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Round Table: Iconoclasms: Practices of the Past, Interpretations of the Present

September 25-6, 2009

Iconoclasm was not a common term in the pre-modern world.  The Byzantines – who are normally believed to have initiated the concept – used the word ‘iconoclast’ as a pejorative label, but called the debate about images ‘iconomachy’ (the struggle about images).  Iconoclasm as a term only comes into currency in the mid-sixteenth century.  In modern usage, the term iconoclasm has come to cover a wide semantic field and a multitude of practices, and rather than impose pre-modern terminology, we have elected to retain the term, but in the plural, to emphasise the diversity of the phenomema that it has been used to encompass.

The study of this historiographical shift is a way into understanding changing attitudes about the values and functions of images and the development of visual cultures.  The value of objects – and how this was expressed – is a critical issue in modern cultural and art history, and iconoclasms provide a neat way into these debates by raising questions about how images are used to mediate power relations.  Images are good to think with, and they always have been.

Some comparative work has been done on the different constructions of ‘iconoclasm’, but little has been done on how the similarities and differences between these phenomena (and their historiography) illuminate discourses about cultures.  The themes and questions that we would like the scholars involved in this round table to consider are aimed at addressing how words about images – and words not used about images – open up larger cultural issues about how and why the visual communicates, about the interface and friction between verbal and written communication, and about what later understandings of earlier practices tell about the reception and reconception of the past.

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