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Iconoclasm to Icons: The Aesthetics of Destruction in Contemporary Figuration

April 8, 2017



The accepted hagiography of the art and artists of the late 19th to early 21st centuries, asserts that contemporary art has loosed itself from the bonds of religion and ideology in the dramatic revolution of the avant-garde to a utopian ideal of free artistic expression. No longer constrained by the orthodoxies of 19th century academic art with its idealization of the human condition, its insistence on instrumentalism, its religious influences and its hubris of skillful rendering, artists are free to explore the truth of life as they see it, with all of the related complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties.


Yet, what began as an iconoclastic razing of the temples of academic art, has developed into academic orthodoxies of a new ideology, which is parallel to the art of previous generations; firmly rooted in the current cultural assumptions about the nature of life. The aesthetics of destruction that are hallmarks of modern and contemporary figuration-- the obliterating and obscuring of faces and figures, the intentional damaging and destroying of surfaces—developed out of the obliteration of the spirit and aesthetics of 19th century academic art, and out of  that avant-garde iconoclasm, an iconography and dogma of a new orthodoxy has been created.


The aesthetic iconoclasm in figuration can be broken into three parts. First was the destruction of the traditional methods of figurative painting that dominated the salons of the 19th century. Second was a dissolution of the philosophical underpinnings determining what constituted a painting; delineating what it was meant to accomplish. The third part is related to the first two, but has additional factors that set it apart. This is the destruction of the human visage. Each of these three components found their genesis in the second half of the nineteenth century, and has become a fully realized paradigm of art making today.


Aesthetic Iconoclasm: the dismantling of the traditional methods of art making


Academic art, as a style, came out of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the preeminent art establishment of the 19th century. The Ecole found its roots in the master apprentice system, but over time had been systematized. It was fundamentally tied to the private studios of master artists, but created a synthesis of those many teachers. The art education that students of the private ateliers and the Ecole received was based on two things, the study of the antique and the study of nature. Master copies and cast work were the foundation of instruction, and as a student progressed they began drawing and painting from the live model, as well as plein air landscape study.


The point of this education was to prepare young artists for the rigors of history painting: the large scale historical, biblical, allegorical and mythological paintings, such as Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii”, or William Adolph Bouguereau’s “Birth of Venus”. These were considered the highest forms of painting, and were undertaken with great consideration and preparation by the artist, not only in the anatomical understanding and skill necessary to complete it, but in the process of each painting as well. In this process, the sketch was worked and reworked until the composition reflected not only beauty and skill, but the complete concept that was to be expressed through the painting. After the sketch was perfected the artist was expected to bring the painting to a perfect finish. This high finish, the fini, was considered not only vital from an artistic perspective, but the moral duty of the artist. “Reason and deliberation were considered indispensable to the creative process,” writes Albert Boime in his book The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century, “and so the sketch had to be carefully re-worked and finished. It was his capacity to execute a dutifully finished work which proved the painter a true artist” (Boime, 10). If a painting did not meet the standards of the finish established by the academic artists, the painting would be dismissed, relegated to the realm of the sketch.


The high art of the academy was the epic history painting—the subject of which could be historical, biblical, allegorical or mythological-- and the fini went hand in hand with these impressive works of art. However, because the fini was prized as the mark of the true artist, every painting in what were considered the sub-strata of art, portraiture, landscape, genre, and still life, each had to have the fini as well. Thanks to a century of industrial growth in Europe, there was a burgeoning middle class in the 19th century, literate, with economic power but no real social power. Art collecting became a way to attempt to prove their rising social status, but had the side effect of creating a mass culture. Genre paintings of domestic scenes, peasants working in the fields with the beautifully polished finishes “pictorial narratives with a humanitarian emphasis” were sought after (Weisberg 47), and there were plenty of young artists with the training to supply the demand.


It is partly the creation of this mass culture and a formalization of a popular art, which caused the artists of the avant-garde to react against the constraint of this system. The fini is what first came under attack, first by the Romantics and then the Impressionists whose finished work contained the expressive line work, and brighter colors and feelings of spontaneity and movement that were associated with the sketch. As the fini fell out of fashion, so did the method of education that was necessary to complete it. “Aesthetic iconoclasm implied a radicalization of the idea of artistic progress, according to which tradition was not only insufficient to bring it forth, but really stood in its way” (Gamboni, 265).


Philosophical Iconoclasm: The dissolution of purpose

The allegorical history paintings created by the academic artists were rife with theory about the use of color and line in order to instigate psychological responses, emotions and meditation in the viewer. Like the paintings of the Renaissance, these art works were meant to evoke higher ideals than simply a representation of reality. They were meant to offer the viewer a glimpse of an eternal truth to meditate upon. Additionally many of these paintings, as well as some of the popular genre paintings, were meant to be instrumental, that is they had an inspirational or instructive value that would be uplifting to the morals of the viewer.


