Art & Destruction

Why are museums and their curators so interested in the theme of Destruction?

Destruction of art is at the heart of exhibitions at the biggest museum institutions and is a common exhibition theme for the remainder of the year and the beginning of next year. Destruction arising by the artists will be shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, DC in the exhibit Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950. Destruction as a result of the public’s actions is currently on view in the exhibit Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at the Tate, London.

Finally! Echoes of the end of the government shutdown are taking place in Washington, D.C. and with them the thrill and relief of all museums’ staff, aficionados and tourists. The Hirshhorn Museum states on its website that its upcoming show Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 is still scheduled to open to the public on October 24. Focusing on contemporary visual culture, the exhibition at the Hirshhorn revolves around the theme of destruction. Specifically, the destruction incorporated, manifested or provoked by the artists themselves whether as part of their work or as the main feature of their work. The exhibition will explore how destruction became part of the creative process for artists starting with the sequels of World War II. Hirshhorn’s press release describes it as such: “The notion of destruction has played an important role, whether as spectacle, as catharsis, as a reaction to world-weariness, as a means of depersonalizing emotional or cultural angst, as a form of rebellion against institutions, or as an essential component of re-creation.”

In London, the Tate museum is now showing Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm (Oct. 2, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014); a comprehensive exhibit about all the attacks on art in Britain starting with the 16th century religious iconoclasm till today. Art objects of all nature have been victims of man’s rebellious actions. Iconoclasm is the rejection of all symbolic nature whether it is of religious, political or aesthetic extent. The exhibit includes pieces as diverse as a smashed 15th century Madonna and Child, a restored version of John Singer Sargent’s Henry James which has been the victim of three bad cuts in 1913 or and Allen Jones’ famous 1969 Chair damaged with acid in the 80s during the International Women’s Day.

John Singer Sargent, Henry James 1913

John Singer Sargent, Henry James 1913


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John Singer Sargent, Henry James 1913 (damaged)


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Chair by Allen Jones, 1969, which was damaged with paint stripper by feminist campaigners in 1986, will be part of Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain. Photograph: Allen Jones/Tate/PA

The fact that art attacks are still happening today was definitely an inspiration for both shows. Just in the past year, two major attacks on masterpieces from both Mark Rothko and  John Constable’s Hay Wain took place! While the motive behind the 16th century iconoclasm was the rejection of symbols, Jonathan Jones from the Guardian believes that the same phenomenon is still occurring today: “And yet the sacred has returned in a strange way. Art in museums is cherished as special and redemptive. It is revered.”

Mark Rothko, Seagram (attacked in 2012)

Mark Rothko, Seagram (attacked in 2012)

Cameron Duncan (former director of the Brooklyn Museum) describes what is going on in museums in his article “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum.” What museums are presenting us today is an image of themselves that combines the feature of the museum as a temple with that of a forum. Cameron argues that a museum that acts as a “temple” and gives a conservative image to its visitors represents an obstacle to change and is subject to destruction. Museums must incorporate the idea of the forum – i.e the place where “opportunities for the artists and the critics of society to produce, to be heard, to be seen, and to confront established values and institutions.” Of course art destruction is not and will never be encouraged by institutions! But The Tate and the Hirshhorn are both approaching the subject to precisely present the museum as the ultimate forum of artistic expression and reaction.

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