Art Destruction and Removal, Ethics and Idea: Three Concepts and Two Case Studies

Posted: June 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

“Last year The National Portrait Gallery removed a work of art from a GLBT-themed exhibition after it attracted conservative and religious ire for its images of homosexuality and Christianity. Director Martin Sullivan announced the removal of A Fire in My Belly by artist David Wojnarowicz after conservative news service CNS wrote that the “Christmas-season exhibit,” which opened in October, used taxpayer money to indirectly fund an exhibition that includes imagery of genitalia, homoerotic situations, and Christ covered in ants.”

Photo of Fire in my belly at Museum of Censored art

Recently the Smithsonian was forced to remove a work of art from its exhibition on the Glbt themes.  The show, considered the first major museum exhibition on this subject in the US, was pressured to remove the work of art due to its offensive nature in regard to religion according to the US Senators who pressured the National Portrait Gallery to pull out the work from the exhibition.  The Senators, House Speaker-designate John Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have also have called for the closing of the entire exhibition, stating:

“Absolutely, we should look at their funds,” Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told Fox News. “If they’ve got money to squander like this – of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing – then I think we should look at their budget.”

Kingston said he was not sure what form a congressional investigation would take, but he said some options included “calling them up in front of the Appropriations Committee, asking for some resignations, auditing their entire budget – all their books.”

Under this monetary threat the museum withdrew the work and issued this comment:

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987), shows images that may be offensive to some. The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz.

I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.

The museum’s statement at the exhibition’s entrance, “This exhibition contains mature themes,” will remain in place.”

After the disastrous and successful assault in the USA on art funding (National Endowments for the Art) by Jesse Helms in the 80’s, based primarily on Andrew Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, the Museum, quite naturally appraised the level of threat from Boehner and Cantor and attempted to rectify the problem with minimal damage to the Exhibition (sadly enough) through the removal of a single focused on piece. For a summary of the incident see here.

But this form of soft censorship (not before-hand, nor violent) has a darker side which is mirrored not in the ambiguous withdrawal of the supposed offensive work, but in its violent destruction.

On Oct 6th, 2007,a group of three national socialists in Sweden attacked and destroyed a number of works in an exhibition in Lund, Sweden.  The stated purpose of this group was to remove works which were, as they considered it, “abnormal” and “perverse”. (See the New York Times coverage here.)

Durham artist Cynthia Grow with self portraits. Pressured to Remove Work due to Nudity

And more recently we have these cases: In January 2011, three of Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain’s artworks were removed from the Indian Art Summit in New Delhi following threats regarding their supposed content. Richard Prince has seen his Brooke Shield’s Photos removed from the Tate through complaints about their content (for those concerned about the pictures of the underage Shields Prince is merely “using” an image originally taken by Gary Gross. Shields’s mother authorized the shoot of the 10 year old Brookes, for a series published in a Playboy publication titled”Sugar and Spice”. See one of the Gross photos below.) And Andres Serrano has once more seen attacks against his “Piss Christ”.

MF Husain, 'Rape of India'

Some Background on Censorship of the Image

Iconoclasm, the repulsion and destruction of art or imagery, has had a long run in Europe and America, but, as these actions (both hard, which destroys the art and  “softer” forms of iconoclasm which manifest themselves as “mere” art exclusion or removal) shows, it continues to have a persistent and foreboding presence in the western world.  There are many forms of the iconoclastic move, but the current ideologies which back such actions may be divided into three forms which are the most frequent variations upon this theme. What has been the justification for those who wish to destroy art (and we can also say the softer “exclude art from viewing” here) has been the concept of the art piece as it manifests itself as an ideological tool or (im)moral/Social position.

Dutch Calvinist Iconoclasm 1566 Engraving by Franz Hogenberg

The destruction of art under the rubric of incorrect ethical/ideological position is confronted within each of the three forms of interpretation of the image (see below)  as justifying  either the removal or destruction of art which is seen as having incorrect social/ethical arrangements or which argue (or state) “bad ideas”.  This arrangement of incorrect ideas is seen as needing to be addressed through either individual or institutional action and is usually carried out through the piece’s permanent removal from sight (as the Smithsonian has done) or its direct destruction (as the Swedish Neo-Nazi’s carried out in Lund).

Three concepts of the ethics of Art Destruction or Removal

For the National socialists above (and see the history of the Degenerate Art Show below) the reason to attack the art (or artist) comes in the direct diction that a specific artpiece, or even art movement, states ideas which are just plainly evil and must be removed from the viewing audience. This idea entails that “evil” ideas are “corrupting” to the viewer and will cause a “fall” or “illness” in the viewer.  This form of the “strong” evil argument (as regarding to the ideological position of the art piece as well as its possible detrimental alteration of the social system) has a firm belief in the “contagiousness” of evil.  Also once “caught” this disease of inclination will not be easy to purge from the one, or social body, which has accrued the infection.  Destruction of the art is the only possible containment and movement away  (purging) from the ideology of this corruption (see below, illness of the artist), and the act of destruction places the actor as pure from “infection”.  This extreme case is often echoed in religious iconoclasm. Examples of this can be seen as directed towards the art – as with the Lund art hall destruction – or towards the artist – as with the Lars Vilks and (currently) Ai Weiwie case.

