Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm – Tate Britain

After visiting the Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain, I hung around to explore the newest exhibition in the gallery, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm. In the end I thought it was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking exhibitions I’ve seen in a while.

Tate Britain bill the exhibition as “the first exhibition exploring the history of physical attacks on art in Britain from the 16th century to the present day”. Iconoclasm – deliberate destruction of works – has been around in various forms for centuries, and perpetrators have acted from widely varying motives, whether religious, political or aesthetic.

The exhibition begins with the Reformation and the destruction of stained glass windows and statues in churches and monasteries, the result of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and later the influence of the Puritans. Decapitated statues of Christ, smashed stained glass and fragments of Winchester Cathedral’s rood screen are displayed. However, the room that really made me think was the ‘suffragette’ room. Several suffragettes used to go to art galleries and deface paintings, such as Edward Burne-Jones’ Sibylla Delphica (1898), often in protest at the way women in art were idealised while real women were being denied basic rights. While I am in complete sympathy with the sentiment behind what they did, I can’t stand the idea of art being destroyed.

What surprised me was that I felt the same about the modern art in the next room. A random member of the public threw blue paint on Carl Andre’s Equivalent III (1966) in protest at the fact that ‘such rubbish’ was being revered as art. And he had a point – the ‘artwork’ in question was a group of bricks arranged in three layers. Frankly you could see the same thing on any building site. And yet – I couldn’t help feeling that this was wrong, that vandalising something that another person spent time and energy and care on creating just isn’t right. After all, however little time it might have taken to put the work together (and however much it might look like it was thrown together in five minutes, we don’t know that, it could have taken ages), it would have taken even less time to throw a tin of paint over it. Also, by damaging the artwork so that it had to be removed from public view and repaired, he was depriving other people from seeing it for themselves and forming their own opinion – even if said opinion was simply “this is shite”.

I would love to know what other people think.