James Simpson


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

Cover Interview of April 06, 2011

A close-up

I hope the reader would pleasurably remark first on the book’s brevity.  It aims to pack a large punch in a small format.  It can be read quickly.

Readability aside, I hope the reader might fall to browsing either the Introduction or Chapter 1 first.

All historiography should start with present predicaments.

So the Introduction introduces the striking parallels between the Taliban and Early Modern Europeans in the matter of image destruction.

Further on, I hope that many of my readers will share my predicament of being deeply puzzled by abstract art.

In the first chapter I evoke my 1967 experience of witnessing, at the age of 13, in Melbourne Australia, Abstract Expressionism for the first time.  I start with this vibrant, youthful encounter, asking naively: how did we get here?  By what mysterious path did the grown ups end up paying to look at black squares?  The chapter moves progressively back, back to the larger Cold War situation that promoted Abstract Expressionism, and back from there to the Puritan architecture and visual culture that explains the formal features of abstraction.

Cultural history should, in my view, ideally start from the present, move to the past, and return to the present, knowing the place for the first time.  Only by making history whole in this way can we re-enter the dynamism of our own unstable histories.