An iconoclast can be defined as a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc, as being based on error or superstition. An iconoclast is a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.
Do you do any of that in your art? Maybe you should.
Part of the work of an artist is to help people see in new and more insightful ways. They can do this through the images they make, the music they compose or the writings they produce, just to name a bare few ways. The act of attacking entrenched ideas, viewpoints, perspectives, established traditions, systems, rules and so on, because you can see through their bluster, bluff, illegitimacy, stupidity, cupidity or bone-headed nature, is an act of iconoclasm. Any time you move things forward, make progress, or replace the old with the new, chances are you have done something iconoclastic, even if you don’t necessarily know you have.
I once received a back-handed compliment from somebody I knew quite well, who said that I was “unique”. That was meant to mean I was an oddball, I suppose, but even in my young twenties, I had a sense of what I wanted to do most, in the world. I responded that I may be unique, but at least I am iconoclastic about it. (Her response was that I was good, but not that good).
Well, I think my track record speaks for me. I have managed to bring new things into the world, which never existed before. I have ideas that attack widely cherished, comfortable, entrenched beliefs and I have written about some of them in this blog. It is my fervent belief that the current ways we bank, work, value art, co-operate and earn are deeply flawed and I have written about some of the possible alternatives to those, too. There are numerous sacred cows yet to slay.
Lately, I have been reading some fascinating books, written in the 1880s and the remarkable thing about them is how comprehensively the ideas presented in them were resoundingly rejected by the majority, at the time of writing. Some of the authors were actually hung for their ideas, which were published, in book form, posthumously, by their widows. These authors were cruelly and unjustly put to death, by those who upheld the orthodox views, for the crime of challenging entrenched societal beliefs and suggesting better alternatives. It was the establishment’s attempt to silence those ideas and consign them to history. It didn’t work.
Writing and publishing a book, in those days, was no small undertaking. It required significant sacrifice, not the least of which was monetary hardship. Some of these books sold only a few hundred copies, in their first editions. The prefaces of the books describe the privations and disappointments endured by the author, with subsequent editions remarking on the almost universal rejection of their writings and their forlorn hope that perhaps, just maybe, their ideas would endure, against the odds. Well, endure they did, as evidenced by the fact that I am able to access these works freely, via the Internet, today and I am reading them (and perhaps so too are others), over one hundred and thirty years after they were first written. The authors are long dead and buried, but their ideas remain. Iconoclasm has an enduring quality.
So much of what people believe is due to somebody they trusted having told them so. Quite a lot of people never take the trouble to examine what they believe and test whether or not it is, in fact, nonsense, based on error or just plain superstitious. Evidence is the key.
A lot of the ideas that people hold onto and uphold, both in life and in artistic practice, are set up for religious veneration, of a kind. People do tend to revere information that they are told, by artists or public figures with towering reputations, or by those with culturally or personally significant relationships to them. Too bad that so much of it is wrong, wrongly applied or anachronistic. What might have been a valid approach, in the specific case, need not be a solution at all, in the general case.
If you think the current orthodoxies are to your benefit, or serve you well enough, there is a natural inclination to reject the ravings of an iconoclast, who is presenting truths that you would ideally not want to acknowledge or recognise. The change is feared. This conservatism persists, even when the alternatives are ultimately much more advantageous to those wedded to current orthodoxies. That’s just human nature. There isn’t much you can do about it. As an iconoclast, all you can do is follow your conscience.
I believe it to be your duty, as a human being and as an artist, to challenge and attack cherished beliefs, from time to time. A lot of them turn out to be illegitimate or inappropriate for your situation. If you simply obey and propagate bad ideas, or outmoded ones, you are cheating future generations of the benefit of your intelligence and powers of logic. It’s a truism that without dissent, progress is not possible.
There is a possible downside, to being iconoclastic. If you are of that inclination, you can find yourself understanding your place in the world and the world you live in very differently to most people, if somewhat more accurately, in reality. That can be quite isolating and lonely. It also means that you find yourself powerless to change a situation, not of your making, which is, nevertheless, upheld by all of those around you, even when you can clearly perceive a better way for it to be and have figured out ways to change it for the better. The support you need just isn’t there to accomplish it. You get good at seeing the traps you have no choice but to walk into, knowing full well that they are traps, before you walk into them.
There is something liberating, which affirms your artistic and intellectual freedom, about being an iconoclast. Smashing something stupid, or needlessly limiting, into metaphorical pieces, is deliciously satisfying. In fact, it’s a fantastic feeling. It might injure the feelings of those that hold those things dear, but I believe the truth sets one free. If you can replace a bad idea with a good one, the dividends accrue rapidly. Even those put out and hurt by your iconoclastic actions are ultimately better off. They just might not like you, for having done so. Iconoclasts seldom win popularity contests, even if they are proven right, by the passage of time.
Being iconoclastic is fantastic. If you’ve never tried it, I recommend you do, but not for its own sake. You should only be an iconoclast when you have something of greater value than the cherished beliefs to offer in their stead. Smashing venerated, but bad ideas, even if erroneous or superstitious, is rarely as helpful as providing a better answer.
Don’t aspire to becoming iconic. Aspire to becoming iconoclastic.
(Nobody will thank you, though… except posterity…perhaps).