For the believers of the “evil” art scenario (strong version) we can see that the issue of what is ethical is rarely confronted.  The vague parameters of “natural, ordinary, healthy,” and so on, as opposed to “perverse, un-natural, sick” etc., are usually sufficient to motivate action.  Usually bound up with this is the ideology of a strong leader (deity, “holy” text) which helps to define the ethical boundaries without recourse to rationality or to open discussions.  These are not ideas to be “worked through” but to be followed as the moral order with the social should replicate is apparent and immediately graspable (to those not infected).

Brooke Shields, Gross photo, published in Playboy, used by Richard Prince. Is Prince's critique of this photo also "reprehensible"?

Softer forms of this “evil” art viewpoint however can be held whereas there is the belief that certain types of art should not be produced or if already produced should not have a venue for acceptance.  The type of work which the soft “evil” view finds problematic would include things which are morally reprehensible (child types of pornography for instance) or which would offend or motivate to violence members of the viewing audience causing harm to those around them or the society (and this is a type of society which deems all members as equal and wishes to protect all members of this society from harm).  This is commonly known as the “shouting fire argument” which states that not all types of expression are to be allowed within a society and we are called upon to exclude types of expression which may cause harm through motivated action by members of the viewing audience from the viewing of the piece. This form of the “Evil” art position (soft) argues for the “greatest good” of the society while at the same moment wishes to protect the divergent cultural and ideological positions which may be weak within the socius (i.e. a minority) or believe that certain unprotected groups within a cultural matrix must be considered within the art making process.

The softer form of the “evil” argument (and we may in fact call it the “bad” argument) will, as opposed to the strong case above, wish to have continual dialogue about the exclusion of art pieces in order to better grasp the details of what must be included and excluded in the audience environment (for a discussion of  the historical production of “alternative” museums and taxonomies for “questionable” art, see here). Additionally these adherents believe (softly also) art should not be “interfered” with by any single member or group in a society, be it a “leader” or an “artist”.

For the Interventionist artist (see below case study) the overly rigid ideology of the art work is what must be disrupted.  Destruction of the art work or the extreme “tampering” is a way to free the work from this overdetermined, and usually socially reactionary, position.  The control mechanism of the art world, in this second view, defines the art work in order to perpetuate its own mechanisms of control causing a feed-back loop to insure power for the elite.  The elite, controlling money and ideology which re-enforce one another, is confronted by the deviation of meaning created by the destruction or tampering of the “canonized” art piece.

For believers of the Art Intervention concept the alignments of power and control are the motivating factors to action.  Equality and the opposing pole of overdetermined (and invisible) ideology are the bases for motivation to the action of destruction.  The Control of the capitalistic mechanisms of idea production is handled by such a small fraction of the cultural apparatus that intervention is necessary in order to place competing ideas into the social fabric.  The control of the ideas of a society, for this group, comes not only through the insertion of a stable canon of art pieces by this elite, but also through the creation and subsistence of a group of artists considered “good” and therefore perpetuated continually within the art market, art institutions and art reproduction.  The act of the art intervention then is meant to not only unstablize the meaning position of the art work, but at times, create a problematic of the mechanism of the accepted artist and the institutions which select a small and compensated group of artists in distinction, and without cause, from the large (main) body of struggling and “sent to the periphery” artists.

'Bharatmata' by MF Hussain. Removal due to Nudity of Deity

This position holds a strong ethical system based on the notions of nonhierarchical and equal station of all members of the socius and the threat which is seen by the social towards this group will be actually contrary to the actual “good” for the society and its individual members.

In short then the Art Interventionist, at its ethical extreme wishes to unmoor the meaning construction of the piece and create a myriad of floating interpretations whereas the strong evil art position, at its most extreme (and seen here in the nationalist socialist rampage) wishes to narrow the reading of an art piece to a single interpretant which is aligned to single world view, and of which there should be no variant from.

Two Case Studies – The “Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 and the Intervention Art movement.

Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937
In 1937 Joseph Goebbels confiscated over 16,000 works which were considered “degenerate”. These works were the base of the show Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) which became the title of an exhibition opened by the National Socialists of Germany (called the Nazi party) on July 19, 1937.  The Exhibition of more than 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books had been gathered from 32 public museums and a number of private individuals from Germany of that period.  There was no “compensation” for any of the confiscations.

Degenerate Art Catalogue Cover 1937.

Stephanie Barron summarizes the exhibition as a collection of disparate works that “were assembled for the purpose of clarifying for the German public, by defamation and derision exactly what type of modern art was unacceptable to the Reich and thus ‘un-German’”. During its running, which lasted around 3 years in total, the exhibit was viewed by over four million people throughout Germany and Austria.

Many of the works, including those collected though not exhibited, were sold to foreign art buyers to make money for the Reich. Surprisingly only six of the “degenerate” artists were Jewish.

