The Art of Destruction

by Theodore Dalrymple (September 2012)

When I was about nine or ten years old my father had a bonfire of Victorian paintings. Like many a person who was inclined by nature to hoard, he sometimes had fits of clearing things out to make space, presumably for something else to accumulate. The paintings shared a loft for several years with crates of tinned fruit that he had bought during the Korean War, in the fear that the conflict would spread and rationing re-introduced. He kept the fruit and got rid of the paintings.

This rather strange choice was, I suspect, connected to his communist leanings. He believed that use value was a higher value, both ethically and in reality, than mere market value, and tinned fruit was to him obviously more useful than paintings. When he died, I discovered that he had assiduously thrown away everything he possessed of resale value – first editions of Gibbon and Pope, for example – and accumulated such prosaic items as pins and paper clips, carefully sorted by size and placed in old tobacco tins. He also left a supply of carbon-copy paper that would have been sufficient to last a lifetime even if the word-processor and electronic printer had not already been invented. In fact, use value was for him something almost mystical, quite divorced from any actual use to which the thing allegedly possessing it might be put, for example by me.

I remember it still: the gilded frames and pastoral scenes going up in flames. Only one picture was saved from the general conflagration and I have it on my wall, now worth, in nominal terms, at least 20,000 times what my father gave for it at Sotheby’s during the War (the Second World War, that is). Even at the age of nine or ten I knew that burning paintings was the wrong thing to do, and I asked my father not to go ahead. The wrongness, as I conceived it, had nothing to do with economics or fear for my inheritance, of which I had absolutely no conception at the time, although I would not be quite frank if I did not admit that I now slightly regret the frivolous disappearance in acrid smoke of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Be that as it may, I suggested to my father that if he didn’t like the paintings any more he should give them away rather than burn them. But my father, who was a brilliantly gifted but strangely flawed man, knew best, and he lit the fire. A nine or ten year old boy was wiser than a fifty year old man.  

I was reminded of this strange scene of iconoclasm in my childhood by an article I read about Antonio Manfredi, a Neapolitan artist who decided to open a public museum of contemporary art in his home city. Unfortunately, the museum attracted so few visitors that it soon became financially unviable. Manfredi wrote to every possible provider of funds that he could think of, from local businessmen to the municipality, from the Italian state to the European Union, but without success. In the end, exasperated by what he saw as an almost universal philistine indifference to culture, he set fire to twenty of the art works in his museum (with the permission of the artists who created them) and made a video of himself sitting in front of the pile of ashes. This video, lasting an hour, is now considered a work of contemporary art in itself. Furthermore, two hundred artists in Europe have burnt one of their own works in solidarity with Manfredi.

This is surely a most extraordinary story, and it reflects very ill, though perhaps accurately, on Manfredi, contemporary artists and contemporary art, at least of a certain kind.

Let us suppose for a moment that you possessed works of art of minor artists of the past, of the stature, say, of David Teniers or Nicolas Lancret, and that, for some reason, you wanted to show them to the public in a museum of your own founding. You open the museum but very few people are prepared to pay the admission fee, so that the museum becomes impossible financially for you to sustain (you are not a rich man or woman). Appeals for public or private funds to keep the museum open are fruitless: would it occur to you, even for a fraction of a second, to burn your pictures in protest, even though they are by artists very far from of the first rank of their own time? The question answers itself – unless, of course, you are of the ilk of my father.

In other words, the action of Manfredi and the artists who expressed their sympathy with him by burning their own works was in effect an acknowledgment that those who failed to provide Manfredi with funds were actually quite correct in their judgment not to do so: for why subsidise an institution whose contents are so worthless that they can be burnt without any apparent awareness that to burn works of art is an utterly barbaric thing to do? When the Taliban blew up the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, we felt anger that an invaluable artistic and cultural heritage had been destroyed, and for the vilest of reasons; when Manfredi burnt the contents of his own museum, all that we (or at any rate I) felt, in a rather resigned way, was that he was making an irrefutably eloquent comment upon what now passes in some quarters for art. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been closed for many years, for a renovation that is apparently costing more than the museum cost to build in the first place, to the great disgrace of the Dutch state and nation; but no one in his right mind would suggest that a Vermeer or two should be destroyed in protest against this bureaucratic insult to one of the greatest artistic traditions and inheritances in the world. What would we think of the Director of the Rijksmuseum if, frustrated at the slowness of the renovation of his institution, he slashed the canvas of The Night Watch and scraped its paint off? Again, I do not think this enquiry requires my answer.

The question naturally arises as to how it has come about that so rich an artistic tradition as the European should have reached the point when contemporary works, presumably chosen for their special excellence by comparison with others, can be burnt without the slightest regret on anyone’s part, without anyone feeling that the world has thereby been deprived of anything of aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual value. Even the artists who made these works of art seem to feel that the world would not be not impoverished in any way by the incineration of their handiwork. This being the case, neither Manfredi nor the artists have any reason to complain of the philistinism of the times, unless they are prepared to turn the complaint equally upon themselves, which is doubtful.

