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James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2011). ISBN: 978-0199591657, vi + 222 pp. £26.

Reviewed by Edward Simon


[1] In his newest book, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson continues a project that he began in 2010’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents. This is to say that both take as their aim the cross-disciplinary goal of explicating what exactly is ‘modern’ about the early modern period. Seemingly central to these two books, both as critical disposition and methodology, is Simpson’s concept of ‘cultural etymology’, which he describes as ‘looking for recognitions between present and past obscured by the passage of time and the urgency of the present’ (p. 49). In his earlier work Simpson traces the ways in which religious fundamentalism – which in popular discourse is often seen as somehow ‘medieval’ – was actually the result of a modernity that was born from the Protestant Reformation. The traditional triumphalist historiography of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformation and Counter-Reformation has often portrayed Protestantism as a progressive, liberal and modern reaction to the superstitious and zealous medieval Roman Catholic Church. Simpson, in a manner similar to revisionists like Eamon Duffy, deftly demonstrates what is erroneous about a perspective which portrays Thomas Cromwell as a Thomas Jefferson of the English Reformation. As he effectively demonstrated in Burning to Read the Reformation was modern, but not in the way traditional scholarly models had argued. Rather a reliance on the Sola scriptura hermeneutic coupled with an intense focus on the textuality of the Bible encouraged a nascent literalism that would have been foreign to the allegory-permeated Middle Ages. In Simpson’s formulation it was not until the anarchic years of the mid seventeenth century that Protestant modernity embraced interpretive strategies that could be thought of as ‘progressive’. In this way Simpson shows how the literalism of contemporary fundamentalism is not a holdover from a more primitive medieval past, but was indeed a consequence of the emergence of modernity in the sixteenth century.

[2] Where he focused on words in that earlier work, Simpson expands his attention towards images in his excellent new book, Under the Hammer. In a brilliant coupling of literary theory, art history and cultural historiography, Simpson surveys the ways in which iconoclastic violence has been mediated through Anglo-American culture and how it, in turn, has altered that culture. Across four chapters his short book addresses the initial image-destruction of both the Henrician and Edwardian reforms, through the violence of the English Revolution into the emergence of Enlightenment notions of ‘art’ and ‘taste’ in the eighteenth century. It is Simpson’s argument that iconoclasm, like the fundamentalism he examined in his earlier book, is not a quality of an archaic, brutal, violent past which we have left behind, but that indeed iconoclastic reasoning permeates and, in fact, defines our modern culture and that in the West the most recent permutations of this find their origin in the Reformation. Simpson writes, ‘I take issue with this projection of iconoclasm as historically and geographically “other” and “backwards”, at least as far as the West goes’ (p. 3). Using this reasoning he opens with two seemingly disparate events that he argues are conceptually connected. The first is the infamous destruction of two gigantic statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan by the Taliban in March of 2001. The other is the author, himself, as a young man in 1967, attending an exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, entitled Two Decades of American Painting and featuring the radical avant-garde of abstract expressionist painters such as de Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock. The two events couldn’t seem more different, the first is a barbaric and reactionary assault on culture and the latter is a celebration of the very idea of culture. And yet as different as they may be, Simpson explains over the course of his book how the obvious iconoclastic fury of the Taliban and the abstraction of mid-century American art are both reactions to the idea of the image. As he explains it: ‘History is the history of the image, and historical freedom means demolition of the religious image’ (p. 69).

