Heritage Forum

Towards a cancel crisis?

May 6, 2021 | Essays & Opinions, Forum, News

How did the influence of networked media on the contestation of heritage develop from specific cases like #RhodesMustFall to current processes of “Woke Iconoclasm” and “Cancel Culture”, and what can be expected next?

Introduction: Iconoclasm then and now

For millennia, iconoclastic movements have had major impacts on society (Arrhenius, 2012). In the Bronze Age, many Egyptian temples and monuments were destroyed after the Egyptian monarch Akhenaten gave order to eradicate all traditional gods. During the Byzantine era, religious and imperial authorities opposed the use of religious icons such as on coins, leading to destruction and persecution. Later during the 16th century Reformation period, great iconoclastic riots took place for the removal of Catholic art and church decoration including various statues. In Chinese history, anti-Buddhist campaigns driven by fearing emperors wanting to remove ‘foreign influences’ from China led to the destruction of Buddhist temples and images. During the French Revolution, various significant monuments were destroyed in an attempt to eradicate any memory of the Old Regime (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Destruction of the Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV in 1792 (Figure 1) and the statues of Louis XIV by Desjardins in Place des Victoires (Figure 2). Museé du Louvre, Paris; in Arrhenius (2012).

Listing these movements emphasizes their shared characteristics determined by society’s ongoing engagement with symbolic images, culture, and identity. Associated with political reform and social revolutions, iconoclastic acts of destruction have always been part of a culture conditioned by our heightened attention to the effects of images (Arrhenius, 2012: 29). A more recent example of political reform presented through the targeting of images is the pulling down of the prominent statue of Saddam Hussein by the U.S. military in 2003. The toppling of the statue became global news as it was carefully staged and documented to symbolically mark the end of a regime (Zarandona et al., 2018).

David Freedberg, known for his work on iconoclasm and psychological responses to art, noted in 1989 that very little has changed in the way we experience images since their presence in ancient times. However, Freedberg did not foresee the drastic changes that were to come in the way images are experienced. In the present landscape contested imagery is reaching audiences across the globe in an unprecedented manner through fast-paced media platforms and digital social networks. These platforms have drastically changed the way in which images are presented, shared, and perceived. This became increasingly evident in the year 2020 when dozens of statues symbolizing slavery, segregation, and/or racism were defaced as part of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Various authors have investigated the role that social and mass media have played in the advancement social change and activism processes (Oeldorf-Hirsch & Sundar, 2015; Gabrys, 2016; Earl & Kimport, 2013; Smith et al., 2020). AlSayyad & Guvenc (2015), in particular, note that acts of iconoclasm always play out both in a virtual space of organization as well as in the physical public space of demonstration, in which “the reciprocal interaction between social media, urban space and traditional media does not simply reproduce relations between these actors, but also transforms them incrementally” (2015: 2019). This raises questions about how the interaction between social media, urban space, and traditional media takes form in an era characterized by virtual activism as a result of the collision between the Covid-19 pandemic and global BLM movement.

This paper seeks to explore this convergence of media[1] and heritage through the assessment of defaced monuments sparked by (social) media campaigns and linking this to the current digital phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’. The first part of the paper unpacks the intensification of ‘fallism’ through global social media coverage triggered by the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall student protests. This follows with a closer look at more recent developments in the manifestation of public acts of monument defacement, both digitally and in cities across the globe, in relation to the BLM movement and, additionally, the Dutch artworld. We conclude by linking these processes to the rise of ‘call-out’ and ‘cancel culture’ leading towards an era coined by some as ‘Woke Iconoclasm’ while asking who this eradication crisis is actually threatening and whether or not it holds the potential for new voices to play a role in the writing of history.

Contested Monuments and Social Media: The Case of #RhodesMustFall

The intensification of cultural contestation can be associated with various social trends, including the struggle for inclusion through the coexistence of multiple narratives in a globalized world (Frank & Ristic, 2020). When these disputes are articulated into public debate, symbols become focal points because of their embodiment of infamous pasts. They express the collective trauma or stigma of a social group which in turn leads to political tension and conflict (Macdonald, 2009; in Frank & Ristic, 2020: 555). This political dimension of heritage is a crucial focus of Heritage Studies, where contestations over the past are inherent in the formulation of contemporary identities (Zarandona et al, 2018: 651).

