Iconoclasm – Identity Politics and the Erasure of History
Alexander Adams, Imprint Academic, 2020, 154 pages, £19
The ill-starred year of Covid also saw another, more localised, virus – an outbreak of attacks on public monuments in several countries, particularly the United States and Britain. While this sickness presents as a skin-disease, only scarring symbols, its virulency attests to serious internal bleeding. Luckily, a committed and knowledgeable epidemiologist of the arts has arrived at the emergency scene.
The targets chosen by 2020’s iconoclasts ranged from the obvious – Confederate soldiers, slave-traders, empire-builders, eugenicists – to the enjoyably outlandish. Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid sculpture was daubed “Racist fish”. A building in Kent associated with Charles Dickens was decorated with “Dickens Racist Dickens Racist” by a lone monomaniac, who offered a delightfully Pooterish rationale –
I have been campaigning against what I believe to be the institutional racism of the Broadstairs Folk Week and Broadstairs and Thanet Councils for several years to no avail.
In between were less obvious objects of execration – Churchill and the Cenotaph, and even indirect beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains, such as William Gladstone, whose ancestors owned slaves.
This powerful work chronicles 2020’s artefact attrition, and examines the iconoclastic phenomenon from an impressive array of artistic, historical, political and psychological perspectives. Adams has made other gallant forays in this worsening war, writing for arts journals and Spiked, and in 2019 Imprint Academic also published his Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism.
Clashes of this kind follow familiar trajectories. Some provocation by the hard Left elicits blustering from the Right, rationalisation from the centre-Left, capitulation by institutions, truckling by corporations, the formation of rival campaign groups, inadequate conservative action, and ultimately inertia – except that the ‘Long March’ has advanced another few inches. The Johnson government has proposed legislation to protect statues from being removed without planning permission, and warned heritage bodies and universities to defend British culture and free speech, and these are welcome, if carried through (the Right generally lacks the Left’s grim commitment). The statue-topplers had powerful fellow-travellers, whereas the instinctive conservatives who went to London symbolically to stand guard on statues were dismissed grandly by Boris Johnson as “rightwing thugs”. Meanwhile, the Labour Mayor of London has set up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to “review” landmarks and “raise public understanding” – whose members are exactly what would have been expected.
Alexander Adams sees the full picture. He is no outraged blusterer, but an artist and critic of note; his critiques are conservative, but very far from philistine. He disdains French rightwingers for destroying works by Dalí and Miró, the Nazis for attacking ‘decadent art’, and today’s Austrian government for wishing to demolish Hitler’s birthplace. He regrets the removal of East Berlin communist-era monuments after reunification, and the Kyiv Metro’s replacement of Soviet motifs with advertising. In 2012, he reminded conservatives who had sniggered when paintings by Rothko were vandalised that this was not only injurious to property but an “assault on our culture”.
He distinguishes scrupulously between purposeful iconoclasm and purposeless vandalism, while knowing motivations are frequently mixed. He can appreciate the good aspects of the most radical artistic movements, and the fineness of lines between creativity and destruction. When Duchamp drew a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and gave it a sexually suggestive title, his apparent puerility actually “added depth to the subject”.
Defacement is not always defilement, but may be a justifiable “artistic strategy”, or occasionally even have beneficial outcomes. 16th century Dutch iconoclasm inadvertently gave rise to great art, as painters turned away from formulaic Biblical or classical themes to light-filled landscapes and evocative interiors. Western awareness has been enriched immeasurably by melancholia, evoked by the tumbled edifices and decapitated icons of past epochs – what Rose Macaulay called The Pleasure of Ruins.
Monuments pin down cultures as much as cityscapes. Procopius recorded how even the impoverished Romans of the sixth century zealously preserved the supposed ship of Aeneas “as if newly constructed…so that nothing of the ancient glory of Rome may be obliterated”. But there is always room for augmentation, benign neglect, contextualisation (like replaceable plaques added to retained statues), or rare removal, if local residents agree, and accepted procedures have been followed. However, erasure is unforgiveable; the author almost shudders when mentioning Herostratus, the 4th century B.C. Yahoo who destroyed the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus so he would be remembered.
Iconoclasm is not confined to public artworks. It can encompass books, cemeteries, churches, folk-art and customs, phraseology, private property, and ultimately even people. Uncorrected ideas and unchecked attacks on symbols lead logically to lethal attacks on living individuals. If the past is illegitimate, so are its present continuators. England’s King Charles I was an incarnate icon, symbolising mystical symbiosis between God and the English nation – a piquant patriotism understood equally by royalists, who sanctified his memory in Eikon Basilike, and Parliamentarians, who swiftly issued Milton’s Eikonklastes. China’s Cultural Revolutionaries soon switched from rejecting Buddha and Confucius to orgiastic smashing of ancient sites and murdering anyone representing Mao’s loathed “four olds” – old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. “Iconoclasm” the author warns,
…is an immediate precursor to suppression, persecution, expulsion and massacres.
