It came with the embarrassment of riches. I was laughed at. . . . I wrote reviews for TLS, Times Literary Supplement, when my friend John Groves started to introduce non-book reviews, and he knew I was doing all this kind of weird, iconological analysis. It seemed to me that, when I wanted to write this book about, you know, what daily life was like in Holland, on the strange thing of this tiny tiny culture being the richest and most mighty place in the world for, you know, a brief couple of generations, I thought, well, how ridiculous to do it — it’s not just painting, but this is the kind of culture that’s absolutely engorged on images, on tiles, on engraved glasses, on wallpaper, on stamped leather — um, you cannot do it without actually understanding the purchase and power of images of all kind, not just, you know, High Art images. And then as the years, you know, went by — and I, I mentioned that course I, I very happily and gratefully taught in Harvard — I came to think of, really, that, you know, on the one hand art history couldn’t really be taught or consumed altogether without understanding the rest of the world that kind of produced it. I’m not somebody who believes that you simply dissolve Picasso or Manet or Rembrandt or Leonardo entirely, so that they become kind of a function of grain prices or stock exchange — they are what they are — but it is very important to understand the kind of humus, as it were, the kind of, the bed, the soil bed from which produce these, these, this particular work and that particular visual language. Equally — equally — it is impossible to do history, especially history of the twentieth and twenty-first century — but I don’t know, any history since the printed image or maybe any history since bibles began to be illuminated — without seeing images as as important, instrinsically, as text — images are text, text is images, you know. The two — that’s how we are, we’re language animals but we’re visual animals too — the two things marry each other and what they give birth to is our culture.
The tail end of a rambling effervescent talk by Simon Schama, ostensibly on the themes of his book The American Future: a History, given in May at the Philadelphia Free Library and recorded for C-SPAN’s BookTV.