The security at the National Gallery in London gets more oppressive each time I visit. Now, there are new airport style scanning gates and extra searches: I recently saw someone’s art materials apparently being confiscated on entry. It seems heavy handed until you remember that last autumn Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, a subtle and complex painting of a naked woman who has her back to us while we can see her thoughtful face in a mirror, was attacked here with hammers. Easy to forget, because attacks on art have become routine. When the Mona Lisa had soup chucked at it recently I wrote a quick piece without even bothering to make my disapproval clear because this is how it goes when the outrageous becomes normal – we learn to accept it with knowing irony.
Now Russian dissident artist Andrei Molodkin is taking it up a notch – or is he? Molodkin claims to be sealing original works of art by Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol, Sarah Lucas, Andres Serrano and more in a safe designed to destroy them all with acid. Their destruction will be triggered should WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange die in prison. Serrano, Franko B and others have freely given their own works for the project: Picasso was presumably not asked. But is this art-erasing device real, and are the “masterpieces” being held hostage, which Molodkin refuses to specify, really as special as all that?
If he has actually got acid primed to wreck a Rembrandt, and Assange should slip off this mortal coil in jail, and the machine works, the phoney war against art would become real. Phoney because so far, no masterpiece has been truly trashed: protective glass has preserved paintings from climate activists’ fairly superficial assaults. The Velázquez incident at the National Gallery is the most perturbing so far, however, because safety hammers were used to break that protective barrier, and a Just Stop Oil spokesperson cited the “precedent” of a suffragette slashing the canvas, apparently implying that permanent damage to art is justified: you can still make out the slashes from Mary Richardson’s 1914 attack as pale scars on Venus’s back.
Why is violence against great art such a trope of our time? And why is it seen by some as fair enough, or at least not anything to get worked up about? The explicit justifications are clear enough: art is less important than life, a painting matters less than the planet, or as Molodkin has said, “freedom is much more important” than art.
But behind these platitudes lies a festering heap of sloppy thought and inaccurate art history. The idea that attacking art is ever a progressive act is founded on crass mythology that won’t stand the slightest analysis. Take the story of the Rokeby Venus. Reports on the hammer attack last year trotted out the “precedent” of Mary Richardson’s onslaught as if she were a simple suffragette hero. In fact, she went on to join the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and supported Oswald Mosley with the same zeal she had brought to attacking a Velázquez with a chopper: “I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service and the ability to serve which I had known in the suffragette movement.”
As for being a feminist act, anyone who thinks that should go and study the painting and see the indelible marks of her violence: this attack on an image of a female goddess looks more like the work of a misogynist than a feminist to me.
Apart from anything else the idea that artistic destruction is radical is old, old, old. Richardson had no sense of herself as a Dada provocateur when she did her slashing in 1914, but the Dada movement would be born a couple of years later: soon its wittiest member Marcel Duchamp was drawing a moustache and beard on (a reproduction of) the Mona Lisa and saying he wanted to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.
Molodkin is wearily retreading the same ground as generations of the avant garde over the past century or so. His vaguely dadaist art-destroying machine uses acid, just as Gustav Metzger, inventor of “auto-destructive art”, did in a 1961 action on London’s South Bank, in which he used acid to do abstract paintings that dissolved and burned away as they were created.
Clearly there can be a moral clarity and integrity in rejecting, even to the point of violent destruction, the excesses of modern wealth and consumption, and art as one of its most absurdly expensive luxury goods. Metzger’s acidic anti-art had very dark roots, in his childhood in Nuremberg when, as a Jewish boy, he told me, he saw the annual Nazi party rallies march through its streets.
But the moral intensity of Metzger or the wit of Duchamp are pathetically absent from Molodkin’s stunt. After more than a century the Dada rage against art is part of the banal small change of our shallow time. The truth is, we’re ready to contemplate art being souped or inked or battered or dissolved with acid, and give casual credence to the idea that it’s somehow to blame for oil companies or the extradition of Assange, because art itself is now such a devalued currency.
When a Banksy artwork destroyed itself in an auction room it was funny, but the joke was bigger than we could admit, for Banksy’s art isn’t worth a fraction of a percent of the value it has acquired. He’s just one example of the casual pretence we now share that tenth-rate stuff is actually massively important art of our time. There hasn’t really been an important street artist since Haring and Basquiat, but we pretend anyway. And at the same time we talk lightly about dissolving a Rembrandt with acid.
The truth is staring us in the face. The reason the 21st century seems so interested and perversely attracted to destroying the masterpieces of the past, is that we know deep down we are incapable of rivalling those achievements. No artist is now making anything that comes close to the revolutionary genius of Picasso, so we try to “cancel” him over factoids culled from biographies we have never read. And now Molodkin proposes or pretends to destroy one of his works with acid.
It is the rage of a decadent period of artistic nullity against the titans of a past whose energy and originality we can’t bear. We will be happier when all the masterpieces are destroyed and the museums no longer shove our decline in our faces.
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