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September 24, 2004

Never Mind the Why and Wherefore

"It was a violent attack against art and we regret it very much."

"Klaus Dieter Lehmann, president of Berlin's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, has suggested that the incident was apolitical and said that the woman had been known to cause disturbances."

* * *

The controversy and protest surrounding the Flick Collection exhibition certainly suggest a political motivation behind the attacks mentioned yesterday (and the attacker's own words—variously, "Flick, I am satisfied" or "Flick, I forgive you"— seem to, at the very least, acknowledge the controversy), yet we find the museum quick to contend otherwise.

If the motive were to indeed turn out to be political, I'd have to ask: why the disingenuous insistence to the contrary? (Was it merely a political move to minimize or ignore a deviant act or to quietly assure us that it won't happen again? Do they fear that open discussion might encourage more of such acts?) If, on the other hand, officials are right to suggest that this is an isolated, apolitical act by a known mischief-maker, then what, pray tell, was the motive?

It seems that, either way, we find the attacker's motivations discounted from the first (whether contradicted or ignored) and her actions written off as merely those of a serial vandal. The question of motive really remains unexplored; no more needs to be said, apparently.

Nonetheless, the bizarre nature of the attack and the choice of its targets beg the question. Was the acrobatic stunt just spectacle for spectacle's sake? Did the attack take out two separate works by Gordon Matta-Clark by virtue of coincidence (or a simple matter of proximate display)? Further, and if the motive was political, what does it mean that these works of art were held representative, by virtue of ownership, of the controversial Flick family heritage? Can this attack be construed as an attack on Friedrich Christian Flick (or his grandfather) or the political and economic systems that support him, the art serving as a surrogate? What would this say regarding our experience of any work of art? Is it a coincidence that art objects have become the focus of political controversy, or does this highlight a particular capacity of art to hold our attention or make apparent our distress? If not political, what specifically provoked the deed? Was it something about these works or this exhibition in particular? Was this a swipe at contemporary or modern art in general?

I'd be surprised if we hear any answers and I offer none myself besides the thoughts suggested in the questions themselves. Still, food for thought, eh?

* * *

I'm reminded in all this of David Freedberg's discussion of modern iconoclasm in The Power of Images, a few rather generous excerpts of which I'll present below.

In his book, Freedberg argues for a history and criticism of art founded not on abstract aesthetics or a critical reclamation of context, but on psychological and behavioral response—our cognitive and emotional human relationship with images and objects. This requires us in particular to consider various forms of response (e.g., the sexual, the empathetic and the hostile) that are considered inimical to our accustomed high and disinterested appreciation of art.

From the introduction:

It has been intended, above all, to embrace those kinds of response that are too often felt to be at odds with the redemptive nature of art. I have written this book not only to present the evidence, but to lay the phantom of high response to rest.

When it comes to the iconoclastic act, then, his desire is for us to abandon the "self-deception" that relegates image breakers to a status of idiosyncratic madmen or deranged outsiders and to instead understand, through the dynamics laid bear by iconoclasm, a foundation and potentiality of response in which we all participate.

(Freedberg also authored Iconoclasts and Their Motives, which, though out of print, you can currently pick up used from Amazon at the low, low price of $120.)

* * *

"The assailant and his motives are wholly uninteresting to us; for one cannot apply normal criteria to the motivations of someone who is mentally disturbed." This is what the director of public relations at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is reported to have declared after the knife attack on Rembrandt's Nightwatch on 14 September, 1975. It was the third attack on the picture in the century. Aside from the evident psychological interest of all such cases, and aside from the odd confusion of the second half of the statement, the most telling aspect of this claim is the vehemence of its denial. Someone who responds so powerfully to the picture that he assaults it is here held to be uninteresting (at least to the museum official). He is not interesting, one gathers, because he tests the limits of normality. This is how we lay aside and suppress that with which we cannot deal. Such a claim is all too characteristic; what it amounts to is an expression of the fear of plumbing psychopathological depths that we prefer not to acknowledge—not only because we are frightened by the behavior of others, but because we recognize the roots of and the potential for such behavior in ourselves. The whole framework of denial is of a piece with the massive fortifications of repression with which we seek to protect ourselves from the powerful emotions and the distracting and troubling behavior that we sometimes experience in the presence of images: especially ones we strongly like and strongly hate. Sometimes those fortifications are so strong that they are never breached, and we feel well protected. [p. 407]

