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Art’s Power

What is it about art that drives people to deface and destroy it? Art objects seem to hold power that can attract a host of responses, from adoration to violent zeal.

I’m reading B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, an intriguing novel centered on the unsolved 1990 heist of thirteen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. After a recent visit there, my college roommate pressed a copy into my hands and told me to read it. And I’m glad she did.

In the book, the adulation that the narrator, an artist, feels for Degas’ “Bath” is extraordinary, so much so that it reminds me of icon worship. We art lovers can feel that way about great paintings, and it got me thinking – which is usually dangerous…

So I started reading about iconoclasm. There was an article in the New York Times on October 1, 2013, about an exhibit at the Tate Gallery, “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm” where the curators studied 500 years of attacks on British art and concluded that there were three chief motives for defacing or destroying art: “religion, politics, and aesthetics.” There is no question that these three motives are responsible for most attacks, but to keep things simple they left out any attacks that were the work of the mentally ill or destruction to conceal an art theft, which was maybe a mistake. Think of the 1975 attack on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch by a religious zealot proclaiming that he was the Messiah. Is this a religious motive or the work of a mentally ill person? Think of Olga Dogaru, infamous mother of Radu, who seems to have burned the seven paintings her son stole from the Rotterdam Kunsthal. I get a sick feeling in my stomach every time I think of it. We need to consider all of the things people have done to art over the ages and why.

What about people who purchase art in order to destroy it or to make new art from its destruction? Think of Ai Wei Wei buying a Ming vase, then photographing himself destroying it thereby making an artistic statement about the mystique accorded to art because of its monetary value. In an attempt to get in on the action and presumable fame, a Miami artist broke a vase in the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at the Perez Museum, trying to make a point but got arrested instead. These motivations are different: one intentionally upsetting and the other futile, but equally tragic for the vases.
The New York Times article mentioned a Columbia University professor, David Freedberg, who wrote a book, “Iconoclasts and Their Motives” in 1985, so I read about that too. Freedberg writes that there are five situations where imagery is defaced or destroyed. There are two main reasons: political and religious or the image offends the propriety or morality of the attacker. There are three minor ones: attention getting, monetary value, and diminishing the institution, person, or idea represented. This is a more inclusive list than the Tate’s, and he goes on to say that the attacker seeks to damage the image because in so doing he destroys what other people love and denigrates the art’s status to a physical object from an idol or icon, thereby demonstrating his authority over both. This makes the most sense to me. We’re back to power.

I have always believed that famous works of art have an aura about them that is not just due to huge prices. There is something more: great art speaks to us, to the depth of our souls. This can be awe inspiring to some and frightening to others, and that is when it can be tragic for the art. Hitler was so afraid of the concepts of modern art that he named it Degenerate Art, banning or destroying it.

It’s not just the defacing of great art. People react violently to terrible art too. Think of how many times you have watched a ravenous crowd knock down and break up a trite statue of a deposed leader. Think of the statue of Sadam Hussein in 2003, of Stalin, of Hitler? The hatred and fear felt for the person is somehow embodied in the statue. It has become an icon, in its original meaning, an object of idolatrous worship. Destruction is the only means of lessening its power.

Sometimes so many people object so strongly to the placement of public art that it has to be moved. Think of the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in New York in 1981. People who walked through the plaza regularly felt ownership for the space and were furious that they had to walk around it. They insisted on its removal. I’ve run into a similar situation as an art consultant when management selects a collection of art with my advice, and we’re ready to place it in offices. Often people who have felt ownership for their surroundings, even a blank wall, object to the art program unless they are asked to become involved in the choices. We always recommend placing art before people move into the new offices. Then people are happy to have interesting art to enjoy in their new space. In thesel cases, it is the power of the art over the person’s space that is really the issue.
Did the motivation to create the art cause these emotional responses, whether positive or negative? Early man created cave paintings to provide a visual narrative of a hunt or to memorialize it. Native Americans carved totem poles to tell the story of their tribe or to offer tribute to ancestors.

Ancient civilizations created gold idols of Baal to workship. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel offers a complex composition of visual narrative as well as tribute and admonition. A recent situation is the sculpture “Kryptos” installed in 1990 in front of the CIA headquarters in Langley VA. The sculptor worked with the now retired head of the CIA cryptographic center to devise four encrypted messages included in the work. Thousands of people have been working for 24 years to solve the puzzle, and only 3 of the messages have been solved. Periodically, the artist, Jim Sanborn, reveals a clue. As of today, we know that the words “Berlin clock” are the 64th to 74th characters of the 97 in the fourth message… In all cases, the artist made art to control and thereby to illuminate either his own understanding of the situation or that of others. I think it’s this control, this power, that can be so profound that a viewer can be motivated to attack the work.

Even today, when we are inundated with imagery, art still embodies power. It has the power of speech and the strength to move you emotionally and to excite you to cherish it.