[3] Under the Hammer ranges widely across centuries and academic disciplines. In its first chapter, ‘Iconoclasm in Melbourne, Massachusetts, and the Museum of Modern Art’, Simpson employs contemporary art criticism when he considers the abstract expressionist paintings he first encountered as a youth in Australia. In what acts as an extended introduction to his concept of cultural etymology, Simpson provides readings of the paintings he viewed in Melbourne like Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting alongside interpretations of the ecclesiastical plain-style architecture of Puritan churches in New England. In his second chapter, ‘Learn to Die: Late Medieval English Images Before the Law’, Simpson examines pre-Reformation iconoclastic rhetoric in both orthodox as well as Wycliffite writings, especially as regards the Ars moriendi genre. His third chapter, ‘Statues of Liberty: Iconoclasm and Idolatry in the English Revolution’, looks at both the fury of the Civil War years, as well as offering a novel reading of iconoclastic themes in not just the obvious choice of Milton’s Eikonoklastes, but the first book of Paradise Lost as well (examined through the prism of Milton’s early poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity). The most radical and, in many ways, most interesting section of the monograph is its final chapter, ‘Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm and the Enlightenment’. Simpson writes ‘The more ambitious form of the argument, which I shall also pursue in this book, is that the Enlightenment treatment of the image, and in particular the Enlightenment museum, share many of the iconoclast’s aims’ (p. 11), later making the argument that ‘the Enlightenment museum … resembles nothing so much as the Puritan temple’ (p. 48). The point is drawn home as we are asked to compare the stark white walls of New England Puritan churches with the minimalist architecture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This chapter’s central argument – and, in many ways, it seems as if the first three chapters are leading up to the radical conclusion – is that the Enlightenment aesthetic of ‘taste’ is a form of secularized iconoclasm that paradoxically preserves the image by disenchanting it. In other words Enlightenment taste neutralizes the sacred power of the relic and transforms it into something that is theologically non-objectionable. He examines the contents of Horace Walpole’s catalogue of the extensive art collection of his father, the former prime minister, Robert Walpole, noting the large presence of Catholic devotional art in the otherwise vehemently Protestant household. By divorcing the image from its content, a new, progressive and modern category of art that is different from relic can be constructed; explaining that, ‘Taste is a strategy designed to look at Rome again’ (p. 133).

[4] In any book as provocative and fascinating as this, a number of issues and questions will arise. Simpson has provided a rich and compelling argument that should generate a number of new scholarly investigations. For example, how could a materialist or class-based critique enrich Simpson’s line of inquiry? In addition to theological influences, did cheap print in the seventeenth century affect the transition from an image-based to a word-based culture? And if contemporary art museums are a type of ‘Puritan Temple’ how do modern class-based political questions contribute to the cultural capital afforded these institutions over other means of expression? In addition to class issues there are also questions of gender that remain largely unexplored in Under the Hammer. The physicality of medieval art often focused on Marian devotion, one of the most notable aspects of Elizabeth I’s reign were the ways in which she was able to appropriate and divert attention which was often directed towards those images onto herself. Gendered images were partially secularized during the Elizabethan settlement and instrumental in the building of the English nation-state. In any study of that subject questions of iconoclasm should be central. The complicated (and contradictory) gender politics of the second half of the sixteenth century would be a fascinating and important subject to examine through this lens. Also more attention afforded towards the Baroque Counter-Reformation could have been helpful. How much of the Baroque was not evidence of a Horror vacui as concerns the plain canvas, but indeed a Catholic reaction to Protestant iconoclasm? And how much of our modern understanding of artistic quality is based on an individual work or movement’s adherence to a minimalist iconoclastic standard? Do we read Pop Art as a type of contemporary, Baroque reaction to the iconoclasm of abstract expressionism? What of more nebulous aesthetic terms like ‘kitsch’ and ‘camp’? How do they fit into Simpson’s art history schema? It remains for an art historian or literary critic to place Clement Greenberg and Susan Sontag in conversation with Under the Hammer. Finally, while the book’s bibliography is impressive, in any argument as sprawling as this more space could have been devoted to iconoclastic thinking which is not Protestant. Simpson mentions both the medieval Byzantine war on images, as well as the anti-clerical iconoclasm of the French Revolution, but more of a consideration could have been made of those events.

[5] Though Under the Hammer doesn’t make direct reference to the recent flurry of theorists like Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchly, Slavoj Žižek and Paul Kahn who have begun to problematize the traditional narrative of historical secularization, it could be read alongside them. As in Burning to Read, Simpson demonstrates the complicated theological origins of much of what we think of as secular modernity (and its discontents). Under the Hammer is important in other ways, in breaking down the arbitrary division between periods (medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment), ranging across disciplines (literary theory, art history), embracing a more encompassing geography of the early modern (examining both English and American writing and art of the period) Simpson has produced a truly revelatory text that should act as a veritable call-to-arms for scholars. His concept of cultural etymology is an immensely useful term, simultaneously a methodology and a perspective that helps to contextualize the trace of influences in ideology, culture, and literature that may otherwise remain invisible. As he explains it ‘iconoclasm is not “somewhere else”’ (p. 11), it is just as current if transformed. Through his deep readings of texts throughout several centuries and using insightful prose he demonstrates how this is possible and, in the process, he provides other critics with a powerful new tool.

Lehigh University, July 2013