In current society, these debates are reaching a vast network of global audiences at ever-increasing speeds, as was the case with the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) campaign. On the 9th of March 2015, a cellphone recording of Chumani Maxwele throwing excrement at the statue of British imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, led to far-reaching student protests towards the ‘decolonization’ of education in South Africa. The demand for Rhodes’ removal from the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, and its actual removal one month later, caused heated debates on the dedicated Facebook page supported by the production of images and texts calling for action (Knudsen & Andersen, 2019). The movement became known through its successful use of social media to galvanize students to participate in protests across the country (Bosch, 2017), gaining the attention of public audiences through the dissemination of images via social media and Twitter hashtags such as #RhodesMustFall (Frank & Ristic, 2020: 553). This is highlighted in Figure 3 where onlookers can be seen filming and photographing the removal of the statue on campus.

Figure 3: Crowds filming the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT on 9 April 2015 (David Goldblatt, 2015)

RMF triggered ‘fallist’ movements in cities across the world targeting monuments in public space as a means of coming to terms with socio-political injustices (Frank & Ristic, 2020: 553). Oxford was one of the first locations outside South Africa to see protests relating to RMF, where students also demanded the removal of colonial symbols including another Rhodes statue. In Oxford however, financial pressure from funders dominated the final decision to keep the statue in place, whereas in the case of UCT the role and use of visual imagery and media in the unfolding of the movement was central to its removal (Knudsen & Andersen, 2019; Bosch, 2017). RMF protests continued into 2016 when students publicly burnt historical UCT artworks, symbolizing the visual destruction of imagery. Interestingly, the debate around Rhodes’ presence at Oxford was reignited in 2020 by BLM demonstrations across the UK[2], most notably due to the dramatic toppling of a statue in Bristol.

#GeorgeFloyd, renewed iconoclasm, and name changes

Although 2020 will likely go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will also be remembered as the year of George Floyd, as the clip of his fatal arrest on May 25 burned through social media and all major news outlets (Samayeen et al., 2020). This powerful image brought about global protests in support of the BLM movement. Protests seeking justice for Floyd began in the United States the next day, with citizens of over 60 other countries on all seven continents soon following suit (Wikipedia, 2020a in Van Dijcke and Wright, 2020).

During the worldwide George Floyd protests, many monuments and memorials were removed, destroyed, torn down, or heavily damaged. The list of monuments and memorials removed during the George Floyd protests now already includes over 200 examples from the United States alone (Wikipedia, 2020b). Although the United States saw by far the most removals, international cases got just as much, if not more media attention, in particular, the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, United Kingdom.

On June 7, 2020, a bronze statue of Bristol-born merchant Edward Colston (1636–1721) was toppled, defaced, and pushed into the Bristol Harbour during a BLM protest. The statue was created in 1895 to commemorate Colston as a philanthropist. However, his reputation changed in the 1990s when he became known for his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade (Morgan, 2004). Although from the 1990s onwards campaigns and petitions called for the removal of the statue or a rewording of the plaque, no official change was made (Hochschild, 2006). Not until the 2020 BLM protests.

After the incident, the eyes of the world were on Bristol. Every minute of that day had been documented, including the eight-minute and 46 seconds wherein a man knelt on the neck of the statue – the exact time that George Floyd had lain with his neck under the knee of a white policeman (Cork, 2020a). This allusion was referenced at the funeral of George Floyd two days later, which was an incentive to the toppling of other contested statues internationally (Cork, 2020b).

The influence of (social) media on these events is substantial, if not crucial. As previously mentioned, acts of iconoclasm always play out both in a virtual space of organization and in the physical public space of demonstration (AlSayyad & Guvenc, 2015). In this case, the cause for the physical demonstration was a horrifying witness video which quickly spread through social media and eventually all major news outlets (Samayeen et al., 2020). It is this combination of social media campaigning and

traditional media attention that makes for a global impact (Zarandona et al., 2018). Without it, chances are that the BLM movement would not have gone global with such renewed ferocity, and the statue of Colston, along with many other examples, would still be on its plinth. The George Floyd case is thus exemplary for AlSayyad & Guvenc’s statement that the reciprocal interaction between social media, urban space, and traditional media reproduces relations between these actors and transforms them incrementally (2015: 2019).