Earlier in November of 1933 Goebbels had already created the ReichsKammerce (Reich Chambers) for film, music, radio, broadcasting, press, theater and fine arts.  Procedures were put in place by the ReichsKammerce to decide who and what were acceptable as both artists (who were excluded from “making art” any longer, see Emile Nolde) or Art (as what was acceptable as art or what the public could see). Movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada were included in the “list” of degenerative as being overly intellectual, and highly elitist which perverted correct thinking about connections with the “Volk” (The People), the Fatherland, and the Furher (the leader). This also linked these artists to the “supposed international conspiracy of Communists and Jews.” These works and artists were also closely connected, by the Nazis, to the insane and the unbalanced. “Degenerate art” was defined by the Nazi party, in no ambiguous terms, as art that “insult German feeling or destroy or confuse natural form, or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.”

Emile Nolde, Dance around the Golden Calf 1910

Simply put, all of the movements of avant-garde, and many of which were born in Germany (German Expressionism to make a simple point!) were charged with “degeneracy” and confiscated “to purify German culture”.

Already in 1933 the German Art Bureau had issued a number to laws curtailing art production and Art curating.   A few of laws embedded in the slew of proclamations put forth by this Bureau to insure the correct purity and position of art included (just to give you an idea):

Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937

*All works of a cosmopolitan or Bolshevist nature should be removed from German museums and collections, but first they should be exhibited to the public, who should be informed of the details of their acquisition and then burned. (this, naturally lead to the idea of the Degenerate Art exhibition)

*Museum directors who had used any public monies by purchasing “un-German” art were to be fired immediately.

*Artists and Art with any Marxist or Bolshevist leanings were not to be mentioned from the moment of this ruling.

*Modern or modernistic buildings were not to be built (these were interpreted as Square Buildings).

*All public sculptures not “approved” by the German public (i.e., the nationalist socialist party) were to be removed or destroyed immediately.

See here for Wikipedia’s great and detailed summary of the original Degenerate Art exhibition, and here for a guardian review of the reconstruction of the Degenerate art exhibition done in 1997. Another interesting “removal” case from 1999, shows how a more contemporary mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, (New York) achieves censorship of “degenerative art”through funding threats.

Art Intervention

There is a form of art production which has been formed around the idea of interfering or destroying art as its art practice.  This movement has been called art intervention, though this can also include urban interventions and performances which disrupt public action or architecture. This type or school of art is generally now accepted as forming a distinct movement in art.  At its birth Art Intervention was meant to be primarily a subversive form of art, however, at times, it is now carried out within the accepted institutions of art and sometimes by the actual producers of art themselves. (See the Exhibition, KaBoom, where the audience is asked to “blow up the art” or Rauschenberg’s erasing of a DeKooning Drawing)

Lord Napier Statue covered in Tape by Aguiari

Yet even given the institutionalization of the Art Intervention movement there are still a number of works/gestures/performances in this movement which may mean to capture and highlight the subversive nature of the intervention, and which will lead to the questioning stance of this form of art as how, (if it is at all possible) it may be differentiated it from the actions of common vandalism. This reduction of Art intervention to the purely vandalistic is most ordinarily interrelated as such in the instance where the artist or institution brings formal and legalistic charges against the actor of the intervention.

By definition the Art intervention is meant to be a disruption or challenge (or at the minimum make a “new” comment about) the work, the theme of that work, or even the institution of Art, that the work finds itself embedded in.  This comment or disruption is meant to cause (through the act of violence towards the piece pinpointed for action) an unmooring of the ideological position of the piece and of the institution in which it is shown.

          Robert Rauschenburg discusses his erasing of a Willem de Kooning drawing

This being said, however, how will the Degenerate Art Show (which can be interpreted, if I reach, as a challenge, or re-working, and therefore a “freeing”, of the themes of the divergent branches of the avant-garde) differ from the interventions of artists such as Pierre Pinconcelli who meant to destroy Duchamp’s urinal (2006, 1993 – yes twice!)?  ( less stringent cases of the “destruction and tampering” of art pieces which don’t cause permanent damage, but destroy the “show” in which they are exhibited include – the artists Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi who  peed into Duchamp’s urinal (2000, and who also jumped onto Tracy Emin’s “My Bed in their underwear in 2000), or the Chapman Brothers defacing Goya prints in 2003)

The question, and how one is to begin an answer in regard to the Intervention artists, becomes one of the regard of the ethical slanting of the “intervention” and how the grasping of the relations and realignments of power is to be interpreted and whether or not it is subverted.  The Destructive Act as carried out by the Interventionist artist may, on the one hand, divest and divert the ideological rigidity of the tampered piece, or, on the other hand, it may remove the art piece from consideration altogether (put, or just thrown, away) creating not further readings but a withdrawal of meanings (as the degenerative Art exhibit meant to do).

See here for a summary of pieces of art intervention and its practitioners.

South Park Dual Image of Humorous Self Censored Mohammed (in "bear-suit", Left picture) and Imposed Censorship behind "Bar". (Episode "201" 2010)

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