Is It Ever Right To Destroy a Piece Of Art?

Our history of iconoclasm and vandalism

By Benjamin Harris / Fri 01 Sep, 2017
Featured Image:

Patrick Correia from Northampton, MA, United States (Book Burning) Uploaded by mangostar

At roughly 7:10PM on Monday the 14th of August, protesters in North Carolina toppled and destroyed a confederate statue. The video of this act become viral with over 110,000 likes and 58,000 retweets on twitter. Within two days, seven campaigners had been arrested on the charges of inciting rioting, damage to public and private property, and defacing a public monument. These self-styled anti-racist/fascist protesters had taken to the streets in response to a white-nationalist gathering in Charlottesville two days previously in which one person tragically lost their life.

But, why all this fuss around a statue?

On the one hand, the protestors confessed to destroying this icon in order to symbolically “smash white supremacy”. The argument goes that these monuments celebrating the heroes of a pro-slavery past implicitly support white supremacy and instil it into the symbolic landscape of the United States.

However, many would disagree with this point of view: the president of the United States being one of them, tweeting,

Surely to destroy public monuments, donated by philanthropic organisations, is not a legitimate form of protest. In regards to the law, public image-smashing is criminal. (Ed: It is also interesting to ask whether our reaction would be different if another form of art was destroyed- burning books for example.)

So, what are we to make of all this? Are the seven image-breakers champions on the right side of history or senseless vandals who simply got up on the wrong side of the bed? Are we right to break art that we disagree with?

Iconoclasm vs Vandalism

Throughout the ages art has been smashed, slashed, dashed and destroyed for many different reasons: we Christians have played a significant part in the history of the ‘destruction of images’ (particularly in the Byzantine ‘Quarrel of images’ and the Protestant Reformation). In the Church’s internal spats about images and icons, two terms were frequently used: iconoclasm and vandalism.

Those who supported the image-breaking antics of the revolutionaries branded the actions as ‘iconoclasms’ (icon = image, clasm = breaking). The perpetrators of these violent acts were celebrated and labeled iconoclasts. Now, iconoclasm implies the reasoned and purposeful destruction of images from what is usually assumed to be rightful moral/religious indignation.

Vandalism on the other hand (from the Latin ‘vandalus’, a pejorative term relating to barbarous peoples of Germanic origin) is conceived as the deliberate destruction of public or private property, usually in a mindless manner with no particular purpose. Vandals smash and destroy out of barbaric instinct and an inability to appreciate what they either do not own, or cannot understand. In common perception, vandals do not wear suits but hoodies and masks. Vandals attack telephone boxes and masterpieces alike: with no rhyme or reason.

The distinction appears to make sense. One would not call (at least not from where I am sat) reformer Zwingli’s denunciation of idolatrous images of Mary and the subsequent smashing of public pilgrimage sites as mere vandalism. Nor would we be willing to label a brick thrown through a car window as intentional iconoclasm.

Many groups have taken to destroying art as a symbolic protest against the current order. In British history the Suffragettes used this tactic to shock the world into listening. When Mary Richardson infamously slashed the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914, she was portrayed in the press at the time as a vandal and labelled “Slasher Mary” -a title usually reserved for the worst of murderers. When questioned on why Richardson would attack such a treasured artwork she referred to her fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who was under arrest at the time, stating,

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Others have argued that her motives may have stemmed more from her frustration with men fawning over the Venus all day, but whether the attack was against lust or a political demonstration demanding an activist’s release, it was certainly to make a point. Should we then consider this action vandalism or iconoclasm? At the time, it was considered vandalism. But today, I have no doubt that many would label this art destruction as a deliberate iconoclasm, an assault on patriarchy.

Either/Or?

The binary categorisation of vandalism/iconoclasm can be unhelpful for it implies that all iconoclasm is good/rightful/correct and that all vandalism is bad/immoral/wrong. There have certainly been instances of bad iconoclasm, where images are wrongfully destroyed for a message that assumed a greater significance than it ought. No doubt there have also been good vandalisms where property has been destroyed for the purpose of a greater good.

Surely though it is not the individual actions/destructions in and of themselves that are to be regarded iconoclasm/vandalism but the whole series of events and situations both before and after the property-destruction that come together to determine how we classify art-destructions.

In my mind, the key to this question of iconoclasm/vandalism lies first in context. The situations and environment surrounding an incident of art-destruction is far more useful in helping us understand the motives and intentions of the iconoclast than the act of breaking itself. Regarding North Carolina, one could argue that if the white-nationalist rally had not taken place a couple of days before in Charlottesville then this episode would not have happened. Equally, supporters could point to the President’s seemingly protective statements released following the Charlottesville aftermath as provoking this kind of reaction to the recent rise in neo-Nazism in the US.

The second factor key to separating iconoclasm from vandalism is consensus. If the consensus of history writers, reporters and experts agree that an art-destruction is justified, it will go down in history as an iconoclasm. However, if the consensus disagrees or misunderstands an art-destruction (as in the case of “Slasher Mary”) then the act will be recorded as vandalism. The blanket slur ‘vandalism’ is an important tool in bringing the opposition into disrepute. Equally, the cry of ‘iconoclasm’ is important in legitimising violent and illegal actions.

If we are to make any sense of last month’s events and learn anything from this we need to wisely interpret both the context surrounding and the consensus reporting the impromptu art-demolition. Reporters on every side have something to gain from this story: the vilification of their political enemies. In order for us to make any judgments on a case of vandalism it would benefit us greatly to probe deeper into the event, to garner more details before we condemn or praise the individual as either a revolutionary or heretic.

That reminds me of another question…

It’s funny because this discussion seems to touch on much deeper questions about the nature of art itself.

Just as acts can be designated as vandalism/iconoclasm through a consideration of context and consensus so objects are defined as art/not-art in exactly the same way. Perhaps we should look at art itself in a similar way, not asking ‘what is art?’, but instead, ‘when is something art?’, the answer being when context and consensus agree.

“Anything can be art nowadays”, people often bemoan. Well, yes and no. Anything can be art if a) it is considered within the frame of the art world (context, e.g. put in a gallery) and b) people agree to its art-status (consensus e.g., it wins the Turner prize).

Or is that all just far too subjective? Well, that throws us back to one of our favourite discussions on Sputnik, so if you’re interested, I’m sure Huw and Ian can get you started.

Benjamin Harris considers himself a student of art and theology, but somehow gets paid to teach them both.

http://benjaminharrismusings.blogspot.com

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