Art Under Attack at Tate Britain

This year, my husband gave me one of my favourite Christmas presents – a membership to the Tate. As soon as we were back in London I went to see Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at the Tate Britain, the imposing building standing out proudly from the cold blue sky. This exhibit has intrigued me for some time and I’m so glad I caught it before it closed.

Art’s role is to capture a truth about life, to present a worldview, to provoke thought and emotion. So it’s no wonder that people will react – at times passionately – to art. It’s inevitable, but more than that, it’s desirable. 

Here is the opening quote from the exhibition notes:

This is the first exhibition to explore the history of image-breaking in Britain over five hundred years. ‘Iconoclasm’ is now often seen as a positive term applied to innovation, but its origins lie in its entry into the English language in the sixteenth century, derived from the Greek eikon or image, and klastes or breaker. Here iconoclasm means ‘image breaking’.

The exhibition presents a selection of strategies behind attacks on art in three broad chronological sections: Religion, Politics and Aesthetics.

Religion

The four rooms devoted to religious art told the story of King Henry VIII’s feud with the Catholic Church and how, in his attempts to stamp out the power and usurp the wealth of the church, he had his people destroy the abbeys and smash/break/scratch/damage all the religious art they could find.

Wandering around the rooms looking at fragments of stone or wooden figures, gauged paintings and broken glass, I was taken aback by the hatred and anger that must have led the people to do this. It was certainly ordered by Henry VIII, and the cause was passionately picked up by Edward VI, but that so many people rushed to destroy…it seems to point to other issues, a realisation that it’s always more complicated than it appears. I have vague recollections of Martin Luther, the Reformation and stories detailing church excesses, selfishness, embezzlement and abuse of power that the common man could also have been reacting against in this attack against art.

As the Reformation gathered momentum, there was a focus on replacing religious imagery with text – the word of God placed directly before the people. I know that during this period printing presses and literacy were growing, but I was still struck by the thought that in some way this must have limited people’s access to God. Before widespread literacy, images were used on signs above shops to portray what would be found inside, to provide directions, to convey ideas, to guide people toward truth. I couldn’t help but ask myself: by removing images and replacing them with text that not everyone could read, was there some darker purpose at work?

Politics

The first of the two political rooms was filled with pictures of the destruction of political symbols – most of them statues – along with a few heads or other bits and pieces from said statues. There were brief explanations of why people were moved to such destructive acts, but at first these rooms felt remote. I struggled to connect to the emotions that the people must have felt with what was presented here. I felt like the exhibit could have done a better job of telling the back-stories, of providing context that would have been easier to connect with.

It wasn’t until I thought of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of my earliest political memories, that I was able to connect with the anger and injustice in the room. Then it was easier to understand how an object can so fully embody a set of beliefs and how passionately a group of people can want its destruction. Passion and emotion created the objects in the first place and passion and emotion brought them down in the end.

The second room in this section dealt with the Suffragettes, and it was back to true and raw emotion that was palpable. The room explained how a group of Suffragettes would attack works of art in museums because ‘the idealisation of inanimate objects while real women were treated with indifference was the real outrage and injustice against which they were fighting’.

I did understand this point of view, but it began to feel that while a core group of the leaders did this to specific works of art for the reason mentioned above, it quickly devolved into their followers mimicking the action without any of the original specificity that, in the end, left their actions meaningless. Even artists who supported the ideals behind the Suffragette movement put up posters calling for these actions to cease because the women may damage important works of art.

Aesthetics

The final three rooms looked at more recent examples of attacks on art. Three works of art at the Tate over the years that were the focus of negative attacks, a destructive art movement led by Gustav Metzger (which ‘rejected the objectified image in favour of the dynamics of the event’) and the transformation and subversion of the human form as art.

The first two of these rooms confused me. Modern day attacks on art make less sense to me than their earlier counterparts. As the world gets smaller and more people cross paths, perhaps there is more opportunity to get offended. As the day-to-day living of life gets more straightforward with industrial and technological inventions, perhaps people have too much free time on their hand and art is becoming something different than what it was in the past. I don’t know.

In the first part of the exhibit, the examples of attacking religious or political art felt like they were about the artwork and the meaning behind it, but current examples seem like it’s more about the people doing the attacking. It feels less focused, more like mimicry that has lost its potency.

The final room, however, I enjoyed with art by John Stezaker (Masks: black and white photos with post cards [an upside-down garden, for example] displayed in place of the faces), Douglas Gordon (You & Me [Roger Daltry, 2008]: an image of the lead singer from The Who with a mirror placed where his face should be so you see yourself staring out from the work of art), Kate Davis (Disgrace VI, 2012: the line drawings of her own body pencilled directly on replicas of nude line drawings from Matisse) and others. I didn’t see these as an attack on art so much as a commentary on how we view ourselves through art.

In truth this membership was the perfect present for me, allowing me to reconnect with my love of art, which I studied in school. I cannot wait to go back and see more.

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