James Simpson


On his book Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 05, 2011

The wide angle

Under the Hammer begins by looking outward to non-Western practice, but very quickly turns inward to my own culture.

I begin with the experience of horror the world shared as the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in February 2001.  Our characterization of the Taliban as barbaric prompted me to look at what I know best, the Western, and in particular the Anglo-American tradition.  And I saw striking examples of image-breaking within the Anglo-American tradition.

I saw three major phenomena in particular.

First, and above all, I saw an entire century of legislated English image breaking, between 1538 and 1642.  England endured the longest period of legislated iconoclasm in Reformation Europe.  Of course there were periods of respite within that century, but the insistence and ferocity of puritan hatred of religious images is the dominant force.  Whereas the Taliban, then, were repudiated as barbaric and “medieval,” I argue that, however barbaric they are, the Taliban are, in their iconoclasm at least, much more similar to Protestant, Early Modern rather than medieval Europeans.

Secondly, I found myself looking again at the history of English poetry across the same long century and more (between 1530 and 1660).  Focus on a century of image breaking also reveals that the histories of Anglo-American painting and poetry are deeply intertwined. The Herculean struggle for supremacy between Word and non-scriptural image was in England won by the Word—but also by the poetic word and the poetic, verbal image.  That victory shaped and energized a grand tradition of English poetry whose greatest representatives are Spenser, Milton and Wordsworth (Shakespeare comments on it from outside the tradition). However much my book is principally concerned with the fate of the image rather than of the poetic word, the chapter on Milton does define the moment in which literature definitively assumed vivifying, salvific status after its long and violent struggle with the idolatrous visual image.

Third, the Enlightenment does not take us entirely out of the barbaric realm of image breaking.  I argue that moments of “Enlightenment” consist of forced redistributions of animation.  This involves chasing out the unclean spirits and making new homes for the clean spirits.

The Reformation and Enlightenment are correlative; they both activate iconoclasm. The more ambitious form of that argument is that the Enlightenment treatment of the image, and in particular the Enlightenment museum, shares many of the iconoclast’s aims.

Enlightenment reception of the image is iconoclastic in two ways.

In the first place, the Enlightenment museum neutralizes and commodifies images so as to render them safe.  The Enlightenment theory of aesthetics permitted Northern Europeans to look at religious images without having to break them: admire the beauty of form, aesthetics tells us; ignore the religious content.

A second form of metaphorical Enlightenment iconoclasm applies to the much larger field of the human sciences.  Different Enlightenment traditions exercise a philosophical iconoclasm, by describing ideology as false consciousness, an idol that enthralls the naive and that must be broken.

Even as the Enlightenment attempted to master Reformation religion, it borrowed the methods of Calvinist religion.  Even as it protected the image itself, that is, it drew on the structure of evangelical critique of idolatry. It then applied that critique to a vast field of knowledge. It practiced historiography by detecting enthrallment, superstition and error; the entire past became a museum of error, a museum of artifacts now observed with cool condescension.

Therefore, Under the Hammer also embraces the genesis of the picture gallery in Northern Europe, born as it was out of fierce iconoclasm.  The neutralization of the sacred image in the museum is, of course, only the beginning of other stories, and in particular the resacralization of the image in the museum.

One chapter (the first) is devoted to the ways in which the Museum of Modern Art has become a temple for the adoration of abstract (i.e. iconoclastic) images.