Anti-crib: a culture that engages in iconoclasm has lost its way

From Mao to the Taliban 
In 2001, in the Bamyan valley in central Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed two giant 6th Century Buddhas which had been carved into the cliff face. In their view, they were idols and had to be destroyed.

History and art that reminds us of the past is an annoying presence for totalitarian regimes, and for new ideologies that wish to reshape mankind in a new image. The Buddha statues were a threat to the new belief regime and became a target of the erasure of old affinities that might challenge loyalty to new order. It’s a common watch-cry from totalitarian regimes that the past must be destroyed to allow a new perfect orthodoxy to flourish.

The perennial hullabaloo over cribs once again surfaced this Christmas with all sorts of specious reasons for removing this reminder of the origins and meaning of Christmas.

Just one example was the “banning” of the live crib at the mansion house by Dublin City Council. Its part of a wider trend to remove Christmas from the Christmas season. Another proposal is to call it winter festival. All this, so the excuse goes, is to preserve the sensitivities of an imagined community who are deeply hurt by the non-inclusivity of a celebration of a Christian feast day.

The eradication of the past is a sinister project. Old values; icons; and stories, are a threat to the new regime of ideas and meta-narratives and so they must, according to the most extreme cultural revolutionaries, be rooted out. These old stories and symbols represent a perspective on the world and a fundamental cultural orienting. Not to everybody of course, but they are there and can divert people’s attention and loyalty away from new ideas.

This is what was at the core of Mao’s cultural revolution; an eradication of the past and its values, which he called the Four Olds – Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits.

You can tell that a reform movement has lost its way when its proponents start destroying beautiful things. Art represents a very high engagement with the transcendental value of beauty. You can’t preserve “the good” or “the true” by destroying beauty.

What an historical analysis of the French revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, and Mao’s revolution tells us is that where there is iconoclasm there is anti-God and anti-humanism in equal measure.

The persistent attack on the Christian symbolism of Christmas is part of the project of the replacement of old religion with newly constructed values. Although done in the name of secular inclusion, this is not an irreligious movement. Like the puritan movements down the centuries its purpose is to remove all old idols and make space for the new system of beliefs and loyalties.

One of these loyalties, which has taken the form of a religion, is the veneration of “mother earth,” a movement which has adherents who believe that the past must be destroyed because there is no future.

A protestor who glued herself to the statue of Laocoon and his sons (1st Century BC) said: “There will be no open museums, no art, no beauty, in a world plagued by the climate and ecological emergency. Drought, flood, fires, pollution, scarcity of resources, will take over if radical choices are not made in this regard”.

The only thing missing from this apocalyptic vision was locusts.

How can this person be viewed as anything other than a religious maniac. A prophet of doom denouncing the sins of man and promising the vengeance of a wrathful god.

The iconoclastic nature of this movement is puritan in deed, and cataclysmic in projection. It is expressed in the notion that nothing matters because we are all finished anyway. The activists go further and claim that everything representing culture should be destroyed. This is a perversion of the notion of conservation which is more in tune with the statement of Faust’s Mephistopheles that “all that comes to be, deserves to perish wretchedly.” It is the essence of nihilism.

In destroying the timeless art of the past they are refuting beauty itself. “All beauty is useless” is the nihilistic creed of this eschatological mindset.

Two disillusioned activists representing a group called Just Stop Oil threw soup on Van Gogh’s sunflower and then glued themselves to the wall besides it. In a strange way this performative hysterics fits very well into what pretentious liberals call modern art. The “art” in this case is the narcissistic politically serving narrative, and the old timeless artpiece becomes nothing but a prop representing  the repressive thesis within a cultural dialectic .

In another of these instances, when Eben Lazarus, a 22 year old Just Stop Oil protestor glued himself to a masterpiece in the National Gallery in London he shouted: “When there is no water, what use is art? When billions of people are in pain and suffering, what use then is art?”

It is not a reform cult: at this stage it has progressed to a sort of a death cult. Perhaps this is testament to what is wrong with the new culture we are constantly being cajoled to embrace. It has no message of hope; no metanarrative of renewal or salvation, just the concept of sin and damnation.

It should be stated that reform is good when it also recognizes the achievements of our culture and improves on the errors. That is the mission – one that is frequently not lived up to admittedly, but is central to the cultural message – of Christianity.

The attack on great works of Art is an attack on beauty and meaning. In essence an attack on  truth.  Throwing cans of soup on Van Gough’s sunflowers is not different to the burning of churches, the toppling of statues, the burning of books, the removal of religious icons from any public space, or the detonation of those ancient statues of Buddha.  It is the impulse of totalitarian regimes and fanatical worldviews.

The crib, on its narrative level, is a story of hope, charity and love. These are the “Three-Olds” of Christianity. This is why the crib is attacked.

Iconoclasm isn’t just about destroying the past and its values. It’s more about the act of putting new icons and values in their place.  The plinth of belief, once empty, will be used to elevate new idols and ideas for all to worship. Van Gough’s beautiful depiction of nature in bloom, and all the pondering on life, the cycle of life, and careful husbandry, that it provokes has no place in this veneration of an un-impacted “mother earth”.

What strikes most powerfully from these iconoclasts is the resentment of beauty. Beauty is a matter of hope which is why great art has been given a prized place throughout the history of religion. It tells us that from the hand of imperfect man great beauty can arise because we all wish to emulate the divine nature of God. That we all possess this somewhere in our soul, and that our purpose on this earth is to achieve this perfect eschaton in heaven.

The Crib tells us that this was achieved by the most humble. You can think this is all nonsense but you wouldn’t block it if you didn’t believe in its cultural power.

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