Iconoclasm is a central strand of Anglo-American modernity

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In a nutshell

When we think of breaking images, we assume that it happens somewhere else. We also tend to think of iconoclasts as barbaric. Iconoclasts are people like the Taliban, who blew up Buddhist Bamiyan statues in 2001. We tend, that is, to look with horror on iconoclasm.

This book argues instead that iconoclasm is a central strand of Anglo-American modernity.

Our horror at the destruction of art derives in part from the fact that we too did, and still do, that.

This is most obviously true of England’s iconoclastic century between 1538 and 1643. That century of legislated early modern image breaking, exceptional in Europe for its jurisdictional extension and duration, stands at the core of this book. That’s when written texts, especially poems, rather than visual images, became our living monuments.

Surely, though, the story of image breaking stops in the eighteenth century, with its enlightened cultivation of the visual arts and the art market. Not so, argues Under the Hammer: once started, iconoclasm is difficult to stop. It ripples through cultures, into the psyche, and it ripples through history.

Museums may have protected images from the iconoclast’s hammer, but they also treat images as dangerous. Aesthetics may have drawn a protective circle around the image, but as it did so, it also neutralised the image.

The ripple effect also continued across the Atlantic, into puritan culture, into twentieth-century American Abstract Expressionism, and into the puritan temple of modern art.

Mid-twentieth-century abstract painting is, in fact, where this book starts: the image has survived, just, but it bears the scars of a 500 year history.

“Once started, iconoclasm is difficult to stop. It ripples through cultures, into the psyche, and it ripples through history.”

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.

April 6, 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.

“Whereas the Taliban were repudiated as barbaric and “medieval,” I argue that, however barbaric they are, the Taliban share, in their iconoclasm at least, certain similarities to Protestant, Early Modern rather than medieval Europeans.”


I wish this book to make visible the buried, surprising histories behind our frequent experiences.

And to four interlocking publics: art historians who are interested in the broader function of the image, or representation; literary critics who are asked to rethink the stabilities of the English poetic tradition; cultural historians who think about the function of museums; and, by far the most important, the educated reader!

I would, perhaps hubristically, wish this book’s argument to be in the mind of readers when they witness contemporary Islamic iconoclasm, when they read English poetry, when they enter a museum, when they consider the Statue of Liberty—which, I argue, could only exist with a long history of iconoclasm behind it.

© 2011 James Simpson
James Simpson Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition Oxford University Press 204 pages, 8½ x 5½ inches ISBN 978 0199591657

James Simpson is Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard University. He was formerly Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge. His most recent books are Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents (2007); Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (2010), which was featured in his earlier Rorotoko interview; and Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism (2019), which is featured in his recent Rorotoko interview.

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April 6, 2011