The Genteel
January 17, 2021


Portrait from Jake and Dinos Chapman's 2008 series 'One day you will no longer be loved (that it should come to this)'. "Source:"

Throughout history, physical attacks on art for either religious, political or aesthetic reasons have defined the future of an entire culture. Such malevolence can be found within Tate Britain's riveting new exhibition, "Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm" in London. Read part one.

Attacking the Aesthetic

The next room in the "Art Under Attack" exhibition opened up the senses in more ways than one. The bright lights and whitewashed walls set up a startling contrast as the theme segued from attacks on representations of the human form to the targeting of "Aesthetics". Looking at some pieces within the exhibition, I began to understand how the appearance of certain modern art could easily provoke the same intense reaction from viewers as Diego Velázquez's Venus at Her Toilette had engendered from the likes of Mary Richardson and the Suffragettes. 

The Chair (1969) by Allen Jones

The Chair (1969) by Allen Jones.

Immediately confronted within the exhibition room by the image of a semi-naked woman in bondage and stiletto-heeled boots offering herself up as a chair, the provocation behind such artwork was clear. The Chair (1969) is a classic - if controversial - piece of British Pop-Art by Allen Jones. It is simultaneously titillating, while also disconcerting and offensive, at the same time. 

In 1986, feminists followed their iconoclastic urges and attacked The Chair - they felt it was representative of blatant misogyny. By pouring acid onto the face of the woman hidden underneath the chair, their action continued the political iconoclast line of the suffragette movement and forcefully questioned the role of women in society.

In highlighting the piece's controversy in this way, they also gave the artwork greater status, thus increasing its value in artistic and monetary terms. As history has proven, controversy is a sellable commodity in the art world; when Da Vinci's Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and went missing for two years, the lady with the enigmatic smile left as a work of art and returned as an icon. Something indefinable attaches itself to an artwork when it falls prey to a third party. Although this was a case of theft rather than defacement, the added drama in both cases adds to the respective piece's historical narrative.

The Discourse of Destruction

Following this provocative piece, the exhibition then moves back on itself chronologically, charting the growing sense of inter-dependence in the relationship between iconoclasm and art. This leads to an examination of the influence of destruction in art, which culminated with the Destruction of Art Symposium (DAIS) in 1966.

Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1966)

Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1966).

This artistic movement, led by German-born artist and political activist Gustav Metzger, saw international artists, poets, scientists and key representatives of the counter-cultural underground speak on the theme of destruction in art. The DIAS press release claims that the symposium intended to "focus attention on the element of destruction in Happenings and other art forms, and to relate this destruction in society."

One of Yoko Ono's seminal Cut Piece performances at the 3-day DAIS is relayed on video in the exhibition, showing the systematic cutting of her clothes as she ends up kneeling on the ground in her underwear; a fragment of the dress is also on display. As Yoko Ono says in a Tate press release in anticipation of the exhibition: "DIAS changed the map of the art world. Before DIAS, Art seemed to have been something that was happening in the United States for the rest of us to acknowledge and envy. After DIAS, the strong creative force in Art became the stuff of this side of the Atlantic, and never went back."

Also exhibited in this section is the Duncan Terrace Chair Destruction (1966). The twisted and distorted remnant of a chair, which hangs like a carcass on the gallery wall, had been destroyed by the axe-wielding DAIS artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz and then reborn as sculpture. His companion piece of ritualised performance art, entitled the Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction is also on show and the act of its dismantling can be listened to with headphones. The jarring symphony as Ortiz's axe smashes down on the musical instrument proves uncomfortable but is strangely cathartic.

Douglas Gordon's Self Portrait of You and Me (2008)

Douglas Gordon's Self Portrait of You and Me (2008)

Reconfiguring Defacement

The final leg of the exhibition is brought up-to-date and focuses on how current artists have incorporated the historical stamp of iconoclasm within their own work, exploring the transformational practice of reconfiguration, marking and dramatic defacement.

Standout pieces include Douglas Gordon's Self Portrait of You and Me (2008), which references a fragmented and partly burned interpretation of Warhol's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The fragmented image is laid across a large mirror as Gordon intersperses the image of the Queen with that of the observer. Equally provocative is Michael Williamson's flowing totem of videotape, which can be seen as an inverted reference to the Taliban's banning of video and music in the 1990s and their ritualised pinning of unfurled tape on poles along the streets of Kabul.

Then there is Jake and Dinos Chapman's 2008 series One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved (That It Should Come To This). The work is made up of edited portraits of wealthy bourgeois Victorians whom the artistic duo had discovered in junk shops, and to which they have subsequently added signs of bodily decomposition in a show of contempt for the presumed assumption of immortality.

All of these pieces are permeated by the iconoclast sensibility of destruction, as well as a certain sense of creativity and culture. Although aesthetic, artwork often produces diverse conversation - concerning both the appearance and political sensibilities of each piece.

The way we perceive such artwork, as well as the often angered and violent reactions it can produce, are simply sign of the significant power and influence behind the visual image upon the human mind.

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The "Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm" exhibition is on display at Tate Britain from 2 October 2013 - 5 January 2014. It is the first exhibition of its kind. 



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