As the defacing and toppling of public statues hits the mainstream headlines, Adam Somerset offers brief examination of the meaning of iconoclasm.
Students of economics do not necessarily become rich but they do not become poor. That is because they know more than the average person about risk so that if they do not make good decisions they avoid making bad ones. It is similar with history. The past does not tell us what to do today- every situation is its own particular set of circumstances- but it gives a context to avoid making bad decisions. In the Coppola-scripted film Patton the General stomps a location in Sicily and informs his staff officers of the lessons to be learned from a campaign in classical times.
Iconoclasm has a long history. Its first recorded mention is in the era of Akhenaten who ordered the removal of statuary to the divinity Amun. Nonetheless the summer of 2017 has been remarkable for the degree of news prominence given to statues. The monuments to the Confederacy have seized headlines in the USA. In Sydney’s Hyde Park graffiti has been sprayed on the statues of Captain Cook and Lachlan Macquarie. Even Queen Victoria has been targeted. Wales had its brief flare-up of cultural politics and brush with the ambiguities of meaning in Flintshire.
It is in the nature of good art that its meaning is manifold. Christopher Nolan’s new epic has been cinema’s box office hit of the season. “Look to the spirit of Dunkirk,” says a proponent for one side of the divided realm. It is an ironic comparison. Aged thirteen I was taken out on a boat to sail the Glaslyn estuary. The face of the boat’s owner, one among a group of adults, was clearly lined and prematurely aged, enough to make me mention it to my parents. He had, they explained, been one of the thousands captured on the retreat to Dunkirk and had spent the whole of the rest of the war in a prison camp. A family member was also in the retreat, one of those who did get back to Britain. The effect of his witnessing the suffering on the retreat was so great that he never went abroad for the next forty years. Dunkirk as a metaphor has a high level of ambiguity to it.
But then the past is littered with artworks that make a parallel track through history. “Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature,” wrote Nietzsche, “but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest.” Elasticity of interpretation is not just the province of sculpture and monument. The reputations of writers bob up and down on the unpredictable currents of events. Sometimes writers have luck in landing on a theme that accrues later unintended meanings. Kafka started to write “In the Penal Colony” in 1914.
Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The name “Babbit” entered the general culture but it is doubtful whether Lewis is read widely. It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, has become a big seller in 2017. Lewis’ book swims with quotations for a new generation of readers to relish. He describes his protagonist as “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic…Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.” On his candidate’s world outlook “he regarded…all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.”
Events take time to mutate into fiction. The Crash of 2008 saw its novels of response. Justin Cartwright published Other People’s Money and Robert Harris The Fear Index in 2011. John Lanchester’s Capital dates from 2012. But Britain does not have a Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Franzen, authors to catch the zeitgeist on a large scale. The young as a whole have paid the price of the Crash and have yet to gain their representation in culture.
As for June 23rd 2016 it is still too early. But then it is difficult. Britain’s abrupt severance of forty years of diplomatic and economic history has no precedent. The National Theatre’s documentary attempt, My Country, was not up to it. It was also accidentally a scene for a fine comedic moment in the arts of 2017. London’s theatre took it to the Everyman in Liverpool. After the performance a discussion was offered. Liverpudlians do not do deference. “How come,” they demanded, “a show about the United Kingdom manages to delete the entire North-west?” Rather than being a response to a nation in schism the play came to feel more like a symptom.
The dance and theatre companies of Wales fielded a strong showing at the Edinburgh Fringe of 2017. A play by Neil Docking, The Revlon Girl, was conceived and made to fit the fiftieth anniversary of Aberfan. Then the fears and warnings of residents were not listened to. No-one would have wished it to be so but the play’s viewers in 2017 are seeing it in a way that was not there when it toured Wales in 2016. As with the National Coal Board in the nineteen-sixties so too it is today with Kensington and Chelsea Council. As with the concrete ring of Flint becoming the metaphorical ring of steel once the meaning is there it cannot be wished away or ordered out of existence. Jorge Luis Borges was fond of saying that great writers create their predecessors. But it is more than that. Fiction vaults out of time, creating metaphors to suit the future as much as material for mediating the past.