With Art Under Attack currently at Tate Britain, the exhibition's curator looks at the many different reasons that art has been deliberately destroyed over the years - starting with the political act of monument toppling

Statue of the Dead Christ
Statue of the Dead Christ c.1500–20
Stone on a limestone plinth

Recently, crowds in Kiev took down a statue of Lenin and attacked it with sledgehammers because their president refused to sign trade agreements between Ukraineand the EU, and related images of the smashed statue went viral. Toppling statues of political leaders and burning their images are dramatic forms of protest against governments, and the worldwide interest in images like these makes me think about how every overturned or demolished statue tells a very particular story.

From statues of Lenin to Saddam Hussein, monument toppling is a familiar sign of political dissent and regime change around the world. One section of the exhibition Art under Attack brings together a selection of disparate fragments from attacked British monuments, including the destruction of the statue of George III in New York City in 1776 and the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin nearly 200 years later in 1966.

Overthrowing the symbols of dictators and governments are one form of iconoclasm, or image breaking, but the term itself refers to a huge range of targets and methods.

Many people think that the meaning of iconoclasm only refers to religious iconoclasm because of its Greek origins, while in fact the word’s entry into the English language in the late sixteenth century (via the word iconoclast) meant image breaking. The word’s subsequent application to political subjects over the centuries, and to the overturning of any belief, idea or convention, as well as to the defacement or whitewashing of images, suggests a broad meaning. Recent scholarship argues for an expansion of the term to any physical change to works of art or cultural artefacts.

Iconoclasm is a human phenomenon with a long and diverse history. Art under Attack shows the many very different forms it can take. It shows that Reformation iconoclasm – with its policies against images that resulted in the smashing of sculptures such as the Whittlesford alabasters - was and is not equivocal to the toppling of a monument or the suffragette Mary Richardson’s striking at the Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. One action represented a political system, the other actions sought to defy those systems.

For avant garde art of the last century, iconoclasm is also very different, but certainly not new. Friedrich Nietzche (in Twilight of the Idols 1895) had called for the destruction of the art of the past and its replacement with the art of the present and future, but others had done so before him. By the early twentieth century, these ideas were familiar to artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, who were well known for talking about destruction as creation. Over time, Duchamp’s readymades such as LHOOQ (1919), a postcard of the Mona Lisa with a moustache and beard, and much later, Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) have become icons of iconoclasm.

Yoko Ono Cut Piece 1966 British Pathé (London, UK)
Yoko Ono
Cut Piece 1966

In Art under Attack, the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) represents an important moment for art practice in Britain, a moment when acts of destruction – blowing up objects or images, burning them – with acid or a blow torch, chopping or cutting – signified political positions against consumerism during the Cold War period. Each artist used destructive forces in their own way to pursue different agendas. Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction was a result of a performance which arose from his thinking about destruction being necessary for creation in nature and in the world. In Cut Piece, Yoko Ono contrasted her own calm and steadfast seated position on stage with potential acts of violence from members of the audience.

Today, artists remain interested in destruction that takes the form of complete obliteration, but a significant number of artists also physically engage with images and objects and change them not in order to destroy them, but to transform them into new works of art. These artists have different reasons for making work in this way. Artists such as Kate Davis draw upon the legacy of feminist art, and others are informed by anti-consumerist perspectives. Most artists want to test the limits of materials like film, videotape, paintings and postcards, exploiting their properties to change how the images and objects are seen and understood. Film strips and videotape become sculptures in the work of Lucy Skaer andMichael Wilkinson, and Mark Wallinger edits and obscures a film to turn it into another work. Artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman take subject matter into uncharted territories by reworking images in order to ‘improve’ them – to quote the Chapmans – continuing the same tradition as that of Duchamp and Rauschenberg.

Iconoclastic acts in all periods – if they are intentional and have a rationale – represent dramatically different forms of conflict between iconoclasts and their targets. The poignant fragments surviving from the state-sanctioned iconoclastic acts of the Reformation give us the briefest glimpse into the most traumatic period of change for Britain, which witnessed the almost complete annihilation of its cultural heritage on a monumental scale (some argue that this break with images still reverberates today.) Words and emblems replaced images of saints hundreds of years ago, but the survival of fragments is testament to the power of the original images and their value to the people who saved them.