Rousseau, an important iconoclasm-enabler, was famously described as “an interesting madman”. This description can be extended usefully to the wider iconoclast community, whose members disproportionately display symptoms of acute inner unrest. Iconoclasm is literally a dis-ease, a fretful and gnawing disquiet of the soul, as if its carriers have either unusually low self-esteem, or absurdly high self-esteem, artfully disguised. Several studies have suggested strong correlations between far-Left beliefs and mental health problems. This is perhaps unsurprising, in a wider culture which prefers questioning to confidence, and victims to heroes, and reduces all culture to component parts. The very coolness of classical iconography is a standing reproach to the superheated – its apparent imperturbability an implicit insult to the infantilised and safety-seeking. When the personal is political, grudges become geopolitics.
One example of iconoclasm, the frenzied scratching out of apparatchiks’ faces and names from Stalin-era photographic records as their possessors were memory-holed, reminds the author strikingly of mentally unstable people attacking family photographs. If this is applicable to an ideological ‘family’, then how much more so when it comes to Westerners trying to erase their own cultural and ethnic essence? 17th century slave-traders and 19th century soldiers have feet of clay, but their erasers stand on identical earth.
Iconoclasts are highly susceptible to magical thinking. Ancient Egyptian tomb-robbers scratched out the eyes of funerary effigies so the robbed spirits could not identify them. The Taliban were globally condemned for blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas, but suspicion of images suffuses all the ‘Word’-preferring Abrahamic faiths. The destruction of the Golden Calf in Exodus was both a proud gesture of freedom and a weakening of the deity’s power. Iconoclasts and iconodules battled bitterly in Byzantium, and eventually across all Europe. Modern history-rejecters are unknowingly carrying on venerable continuities –
…in the communist, Puritan, Wahhabi and anarchist there is an inflated sense of ego…they nurse pride at being an anointed soldier of righteousness. They are self-appointed humble servants of selfless beliefs that they force upon others.
Some seem to believe that by deleting a statue they are deleting sins inside themselves, and in the world. Others resent anything that reminds them of their own lack of privilege or understanding. To a highly motivated minority, most of history is hateful, property is probably theft, and any artistic value a monument may possess is irrelevant, because art is ‘bling’, a simple matter of status-seeking. The past is not a highly textured palimpsest overwritten by fallible human beings, but a blank conceptual canvas. Revolution is both morally necessary, and historically inevitable.
But iconoclasm attracts careerists as well as true-believers. All ‘radical’ movements are top-down in inspiration, instigated by an intellectual elite, like today’s academics who spin pseudo-histories, and trade in terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. The ‘rebels’ who risk themselves on the streets are really gullible conformists. Once a movement builds momentum, other elitists anoint themselves leaders, sometimes out of sincerity, but often to protect themselves. These schemes sometime miscarry, as Robespierre and Leninists learned. Maybe some eminent individuals now recommending removals of statues that offend their eyes, or who ‘take the knee’ for the benefit of cameras, will discover they have misjudged the mood, and ridden the tiger too long. Some may see simply a possibility of profit. Herostratus was less hypocritical than those Protestant reformers whose principled objections to Catholics owning land happily enabled them to take up the Church’s burden, at bargain prices.
The story of Western iconoclasm is therefore long and unedifying. Its future may be even more so, promoted as it is by many intellectuals, acquiesced in by many politicians, and occasionally reinforced on the streets by self-righteous anger. But conceptually speaking, its future is less clear. Nihilism ultimately eats itself, irony is exhausting, and cancel culture is self-cancelling. Transgression has become just another cliché. Artistic iconoclasts, Adams notes,
…left themselves with a diminished language, and outspoken positions that left them little room for creative endeavour.
Much the same could be said of their political equivalents.
The iconoclasts’ ultimate destination is a wind-blasted plaza of empty plinths smeared with constantly renewed graffiti, where all conversations are guarded, and all the rules are always changing. Such a city cannot stand, but will soon be swept by sterner forces – forces beyond the comprehension and control of anyone, most of all emotionally incontinent, middle-class anarchists. It is not enough to take up defensive positions around salient statues. We need also to go on the intellectual offensive, to prove our supposedly ‘cancelled’ culture has only been postponed.
The above review appeared in the August 2021 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with acknowledgements