The Power of Wood and Stone; The Taliban Is Not the First to Fear the Mysterious Lure of Art

Freedberg, David A.

The demolition of the two colossal Buddhas of Bamian, Afghanistan, is chilling in its ferocity. The artistic value and the scale of these great carvings -- and our awareness that there are no other images like them anywhere, bearing witness to the early practice of one of the world's major religions -- evokes horror and indignation at their destruction.

Equally shocking to many is the manner in which Afghanistan's Taliban leaders shrug off the world's distress. "All we are breaking are stones," said Mullah Muhammad Omar of the attack on the colossi. His minister of culture, Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal, echoed him: "It is not a big issue. The statues are objects only made of mud and stone." Yet these statements reveal a central paradox not only of the Taliban's actions, but of iconoclasm throughout history: If paintings and sculptures are simply pieces of wood and stone, inert and insignificant, why bother to destroy them?

The very act of iconoclasm testifies to the mysterious -- and often threatening -- power images can hold over us. In ravaging their country's artistic heritage in the name of fundamentalist Islam, the Taliban rulers reveal not their strength, but their fear. In this, they take their place in a long line of despots and others who have trembled in the sight of creations they did not understand, creations that seemed somehow to embody a life and to emanate an inexplicable and ominous force of their own.


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Washington Post

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
April 8, 2010


First published in the Washington Post, March 25, 2001. This essay is available in "Iconoclasm" by David A. Freedberg, The University of Chicago Press, Fall 2020.