From the suffragette who took a cleaver to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in 1914 to the outraged citizen of Milan who fell from a tree while trying to cut down an installation by Maurizio Cattelan in May 2004, artworks have long been at the mercy of individuals hell-bent on harming them. Brian Dillon offers a personal diagnosis of the multiple motivations behind some of the world’s most notorious art attacks
1) The Iconoclast
Caution: Religion! announced the title of an exhibition mounted early in 2003 at the Andre Sakharov Museum in Moscow. Among the works on show were a poster by Aleksandr Kosolopov showing Jesus on a Pepsi advertisement, declaring ‘This is my blood’, while a sculpture of a church by Alina Gurevich was composed entirely of empty vodka bottles. On 18 January, six men entered the exhibition, poured red paint over the artworks and wrote ‘blasphemy’, ‘you hate Orthodoxy’ and ‘you are damned’ on the museum walls. The exhibition closed immediately (most of the works were ruined) and the museum’s director, Yury Samadurov, conceded that ‘some were fairly revolting works which could shock people. It’s modern art’. The men’s action, on the other hand, was shocking in its resort to violent archaism – iconoclasm, the destruction of images. In the months that followed, the controversy became a convoluted mixture of ancient and modern attitudes. Seized on by church leaders intimately linked to President Putin, the event came to symbolise some deep confusions in the cultural self-image of contemporary Russia, chief among them the fuddled capitulation of a supposedly secular state and legal system before clerics who had learned to use the lexicon of tolerance in the service of censorship. The six attackers were acquitted; Samadurov was charged with inciting religious hatred. In February of this year, the controversy was re-ignited by an attack on Oleg Yanushevsky’s Cosmopolitan Icons at St Petersburg’s S.P.A.S. Gallery.
One could conjecture that the contemporary religious iconoclast tends also to be a manifest worshipper of images: a defender of lavish Orthodoxy or of the visual splendour of Catholicism (think of Dennis Heiner, who attacked Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary in New York in 1999, and Catholic Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s tacit approval of his action). Even the Taliban, ruthless purgers of priceless statuary, were not above having themselves secretly photographed in the most lurid and kitsch of styles. This ambiguity has a venerable history. During the ‘second Reformation’ in England in the early seventeenth century, William Dowsing was entrusted by the Earl of Manchester with the mass destruction of ecclesiastical imagery. The Iconoclast General noted it all in his journal, in a prose which veers from the blankly statistical to the sort of meticulous detail that suggests he was half in love with the treasures of idolatry: ‘In the church, there was on the roof, above an 100 jesus & mary, in great capital letters; and a crosier staff to be broken down, in glass; and above twenty stars on the roof. There is a glorious cover over the font, like a pope’s triple crown, with a pelican on top, picking its breast, all gilt over with gold.’ The art vandal turns out, in each of his several guises (they are almost always male) to be a peculiar category of art lover.
2) The Radical
‘Vandalism’ is a coinage of the French Revolution, a deliberate tethering of radical ire to the vision of a civilisation besieged by frenzied primitives. The term, in fact, was first used by revolutionary defenders of the art of the Ancien Régime, desperate to hold back the tide of unthinking destruction. An engraving from 1843, part of a series entitled Les français sous la révolution, depicts The Breaker of Images as a snarling grotesque. The sans-culotte lunges from the top of a ladder, grimacing proudly as his hammer arcs towards a refined bust. The suggestion is that his violence is viciously misplaced: he has mistaken culture for tyranny. Brute ignorance is the crude message in the representation of politicised vandalism. In Goya’s drawing No sabe que hace (He doesn’t know what he is doing) the vandal is a cheerful, relaxed figure, merrily decapitating busts, the debris mounting at his feet. In these pictures, all the politics have vanished; class antagonism is merely the justification for blind idiocy, prefiguring Sigmund Freud’s exasperated account of his servants’ talent for unconscious destruction: ‘Nothing is further from an uneducated person’s mind than an appreciation of art and works of art. Unspoken hostility towards artistic items prevails among the servant classes, particularly when the objects, whose value they do not understand, give them extra work to do.’
How, then, to deal with a clearly cultivated vandal? At 11am on 10 March 1914, Mary Richardson smashed the glass in front of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London, and was seen ‘hacking furiously at the picture with a chopper which, it is assumed, she had concealed under her jacket’. As she was led away, Richardson shouted: ‘Yes, I am a Suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst’ (Emmeline Pankhurst was then on hunger strike in Holloway Prison). If this initial outburst seemed to assume a simple dichotomy between politics and aesthetics, it soon transpired that the assailant had herself been a student of art; she had merely chosen to defend ‘Mrs Pankhurst. the most beautiful character in modern history’ over the most beautiful woman in mythology. For Mary Richardson, aesthetics was politics: ‘Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.’ Sylvia Pankhurst’s later insistence that the painting was not by Velázquez at all (and could, therefore, presumably be slashed with impunity) quite missed the point. Richardson, by contrast, had predicted with unerring aesthetic judgment the effect of a mutilated woman on the front page of The Times.