For example, when viewing Aimé-Nicolas Morot’s, Le Bon Samaritain (1880) There was an assumption that the viewer would recognize the narrative, and meditate on the selflessness, courage, and love exemplified by the good Samaritan and the artist’s goal was that the viewer would then internalize these moral examples and that reflection would have a positive outcome in their life. In addition to the aspirational aspects of narrative, there was a recognized “redemptive” quality to beauty itself. Looking at something beautiful, would, in that neo-platonic way, lead the viewer to contemplate the Beauty of the higher plane, resulting in a moral increase.


 This philosophical purpose of art was quickly dissolved in the latter half of the 19th century, and the disassociation with those ideals continued into the 20th century. Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of art history at Williams College, Michael J. Lewis quoted 1950’s painter Barnett Newman, in his 2015 essay “How art Became Irrelevant: “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of western European painting. Instead of making ‘cathedrals’ out of Christ, Man, or Life, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings” (Lewis, 1).


To begin to explore why art moved so quickly away from the habits of centuries, it is helpful to consider other parts of 19th century intellectual life. Concurrent with the Impressionist movement another trend in the intellectual community was gaining steam. Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859 and it quickly became accepted in the intellectual circles to which the artists belonged. In 2009 The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge launched an exhibit that later would travel to Yale University, titled “Endless Forms: Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts”, exploring the influence of The Origin of the Species on the arts. Highlighted in the exhibit are the Impressionists, including Cezanne, Monet, and Degas, exploring the way each absorbed this new research into their work.


Darwin’s ideas spread quickly and demanded more than just a reassessment of the ontological claims of the superiority of humans, which in and of itself had a destabilizing impact on the centrality of the human figure in art, but also required a reassessment of the “natural” order of society.  Clement Greenberg in his essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch”(1939) wrote that:  “It is no accident, therefore, that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically and geographically with the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe”.  



The avant-garde movement developed out of a new criticism of society as well as a criticism of the traditional forms of art making. To this point in history, the “natural order of things” was an accepted paradigm enabling the elite to maintain power over the masses. They based their claims of superiority on a divine right. However, with the advent of Darwinism, this “natural” order began to be questioned and society itself together with its cultural offspring of art and literature began to be re-examined. Its genesis was seen as an artificial construction, simply the latest in a succession of synthetic social orders. In light of the perceived falseness of society and the artificiality of its constructs, the artists of the avant-garde responded in two ways, both of which had the same result: the abstraction or deconstruction of the human in painting.


The first part of the response was that the avant-garde began asserting themselves against the prevailing standards of society, in an attempt to detach the practice of art from all that was considered false in society and culture. “Retiring from the public all together, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high levels of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities or contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point” (Greenberg, 2). It is in this search for an absolute that the artists of the avant-garde began to dissolve content and subject completely into form, turning away from the subject matter of common human experience, focusing in on the disciplines and processes of the craft itself.


The second response to the paradigm shift came parallel to the first or perhaps a little behind. The focus on the craft, the artistic concepts over and above human elements of narrative, or emotion, the attempt to find a purity of art and expression resulted in a higher level of artificial culture. An artistic culture formulated in the negative, to pitch itself against the precepts set up by the old guard and become even more rarified and elite. According to Jose Ortega Y Gasset in his 1968 essay “The Dehumanization of Art”, the purity of art cannot be reached until the human element is removed from it: “Even though pure art may be impossible there are doubtless can prevail a tendency toward a purification in art. Such a tendency would effect a progressive elimination of the human, all too human elements predominant in romantic and naturalistic production. And in this process a point can be reached in which the human content has grown so thin that it is negligible. We then have an art which can be comprehended only by people possessed of the peculiar gift of the artistic sensibility, an art for artists and not for the masses, for quality and not for hoi polloi”.



Instead of valuing reality and the lived human experience, these modern painters began to specifically work against it. In an iconoclastic move the artist sets out to deform or destroy reality. “shattering its human aspect, dehumanizing it” (Gasset), and, as in most iconoclastic movements, this destruction was seen as necessary and good, a way to purify what was seen as corrupt. The communicative, instrumental aspect of the old art was thrown out in favor of a new art that by its very nature prohibited the instrumental, the connection with the lived human experience. The value of art became the very opposite of what it had been, it was valuable when the viewer could not voyeuristically place himself into the image and connect emotionally. Instead the viewer is expected to forge his own connections through the materiality of the painting, and this connection at a “second remove”(Greenberg), by the “cultivated” viewer is considered superior to the immediate enjoyment or emotional connection that the traditions of western European painting had offered.


