodaro said...

There were two prominent spasms of Iconoclasm, both of them revolts against art that was considered idolatrous. Those who could not imagine transcendent ideals in physical representations destroyed works of art or removed them from churches. A psychological extension of the argument against images castigated music as indulgence in reprobate physicality. Harmony and counterpoint were purged from the churches of Calvin’s Geneva, and only plainsong chanting was allowed. Progressive contemporary Christians smirk. They consider this fussy Puritanism, but they destroy centuries of liturgical art and tradition with raucous pop music. Instead of the exultant language of the Psalms or Cranmer’s Prayer Book we hear rappers, instead of a sung Kyrie there are amplified screams. Those who object are told to get out of the way of the Postmodern word made flesh.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you are reflecting more so on your own sheltered life, and watching too much television to make referrals about Sid Vicious and the comparisons of pop music in our culture, than truly understanding much of the history of human society. If you get right down to it, I don't see anything inspiring about the moralism of Chrisitanity either in their philosophy or icons. Take for instance, the Christian Cross. It is a 3000 year old symbol of suffering, mutilation, and death of the human form. That bloody cross is certainly not an icon that would inspire love, compassion, or peace! One only has to reflect back to the 1500's when Spanish Christianity came to this continent and practiced their brand of biblioclasm by destroying the Mayan codices by Spanish Conquistadors and priests. The famous Nazi book burning was taken on by Christians too. Or, how about the recent political pushes of the "Intelligent Design" philosophy over Darwinism, by Evangelical Christians in an attempt to adulterate science! I guess Christians have come to the conclusion, if you can't burn them out to meet your own philosophical agendas, then destroy them by inserting non-intellictual garbage called "junk science"? Pagan idols and Witchcraft? Christians worship money more than they do God, and they were burning witches both in Europe and America up until the 1600's.

Secondly, yes, it was a shame what the Taliban did to the sanctuaries of the Bamiyam Buddhas. But when did Christians really ever care about other religions? I find the Christians are every bit as backwards and intolerable as the Talibans! The only differences between the two lies in their dress, their customs, and economies. However, they both practice economic indentured servitude, (a form of oppresive slavery), and neither has any respect for the welfare of the earth. how can you justify any horror and rage over someone blowing up iconic statues in a Buddist Temple, when we have an army of bulldozers that ruin the natural beauty and functionality of the environment in America everyday? Tell me, what is the difference?

Last of all, when it comes to the breakdown of American society, let me ask who were the ones you pcuhed so hard to get your illustrious president, George Bush, elected twice? Absolutely the worst and most abusive president you ever had. Don't believe it, then why did your administration sanction torture? Why are 47 million of your people going without health care? Why does your government tax you and provide exemptions for the wealthy? Talk about inequalities of a Christian society!!! You do not have a democratic society, rather a polyarchy society, ran by corporate elitests who control every aspect of your life, including your religious beliefs!

You are only reflectig on your own myoptic world, but these changes have been going on for most of human history. It would be best if Christians, Muslims, and Jews would take it upon themselves to fulfill their biblical prophecies of Armegeddon and have it out there. If they would do that, the rest of us could rid ourselves of all this religous bitogtry and hatred, and the world would be a better place to live!