It is often said that the proliferation of images under the regime of modernity is closely allied to discourses on and practices of iconoclasm. In narratives of secular modernity, aniconism and iconoclasm both facilitate the proliferation of images, and demonstrate the limits of their power. The iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation is, for example, often said to have severed any necessary bond between the image and the sacred, a process of desacralization that liberated the image for purely aesthetic or profane uses. These included the production of images whose content or context tested boundaries of various sorts in gestures of metaphorical rather than literal iconoclasm. The proliferation of images as a sign of the modern thus rests on the paradox that the breaking of icons, both literal and metaphorical, is integral to the future-oriented thrust of modernity.

As many have recognized, however, it is precisely acts of iconoclasm, with their embodied and often visceral response to the material world that reveal the ambiguities and contradictions that inhere in the disenchanted ontologies of modernity. The anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, “Defacement is like Enlightenment. It brings insides outside, unearthing knowledge, and revealing mystery. As it does this, however, as it spoliates and tears at tegument, it may also animate the thing defaced and the mystery revealed may become more mysterious, indicating the curious magic upon which Enlightenment, in its elimination of magic, depends."

Taussig’s observation undermines the binaries of rational/irrational, secular/religious or modern/premodern, which tend to structure many representations of image-breaking. But it also highlights the fact that most images inhabit spaces between the poles of creation and destruction. These spaces are characterized by alterations, negotiations, and obfuscations of various sorts regarding the appropriate life of images, their appearance, material constitution, ontological status, social context, and even visibility. Each of these two seminars explores quite different aspects of this “middle ground” that are often overlooked in contemporary writing on images, aniconism and iconoclasm.

Mon, Apr 18, 2pm–5pm | closed

Creation as Incompletion: Figures, Flowers and Photographs

Every text book or museum exhibition on Islamic art begins by dealing with the idea of an image prohibition in Islam. Attempts to address this pervasive cliché generally take two approaches. One draws attention to the wealth of figural art that survives from many areas of the Islamic world. The other emphasizes the rich variety of non-representational art in the Islamic world, sometimes suggesting that its development was encouraged by proscriptive attitudes to images. Although fundamentally incommensurate, both approaches reinforce the idea that artists in the pre- and early modern Islamic world had only two substantive choices: to abstain from figural art and indulge in a compensatory celebration of calligraphy, geometry and vegetation, or (more commonly) to ignore any theological injunctions or pious qualms and produce figural art. Although well intentioned, this neat dichotomy locates artistic practice at extremes of a spectrum. What gets lost is a middle ground of compromise and negotiation between total proscription and total permissiveness, a terrain that, as we shall see, is rich in innovation and imagination.

This seminar surveys the artistic and textual evidence for a middle ground. It considers strategies developed by the pious in Islamic and other traditions to reconcile a desire for figural art or artifacts with unease about their acceptability. These included both the alteration of existing images - the partial erasure of the figure for example - and the creation of figural art characterized by a refusal to complete or fully articulate the figure. Practical strategies of incompletion applied to both words and images were sometimes endorsed in juridical rulings on the acceptability of figural art.

Generally neglected by historians and art historians alike, these materials highlight a range of bold experiments with reconciling traditions of artistic creativity and piety often seen as incommensurate. They not only nuance our understanding of the relationship between prescription, proscription and artistic practice, but raise significant issues about the nature of images and their relationship to the real.

Tue, Apr 19, 2pm–5pm | closed

The Unmade Image: From Marble Veins and Imprinted Veils to Modernism

“It is strange to think that nature, which can neither draw nor paint any likeness, sometimes creates the illusion of having done so, while art, which has always been successful at resemblance, renounces its traditional, almost inevitable and “natural” vocation and turns to the creation of such forms as nature itself abounds in – mute, unpremeditated, and without a model.”

So wrote the French critic Roger Caillois in his remarkable 1970 eulogy on stone, L’Écriture des Pierres (The Writing of Stone). For Caillois, the rise of abstraction and turn away from mimesis in the visual arts found its paradoxical chiasmus in those stones whose naturally occurring veins and fractures recalled the mimetic forms favored in earlier art-making traditions.

The natural or unmade images found in stone have long been exploited in the architectural traditions of Christendom and the medieval Islamic world. This common use of stone panels and veneers whose naturally occurring patterns were read as representational continues a tradition rooted in the sacred architecture of late antiquity. During the first few centuries CE, the arts of the Mediterranean saw a profound move away from naturalism towards forms of artistic production that demander greater imaginative perception from the viewer. The images seen in marble in particular were celebrated as marvels, pictures and patterns not made by human hand. Paradoxically, perhaps, the same quality was also exploited in modernist architecture. Here, the cutting and placement of marbles often produced ornamental or quasi-representational effects while permitting a disavowal, displacement or mitigation of agency within an architectural culture deeply suspicious of ornament and representation.

The natural images of stone are just one class of acheiropoietic images, images said to be made without human hands or agency. Such images were variously attributed to the workings of divine providence or nature. In the Christian world, the most famous examples were cloths imprinted with the face of Christ. These seem to anticipate photography, a mode of image-making that was also celebrated as producing images not made by any human agent, written in and through light.

This seminar will explore diverse manifestations of agentless, natural and unmade images, their relation to both mimesis and abstraction, and their implications for the nature of images and their referential capacities.

Wed, Apr 20, 8pm–10pm

Public Lecture

Tracing Aura: The Relic Across Eras of its Technological Reproducibility

Nineteenth- and early twentieth- century accounts of the streetscapes of many Middle Eastern cities suggest that they were far richer in images of various sorts than is often imagined. These included both devotional and profane ephemera, among them paper prints produced cheaply for mass consumption. This lecture focuses on a single example of such ephemeral images, a lithograph of the Prophet’s sandal printed in Beirut in 1901. Representing the adaptation of modern imaging technologies to promote practices of devotion, the lithograph reveals multiple anxieties related to contemporary contestations about relic veneration. It also stands as the last in a chain of images copied from the original relic, and so encapsulates or epitomizes several centuries of replication and circulation. Spanning the divide between manual and technological reproduction, the lithograph raises significant questions about prophetic aura and its transmission, questions that destabilize any hard distinction between tradition and modernity.

The seminar with Finbarr Barry Flood is part of HWP 2015-16: From The Miraculous to the Mundane.

Finbarr Barry Flood is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. He publishes on Islamic architectural history and historiography, cross-cultural dimensions of Islamic art, image theory, technologies of representation, and Orientalism. His books include The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture (Boston: Brill, 2000), Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009) which was awarded the 2011 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies, and Globalizing Cultures: Art and Mobility in the Eighteenth Century (Ars Orientalis 39, 2011), co-edited with Nebahat Avcıoğlu.

He is currently co-editing the 2-volume Blackwell Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture with Professor Gülru Necipoğlu of Harvard University. Other projects include a monograph on artistic connections between medieval Ethiopia, India and the Islamic world, on which he is working with Dr. Kindeneh Mihretie of the Institute for Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa.