In the autumn of 2020, I participated in an online conference about iconoclasm in a British context. Attendees and speakers were professionals from the art world: sculptors, critics, museum administrators, historians and so forth. I had been invited to speak because of the recent publication of my book Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History (2020, Societas). My case opposed violence against monuments, alteration of historical records and suppression of traditional national narratives. In other words, I favoured lawful observance of the status quo. As I delivered my talk, I was heckled in the comments section, with demands that I be silenced. If I had ever lacked for evidence of institutional support for iconoclasm, it was amply evident here. Listeners and other speakers were aghast that any arts professional could oppose Black Lives Matter or reject calls for revision (and erasure) of historical monuments. Fully two-thirds of speakers and commenters were in favour of widespread changes or selective revision to public art on the basis of historical links to slavery, colonialism or other race-related issues.
Before we look at how we got to such a position, I should outline the most important instance of iconoclasm in Britain the last half century. It was the event which formed the focus for debates about iconoclasm and historical revisionism, including this conference. Following the death of George Floyd at the end of May in the USA, on 7 June a protest was held in central Bristol in support of Black Lives Matter and “opposing slavery” (historic only – there was no comment upon current day slavery in Asia or Africa). From this protest developed a mob that attacked, graffitied and toppled a statue of Edward Colston MP. The statue was stamped on in the manner of a fallen dictator. It was rolled into the river, under the gaze of media, council and police representatives, all of whom voiced support for the act of violence against a historical piece of culture.
Colston was a benefactor of Bristol, aiding the poor with alms houses and church donations, as well as founding schools. Some of his money was made through investing in legal (though controversial) companies that traded slaves. The left-wing (Labour) council – spurred on by race activists – had for years wanted to remove the statue but had been blocked by local residents, who wanted to retain it. There were extended debates about placing a plaque contextualising Colston’s public life but both council and activists were frustrated at the legal and popular resistance to the wording. When the chance for “direct action” presented itself, the left-wing council and police commanders (trained in anti-racism, cultural sensitivity and celebrating Bristol’s multi-ethnic population) saw an opportunity to use the mob to destroy Colston’s statue, against the will of the majority of Bristol’s population. Later, a handful of the mob were given police cautions – the lowest level of punishment.
In Great Britain, we have a cadre of overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated, left-leaning individuals (predominantly women) who dominate arts administration and academia, increasingly to the exclusion of more conservative male professionals. Men are more attached to ideas and objects, they are more impervious to social concerns; women are more concerned by social issues, are people-oriented and more receptive to ideals of social-justice activism. As publicly funded arts are adjusted to include women as part of a drive for gender parity, so women’s values (human interest, social issues, social justice, maternal protectiveness) start to alter the ways the arts are administered.
For about 40 years, the British government (like many governments in the West) have seen the arts as a tool for urban regeneration, tourism, social inclusion, multiculturalism and demographic representation. This is naturally in conflict with the traditional role of the arts, namely preserving the national patrimony. Before 1950, Great Britain was effectively mono-racial. Suddenly, the sheer “whiteness” of British history appears problematic to those administrators set on including, representing and promoting multiculturalism and multiracialism. We then hear calls to “represent the way we are now”, which entails not only adding new material but subtracting old material. The desire to be welcoming becomes a pathological desire to erase evidence of an inconvenient past. In a self-interested sense, white middle-class liberals use taxes to fund arts that predominantly they consume[i]; in order to protect this revenue stream and supply of employment, this class presents itself as an ally to immigrants and minorities and directs the arts as tools for society-wide benefit. Portraying the arts as a universal asset whilst still maintaining possession of them for its own benefit and control is an adroit tactic of the elite.