38 Days after the statue was toppled, Bristol again appeared in the global spotlight when a statue of a black woman with her fist in the air was illegally placed on the empty plinth that, although covered in graffiti, had remained in place. The 3D-printed sculpture reenacts Jen Reid standing on the plinth just after the statue was toppled. “It all began with a post on Instagram”, writes Emelife in the Guardian. Reid’s husband had posted a picture of her on the plinth with the caption “My wife. My life. She matters.” (Figure 4). It was soon liked by artist Marc Quinn who decided to recreate the moment in his studio (Emelife, 2020) (Figure 5). The installment of “A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020” involved documentary crews and embedded media (Cork, 2020b). The statue, however, was quickly removed. Quoting a line by Cork in an article from BristolLive, although “[t]he statue of Edward Colston was on the plinth for almost 125 years, the statue of Jen Reid was on the plinth for less than 24 hours.” However big the impact of the media on cultural contestation may be, the government appears to have the final say.[3]

Figure 4. Instagram post by @biggiesnug. “My wife. My life. She matters.” https://www.instagram.com/p/CBJAwapjg8f/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Figure 5. ‘I feel full of pride’ … Jen Reid poses in front of her black resin and steel statue. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA (Emelife, 2020).

Although the in-your-face public monuments were often the first to go, several other controversial representations of heritage were changed or removed during the course of the BLM protests. It was as if suddenly no one could get away with glorifying contested history anymore; every well-known person, company, or institution was closely scrutinized. Besides the targeting of monuments and memorials, manifold names were changed. This happened on a global scale, either acted out by the public or preventatively by the government. In the Netherlands it was the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art that, after three years of debating, changed its name to Kunstinstituut Melly (FKA Witte de With, 2020). The global 2020 BLM protests in many cases acted as a final decisive push in already existing discussions about contested heritage.

From Iconoclasm to Cancel Culture: Heritage vs. the Arts

Although art institutions have always been spaces where discussions about contested heritage and symbols can be facilitated, the rise of the so-called ‘Call Out/Cancel Culture’ has brought some difficulties. Cancel culture, according to Ng (2020), is “the withdrawal of any kind of support (…) for those who are assessed to have said or done something unacceptable or highly problematic, generally from a social justice perspective especially alert to sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, racism, bullying, and related issues.” (2020: 625). According to Ng, the term originated on Twitter around 2015 and was turbocharged by the #MeToo movement.

Recently, several cases claiming sexual harassment and assault in the Dutch art industry have been connected to cancel culture, with the installation Destroy My Face by Erik Kessels featuring as the figurehead of the discussion. The installation consisted of artificial images of women’s faces that had undergone plastic surgery and was installed on the floor of an indoor skatepark, encouraging skaters to slowly damage the faces by skating over them (Figure 6). According to Kessels, the artwork is an indictment of the beauty ideal that is forced upon us via social media. Critics, however, find the work misogynistic. When a video of the installation on social media was picked up by opponents, a petition started demanding the work to be removed. It got signed immediately by thousands of people from inside and outside the art world. Quickly, the international skate industry became involved leading to the sponsors of the skatepark threatening to withdraw support. The work was removed within a week of its installment without a real conversation between the opposing parties ever taking place.

Figure 6. Erik Kessels, ‘Destroy my face’, 2020

According to Erik Kessels and Fleur van Muiswinkel, director of the exhibition, it is a prime example of ‘cancel culture’.[4] The initiators of the petition, however, strongly disagree stating that they have never asked sponsors to withdraw funds. Rinse Staal, director of the skatepark explains that what bothers him the most is the fact that there has never been a conversation between the different parties, making it impossible to add any nuance to the heated debate.

Now that the term cancel culture appears to grow in influence, more and more people have started to voice their concerns about the movement. After the removal of Destroy My Face several prominent Dutch newspapers, for example, have questioned whether art can still be difficult or uncompromising. From initially “embraced as empowering” to “being denounced as emblematic of digital ills” (Ng, 2020:
621) cancel culture’s oversimplification of complex issues and lack of nuance has led to the call for the canceling of cancel culture.

