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Diego Velázquez, detail of the Rokeby venus , c.1640-48, after the attack by Mary Richardson el March 10th 1914, National Gallery, Londres.
About the Destruction of Art: Dario Gamboni in conversation with José Díaz Cuyás

José Diaz Cuyás: You’re one of the first art historians to take an interest in vandalism. As early as 1983 you dedicated a monograph to a paradigmatic case, which had happened three years beforehand, in 1980, at the 8th Swiss Sculpture Exhibition in Bienne. In your later work, you would address the full scope and central importance of violent destruction in art, especially contemporary art. This centrality is by no means limited to public art, though it is significant that your approach and, almost by extension, the new reading of the phenomenon in art history, began to rethink the contradictions between public space and the new monuments—or anti-monuments—of contemporary artists.

Dario Gamboni: I started working on this topic because of a combination of intellectual logic and chance: I was interested in the social conditions of the production and reception of art, and this exhibition took place, in which half of the works were intentionally damaged or destroyed, and the only “vandal” to be identified explained he had not recognised the object in question to be a work of art. As for the broadening of the topic in my 1997 book for Reaktion, it was prompted by the broad and intensively publicised destruction of monuments from the communist regimes after 1989, which proved wrong the idea that iconoclasm as a political tool was a thing of the past. The fact that public art is especially concerned by this topic comes from the fact that it is engaging with collective issues and its being exposed to a socially diverse public.

JDC: When dealing with vandalism one is compelled to address art from its materialness. The fact that artworks can be destroyed, broken or damaged is proof that they are things, a family of things in a world of things. From a disciplinary viewpoint, this means an implicit and far-reaching critique of the idealistic conceptions of art history. One might then say that for an art historian to address artistic vandalism somehow implies an act of vandalism directed towards his own discipline. Though it would be more precise to say “implied” given that in the 1980s, the introduction of previously ignored themes such as vandalism became inseparable from the methodological changes then taking place, as well as the debate on the limits of art history itself.

DG: In his introduction to a collection of essays on “the destruction of the work of art” published in German in 1973, Martin Warnke explained that the contributors’ point of departure had been the reproach that “any critical reflection, especially about aesthetic objects, represented potentially a form of ‘iconoclasm’”. Ten years later, iconoclasm remained a topic that art historians considered when they dealt with Byzantium or the Reformation, and “vandalism” was an object of study for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists, not for art historians. A major reason for that is that by examining attacks against works of art in any depth, one implies the possibility that they possess some kind of relevance, and this can indeed appear “iconoclastic”. By its very existence, iconoclasm questions the ideal of the autonomy of art, which has been especially central to the theory of modern art. The material nature of the work of art, which is also emphasized by physical interventions such as iconoclasm, appeared to me as a related issue. It is certainly true that iconoclasm studies have profited from the renewed interest in materiality as well as from the social history of art and the growing interaction of art history with anthropology.

JDC: In The Destruction of Art you distinguish between iconoclasm and vandalism. And the difference has major consequences given that, unlike iconoclasm, the term vandalism arose within the art world and to refer to problems that became visible for the first time in that domain. Since it was published in 1997, it has been referenced widely in scholarly publications and also in exhibitions on the theme, yet in academia and the art world the more neutral term of iconoclasm is what seems to have taken hold.

DG: From the start, I suggested to use “iconoclasm” rather than “vandalism”, because the latter term amounts to a condemnation of what it refers to, whereas the former leaves space for rationality and meaning. It is a question of social labelling, and I suggested that one could compare the distinction between “iconoclasm” and “vandalism” with the distinction between “eroticism” and “pornography”; André Breton and later Alain Robbe-Grillet rightly said in this regard that “pornography is the others’ eroticism”. I nonetheless mentioned both terms in my subtitle and in my texts so as to make clear that I was also dealing with what is usually referred to as “vandalism”, but I am quite happy with the generalization of “iconoclasm” — at least in learned contexts, as you point out — since I believe it means that the thing is taken more seriously.

JDC: Iconoclasm came about in a battle fought around images, mainly, though not only, for religious reasons. Vandalism however is a phenomenon associated with modernism and the autonomy of art. This interrelationship between autonomy and vandalism is one of the central theses of your practice. If this is the case, would it not be significant that the theme would become a serious theoretical issue in the 1980s and 90s, when it could be claimed that art, following the avant-garde phase, seemed to have started to enter into a process, however problematic, of heteronomy? One might believe that this situation is related with artists’ loss of control over, or ability to manage, images of power. And so, with the proliferation of the mass media and digital technology, of images that, to put it another way, are not governed by cultured conventions, the latent irrationality of our relationship with them was laid bare. Could we reach the conclusion then that artists’ vandalism of their own images, from the Barbus’s call to burn down the recently inaugurated Louvre to the survey in L’Esprit Nouveau on the same question, would be a “war” in the specific field of art that is now being expanded as an iconic battle into the whole social body?