The wedge issue is representation of history. The middle-class cosmopolitan, anti-patriotic, socially liberal, politically leftist management cadre (which I have called “the managerial elite”) sees the working-class traditionalist, patriotic, conservative body of the population as its enemy. In venerating national heroes such as Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and others, the working class is demonstrating its rejection of the politically dominant middle-class project of multiculturalism, which is presented as wholly beneficial and undoubtedly inevitable. When poor people object to migrants taking jobs, undercutting wages, filling schools and changing the character of districts, their concerns are dismissed as ignorant and racist. White working-class people who resist migration or cultural changed imposed from above are called “gammon” by the managerial elite. (One cannot imagine such writers for left-wing publications referring non-white people as pig meat.) When they vote to leave the EU, they are “low-information voters” and xenophobes.
Depriving the working class of symbols of tradition, historical pride and social cohesion – most notably in the form of statues, monuments and place names – is thus not just acceptable for cosmopolitan liberals who head (or influence) politics, police, army, media, schools, academia, charities, church and the arts, it becomes a cause. Since the 1960s, history taught in schools and state media has debunked the Great Man approach to history, instead presenting Marxist analyses of consumption and social dynamics. Now, entrenched at every level of authority, leftists can facilitate activists in the destruction of symbolic targets: statues.
In an act of symbolic humiliation, the director of the British Museum moved the bust of founder Sir Hans Sloane to a cabinet documenting slavery. The leading physician and Enlightenment philanthropist was reduced to a caricature of a cruel exploiter and beneficiary of his wife’s plantation fortune.[ii] The director of the ICA called for destruction of more statues.[iii] Madeline Odent, a conservationist at Royston Museum, Hertfordshire offered advice to followers on how to create irreversible damage to bronze statues. Royston Museum responded to criticism by replying: “Thanks for your comment. We stand with and for #BlackLivesMatter, and we do not support the legacy of racists.”[iv] (Note how attacks on statues, support for a political movement and an assumed moral duty to attack “the legacy of racists” are conflated.) Bodies such as the National Trust (entrusted with preserving historical monuments, buildings and land), British Museum, British Library and others scrambled to expose supposed complicity of the British people in the practice of slavery. Lists have been drawn up of beneficiaries of the slave trade. None of this information was hidden or unknown before. What will the lists be used for? At best, they are symbolic acknowledgements; at worst, they are hit lists for campaigners. The Church of England announced a survey to examine the biographies of figures represented in Westminster Abbey, with a view to removing some effigies.
The campaign Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) – a movement originating in South Africa – is seeking to remove a statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford University, on the grounds his links with colonialism deter African applicants. One insider confided to me “RMF really (secretly) wish for the statue to remain – they could not care less about the statue, but it is very useful to them as a propaganda weapon to keep alive the debate which really concerns them. Contrarily many of the dons [professors] seemingly could not care less about the statue either, but wish it removed so that they can be left in peace to carry on their pursuits, funded by the money of Rhodes and other donors. However, the contagion is bound to spread to Rhodes House, Rhodes Scholars...”[v] In other words, if RMF succeed in removing one target, they will move to other symbols because they have no end goal other than complete eradication of all traces of history to which they object. Likewise, once Colston’s statue was toppled, the stained-glass windows of St Mary’s Anglican Church that Colston had donated were removed. Administrators of Colston Girl’s School removed the donor’s name against the wishes of the public[vi]; Colston Hall was also renamed.
Any concessions simply lead to further demands. Targeted pressure applied persistently by activists wears down administrators, who – being journeyman politicians or unelected functionaries – concede on every issue because they resent the extra work involved in dealing with pressure groups and pay no price for capitulating. Activists know this and realise that what is needed for a successful campaign is that it be framed in moral terms, require targets to have a small constituency of defenders, administrators to be largely ignorant of the target and of the nature of these carpetbagger-led[vii] campaigns and for the general population to be apathetic or complacent. Pressure groups use sympathetic academics and journalists to give their cause added legitimacy and deploy online petitions and waves of social-media support. These make campaigns appear to be more authentic, informed, passionate and local than they actually are. Campaigns are generally conducted by a handful of activists exploiting events to solicit backing by disparate political sympathisers who do not have any interest in (or knowledge of) the subject. This is why the Save Our Statues group warns that local councils and museums – under the influence of strategic consultations with political bodies posing as experts – pose a greater threat to historical monuments than vandals or mobs.
