This rapidly produced and keenly priced book, admirably timed for the Public Statues and Sculpture Association (PSSA) Burlington Magazine ‘Toppling Statues’ webinar as well as the more tumultuous 2020 events that immediately preceded it, is testament to the productivity and passion of the writer and artist Alexander Adams. Its subtitle immediately indicates where Adams lies on the political spectrum, confirmed in the foreword by the maverick right-wing Spiked commentator Frank Furedi. Unfortunately, Adams does not go on to explore Furedi’s point that the toppling of Joseph Stalin’s statue in his native Budapest was somehow right in 1956 but that of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA, wrong in 2020.
This, however, is a short book and one must necessarily forgive loose ends. Adams commendably lives up to his promise that it will contain ‘a minimum of jargon’, considerately telling readers they can skip the first three chapters which examine iconoclasm and its historical episodes, together with the defacement of art. Those chapters nonetheless comprise a succession of deft summaries spanning Byzantine iconoclasm to the fate of East Germany’s communist culture. Adams writes with feeling about the callous Bundestag-ordained iconoclastic demolition of the Palast der Republik, Berlin, ‘a palace of the people and… held in great affection by many’ (p. 46). In his discussion of defacement, he also rightly bemoans the tendency of social conservatives to abandon ‘the principle of sanctity of public property when they found the subject of an attack to be aesthetically worthless’ (p. 65), in this instance oil paintings by Mark Rothko at Tate Modern.
Controversy really starts with Chapter Four, ‘Identity Politics, Safetyism and Erasure of History’. Iconoclasm by definition impacts on public property, which ‘often leaves conservatives and traditional liberals struggling to articulate logical explanations of how property rights are allied to freedom of speech/religion/conscience and that there are quantifiable actuarial and cultural reasons why certain demographic groups do less well in social and economic terms. Who has time for these when ‘equality’ and ‘anti-racism’ are such emotional triggers?’ (p. 71). This is well put – I would have asked the Colston statue topplers in Bristol ‘Don’t you know your Locke?’ – but the painfulness and injustice of ever-increasing inequality over the past 50 years, and the sheer horribleness of racism, are given too short a shrift here. In his indictment of ‘the background, psychology and behaviour of supporters of left-orientated identity politics’ (p. xii), Adams lines up the usual suspects, from civil servants to the BBC to universities meekly condoning or even supporting the unforgivable. But surely the prevention of public iconoclasm in 2020 was fatally compromised by the Covid-19 that nearly killed a prime minister. To this we can add worldwide revulsion at the killing of George Floyd – which Adams notes but fails to deplore in Chapter Five – and genuine guilt at how lower-paid BAME health service workers and carers succumbed in huge numbers to the pandemic. This necessarily, and I would concede regrettably, weakened the authorities’ and wider popular response to statue toppling. Incompetent national and federal governments have hardly helped either.
Adams bemoans the ‘onslaught’ on Confederate memorials, which is the subject of an important ‘Toppling Statues’ paper by Edwin Fountain, and argues that ‘the cause these men died for implicitly included slavery, but that it is not what the monument records and it very often was not the reason men served’ (p. 93). Agreed: and failure to heed this discredits the iconoclasm of nineteenth-century memorials. But what of those erected up to the middle years of the twentieth century at the behest of racist Jim Crow era politicians? Don’t these rest on shakier ground and appear at the very least provocative, even hateful? Rather than being what Adams might suspect, a weak-kneed leftist apologist, this reviewer emphatically advocates a case-by-case consideration of public monuments by qualified professionals, underpinned by a belief in the commitment of the PSSA to ‘retain and explain’ wherever possible. I am certainly with Adams when he decries the ignorant copycat defacement of memorials to individuals who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. The Colston statue I will say little on here – it looms large in ‘Toppling Statues’ – but I agree with Adams that the contravention of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations by its topplers, quite apart from their classic mob mentality, filled me with dismay. I therefore commend the BAME historian David Olusoga for curbing, however reluctantly, his romantic zeal and wish to join them, instead putting his family’s health and wellbeing, as well as obeying the law, first.
Sometimes Adams is a little fast and loose in his accusations: what is his evidence that Colston’s attackers were middle class? And just who are the ‘many curators and directors’ who ‘if they could… would take the artefacts in their care, pile them on the street and burn them’, demonstrating ‘their moral fury as much as the mob does’? (p. 111). Having worked for several years at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, with curators of various ethnicities and specialities, some of whom deal with objects from the colonial past on an everyday basis, I fortunately encountered no such zealous vandal. And while Adams complains that ‘some members of the public’ accused volunteers cleaning off Black Lives Matter graffiti in London of racism, my response would be to say there are fanatics everywhere. Rather too often this book reads like a collection of negativity and probably exaggerated alarmism, even if one must resist complacency.
‘What can we do?’ Adams asks in his conclusion. His recommendations are predictable but reasonable, e.g. ‘Repair damage where possible’, ‘restore and protect’ and ‘make a point of not replacing removed statues with tokens that appease the politics of iconoclasm’ (pp. 115-16). I also agree that we should ‘provide opportunities for contextualisation’, though I wish that he had said more here. Permanent labels could be erected near a statue stating the case for the other historical side or sides – an admirable example is the recent one beside the Melville monument in Edinburgh, outlining Henry Dundas’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Alternatively or additionally, QR codes could do the same thing, with the advantage of being far easier to update. Composing their texts at competitive rates could well be one of the PSSA’s many constructive functions in the future. Finally, Adams’s suggestion of consultation with local residents and their opinions on whether contested memorials should go or stay, taking the form of a referendum with a two-thirds majority, is surely worth considering.
So, what do I think of Alexander Adams on iconoclasm? A thought-provoking, opinionated, heartfelt, highly readable account and a very necessary utterance of 2020. Had I undertaken it – and I lack both the guts and energy – I would have taken less heed of Douglas Murray (The Madness of Crowds is listed in the bibliography), and rather more of someone like the Shadow Justice minister David Lammy. Indeed, Adams cries out for an intelligent left-liberal response – but as wordy academics call the shots here, don’t hold your breath.