DG: Iconoclasm is deeply connected with the attitude defined as avant-gardism, with the call for a complete break with traditions and heritage. Although the cost and the utopian character of this tabula rasa ideal have become painfully visible in the course of the twentieth century, its allure still appeals to us. “Vandalism” against avant-garde and neo-avant-garde art results from the social distinctions associated with their relative autonomy, but it is also thematised and utilised in the art world itself, so that the limits between the two, between vandalism against art (and anti-art) and vandalism as art, become fluid and ambiguous. Because of technological developments, the impact of images of destruction — especially of the destruction of images — has grown exponentially, giving ever more reasons for destruction.

JDC: Abbé Grégoire coined the term vandalism, and he is reported to have explained his intentions when he said that “I coined the word to kill the thing”. In your writing you insist on the co-affiliation between iconoclasm and iconophilia, between vandalism and conservation. Grégoire’s phrase could be read dialectically to interpret the complete opposite of what he wished to say: it is the name that gives life to the thing and, furthermore, this birth, as an original act, would already be marked by an act of vandalism, that of eliminating it—and, with it, symbolically those who practice it. You have written elsewhere that ambiguity is consubstantial to vandalism; it is paradoxical that whether Grégoire is seen as an enemy of artistic violence or as a vandal will depend on the perspective we take. Something similar happens with violence from a social viewpoint: vandalism is associated with “the mob instinct” but also with the excluded. How can we distinguish what is legitimate from what is not?

DG: Grégoire wrote in his memoirs, a propos of vandalism, “I coined the word to kill the thing”. What he meant is that condemning those who attacked art and monuments — whatever their motivations — as “vandals”, that is as barbarians, was a powerful means of protecting the objects under threat and of uniting the French behind the concept of “national heritage”. These were the years following the Revolution, in which all that was associated with the royalty, the nobility and the clergy came under assault. The legitimacy of the existence and preservation of these objects was at stake and Grégoire (among others) responded by undermining the legitimacy of their assailants. I do not think that one can argue that, by doing so, he created what he was writing about and against: he proposed a certain way of naming and thereby of considering it. As for the distinction between what is legitimate and what is not, for instance in ways of dealing with works of art, it clearly depends on one’s interests and point of view, but I believe nonetheless that it is necessary and that one cannot be content with the “axiological neutrality” advocated by Max Weber, even though, at first, a suspension of judgement may be necessary in order to understand what one is studying.

JDC: You have analysed the connections between iconoclasm, understood as a metaphor for modernism, and iconoclasm in the more literal sense, as enmity or destruction of images. In contemporary art there are many examples of the confusion between these metaphorical and literal meanings. And also of how verbal or symbolic violence can so easily slip towards physical and performative violence. A clear case would be that of the anarchist Felix Féneon, who coupled artistic metaphorical iconoclasm with political literal terrorism. Another would be Bretón’s celebrated –metaphorical, but significative- call to shoot at random into the crowd. This ambiguity is usually avoided, or interpreted as a mere poetic device, by heroic readings of the avant-garde which are sometimes made from art history and criticism. How do you believe we should address it in our interpretation of contemporary art?

DG: Félix Fénéon supported anarchists, but he did not practise artistic iconoclasm other than verbal and metaphorical, and much the same can be said about André Breton. The situation is different with neo-Dada tendencies after the Second World War, which have tended to perform literal iconoclasm of various kinds. Still, when Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning in 1953, it was a drawing he had asked de Kooning to give him for the purpose, and when Asger Jorn painted his peintures détournées on top of existing pictures, he had bought the latter at flea markets and they had little artistic value. When, however, Alexander Brener sprayed in 1997 a green dollar sign on a Malevich Suprematist painting in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and claimed that the conservators, by immediately cleaning the painting, had thereby destroyed his own work, it was another story. In many similar cases, it appears that the claim to artistic status of the author of such actions was fragile at best, and one can suspect that they were searching for attention rather than engaging with their targets in any serious way. I believe that we must be conscious of the responsibility involved in assessing these claims and be ready to recognise the parasitic nature of such actions.

JDC: Modernism is usually interpreted as the destruction or dismantling of tradition and, more vaguely, of nature. In the collective imaginary the idea of progress or of modernisation is inseparable from various cultural malaises that are interpreted as its inevitable consequences. The rise of the Museum was associated with the idea of Heritage, and in this sense we can interpret it as symbolic and institutionalised reparation for the destruction provoked by modernism itself. The exhibition Iconoclash, in which you took part, endeavoured to find ways out of this loop. With this neologism Bruno Latour advocated a kind of act that would leave us unable to decide whether it was destructive or constructive. Simplifying, it proposed that the fanaticism of the pure objectivity of science and of the pure spirituality of religion, shared by both, is in fact the same as what dominates in the credulity before images as well as in iconoclastic tendencies. The challenge then would be to look for a way out of this infernal vicious circle of modernism.

DG: Museums were first created to preserve and give access to collections, but they received an additional and increased significance from the need for protection — including by re-interpretation and re-functionalisation — of objects under attack, to which I alluded in reference to the French Revolution. The Iconoclash exhibition and publication, initiated by Bruno Latour and codirected by him together with Peter Weibel, was predicated upon the ambivalent relation to images that they observed in art, science, and religion, that is, to a need for images coupled with a desire to do without them. It was a truly interdisciplinary and I believe a fruitful enterprise. Latour and Weibel wanted the visitors and the readers to resist the allure of destruction, to step back and look at what is really happening, to turn, as they said, the critical gesture from a resource into a topic.

