Art Under Attack exhibition web banner for Tate Britain exhibition

Politics: Politics and public space

Political change and differences of opinion are often accompanied by symbolic statue-breaking. Toppling the stone, bronze or lead image of an ousted leader is a potent act of iconoclasm that has immediate impact and clarity of purpose.

Over the centuries public statues of divisive figures of authority have been attacked, defaced, abused and blown up. Conspicuous, and sometimes audacious, presences in urban spaces, on high columns and commanding prominent sites, they have the power to provoke and are frequent targets for political grievance. Actions against them are frequently stage-managed for symbolic effect.

One of the most distinctive art forms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, public sculpture still has the power to act as a medium for the expression of conflict. Historic monuments can have long histories of attack stretching over centuries. Statues of Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs, as symbols of ruling authority, have been repeatedly abused and systematically removed from cities of the former British Empire; and images commemorating contested historical figures retain the capacity to inflame passion even today.

Through the action of breaking objects become transformed. Fragments remain as relics and souvenirs, and as powerful reminders of what it was that iconoclasts were aiming to remove.