Monday, October 08, 2007

Art attack

This weekend’s attack on Monet’s wonderful Le Pont D’Argenteuil is a terrible act against a masterful work, with its glorious shimmering sea, and it is also a sharp angle into the question of why people attack art.

For now we know little about this attack. As of Sunday night, the BBC reported that four or five youths came through a back door into the train station-turned-art gallery, then fled after doing the damage. Happily, the French culture minister has said it is reparable, but this is only a positive upside to a miserable situation.

This is just the latest in a long history of attacks on art, where the attackers are driven just as much by politics or religion as aesthetic dislike. Early Christians effaced (literally destroyed the faces of) the pagan Romans’ sculptures and monuments; you can still see this all around the Forum, especially on the Arch of Titus. A comparable incident of religious mania was the Taliban’s 2001 blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Religion stirred destruction during the Reformation when churches the length and breadth of Britain were stripped of their stained glass, their plated objects, their altarpieces and icons, to be replaced with more pious plainness. If we consider art in the wider sense, then history’s book-burnings should also be included – from the Satanic Verses’ incineration backwards. Beside book-burnings, Nazism had its way with Cubist and Surrealist art, as well as that by Jewish artists.

These were macro examples, sanctioned by a wider religion or a nation’s politics; there are also plenty of individual cases where someone has had a dislike of the piece or felt slighted by its artist or even has just been drunk and angry, as may have been the case this weekend.
Pierre Ponincelli has made a career out of attacking Duchamp’s Fountain, most recently with a hammer at the Pompidou Centre in 2006, apparently considering it a victim of artistic “abuse”. At least this time he did not use it for its original purpose, as he had in his 1993 attack.

The Royal Academy’s 1997 Sensation exhibition, which propelled several Young British Artists to fame (or notoriety), attracted its own attack: Marcus Harvey’s Myra, which was a portrait of the child-killer made up of children’s handprints, fell victim to ink and eggs. Harvey could hardly have expected a passive acceptance of the piece but the reviled subject and the provocative medium were evidently too much.

In the same way that there may be a temptation to attack – verbally or physically – those we feel are provoking or attacking us, there is a temptation to attack art which outrages us. Since art is a manifestation of particular feelings and ideas, art is too often used as a proxy, the quickest way to show your disagreement with or contempt for what it represents.

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