JDC: In The Destruction of Art you refer to a type of vandalism that would be a consequence, not of hate but of veneration, of its misuse produced by an excess of devotion. The model would be the pilgrim’s desire to make bodily contact with the image and to acquire relics, whose pagan and modern version would be the tourist’s desire for a souvenir and to leave a mark of his physical presence in the place. In The Innocents Abroad, even in 1869, Mark Twain already spoke of American tourists travelling to the Mediterranean as “vandals”; and, what is more interesting, he did so without falling into disparaging criticism, viewing them as sadly unsophisticated, but also as happily “innocent” when compared with the conceited solemnity of European culture. Given the generalised perception of the tourist as an undercover vandal, there is some possibility of distinguishing between different forms of touristic vandalism. On one hand, there is the “innocent” attitude that refuses to accept conventional cultural values and, on the other, the latency of religious attitudes in gestures or places which we associate with the banality of everyday life. You have addressed this issue in an excellent study of the “Virgen del Metro”, an apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

DG: From the nineteenth century onwards, people have been accused of performing iconoclasm regardless of their motives, as when Montalembert and later Ruskin condemned restorers as vandals. More recently, and less ideologically, Françoise Choay rightly pointed out the destructive dimension of the modern cult of monuments and the heritage industry. Grand Tourists were not different in that regard from small tourists, who are only more numerous, and the elite striving to distinguish itself from the mass plays the part of scouts paving the way for a later exploitation on a grander scale. There is indeed a dialectical relationship between the cult of images and iconoclasm, and I have argued that rejection and destruction actually belong to the making of heritage, that they constitute the hidden side of this phenomenon. Another reason for this relationship is the fact that images, monuments and works of art are frequently attacked by some not in spite of, but because of their being valued and cherished by others. The study of the “Virgen del Metro”, although it may be indirectly connected with this, derived from another interest of mine for visual ambiguity and for autopoietic (or acheiropoietic) images.

JDC: Elsewhere, you have argued that acts of iconoclasm lead to a proliferation of new images, which you call “images of destruction”. This has been escalated by globalisation and new digital media, and can have differing causes and functions, from the Twin Towers to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. They are playing an increasingly more central role in asymmetric war conflicts and in new forms of terrorism. You say that sometimes the image is more important than the destruction itself. That would seem to be the case of the utilisation of filmed decapitations as a political weapon. During the Renaissance, executions were carried out of effigies of the accused in his absence, and his symbolic death could be perceived by the victim as worse than his physical death, as it affected his identity, his honour and his dignity. Today terrorism has inverted the terms, and the violence is aimed at the spectator, at his cultural identity, but in order to provoke it, the hostage must be sacrificed, be sacrificed to the image, with his death being transformed into something instrumental.

DG: When the cancelled image was not completely erased, the antique forms of damnatio memoriae also produced images of infamy, bearing witness to the downfall of their prototype. The efficacy of images of destruction has often been a factor in their motivation and it has tended to take advantage of the newest techniques of image production and dissemination, such as printing and wood engraving at the time of the Reformation. This movement has continued with photography, television, digital images and internet transmission, to the point that the representation of violence and the impact expected from it have become in many cases the main raison d’être of violence — which does not mean that it ceases to be real, especially for the victims. As for violence against works of art and monuments, it is fuelled by the fact that, because of their uniqueness and of their role in cultural identity, they function as quasi-persons and stand for whole communities. In so-called “asymmetric” conflicts, they can meet the search for a maximum effect obtained with minimal means. In the case of Islamist terrorism, the attachment of the “international community” to the notion of “world heritage” makes it possible for small groups to strike both their international and their local opponents, all the while claiming to restore the purity of anti-idolatrous orthodoxy.

JDC: Since its origin in the French Revolution, artistic vandalism is associated with terror. But, do you not believe that it could also be associated with what could be considered the other face of the terrible in modernism (the sublime), in other words with comic laughter? If this were the case, could we speak of a “fun” vandalism that could be differentiated from the mainstream of “serious” vandalism, which some authors associate in modern times with the strict and puritanical excesses of Savonarola and the Reformation. We can find examples of this iconoclasm of laughter in nineteenth-century caricature, and in groups like The Incoherents and The Fumistes, extending until the Dadaists and later off-shoots, especially those less programmatic and more attentive to the materialness of things.

DG: Destruction certainly includes elements of play, of playfulness, and even of hedonism, as its representation in film often shows. Attacking authority implies questioning its claim to seriousness, exposing its pomposity: laughter is thus a powerful weapon in the fights against order, be it social, political, economic, and of course cultural. The flourishing of caricature at the times of the Reformation and the Revolution shows this very well. By the same token, caricature is very serious, and we have been reminded lately that, even though its violence is metaphorical, one can pay for it with one’s life.


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