Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History
by Alexander Adams
180 pp., $29.90
The ill-starred year of COVID saw another, more localized, virus—an outbreak of attacks on public monuments in several countries, particularly in the United States and Britain. While this sickness presents itself 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 in the form of Alexander Adams.
His powerful new book chronicles 2020’s artifact attrition, examining 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, for Spiked, and publishing Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism in 2019.
The targets chosen by 2020’s iconoclasts ranged from the obvious—Confederate soldiers, slave-traders, empire-builders, and 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 the words “Dickens Racist Dickens Racist” by a lone monomaniac. In between were less obvious objects of execration—Churchill and the London Cenotaph, and even indirect beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains, such as William Gladstone, whose ancestors owned slaves.
Iconoclastic clashes follow familiar trajectories. Some provocation by the hard left elicits blustering from the right, rationalization from the center 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.
In Britain in January 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government proposed legislation to protect statues from being removed without planning permission, and has warned heritage bodies and universities to defend British culture and free speech. These are welcome, if carried through; the right generally lacks the left’s grim commitment. The statue-topplers had powerful fellow-travelers, whereas the patriots who went to London to guard statues were dismissed grandly by Boris Johnson as “right-wing thugs.” Meanwhile, the Labour Mayor of London set up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to “review” landmarks and “raise public understanding.”
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 right-wingers 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. In 2012, he reminded conservatives who sniggered when Rothko paintings were vandalized that it was not only injurious to property but an “assault on our culture.”
Adams distinguishes 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. Thus, defacement is not always defilement, but may be a justifiable “artistic strategy,” or occasionally have beneficial outcomes. When Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and gave it a sexually suggestive title, his apparent puerility “added depth to the subject.”
Monuments pin down cultures as much as cityscapes. But there is always room for augmentation, benign neglect, contextualization (like replaceable plaques added to retained statues), or rare removal, if local residents agree. However, erasure is unforgiveable; the author almost shudders when mentioning Herostratus, the fourth century B.C. yahoo who destroyed the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus so he would be remembered.
above: protesters dragging the statue of merchant and slave trader Edward Colston (1636–1721) to Bristol harbourside during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in memory of George Floyd on June 7, 2020 (PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)
Iconoclasm is not confined to public artworks. It can encompass books, churches, folk art and customs, phraseology, and even people. Unchecked attacks on symbols lead logically to lethal attacks on living individuals. If the past is illegitimate, so are its present continuators. 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 to the wider iconoclast community, whose members disproportionately display symptoms of often 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.
Studies suggest 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. The very coolness of classical iconography is a standing reproach to the superheated—its apparent imperturbability an implicit insult to the infantilized and safety-seeking. When the personal is political, grudges become geopolitics.
One example of iconoclasm, the frenzied scratching out of apparatchiks’ faces from Stalin-era photographic records, reminds the author 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? Seventeenth 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. Modern history-rejecters are unknowingly carrying on venerable continuities, for “in the communist, Puritan, Wahhabi and anarchist there is an inflated sense of ego,” Adams writes. These people “nurse pride at being an anointed soldier of righteousness.”
Some seem to believe that by deleting a statue they are deleting personal and communal sins. Others resent anything that reminds them of their own lack of privilege or understanding. To a highly motivated minority, history is hateful, property is probably theft, and any artistic value a monument may possess is irrelevant. The past is a blank conceptual canvas, while 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 about Britain as “a nation of immigrants,” 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 sometimes miscarry, as Robespierre and Leninists learned. Maybe some eminent individuals now recommending removals of statues, or who “take the knee” for the cameras, will discover they have ridden the tiger too long. Some may simply see a possibility of profit. Herostratus was less hypocritical than those Protestant reformers whose specious objections to Catholics owning land happily enabled them to take up the Church’s burdens, 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 to 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. Artistic iconoclasts, Adams notes, “left themselves with a diminished language, and outspoken positions that left them little room for creative endeavour”; much the same can 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 the rules are always changing. Such a city cannot stand, but will soon be swept away by sterner forces. It is not enough to take up defensive positions around salient statues. We also need to go on the intellectual offensive, to prove our supposedly canceled culture has only been postponed.