Whether or not the case of Destroy My Face can be seen as a form of cancel culture, it does bring to light that new forms of participation are emerging. Our current ‘Woke Iconoclasm’ can be viewed as a structural process of transformation. Cancel culture allows us to move beyond purely violent imaginaries of iconoclastic vandalism. Calls for change are no longer primarily heard through the voices of radical religious or conservative groups, but rather from a mostly progressive, contemporary audience. As Semíramis (2019) reiterates, cancel culture allows the minorities – the previously oppressed, ‘canceled’ groups of society – to reclaim their power and fight back. This emphasizes how cancel culture is not new; people have been canceled throughout history. Iconoclasm is transforming and those who critique it are perhaps feeling threatened by its ability to move public discourse away from inner elitist circles to the global public and the previously marginalized.

Concluding Thoughts:

By ‘destroying’ the material as well as the immaterial, iconoclastic movements are not only creating new meaning to important symbols but are also in itself a form of writing history. This ‘destruction’ of imagery should therefore no longer be seen as nullifying the past but rather a disruption of inevitable adaptation, as images are always evolving and being adapted to new generations and diversifying cultures (Mitchell, 2016). Should we not rather think of cancel culture as CoCreate Culture – reimagining the present to create new meaning collaboratively? Indeed, just as the removal or modification of monuments is not merely about contesting the past, these adaptation processes also operate as tools for inquiring, critiquing, and subverting the present (Frank & Ristic, 2020:556) to better engage with a globalized society.

Distinguishing between ‘usable vs. disposable pasts’ (Huyssen, 2003:29) therefore becomes key in thinking about how to navigate tensions between opposing ideologies or cultures, which will require facilitation in a manner that can lead to nuanced debate. Art and broader representative cultural institutions play a key role here, as well as proactive political engagement. Bouvier (2020) warns that digitally-enabled activism often results in an ‘individualization’ of contested debates, becoming decontextualized and depoliticized. Finding the balance between collective representation and individualization will therefore remain an issue to be unpacked, as social media mostly encourages the latter.

The inevitable contestation of historic symbols will remain a defining feature of society, manifesting in different ways navigated through different contexts. However, as this paper highlights, recent trends towards the ‘canceling’ of all things historic and contentious, deemed through social media as ‘unacceptable or problematic’ have brought a new angle to the debate.

Iconoclasm does not only attack paint and stone, it has always been a way of taking back power and changing the value of symbolic images. So does cancel culture. How threatening is cancel culture then really? With its analog predecessors of boycotting and blacklisting, perhaps it is only the mass exposure through digital platforms that is aiding in the ‘newness’ of this digital activism phenomenon (Clark, 2020), allowing for wide-spread participation and fast-tracked action.

As illustrated by the cases discussed, the impact of this global networked exposure has led to significant changes to the way in which the world thinks about issues around equality and social justice, while also creating a powerful voice against the elite. But questions around oversimplification remain a key challenge. If we acknowledge that removing memory can never be a substitute for justice, and that our experience of images and powerful visuals remain unchanged, perhaps it is more ‘productive remembering’ than ‘productive forgetting’ that our society needs, now more than ever.

About the authors:

Maaike te Kulve is a communication specialist and content creator from Amsterdam. She is currently completing a Masters in Comparative Arts and Media Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Next to writing a thesis on feminist media productions, she is working part-time as a content manager at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. After finishing her studies, Maaike aims to continue working as a creative in the cultural field.

Janine Loubser is an urban planner from Cape Town currently completing a Masters in Spatial Heritage at the Vrije University in Amsterdam. She has also been serving on the board of the Young Urbanists community since 2018. Intrigued by diverse contexts, her interest lies in cultural identity and people’s everyday experiences of urban life.


















[1] We refer here to media to include digital platforms such as social media and other online networks and publications, as well as traditional media (tv, radio, print).

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/17/end-of-the-rhodes-cecil-oxford-college-ditches-controversial-statue
[3] See for more information on the role of the government: Rodenberg & Wagenaar (eds.), Cultural Contestation: Heritage, Identity and the Role of Government (2018).
[4] https://www.vpro.nl/programmas/medialogica.html

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