The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution

By Pusch, James | Studies in Art Education, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution


Pusch, James, Studies in Art Education


Gamboni, D. (1997). The destruction of art: Iconoclasm and vandalism since the French Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 416 pages. ISBN 0-300-07170-1. Cloth $40.00.

There is a shadow history of art, one which documents occurrences of the destruction of works of art. Changes in taste, fluctuations in religious beliefs or fashions and new or other political convictions have motivated removals, decontextualizations, alterations, and demolitions of art objects. The words iconoclasm and vandalism trace some of the aspects of their meanings to religiously and politically motivated destruction. These notions and the incendiary acts and eliminations they have engendered may also have contributed to aestheticism, a "modern" conceptualization of art, art not tied to religious reverence or instruction or political inspiration. And yet art continues to be destroyed with various intentions-from reconceptualizations to regression, or by mistake, thrown away as trash, or an intended or unintended recontextualized ready-made, or as an other aesthetic statement, a destruction of art for art's sake.

Attempting to bring order to information available on such demolition and disorder and succeeding is Dario Gamboni's The Destruction of Art (1997), an important contribution to this shadow history of art. Gamboni chronicles and analyzes incidents of destruction, "breaks" in the history of art, in order to better understand what they can tell about what art is, has been, or could be. The breaks are employed to illuminate, to inform, to reveal the changing and various functions of art and the notions it communicates. It is on the destruction of modern art and the aesthetic concerns it raises in the west during this century that The Destruction of Art focuses, yet Gamboni appropriately develops modern aesthetic notions as subsequent to earlier historic conceptualizations and uses of art. His sensitivity to post-structuralism combines with a great amount of information resulting in a comprehensive, inclusive text in which readers will find an array of viewpoints, significant history, aesthetic rigor, and very interesting stories.

The study of modern iconoclasm offers a fresh approach to the history of art, aesthetics, and art criticism. This account, in a great many of the instances it investigates and considers, reveals the power of art, the potent and provocative aspects of imagery. And as the creator of art communicates, so too does the destroyer of art. For the most part, information available on the destruction of art has focused on particular events or movements, and been anecdotal or reportage. Gamboni's large study reaches all around as well as backward. It reviews the literature on iconoclasm and vandalism of works of art and includes over a thousand endnotes. The comprehensiveness of this book, however, is unique and of great pedagogical value. Where art goes, why it is created, and why it lives on will be affected by the considerations presented in The Destruction of Art. This is not esoteric stuff. The plurality of functions and values of works of art needs to be recognized to preclude abuse perpetrated out of power or ignorance or trendiness or price. Creators as well may be more thoughtful and clearer about why their work is brought into being, and, so, why it might endure and remain considered.

Artists, art historians, and art critics will benefit from this book. While it is not a book on "how to" create or analyze or judge, it informs with content that can bring new awareness and significance to decisions made by creators and raise expectations for and beg more from writers about art. All of this, then, will be relevant to art educators. The notion that a work of art always speaks clearly for itself evaporates within post-structuralism. Gamboni reminds us that worlds of interpretation coexist within the world occupied by a work of art (p. 50). Art's categorizations and framings are-or can be-an adventure, an ongoing challenge. …

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