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

The smash of ideologies.

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

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.