* * *

Museum officials may not wish to speak of iconoclasm at all; but the newspapers, when such things happen, are full of it. Both the serious and the popular press are replete with the details... One can hardly wonder at the success of at least one element in the motivation of many of the iconoclasts: the desire to gain attention and publicity. The restorers work magic in returning the picture to its former beauty and therefore to its former value, or something like its former value. The museum conservators hide the details from posterity or refuse to talk about them—because they do not wish to put ideas into peoples' heads. They claim that the actions of deranged people are of no interest to normal people like themselves.
...The iconoclastic deed is called einmalig, unique, the assailant deranged and beyond the pale. We, on the other hand are healthy. We are complacent in our self-control and in our love of art. We might be corrupted, as the curators and others note, if we hear (too much) talk about iconoclasm. Beneath this concern lies the strong fear that to reveal such things in other might somehow expose and legitimate that which lies deep within ourselves. We cannot bring ourselves to analyze—or even to confront—the actions of those who appear to be mentally disturbed; yet all of us know the experience of powerful but indefinable emotions in the presence of figured objects. With us (we think and constantly assert) those emotions—of catharsis, of warmth, of calm, of difficulty, even of frustration—are channeled, however inexplicably, along safe and generally rewarding lines. We too may be disturbed and troubled by specific images; but can it be that such feelings, which we know how to sublimate or transmute, often beneficially, are somehow akin to the over-demonstrative, violent, and ultimately damaging behavior of the image breakers? [pp. 423-4]

* * *

All iconoclasts are aware of the greater or lesser publicity that will accrue from their acts. They know of the financial and cultural and symbolic value of the work they assault. The work has been adored and fetishized: the fact that it hangs in a museum is sufficient testimony to that, just as the hanging of pictures in churches is testimony to religious forms (or less overtly secular forms) of adoration, worship, and fetishization. Furthermore—especially in the twentieth century—the better the art, the greater the commodity fetishism. So destruction is especially shocking to those normal people who adore art and art objects. [p. 409]

* * *

But there are further implications that were brought to the fore in the public response to the affair of the Rockeby Venus. The Times of that year was obsessed with the rise in the value of the picture and its consequent reduction after the assault. To the list of the actual figures it had at its disposal—such as the purchase price of the painting—it added figures of its own purporting to give an indication of the drop in value. The drop is always notional. The same happened with The Nightwatch in 1911. This kind of assessment of the putative financial implications has now become commonplace. It is clear that to reduce the possibility of object fetishism is significantly to impugn its status as a commodity fetish. Fortunately the magic of the picture restorers will do something to reinstate its former value—though not all of it.
The general rubric for all such cases is the moralizing fear of sensibilia. Fear of the possibility of arousal stands at one pole; exasperation with the vanity of what is represented, or of the sign itself, stands at the other... And so we attend to the modulations of given reason and possible motive, of ostensible claim and the real trauma that the sufferer consciously or subconsciously obscures. Who knows what individual frustrations, disappointments, and resentments are masked by the commonplaces of image critique? And who could establish the extent to which image critique, formulated by the most sophisticated writers, legitimates the unleashing of private emotions that culminate in attack? We, of course, if we feel impelled to hostility, are likely to prefer to attack with words. [p. 412]