3) The Bourgeois
Etymologically, a scandal is a ‘stumbling block’. It’s the unprecedented object or event on which a current of thought or cultural feeling snags itself, trips and falls, grazes its sensibilities on the unthinkable. And like the discomposed pedestrian who stumbles on a cracked paving stone, the scandalised spectator looks at the offending art object with this certainty: someone, somewhere, is to blame. The giddy plunge is occasionally absurdly literal. On 6 May 2004, Franco De Benedetto, 44, was rushed to hospital in Milan with multiple fractures after falling from a tree as he tried to cut down the plastic figures of three hanging children, part of an installation by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. The work, which included a similar figure dangling from one of the city’s oldest trees in the Piazza XXIV Maggio (this one was later cut down by firemen), had occasioned a good deal of consternation and media comment, doubtless fuelled by memories of Cattelan’s notorious The Ninth Hour – a sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite. The latter might predictably have sparked pious fury in a gallery, but it was the public display of this latest installation that provoked di Benedetto: his arboreal adventure was undertaken in defence of a civic space he clearly imagined had been thuggishly defaced.
Maybe, as the ambulance blared through the Milan streets, di Benedetto was moved to reflect on the violent collision of two types of judgment: civic and aesthetic. He seemed to have mistaken one for the other; or rather, he’d disallowed the second as soon as he set out on his hapless clamber. The installation was not an artwork at all, but a blot on a municipal amenity. When, in 1989, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was uprooted from Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, its fate had been sealed by the sort of rhetoric that saw in it only ‘a rusted metal wall’, ‘an abandoned piece of construction material’. It would be easy to dismiss such comments as philistine (and on most levels they are) were it not also that the champion of civic propriety starts to look, oddly, like the perfect avatar of modern aesthetic judgment. The critic Thierry de Duve has argued persuasively that the modern artwork has skewed forever the sort of judgment we can make about it. The proper question is no longer ‘is it beautiful?’ but ‘is it art?’ In this, at least, the civically minded vandal does exactly what the work demands: literalises the avant-garde dream of effacing the border between art and life.
4) The Connoisseur
Despite himself, the vandal can’t help but appear as a kind of aesthete. Whatever his manifest or enigmatic urges – moral, political, religious – he seems fated to demonstrate a certain level of connoisseurship. In denying the value of the work he attacks, he none the less affirms its place in the canon. Art vandals can sometimes seem like the most reactionary of critics. How else to explain the persistent convergence of professional approval and iconoclastic rage? Of course, a degree of opportunism (considerations of geography, security and probable publicity) must be taken into account. But even so, the vandal is strangely drawn to works whose aura is already assured. He is obsessed, in fact, with getting it right, with choosing the ‘correct’ work. In this, he unwittingly assumes the fastidious air of a figure whose ancestry can be traced back to the seventeenth century: the man of taste.
‘There is in art a point of perfection,’ wrote Jean de la Bruyère in 1688. ‘Anyone who feels this and loves it possesses a perfect taste; but he who is not sensible of it, and loves what is short of that point or beyond it, is wanting in taste.’ The art vandal is just too ‘sensible’. His sensibility gets the better of him; he dramatises to excess the essence of good taste: the art of making a choice. And in choosing, he shows himself to be more discerning than the mass of museum visitors who pass by even the most respectable Old Masters with only a cursory glance. He at least has subjected his target to the most tender scrutiny, even if his expert’s eye is already picturing the pattern of an acid splash or the lethal arc of a kitchen knife.
Hence the congenial collective history of academicians and iconoclasts. Two attacks on sculptures by Michelangelo hint that the vandal is most traditional when most ostensibly deranged. On 21 May 1972, the Hungarian-born László Toth took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s, shouting ‘I am Jesus Christ; Christ is risen from the dead’ (Toth, it later transpired, was quite sincerely convinced of his own divinity). In September 1991, Piero Camata, a failed painter and former heroin addict, hammered off the tip of one toe of Michelangelo’s David. He was, he said, ‘jealous of Michelangelo’, but we might equally judge him to have demonstrated a taste which, as the poet Paul Valéry put it, ‘is made up of a thousand distastes’.
5) The Avant-Gardist
In 1969, the International Council of Museums produced a report for UNESCO which surmised, perhaps fancifully, that it was possible to calculate ‘a generally stable gap of two generations or a minimum of half a century between important creative innovation and its general acceptance by the ordinary public’. There is a species of art vandal whose task seems to be to play havoc with this serenely unfolding chronology. While the conventional view of aesthetic experiment imagines the avant-garde artist as an athletic prodigy, leaving an audience choking in the dust at his heels as he careers off down the track to glory, the experimental vandal is the streaker who lopes, grinning, from the crowd to put the avant-garde off its stride. In such circumstances, a puffed and lagging public might yet lap the champion.
