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.