Monumental follies | Chronicles


Iconoclasm, identity politics and the erasure of history
by Alexandre Adams
180 pages, $ 29.90

The unfortunate year of COVID has seen another, more localized virus, an outbreak of attacks on public monuments in several countries, particularly the United States and Britain. While this disease presents itself as a skin disease, only scar symbols, its virulence attests to severe internal bleeding. Fortunately, a committed and knowledgeable arts epidemiologist arrived at the scene of the emergency in the form of Alexander Adams.

His powerful new book chronicles the artifact attrition of 2020, examining the iconoclastic phenomenon from an impressive array of artistic, historical, political and psychological perspectives. Adams made other gallant forays into this worsening war, writing for art journals, for Sharp, and editing Culture war: art, identity politics and cultural entryism in 2019.

The targets chosen by the 2020 iconoclasts ranged from the obvious – Confederate soldiers, slave traders, empire builders, and eugenics – to the pleasantly extravagant. The sculpture of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen was smeared with “Racist Fish”. A building in Kent associated with Charles Dickens was decorated with the words “Dickens Racist Dickens Racist” by a lonely monomaniac. In between were less obvious objects of loathing – Churchill and the London Cenotaph, and even indirect beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains, like William Gladstone, whose ancestors owned slaves.

Iconoclastic clashes follow familiar trajectories. Certain provocations from the far left spark off right-wing bluster, center-left rationalization, institutional surrender, corporate trucking, the formation of rival campaign groups, inadequate conservative action, and ultimately inertia – except that the “Long March” has advanced a few more centimeters.

In Britain, in January 2021, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed legislation to protect statues against removal of statues without a building permit, and warned heritage organizations and universities to defend British culture and freedom of speech. These are welcome, if they are applied; the right generally lacks the dark engagement of the left. The statues overturners had powerful traveling companions, while the patriots who traveled to London to guard the statues were fired in a big way by Boris Johnson like “right-wing thugs”. Meanwhile, the Labor mayor of London has set up a commission for diversity in the public domain to ‘review’ benchmarks and ‘improve public understanding’.

Adams sees the full picture. He is not an outraged swagger, but a renowned artist and critic; its critics are conservative, but very far from being philistine. He despises the French rightists for having destroyed the works of Dalí and Miró, the Nazis for having attacked “decadent art” and the Austrian government of today for wanting to demolish Hitler’s birthplace. In 2012, he reminded conservatives who sneered when Rothko’s paintings were vandalized that this was not just an infringement of property, but an “attack on our culture.”

Adams distinguishes between intentional iconoclasm and aimless vandalism, knowing that the motivations are often mixed. He knows how to appreciate the good sides of the most radical artistic movements and the delicacy of the lines between creativity and destruction. Thus, degradation is not always a taint, but can be a justifiable “artistic strategy”, or sometimes have beneficial results. When Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and gave it a sexually suggestive title, its apparent childishness “adding depth to the subject.”

Monuments are as much a focal point for cultures as they are for urban landscapes. But there’s always room for augmentation, benign neglect, contextualization (like replaceable plaques added to preserved statues), or rare removal, if local residents agree. However, erasure is unforgivable; the author almost shudders when he mentions Herostratus, the 4th century BC yahoo.

above: Protesters drag the statue of merchant and slave trader Edward Colston (1636-1721) to Bristol harbor during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in memory of George Floyd on June 7, 2020 ( PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Iconoclasm is not limited to public works of art. It can encompass books, churches, folk art and customs, phraseology, and even people. Uncontrolled attacks on symbols logically lead to deadly attacks on living individuals. If the past is illegitimate, so are its present continuators. Chinese cultural revolutionaries quickly moved from rejecting Buddha and Confucius to the orgiastic dismantling of ancient sites and murdering anyone representing Mao’s hated “four old men” – old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. “Iconoclasm”, warns the author, “is an immediate precursor of repression, persecution, expulsion and massacres.”

Rousseau, an important catalyst for iconoclasm, has been described as “an interesting fool”. This description can be extended to the iconoclastic community at large, whose members disproportionately exhibit symptoms of often acute internal turmoil. Iconoclasm is literally a say– ease, a restless and gnawing worry 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 issues. This is perhaps not surprising in a larger culture that prefers questioning to trust and victims to heroes. The very coldness of classical iconography is a constant reproach to the overheated – its apparent imperturbability an implicit insult to the infantilized and the search for security. When the staff is political, grudges become geopolitical.

An example of iconoclasm, the frantic scratching of the faces of apparatchiks a photographic archive of the Stalinist era, recalls the author of mentally unstable people attacking family photographs. If this applies to an ideological family, then how much more 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 gums rest on identical earth.

Iconoclasts are very sensitive to magical thinking. Ancient Egyptian tomb robbers scratched the eyes of funeral effigies so that stolen spirits could not identify them. The Taliban have been widely condemned for blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas, but the suspicion of images permeates all Abrahamic religions preferring “speech”. The destruction of the golden calf in Exodus was both a proud gesture of freedom and a weakening of the power of the deity. Those who reject modern history unwittingly pursue venerable continuities, for “among Communists, Puritans, Wahhabis, and Anarchists there is an exaggerated sense of ego,” Adams writes. These people “care for the pride of being an anointed soldier”.

Some seem to believe that by removing a statue, they are removing personal and community sins. Others resent anything that reminds them of their own lack of privilege or understanding. For a highly motivated minority, history is abhorrent, property is likely theft, and any artistic merit 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 both careerists and true believers. All radical movements are top-down, instigated by an intellectual elite, like today’s academics who tell pseudo-stories about Britain as an ‘immigrant nation’ , and exchange terms like “white privilege” and “toxic masculinity”. The rebels who risk themselves in the streets are true gullible conformists.

Once a movement gains momentum, other elitists call themselves leaders, sometimes out of sincerity, but often to protect themselves. These stratagems sometimes fail, as Robespierre and the Leninists learned. Perhaps some prominent people who now recommend the removal of the statues, or who “take the knee” for the cameras, will find that they have been riding the tiger for too long. Some may just see a possibility of profit. Herostrates was less hypocritical than those Protestant reformers whose specious objections to the possession of land by Catholics happily allowed them to assume the responsibilities of the Church, at a bargain price.

The history of Western iconoclasm is therefore long and not very edifying. Its future can be even more so, promoted as it is by many intellectuals, endorsed by many politicians, and sometimes bolstered in the streets by self-righteous anger. But conceptually speaking, its future is less clear. Nihilism ends up eating itself, irony is exhausting and the cancellation of culture is self-canceling. Artistic iconoclasts, Adams notes, “let themselves be left behind with diminished language and frank positions that left them little room for creative effort”; the same can be said of their political equivalents.

The ultimate destination of the iconoclasts is a place blown by the wind of empty plinths coated with constantly renewed graffiti, where all conversations are watched and the rules constantly change. Such a city cannot stand, but will soon be swept away by more severe forces. It is not enough to take defensive positions around the protruding statues. We must also go on the intellectual offensive, prove that our supposedly canceled culture has only been postponed.


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