Strange, isn’t it, the allure of denigrating art? Disfiguring and destroying images and statues seems to have an enduring appeal – the danger, the violation, the power to shock. There’s nothing quite like drawing attention to sincere causes: in 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson, protesting the violent arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, took a butcher’s cleaver to the National Gallery in London and violently slashed Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus”; in 1974, Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Picasso’s “Guernica” at New York’s MoMA in protest against the Vietnam War.
There were many, many more. Some works of art seem to be important enough to attract repeated blows: “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt suffered three violent attacks in the 20th century; the four of Mona Lisa.
In one, in 2009, a Russian woman who had been denied French citizenship – like an angry child, looking for the naughtiest thing she could do – threw a cup of tea at the famous beauty. I kind of know how she felt about that smug face, and since Lisa’s smile was unfazed, let’s hope the teacup woman finds relief from her feelings of rage and helplessness.
But given the violence of some of the attacks, I guess we should be glad that it was just tomato soup that was sprayed on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” last week by anti-oil protesters, who are also glued to the walls of the gallery. (The eco-warriors seem fond of super glue: it’s presumably a petroleum-based product that they approve of.)
Some cultural destruction was organized from above, of course, political/religious in its motives – Henry VIII’s systematic vandalism of cathedrals and churches across Britain in his anti-papal crusade; the Taliban are blowing up magnificent Buddhas in Afghanistan.
All of these incidents show one thing: the power of art as both a temporal and spiritual symbol. Especially the power of cultural institutions. It has become a cliché that museums and galleries, rather than temples and churches, are now our places of reverence, national identity and pride, stability and social order. Attacking objects within is a quick and effective way to score a goal against these social structures – both literal and symbolic iconoclasm.
Artists, of course, relished the shock value of cultural destruction. Turning outrage into art, particularly performance art, has a long history: examples include the dropping of a precious antique urn, or was it two, for video cameras (Ai Weiwei, 1995). There is also a long tradition of artists destroying their own work, from Michelangelo to Monet and beyond. John Baldessari, a godfather of concept art, in 1970 set fire to all his work from the previous decade or more, baked the ashes into cookie dough, and posted the results as “The Cremation Project “.” at MoMA.
Baldessari then embarked on another creative path, entitled “I will no longer make boring art”. I wonder if Damien Hirst will follow his lead in this regard. Hirst has recently made performances out of planned destruction, donning silver overalls or a shiny white jumpsuit to incinerate thousands of his works, in full view of the public. (Funny how burning seems to be the method of choice, for these artistic self-immolations. Is it the drama of the flames, or just the love of men for a barbecue?)
Hirst’s action was carefully planned: his issuance last year of 10,000 NFTs backed by individual works on paper involved the choice of owners, after a while, to keep only the NFT or only the work. physical. The digital version was chosen by 4,851 of them, and the corresponding real-world art was duly planned for the flames.
As always, you have to turn it over to Hirst for a creative spin on the current NFT craze and for an eloquent commentary on the art market and our perceptions of its value. That is, after all, the point of almost all of these protests against destruction.
Perceptions of the value of art also surround this tired old question: can we separate art from the moral position of the artist? I’m quite annoyed by this issue, as I think the question has been asked and answered so many times. The answer, btw, is that if the art is good enough, we don’t care who created it. Nobody cares if Caravaggio was a murderer; Picasso’s portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter are revered despite his appalling treatment of her; even after all the accusations against Michael Jackson, the musical about him, GMwas a smash hit on Broadway.
But if the art is mediocre, or frankly bad, the question reopens. And Channel 4 decided to do just that. Oddly. The channel has acquired a painting of Adolf Hitler (along with other famous “problem” artists like convicted sex offender Rolf Harris) and will host a panel discussion, moderated by comedian Jimmy Carr, on the opportunity to destroy them or not.
Besides its inherent grossness, it’s clearly a desperate attempt to appear edgy and cool, engineered under the impending government threat of a channel sale. Channel 4 programming director Ian Katz says a for-profit buyer would never risk such material, saying it’s “probably not a rational business approach”.
Channel 4 is an excellent broadcaster which, due to its unique semi-commercial business model, costs the taxpayer nothing. The sell-off, fortunately reconsidered, would in itself be a form of cultural destruction on the part of the British government. Even so, guys, think twice about nasty stunts like this.
Jan Dalley is the artistic editor of the FT
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