The loss of taste and judgment is not confined to Naples, of course. One startling example is the tower erected in London to celebrate and commemorate the Olympic Games. Built at a cost of $5 million to the design of Anish Kapoor, the famous Anglo-Indian sculptor, it seems to have been specifically erected with the intention of giving vandalism a good name, in so far as a vandal, if he were to destroy it utterly, would have added slightly to the beauty of the world. Indeed, so hideous, lumpen, inelegant and meaningless is this construction that it reverses the roles of the aesthete and the iconoclast: the latter is he who made it and thereby polluted so many visual fields, the former is he who destroys it utterly.

The collective loss of artistic taste and powers of discrimination is an interesting sociological phenomenon. I first noticed it in India and Africa. Peasants who seemed to have an instinctive sense of form and colour while they lived in their natural surroundings lost it within days or weeks after moving to a town or city. Suddenly their taste turned to kitsch; and those who shortly before had lived in simple or humble dwellings of elegant shape and restrained and tasteful decoration now lived in shacks where the only decoration was garish and cheap in the aesthetic sense of the word. I do not know why this should be so: I cannot say whether, for example, their previous seemingly instinctive good taste was merely lack of opportunity to express or act upon bad taste, or whether their good taste was something more positive than that. Perhaps their previous good taste was disciplined or constrained by a tradition which, so long as they remained peasants, they were unable for reasons of social pressure to depart. But this begs the question: for why should an aesthetically pleasing tradition, rather than an unpleasing one, have emerged in the first place, if no one had ever possessed good taste? You will hardly see an inelegant hut in the whole of Africa. I am not suggesting that peasants are better off where they are, and that moving to industrialised or semi-industrialised society causes a deterioration in the quality of their lives (if this were so, the voluntary migration or drift of peasants to towns, which has happened almost everywhere, would be inexplicable); I am referring only to matters of taste which, while very important, are obviously not all-important in life.

In Western Europe, for reasons that I do not claim to understand, it has become almost impossible for anyone to construct an aesthetically decent house, let alone public building: this, be it remembered, in a continent with an unrivalled aesthetic tradition in architecture going back, with one or two interruptions, two millennia and a half. Why this sudden collapse? If our descendents should ever recover their sense of taste, in what contempt and detestation they will hold us (from the aesthetic point of view)! Not content with being unable to build anything of which future generations might grow fond, we have also destroyed much of our heritage. I defy anyone to look down the rue de Rennes in Paris, for example, in the direction of the Tour Montparnasse, and not to ask ‘Where is al-Qaeda when you need it?’

I asked an architectural historian why we could not build an aesthetically decent house in Europe any more, and he gave an answer that at least confirmed my premise, whose veracity I had expected him to deny. No, he issued no denial; rather he answered with a single word, industrialisation. We construct houses almost in the way that we construct cars, he said; for ineluctable economic reasons we mass produce them, by means of pre-formed or ready-made units of construction.

I felt at once that his answer was neither wholly wrong nor wholly right. The fact is also that those with immense fortunes are no more capable of having a beautiful house built, whose beauty will endure for centuries, than are the poorest inhabitants of quarters where half the population is unemployed. There is something more wrong than the means, methods and materials of construction.

There is a word that haunts our architects and gives them nightmares: pastiche. They cannot simply reproduce patterns of the past, for two reasons.

First, when they try to do so the results almost always look wrong, perhaps because it is not sufficient merely to follow a pattern or design from the past in order to reproduce the buildings of that past, it would be necessary to build in the same way, using the same materials, and (this is where the architectural historian is right) it is simply out of the question to do so.

Second, architects, as supposedly original artists, would find it a wound to their vanity simply to follow the patterns of the past. To do so would turn them into mere technicians, and that is not what they went into architecture to be. At the same time, they do not have the ability to innovate with beauty.

But there is a deeper problem yet: aesthetics simply do not matter to most Europeans, at least not the aesthetics of the public space. They no longer notice the ugliness by which they are surrounded, at least not consciously (the fact that graffiti-daubers in countries such as France and Britain confine themselves largely to ugly surfaces suggests that subconscious aesthetic judgment still exists, even among the underclass). We live in an age of the convenience of the moment, including or especially financial, when no sacrifice for the sake of aesthetics is deemed to be worth making. We do not build sub specie aeternitatis, because we do not believe in eternity of any kind, spiritual, artistic or cultural.       

Thus the ugliness of modern Europe is not the same as the ugliness of the past, a manifestation of poverty. It is the ugliness of a society in which people believe in nothing but their standard of living, as measured by their personal convenience and consumption. It is the ugliness of civilisational exhaustion. 

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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