Over at the Guardian, Canon Giles Fraser has written an article, which, seemingly alone in the acres of commentary about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, examines some of the theological implications of the events in Paris. In particular he focuses on the question of iconoclasm. You can read it here.
For what it is worth, I think that it may well be true that the jihadis were iconoclasts, and the journalists too: but the key difference is in the way the word iconoclast is used. The journalists were iconoclasts in the modern sense – not respecters of tradition, as is very common these days. The jihadis are iconoclasts (as we see in Syria and Iraq at present) in the traditional sense, that is, smashers of religious images. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was iconoclastic in that it was an attack on the makers of images, in this case, the cartoons that were judged to be blasphemous.
All this should make us reflect on the value of religious images, and images in general, and the corresponding disvalue on all those who wish to destroy them. As Giles Fraser points out, for most Christians, images are licit, indeed desirable, because Jesus Christ took up the flesh, and became man, thus becoming the image of God. He is the original icon, and our images of Him are all images of the Image. Moreover, being real fleshly people, it is perfectly legitimate to make images of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, and in images of their flesh to see the transforming power of God’s grace at work. An image is a wonderful shortcut in theology, leading us as it does, without words, to appreciate the work of the Incarnation and God’s grace. Of course, this does depend on the quality of the image: some are short cuts leading nowhere, but the best are true instruments of evangelisation.
The destruction of images, which, historically, has long been a Muslim pursuit, as any tourist to Asia Minor will tell you, is fired by a theological position, namely that God is completely transcendent. This is a foundational Muslim position, and, in my humble opinion, a very dangerous one, and the source of much trouble to us non-Muslims. It is not just that our images upset and enrage Muslims and provoke vandalism, it is rather than the Muslims, being set against images, also reject the values that are immanent in the world that the images convey.
At this point we must distinguish between the pictures in the National Gallery, and the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. The first are of great value, are they not, and the second are offensive rubbish merely to be tolerated by those who do not like them in the name of free speech, surely?
All images have some sort of value, because all images are an expression of the artist’s insights. This is true even of an ugly picture, or a badly executed one. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were of value to us all in the great Western tradition, in that they are an expression of what people think, and, though on the fringes of debate, a contribution to discussion. It is true that some of their cartoons were offensive to Catholics; but insofar as Christ became flesh, and we are all flesh, we are all draw-able, and we are all caricature-able. The caricature conveys truth even if it is an anti-truth, the opposite of what is true, for in that case it appoints to truth as well. Arguments about free speech tend to be a little vacuous, unless the argument also stresses, as I would like to, that we should have free speech, and free artistic expression, because speech and artistic expression are intrinsically valuable, as indeed they are, as human beings are centres of meaning and truth.
Even the art I do not like has something to say. Consider that notorious bed of Tracey Emin. It is quite literally a pile of rubbish, and I am sure it is offensive to quite a lot of people, and it is certainly not pretty, but it does tell a truth, or so it seems to me, loud and clear, namely that life does not have to be this way, and we can, nay must, live in a way utterly different to the owner of this bed. Nihilism, be it in a bed or a cartoon, points to the necessity of something, and something good.
At this point we should look to our own tradition. Some critics see the golden age of Catholic art as pre-dating the Counter-Reformation, in that the epoch of the Council of Trent saw the artists fall under the command of the clergy. (Trent laid down, though I am not sure where, or how effectively, that all religious art had to be approved by priests.) Art, however, it seems to me, is best left free, and left to the artist. Though it has to be said, that if the Church kept a watchful eye on Gianlorenzo Bernini or Guido Reni, the results were not so very disastrous. These two fervently Catholic artists produced wonderful work, which was an expression of faith and an impetus to faith for others; and not just faith: the artists of the Counter-Reform are suffused with a dfeep human sympathy too. But even an artist like Graham Greene, a Catholic and an anti-Catholic at the same time, produced work that certainly puts religious questions at the foreground of contemporary conversation. Art, often deliberately, but sometimes even despite itself, brings questions to the surface of the human mind that often lead to religious answers. Because of this, because artistic endeavour is surely a God-given trait in humanity, we must encourage creativity, and we must resist iconoclasm at all costs. An artistic and literary awakening in the Muslim world, or a continued growth in such an awakening where it has already begun, would do us all a huge amount of good.
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