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Week 59: 28th October – 3rd November
Despite assertions in the previous post about the art object as representing an end point in a particular avenue of the art-making process, it is clear that objects can still act as effective receptacles for ideas and desires, albeit sometimes didactically. It is also true that the creation of an art object isn’t necessarily the end of its material development, as evidenced in the exhibition ‘Art under Attack’, which I visited at Tate Britain this week.

Art under attack
Exploring the history of British iconoclasm over the last 500 hundred years, the exhibition showed the ways in which art objects have been attacked in the name of religion, politics and aesthetics. The remnants of the artworks were separated into sections relating to these three main headings, and were displayed alongside historical information from the time of the attack to suggest the particular motivations for why these assaults took place.

Beginning with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, the Religion section explored how the Reformation legitimised the widespread destruction of all religious imagery that linked England to the Roman Catholic Church. Such a campaign, despite its moral and spiritual overtones, was also a shrewd political move on the part of the monarchy, as an effective method of transferring the Church’s wealth to the state through the sale of expensive materials such as glass, lead and stone.

Societal implications
These changes created a societal fear of idolatry within the English population which continued throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, with the belief that ‘paintings, stained glass, music and religious ceremony were… visual and sensuous distractions from the word of God, which should be preached, listened to and read.’ The obliteration of these images aimed not only to remove them from churches, but also from the collective memory of the church-going populace.

The relationship between art and society was further examined in the Politics section of the exhibition, which showed remnants of public sculptures of ousted or unpopular political leaders which had been defaced as acts of defiance by members of the public. Although not on show here, another recent occurrence of this was the beheading of the Margaret Thatcher statue by Paul Kelleher, while it was on show at Guildhall Library in 2002.

The life of the art object
Similarly, the meanings of art objects were shown to have been abducted for specific political campaigns. The slashing of Velazquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ by Mary Richardson was undertaken as part of a wider campaign by the Suffragette movement. As Richardson stated in her legal testimony ‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, the most beautiful character in modern history’.

This continued life of the art object post-creation brings us back to Alfred Gell’s Art Nexus (week 11) and his analysis of the impact of ‘The Rokeby Venus’ on Mary Richardson. As an anthropological exercise, he shows the relational connections between the maker, the artwork, the viewer, as well as the reactions of prison staff and public to Richardson’s act of vandalism. This defacing of a ‘beautiful’ work of art as a protest against the ideas it represented also led seamlessly into the Aesthetics section of the exhibition.

Problems with aesthetics
Among the works attacked by members of the public for their aesthetic content were Allen Jones’ ‘Chair’ and Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII’. Although each artwork created differing negative emotions and reactions, each also showed the intensity of how artworks can affect audiences. The exhibition continued with examples of artists harnessing the power of the destructive force in developing new artworks, including Gustav Metzger’s Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibition for me, was the continuing relational aspect of the objects after their creation, which was facilitated in part by the iconoclasts themselves. These part-objects therefore demonstrate the ways in which an object maintains and even exceeds previous cultural interest after its destruction.

Further Reading:
‘Abducting the Agency of Art’ by Whitney Davis http://openanthropology.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/gell.pdf
Review of ‘Art and Agency’ by Alfred Gell by Mark Jamieson in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute http://www.jstor.org/stable/2661201