The Fear of Art: How Censorship Becomes Iconoclasm

Freedberg, David A.

Every act of censorship is also an act of iconoclasm. together they constitute one of the oldest paradoxes of image making and of figuration. To make an image is both to want it and to fear it. The more it is desired, the more it seems contra naturam, and so is feared. It often has a vitality that is startlingly at odds with its materiality and its concept. To parse individual episodes of censorship and iconoclasm is to uncover the roots of both the fear of images and the fear of art.

Every act of censorship, every iconoclastic act provides clues to the social use and function of images. No clearer illustrations of the social dimensions of images are to be found than in the histories of iconoclasm and censorship—and, more particularly, where they meet. They powerfully illustrate the junction between the cultural and the political; they show the way the esthetic becomes more social; and how the psychological and social intersect in motivating responses to images. The transformation of even mild efforts toward censorship into more destructive acts of mutilation, damage, and elimination illustrates clearly how the fear of images and of art drives our relations with culture, complicating them at every stage and occasionally resolving them.

But there is an underlying paradox. Fear of art and love of art are two sides of the same coin. To invest too much emotionally in an object is to invite disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a sense of thwarted expectation—hence, for example, the constant attacks on representations of political leaders who fail to deliver, or on images perceived to be arousing, whether in pornography or in art (or in both, where they overlap).


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
September 28, 2022