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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.

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.

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.

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.

Farewell Fear.

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