Page last updated at 08:13 GMT, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Destroying art for art's sake

Gustav Metzger - Acid Action Painting 2006
Gustav Metzger wants to bring 'destruction and decay' into an art form

By Lawrence Pollard
Presenter, Art Attack

Many of the art attacks carried out by individuals lurch between lunacy and criminality - the man who attacked Michelangelo's Pieta in the Vatican with a hammer, while shouting "I am Jesus" is seen as a lunatic.

The man who sprayed a huge dollar sign on a pure white canvas by Malevich more of a criminal - though he claimed he was protesting against the commercialisation of art.

Of the woman who kissed a canvas to "warm it up" we can say at least she is not as dangerous as the man who deliberately ingested different food colouring to vomit in spectacular colours on canvases of his choice (apparently Mondrian's Composition in Red, White and Blue needed the blue topping up a bit).

And if you saw the head off Copenhagen's Little Mermaid (as political artists first did in 1964), you are just bad.

The Little Mermaid, at the entrance of Copenhagen harbor
The Little Mermaid has been damaged and defaced many times

What makes an otherwise stupid act of vandalism interesting is the reason given in justification.

There is a story about a Chinese professor living in exile in the UK who visited Ely Cathedral. On walking into the starkly beautiful Lady Chapel he said "Ah, I see you've had a Cultural Revolution of your own."

He was referring to the dozens of medieval sculptures of saints, mutilated during the 16th-Century Reformation. The violence directed at art and culture reminded him of China in the 1960s.

So what was behind the furious destruction of thousands of sacred works of art in Britain by the Protestant destroyers of images?

"It was the dismantling of what they saw as the great deception of Catholicism," says Eamonn Duffy, Cambridge Professor of the History of Christianity.

"Iconoclasm is a complicated thing psychologically and the reformers often targeted the eyes, the mouths, the ears as a way of silencing and blinding empty idols. In England in particular, reformers saw artworks as substituting false gods for the true God. You could argue English art never recovered," he adds.

'Beautiful woman'

This vandalism was an attack on symbols of an authority to be overturned.

In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson took out an axe in London's National Gallery and smashed into Velasquez's Rokeby Venus - a real national treasure.

The cave-monasteries and the niches where the Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban, once stood in Bamiyan
The dynamiting in Bamiyan was meant to be heard round the world

"After her arrest she released a statement to the press," says historian Lynda Nead.

"She announced she'd attacked the most beautiful woman in ancient history as a protest against the government for trying to destroy suffragette leader Mrs Pankhurst, who was the most beautiful woman in modern history."

Her complaint, that the country cared more for a work of art than for a suffering human being (Mrs Pankhurst) has interesting echoes in possibly the most famous act of vandalism of recent years, the destruction by the Taliban in 2001 of the huge Afghan sculptures known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

"That winter there was a famine, the second year of drought, there wasn't enough aid, the gaps between the Taliban and the west just grew and grew," says the BBC correspondent David Loyn.

"International aid agencies said they would pay to look after the buddhas, put money into the area and it had the opposite effect. The Taliban said 'you care more about this history than about the Afghan people so we'll destroy them'."

The dynamiting in Bamiyan was meant to be heard round the world.

Self-destructing machines

Sometimes however, grim destruction can provide inspiration, of a sort. Gustav Metzger has made it his life's work.

Jean Tinguely - Meta Matic No. 17, 1959
Tinguely was famous for his auto-destructive mechanisms

"I saw the rise of Nazi power from 1933, that was full of destruction, the door to my home was forced down in the middle of the night, I saw the synagogues of Nuremberg in flames. I was 12.

Then we had the war, Hiroshima - I often feel destruction has followed me all my life. As an artist I wanted to bring destruction, decay and loss into an art form," he says.

In 1966 Metzger organised the Destruction In Art Symposium, and at the Serpentine Gallery in London you can see a film of him, dressed in a gas mask, spraying acid onto a sheet of nylon, which slowly melts in lovely patterns - an example of his Auto-Destructive Art.

At the same time the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely was also creating with destruction, though in a more playful way.

He would scour scrap heaps for junk and lash it into unlikely tottering machines which he would design to self-destruct in public.

"He wanted you to just witness the sculpture's extinction but not possess it," says British artist Michael Landy, who has organised a show about Tinguely at Tate Liverpool.

A vandal is a fool - he smashes for the pleasure of smashing, stupidly - my act of destruction was an act of creation
Pierre Pinoncelli

"It was a great idea, but he wasn't a great engineer so it didn't quite work. But it's not nihilistic, it's a celebration of life."

Landy himself was a much more efficient organiser of destruction when he arranged his performance Breakdown, in which he methodically destroyed and recycled all 7,227 of his worldly possessions.

"It was an examination of consumerism, but was also like witnessing my own death," he says now.

He also pulverised the art he owned, paintings by friends like Gary Hume - who at first was horrified but then saw the point and went along with it.

Rather like when in 1953 when Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing of his to erase.

It took him three weeks and dozens of rubbers before he could finally exhibit a lumpy sheet of paper he called Erased de Kooning Drawing.

Causing a scandal

A copy of Fountain by Marcel Duchamp
Mr Pinoncelli argues that his attack on Fountain was performance art

"A vandal is a fool," says French artist Pierre Pinoncelli, once put on trial himself for vandalism of a national treasure.

"He smashes for the pleasure of smashing, stupidly. My act of destruction was an act of creation. I've always loved destruction, it's inside humans just like creation is," he adds.

Mr Pinoncelli was put on trial for smashing a urinal in Paris' Pompidou Centre.

Not in the gents, but in the gallery.

The urinal was a copy of the original called Fountain and put on display in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp to make the point that anything could be art.

Mr Pinoncelli was so annoyed at how a once radical work of art had become institutionalised, that he attacked it.

"I made it fresh and new, I created something new of which Duchamp would have approved, he'd have said 'Bravo!'"

Mr Pinoncelli narrowly avoided three months in jail and a fine of 400,000 euros (£368,566). Not, he says, for being a vandal, but for causing a scandal.

Art Attack is on BBC Radio 4 in two parts on Tuesday 27 October and Tuesday 3 November at 1130 GMT.

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