Several generations have been educated to be ashamed of their country’s colonial past – regardless of Britain’s important role in ending the North Atlantic slave trade. British arts administrators are thus vulnerable to emotional blackmail and liable to see their first duty as undertaking historical reparations to minority groups. Once administrators consider their primary allegiance to be to a political movement rather than a general population, state or institution, they can justify and encourage violence by activists. Their objective is no longer to act as custodians of patrimony but as agents of revolutionary justice. During the Bristol attack, the mayor and police commander ordered police not to prevent the destruction. The council subsequently celebrated mob violence and destruction of public property as an act of “anti-slavery”.
Isolated from working-class people, viewing the world through media which echoes their outlook, failing to see that there could be negative repercussions of accepting (and stimulating) activist demands, arts administrators see iconoclasm as natural, spontaneous and undirected reactions to “systemic racism” and the “toxic legacy of slavery”. Whenever resistance is detected by the managerial elite, response is not debate but suppression. Opposition to iconoclasm and to “correction” of history is defeated (and punished) by further erasure of history, humiliation of national heroes, undermining of foundational stories and belittling of tradition. Any attachment to the past – even sentimental in nature – is evidence of the necessity of punishing those who cherish national myths. It is those national myths, as the elite see it, that formed and maintained the British Empire and cause racial bias today.
One conference participant tellingly suggested that toppling Colston was a way of “starting a dialogue about historical injustice”. No dialogue opened with an act of violence ever developed into a meaningful or respectful conversation. Destruction of Colston’s statue was a demonstration of power. No one in a position of power “starts a dialogue” without having pre-determined a position, lined up dismissals of counterpoints and fully intending to have the last word. Whenever any person in power broaches a subject as “starting a conversation/dialogue”, be aware that this is the issuing of a threat or an announcement of the imposition by fiat of unpopular change.
Iconoclasm is supported and used tactically by the elite which runs British institutions. It is deployed in a struggle to humiliate and demoralise the majority of the British population. It is a visceral vendetta by a managerial caste against a population which doubts the benefits of social engineering, imposed mass immigration and enforced social liberalism set towards globalist aims. As such, iconoclasm is not oppressed minorities striking against an oppressive majority but rather the elite strata of British society using mobs, social-media campaigns and mainstream-media pressure to remove symbols of national pride, a pattern we can see replicated in the USA and elsewhere in the West.
Many sources and extra data are given for this text is given in Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History (Societas, 2020).
Alexander Adams is a British artist, critic and poet. His art criticism has appeared in Apollo, British Art Journal, Burlington Magazine, The Critic and The Jackdaw. His art has been exhibited worldwide and is in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), Northampton Museums and other museums. His books of poems and drawings have been published in the UK, the USA and Malta. His book Degas is published by Prestel in April.
[i] See Hans Abbing, Why are Artists Poor?, University of Amsterdam, 2008
[ii] See also Alexander Adams, ”The removal of a bust of the British Museum’s founder is no trivial issue. It is a step towards the erasure of the Enlightenment” RT, 26 August 2020
[iii] ICA press release, 9 June 2020
[iv] Twitter, 8.32 PM, 7 Jun 2020
[v] Private e-mail to AA, 29 Dec. 2020
[vi] Sabi Phagura, “Girls' school in Bristol named after slave trader Edward Colston and founded using his money votes to change its name after backlash”, The Daily Mail, 6 October 2020
[vii] “carpetbagger” is a term from American politics meaning an itinerant populist politician who has no local roots or knowledge and is simply in search of power and money. Named after the hardwearing bags that habitual travellers used.