“Islamic Iconoclasm” as a Eurocentric Narrative

Abstract of a paper given at Icons and Iconoclasm Conference at UVA on Thursday, September 23, 2010

When the discussions of iconoclasm shifted from theological context to modern art context, iconoclasm turned into a secular concept and even gained the meaning of ‘radical’ and even sometimes avant-garde in the European context. However, during the formation years of art history as a discipline, pictorial practices of Muslims, i.e. miniatures, patterns and other ‘minor’ artifacts as well as the lack of anthropomorphic figures were likened to ‘older’ or ‘past’ religious iconoclastic experiences of Europe thanks to the idea of progress. This act of distancing to describe the pictorial practices of “Europe’s principal Other,” coincided with the heydays of Orientalism. Therefore, it led the scholars of Islamic art to use the term iconoclasm implying a perceived backwardness rather than other possible alternatives such as “radical” or “avant-garde.” I argue that the main reason behind the iconoclasm thesis arises from this historical affinity between the Enlightenment’s conception of secular art and the Orientalist assumptions about the nature of “Muslim art.”

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