It’s strange, isn’t it, the lure of desecrating art? Destruction and vandalism of statues and monuments seems to have an enduring attraction – danger, crime, power of terror. There is nothing like it for drawing attention to serious causes: in 1914 Mary Richardson, who protested the violent arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, took a musical instrument to the National Gallery in London. and destroyed Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus”; in 1974 Tony Shafrazi spray painted Picasso’s “Guernica” at MoMA in New York as a protest against the Vietnam war.
There have been many, many more. Some works of art seem to be important enough to attract some people as well: “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt he was attacked three times violently in the 20th century; Here are four Lisas.
In one of these, in 2009, a Russian woman who had been denied French citizenship – like an angry child, looking for the worst thing to do – threw a cup of tea to famous beauty. I know how she felt about that sloppy face, and since Lisa’s smile didn’t waver, let’s hope the teacup woman found relief for her feelings of anger and powerlessness.
But given the violence of the other attacks, I think we should be glad that it was only tomato soup that was poured on Van Gogh’s “Sunflower” last week by anti-oil protesters, who cling to the gallery walls. (Eco warriors seem to love super glue: it’s likely the only oil-based product they accept.)
Some cultural destruction is organized from above, of course, political/religious in its purpose—Henry VIII’s systematic destruction of churches and cathedrals throughout Britain in his war against the papacy; The Taliban blow up the noble Buddhas in Afghanistan.
All these events show one thing: the power of art as a temporal and spiritual symbol. Especially the power of cultural institutions. It has become a fact that museums and galleries, instead of temples and churches, are now our places of honor, of national identity and pride, stability and social order. Attacking what is inside them is a quick way to find a target against those social structures – literal and figurative iconoclasm.
In fact, artists have reveled in the terrifying importance of cultural destruction. Turning anger into art, especially performance art, has a long history: examples include throwing away an important ancient urn, or two, for the cameras of video (Ai Weiwei, 1995). There is also a long tradition of artists deconstructing their work, from Michelangelo to Monet and beyond. John Baldessari, the grandfather of art, in 1970 cremated all his work from the last ten years or more, burned the ashes in cookie dough and presented the results as “The Cremation Project.” to MMA.
Baldessari then set himself up for a different creative course, entitled, “I Will Never Make Another Painful Art”“. I wonder if Damien Hirst will follow his lead, in that regard. Recently, Hirst has been making a move due to planned destruction, offering silver or shiny white mice to burn thousands of his works, for people to see. (It’s interesting how burning seems to be the medium of choice, for this artistic endeavor. Is it the drama of flames, or just the male love of barbecue?)
Hirst’s action was carefully planned: his issue last year of 10,000 NFTs is supported by individual works on paper related to the choice of owners, after a while, whether to keep only NFT or only physical work . The digital version was chosen by 4,851 of them, and the real world art was destined for the flames.
As always, you’ve got to give it to Hirst for a creative twist on the current NFT craze and for a clear take on the art market and our perception of its value. Which is, after all, what almost all of these doomsday references are really about.
Critical thinking in art also revolves around that tired old question: can we separate art from the artist’s moral status? This really bothers me, because I think the question has been asked and answered many times. The answer, btw, is that if the art is good enough, we wouldn’t care about the artist. No one cares if Caravaggio was a murderer; Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Therese Walter are revered despite his mistreatment of her; and after all the accusations against Michael Jackson music about him, MJwas a hit on Broadway.
But if the art is light, or bad, the problem starts again. And Channel 4 decided to do just that. In a strange way. The station has acquired a portrait of Adolf Hitler (along with other famous “problem” artists such as convicted sex offender Rolf Harris) and will host a debate, hosted on air by reporter Jimmy Carr, about whether they will be destroy or not.
Apart from its original absurdity, it is clear that this is a serious effort to appear naughty and nice, presented under the impending threat of the government to sell the channel. Ian Katz, Channel 4’s director of programming, said a profitable buyer would not risk such assets, saying it was “probably not a sound business model”.
Channel 4 is a great broadcaster which, due to its unique business model, does not cost the taxpayer anything. The sale, thankfully now being reconsidered, would in itself have been a form of cultural destruction on the part of the British government. However, dear ones, think twice about such evil things.
Jan Dalley is the arts editor of the FT
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