Every few hundred years iconoclasm breaks out again. The “peoples of the Book,” as we blandly say, are especially prone to it, when they read “thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image…” (Exodus 20.4, Deuteronomy 5.8). Ninth century Byzantium, seventeenth century England -- on it goes. Today’s New York Times reports the appalling story of ISIS’ destruction of antiquities. But what they are doing iis more than smashing old images, or depriving us all of our cultural heritage. And it is not just about art.
Iconoclasm is an extreme form of selectivity about the past. It tells the onlooker what is to be avoided, and, indirectly, what is to be given pride of place in this case the Prophet’s words and not much else.
We need to speak out in every way we can about this abuse of the past. It’s a war crime and ought to be punished as such. But we have an iconoclasm of our own, subtler but no less pernicious. It is evident when we remove from the curriculum and from research support the study of those cultures, from the third millennium BCE, through the Hellenistic age and the Romans, to the art and architecture of early Christianity, down to Byzantine civilization. For years persistent neglect, as pernicious as war, has been waged against such study. Now only a small fraction of American students has the opportunity to study this part of our past in any depth.
Maybe that iconoclasm ought to be recognized as a war crime, too.