This lecture recovers the histories of image breaking behind the Enlightenment museum

James Simpson

Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, Harvard University

‘Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm and the Enlightenment’

Date: 9 June 2010 5pm.

Venue: Theatre A, Elisabeth Murdoch Building, The University of Melbourne (Parkville).

This lecture recovers the histories of image breaking behind the  Enlightenment museum. The Enlightenment attitude to art is intimately responsive to, and shaped by, iconoclasm. Not only that, but, more interestingly, the Enlightenment is itself an iconoclastic movement in three profound ways. After 150 years or so of failed iconoclasm, Northern Europeans were tired. They invented three alternatives to literal iconoclasm. In the first place, the scientific Enlightenment exercised a philosophical iconoclasm by describing ideology as an idol that must be broken. Secondly, the sentimental Enlightenment neutralizes the image by placing it in the museum and by calling it Art. And thirdly, Enlightenment taste commodifies the image under the market’s hammer.

James Simpson did Honours in English at Melbourne University before heading to Oxford, then Cambridge (where he held the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Lit), then Harvard.