In 1889, the novelist Joris Karl Huysmans had delighted in the obliteration of the obsolete architecture of Paris: ‘Fire is the essential artist of our time.’ By 1919, Kasimir Malevich could imagine a more general conflagration: ‘Let all periods burn, as one dead body.’ Theodor Adorno concurred: ‘This downfall is the goal of every work of art, in that it seeks to bring death to all others.’ A whole tradition of destructive art ensues: the violently self-harming machinery of Jean Tinguely, the faint bruise of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, Marcel Duchamp’s declaration: ‘Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.’
The art vandal responds by pointing out how traditional all of this has become. Duchamp himself becomes a favoured target. On 21 May 2000, Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi, two Chinese artists describing themselves as ‘heroes. ahead of our time’, urinated on Duchamp’s Fountain, and later announced: ‘The urinal is there, it’s an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it.’ The pair had already practised on Tracey Emin’s bed. The artists’ pillow fight atop My Bed may well have been a more authentically Duchampian action than the exhibition of the object itself. It was certainly funnier than Emin wanted to admit, and cannier by far than the action it recalled: the destruction by Arman (Armand Fernandez) of a ‘lower middle class interior’ at the Gibson Gallery in New York in 1975. Arman’s title – Conscious Vandalism – rather undermined the whole iconoclastic performance: there could be a no more bourgeois move than the avant-gardist’s careful distancing of himself from mere unconscious vandalism.
6) The Failed Artist
Duchamp’s urinal had already been the object of an earlier inundation, though at the time nobody seemed exactly sure whether the liquid the performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli poured on it in Nîmes in 1993 was urine or tea (it could, of course, have been one, then the other). The 69-year-old Pinoncelli was arrested, imprisoned and ordered to pay 250,000 francs to an insurance company, 16,336 francs for repairs and 10,000 francs in costs. In addition, the Ministry of Culture demanded 20,000 francs. Pinoncelli, it seemed, was being punished several times over for an earlier offence; in 1969, at the opening of a Chagall exhibition in Nice, he had attacked André Malraux (then Culture Minister) with a paint-filled water pistol. These were among his less extreme performances. He had famously chopped off his little finger during an arts festival in Colombia (in apparent solidarity with kidnapped presidential candidat Ingrid Betancourt), had staged a mock hold-up at a bank, and been thrown into the port of Nice in a weighted bag.
In The Destruction of Art, his detailed history of vandalism and iconoclasm since the French Revolution, Dario Gamboni singles out Pinoncelli as a particularly unfortunate type of vandal; his tragedy, it seems, is that nobody would take his actions seriously. In this, he resembles closely the doomed artist hero of a story by Gogol, The Mysterious Portrait. The young painter Tchartkoff is cursed by his worldly success as a society painter; when he attempts a more authentic style, he finds that his inspiration has absconded. He exacts a dreadful vengeance on the products of true artistry:
He conceived the most devilish plan which ever entered into the mind of man, and he hastened with the strength of madness to carry it into execution. He began to purchase the best that art produced of every kind. Having bought a picture at a great price, he transported it to his room, flung himself upon it with the ferocity of a tiger, cut it, tore it, chopped it into bits, and stamped upon it with a grin of delight.
7) The Madman
The vandal’s actions, time and again, are read by those charged with responding to his abominations – curators, critics, judges, the artists themselves – as wholly inscrutable. The institution rushes to make the vandal’s varied and elaborate motivations vanish behind a single, implacable diagnosis: he must be insane. In a curious rehearsal of a fading cultural stereotype, such pronouncements seem to rehabilitate the ageing notion of artistic madness and displace it on to the novel persona of the vandal. Iconoclasm is as mysterious and unknowable an activity as painting or sculpture. In 1975, following a knife attack on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, the director of public relations at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam declared: ‘The assailant and his motives are wholly uninteresting to us; for one cannot apply normal criteria to the motivations of someone who is mentally disturbed.’ One can, of course; one hopes the attacker’s psychiatrist was equipped to do just that. But what is fascinating here is the museum’s urge to make the action evanesce into the mystery of unfathomable and unspeakable desires, as if the Rembrandt-slasher were a mercurial romantic quite unable to account for what he has made, or unmade.
In the end, however, perhaps what intrigues us about the destruction of artworks, what accounts for the horrible allure of such actions, is precisely the obtuse and irrational detail. Tony Shafrazi’s attack on Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1974 may have made him notorious enough to be taken notice of in his subsequent career as a gallerist, but it is the gnomic syntax of his spray-painted inscription – ‘KILL LIES ALL’ – which still puzzles. The notion that there is something subconscious and inspired at work is the cultural trope that links artist and iconoclast in a strange doubling: each as ornery and uncommunicative as the other. Between them they seem to know something we don’t, something to do with the essential idiocy of the work of art (where idiot has its ancient Greek sense of an outsider, a primitive). They leave us at a loss to translate their utterances into terms we fully comprehend. As D.J. Enright put it in his poem
Since the object in question is a modern poem,
A police spokesman stated yesterday,
It is hard to tell whether it has been damaged
Or not or how badly.