Ontological Iconoclasm: The destruction of visage


Both the destruction of the traditional forms of art making and the destruction of the philosophical reasoning of academic picture making lead into a related concept, that of the destruction of the visage. While this category could be considered a subset of the other two, or a consequence of them, there is more to it that allows it to be treated on its own. The human figure can be painted, even painted well, without academic training, and can be rendered in a straight forward manner without the philosophical underpinnings of instrumentalism, yet, in the current climate of contemporary figuration the naturalistic or idealistic human form, rendered with empathy and consideration is a rarity. The simplest explanation for this is that the figure is conflated with the past. If the figure is painted in a pose reminiscent of a historical work, or in a manner that is related, especially in the finish, the painting will be dismissed because it is too close a reference to both the training and the philosophy of the academy. Additionally, if an image is associated with the past in any way, it cannot be new, novel, or fresh, which are the primary valuations of art today.


The more complicated answer delves into how humanity sees itself, as always figurative art is intrinsically linked to a culture’s predominant views on the nature and value of life. While modernity it art took root around the turn of the century, it can be argued that the lynch pin in the creation of a genuine paradigm was the First World War. The literal destruction of human bodies on such a grand scale was reflected in the broken and fragmented visages in paint. Otto Dix, a soldier and artist painted the distorted and disfigured faces of veterans, referencing the horrors of war with a jaded look at the society that sent them to the trenches, as in his 1920 painting “the Skat Players”. George Grosz, an early Dadist also painted deconstructed figures, like “ Remember Uncle August the Unhappy Inventor”, emphasizing a loss of faith in humanity as a result of his service.


Death, pain and suffering were not new themes in art, Michael Lewis wrote on the subject: “Christianity had introduced the motif of beautiful suffering in which even the most agonizing deaths could be shown to have a tragic dignity. But things had been done to the human body that were unprecedented, and on an unprecedented scale. The cruel savagery of this art can be understood as a product of collective trauma… the search for an artistic language capable of expressing the monstrous scale and nature of the war.” Even as the war ended, the economic instability and collapse that followed was then capped with yet another war, enough tragedy in a generation to remake the face of art to the point where the old notions of art making seemed ridiculously out of touch, and the human body, frail and vulnerable, yet capable of such evil, could no longer be seen in an idealistic light.


The creation of Icons from Iconoclasm

Regardless of the iconoclastic movements of the early abstract artists, figuration in painting has never been eradicated, however in its contemporary post-modern form, figuration is subject to a series of valuations within a philosophical superstructure developed out of those early iconoclastic principles, and in many ways is still defined in opposition to the classical European traditions, the academy, that has not been in power for a hundred years. The philosophical parameters that define contemporary figuration are strongly tied to a postmodern belief system; resulting in an emphasis on the transient and current issues, a skeptical critique of current culture, deconstruction and questioning, and the expectation that the viewers will be the creators of the  meaning of the artwork. The vocabulary of this paradigm shift includes words such as : ambiguity, difficulty, self-critique, irony, uncertainty, obscurity, novel (new or fresh), difficulty, complexity, and shock. This brave new world  results in artwork that intentionally distorts, obscures, or obliterates the human form. Iconoclasm at this point has become technique.


Chicago is one of America’s largest art schools, and we are committed to the newest art. Students don’t apply to our programs if their art is old fashioned or conservative. The admissions committees for the big departments such as painting, film, Video and New Media, wouldn’t normally admit a student who wasn’t savvy about Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or Jeff Koon’s pornographic videos...Neo-academism does not fit with current art because it is too sentimental, too serious” (Elkins, 29). The orthodoxy of contemporary art is defined by the worship of the new, and anything made today with roots in  the past is discredited as art, dismissed as irrelevant, out of step with the zeitgeist, with the spirit our time.  Yet we cannot escape our past, and the aesthetics of contemporary art are created within a superstructure of artistic thought that was new a hundred years ago, but since, has become its own tradition. The Academy is dead, long live the academy!




Besancon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An intellectual history of iconoclasm. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.


Blotkamp, Carel. Mondrian: The Art of Destruction. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.

Boime, Albert. The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986


Elkins, James. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York: Routledge, 2004.


Gasset, Jose Ortega. The Dehumanization of Art and other essays on art culture and literature. Princeton New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1972.


Gamboni, Dario. The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and vandalism since the French Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 1997.


Greenberg, Clement “Avant-Garde  and Kitsch” 1939 http://sites.uci.edu/form/files/2015/01/Greenberg-Clement-Avant-Garde-and-Kitsch-copy.pdf


Lewis, Michael J. “How Art Became Irrelevant”, Commentary Magazine, July 1, 2015 https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/how-art-became-irrelevant/


Weisberg, Gabriel P. Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the transformation of the academic tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

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