Tate’s brave new exhibition traces a long history of iconoclasm

The smash of ideologies.

There is an arresting moment towards the end of Tate Britain’s marvellously wide-ranging and witty new exhibition “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm”. It emerges from photographs of the 1966 Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert, a ritual piece of performance- art demolition by Raphael Montañez Ortíz. Ortíz swung the axe; Fran and Jay Landesman supplied the piano. This was the third such concert that Ortíz had staged. The first one had been filmed by the BBC and the fine Tate catalogue tells us deadpan that, on that occasion, Ortíz had destroyed “the wrong piano”. Apparently this victim of mistaken identity was a baby grand newly purchased by the Beeb. So much more imaginative a way of spending licence-fee payers’ money than large severance payments, if equally lacking in strategic thinking.

But it’s the concept of “the wrong piano” which fascinates me here. In what sense was it the wrong piano? Surely any piano was a candidate for destruction, given Ortíz’s statement in his second “destructivism” manifesto of 1966 that “Destruction is built into our species”? And we must spare a thought for the feelings of the right piano, denied its hour of immortality by the unfortunate substitution.

There are times when art as destruction of art is just silly – no more grown-up than a rock star smashing his guitar, or the sound of Oxford undergraduates baying for broken glass. Another, even more idiotically pointless instance was the attack by one Tony Shafrazi on Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA in New York in 1974; he spray-painted “KILL LIES ALL” on to the work, explaining that this baffling phrase was designed to “retrieve the work from art history, and to bring it up to date”. Today, he’d be writing endless semi-literate blogs that nobody read.

It is a relief to turn from such infantile posturing to most of the objects in this exhibition, which covers both iconophobia (hating images) and iconoclasm (doing something about hating images: namely, bashing them with something hard, corrosive, explosive or sharp). It is an engrossing lesson in the ways that the clash of ideologies can produce violence and concentrate it on a work of art, like the sun through a magnifying glass.

One of the most fraught examples, significantly not on display here, is the painting so many of us saw in that notorious 1997 exhibition, “Sensation” – Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley(1995), which infamously reproduced the classic police mugshot in pointillist fashion, using dabs of paint from a plaster cast of a child’s hand. It’s surprising that there were only two attacks on it in the course of “Sensation”, using ink and eggs respectively, and nothing more physically destructive. Who was doing the desecration here, the artist, by trampling on some very delicate emotional territory for people whom he didn’t know, or those who were so angered by the painting that they wanted to punish it for Harvey’s transgression?

The Tate is quite brave to stage “Art Under Attack”. Informed sources suggest that there was formidable opposition within Tate and in the museums world to the exhibition going ahead, presumably on the grounds that it would give ideas to the mad and the bad. Undoubtedly museums are reticent about letting the press know about iconoclastic attacks for that reason. In this, they follow in the footsteps of no less iconic a figure than Elizabeth I who, on four separate occasions, found her private chapel the subject of attacks by three different and unrelated individuals. They were enthusiastic Protestants, furious that she had insisted on keeping a silver crucifix on the Communion table in her chapel, when the official line of the Church of England was that such things were popish and should have no place in church interiors. They broke in, and then broke the crucifix. The remarkable thing is that the perpetrators were not treated harshly, as one might expect for anyone who had violated royal private spaces and furnishings. The Elizabethan government blandly said that they must be insane, thus depriving the iconoclasts of being considered as martyrs.

The Tate, too, has suffered from iconoclasm, and it is again a mark of its generous vision of the exhibition theme that it features two salient examples. The first victim was Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, bought by the gallery in 1972, a minimalist set of 120 firebricks, arranged in stacks. It took until 1976 for the right-wing press to get cross about the purchase of the work at a time when the country was widely seen as skint, but after a few why-oh-whys in the likes of the Daily Mail, the public had its say, in one case by decorating the work with blue food dye. Thoughtfully, the artist had provided spare bricks in case of just such an eventuality. The second act of vandalism came from the opposite end of the political spectrum: on 8 March 1986, International Women’s Day, two angry activists poured viscous paint stripper on the face and neck of the figure in Allen Jones’s Chair, a caricature-sexy female lying on her back and forming the base of the eponymous chair. The result looked distressingly like the effects of an acid attack on a real person; one thinks of the awful experience of two young British women in Zanzibar at the hands of Muslim extremists only this summer.

That’s the thing about much iconoclasm: it substitutes for violence on a person who isn’t available for attack. So, in the American Revolution, the equestrian statue of George III that had the ill-luck to have been erected by the loyal folk of New York City was torn down by George Washington’s troops, melted and turned into musket balls. The revolutionaries in their rage might have tried to do the same to His Majesty, had he not been sitting in Windsor Castle at the time. A diagram in the exhibition meticulously shows the original position in the statue of fragments that still survive, now preserved as relics scattered through at least half a dozen collections: and here, indeed, is one of them, courtesy of the New York Historical Society. Their charisma derives from the act of maiming; they have become symbols of one of the world’s most far-reaching political upheavals. Ireland provides a number of similar examples of royal topplings from its 20th-century equivalent revolution and its aftermath.

The fascinating aspect of all that is so generously on offer at the Tate is the span of time it covers. Iconoclasm is not simply a matter of history, but is still with us. The exhibition starts with what we might consider to have been the obvious exhibits, the sad remnants of England’s medieval art, as knocked about a bit by both Thomas and Oliver Cromwell. There are chilling remnants from the greatest collective act of Reformation vandalism, the Dissolution of the Monasteries: fragments of the leading from lost stained-glass windows, or headless stone statues. In the catalogue, Susan Harrison reminds us of the conclusion of archaeologists from monastic sites, that few heads from religious sculptures survive, but secular decorative and animal heads remain in large quantities. That suggests that the religious subjects were deliberately targeted; Cromwell’s agents were not just interested in how much dosh the monasteries could yield for the king and his lackeys, but they saw what they were doing as an ideological act. And sometimes it is difficult to know what to make of survival. There is the heartrendingly realistic, life-size Statue of the Dead Christ (1500-20), which wasn’t rediscovered until 1954, buried under the blitzed ruins of the Mercers’ Hall in Cheapside, London. Its burial during the Reformation has preserved it in superb condition – except that it had already been attacked and badly damaged before it was put in the ground. How paradoxical it is that an image of the humiliated and wounded Saviour should be the subject of further humiliation and wounding, from people angered at the popish dishonour they regarded it as doing to the Saviour. There’s nowt so queer as folk; and that is probably history’s most valuable lesson.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is a fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. His latest book is “Silence: a Christian History” (Allen Lane, £20). His programme on iconoclasm will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 20 October (6.45pm) “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 January 2014.

Blame the stripper: Allen Jones's Chair (1969). Image: Tate/Allen Jones

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war