Stories behind Words: iconoclast

Posted by on October 23, 2013

© BrandX PicturesLondon’s Tate Britain gallery has a new exhibition called “Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm”, which will explore “the history of physical attacks on art in Britain from the 16th century to the present day”. This invokes the original – now rare – meaning of iconoclast, as someone who broke or destroyed “icons” (or religious images), which comes from the medieval Greek εἰκονοκλάστης. When it first appeared, the word iconclast referred specifically to a group of people who, in the 8th and 9th centuries, destroyed religious images used in worship in Orthodox Christian churches. With the rise of Protestantism in the 16th and 17th centuries, England got its own taste of iconoclasm, as religious statues were decapitated and stained glass windows smashed – notably during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

In the OED’s citations for the word, iconoclasts are invariably portrayed in a negative light, and at first sight, this pejorative tone seems to have carried over to the word’s contemporary meaning, as “someone who attacks the beliefs, customs, and opinions that most people in a society accept”. But data from the corpus suggests a more ambivalent position. Some examples do indeed characterize iconoclasts as pointlessly subversive – as wanting to tear down existing conventions simply for the hell of it:

It would be a mistake to dismiss Morin as an egocentric iconoclast who produced little of lasting significance.
This poorly researched and shamefully iconoclastic article repeats many old and long-disproved stories about Churchill.

But most examples are more approving, portraying iconoclasts (often artists, writers, or musicians) as people with independent minds, who are not afraid to challenge accepted ideas and conventions, and whose readiness to question the status quo may lead to brilliant innovations:

These are two qualities immediately recognisable in Eric Rohmer’s work, a director who is a quiet iconoclast: classical, modern, revolutionary.
Lennox is celebrated as an innovator, an iconoclast, and a symbol of enduring excellence within a culture too often fixated on the lightweight.

It’s not surprising that the word “faces both ways”, since it reflects our equally ambivalent attitudes to what is conventional – which, as our entry shows, may be seen as positive or negative.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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