* * *

In 1981 a hole was ripped in a portrait of the newly married Princess of Wales displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in London. In this instance, as often, a variety of factors in the relations between public and private, neurotic and less neurotic, are seen to converge. The young man who attacked the picture seemed disturbed, but he had a political motive. He wished to draw attention to the plight of Northern Ireland, and to Belfast in particular. So he attacked the image of Princess Diana. The young man knew that the fact that the picture was of a royal personage (and a particularly popular one at the time) would have given the gesture even greater publicity. He explained all these things at his trial, emphasizing that he had decided to bring to the attention of London what he felt about the social deprivation of Belfast. Once again private feeling found justification in the public domain for the way it has expressed itself; once again a picture became a vehicle for a political statement, though no message was scrawled across it. The motivation for publicity, of whatever kind, is clear. And once again we are reminded of old theory.
When we see an image of the king—to put it in the classical imperial terms—we respond, or are inclined to respond, as if the king himself were present... The young man knew perfectly well that by attacking the image of Princess Diana somehow the dishonor would accrue to her as well, that public response to this act would have at least as much to do with the fact that it was she who was represented as with the damage to an expensive object in a public place. But he must also have known that he would not really be damaging her person; and so the violent act could somehow and quite evidently be relegated to a second order of harm, but one which would have gained a much lower level of publicity if it had not involved an image, and certainly not an image of royalty. [p. 414]

* * *

And so we may assess the continuities. The idiosyncrasies and peculiar neuroses of individual psychologies are engaged by group iconoclasm; the group activates and legitimates that which would normally be suppressed. At the same time, it should now be clearer that outbreaks of widespread social iconoclasm, while evidently determined by social, political, and theological pressures, have as their bases those aspects of the relations between images and people that have been brought to the fore. There are strong and essential continuities between the individual act and the group act, but there are also clear continuities between one individual act and another. What is idiosyncratic turns out not to be psychological motivation, but—axiomatically—the idiosyncratic external pressures brought to bear on cognition.
When, however, we insert the apparently neurotic deed into the continuity between individual and group act, attacks on abstract art may be most instructive of all. It seems easier to understand the inclination to destroy the figurative, to assail something that appears to have life and that might be deprived of it, or to attack what is clearly symbolic of something we dislike and that might, on such grounds, in whatever way, elicit anger. This may not seem to apply to overtly abstract representations. But consider some of the motives that prevail: violent frustration at being unable to make figurative sense of the nonfigurative; rage at the temerity of even attempting the abstract in material form; the feeling that anyone could have done better (especially if the work has been financially or publicly rewarded); the notion that the object is not really art at all; or the conviction (if one is an artist) that one is really doing better or more difficult things oneself and that one therefore deserves equivalent public recognition...
One has only to think of the particular response to Barnett Newman's Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, attacked in Berlin in 1982. As with the apparently random attacks on other images, there is more purposiveness than one might expect. With the attack on the Newman, we find the most direct conceivable response to the challenge posed by the given title of the picture. The people who assail images do so in order to make clear that they are not afraid of them, and thereby prove their fear. It is not simply fear of what is represented; it is fear of the object itself. One hardly needs to add that when the Berliner Zeitung of 22 September of that year reported the attack, it did so under the headline "Das hätte jede Lehring malen können."
In addition to confessing to his direct response to the title, the student who attacked the painting by Barnett Newman also claimed that the picture was a perversion of the German flag, and that it represented an unjustified waste of public funds. The last factor again comes to the fore in an incident that occurred in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn in 1983. On the night of 1 September, over a hundred local inhabitants tore 49 rectangular stele-like sculptures by Evert Strobos from their bases. Along with 114 other such sculptures which still had to be set up, they had been bought by the town government for 180,000 florins. Money had been squandered not only on art, but on abstract art... All this could easily have taken place in any Dutch town in the last quarter of 1566. To see the links between private motive and public act, between modern event and past event, is not to force the issue; it arises from consideration of the power of the exchange between the seeing spectator and the object that speaks to those who see, that gazes at those who speak. [pp. 416-9]

* * *

The theorist and the individual may object to a picture or sculpture and may even censor or assault it on the grounds that it is a distraction from higher things, an intolerable and offensive vanity. Such an objection may rationalize another motivation altogether, but it nevertheless provides further testimony to the fear of the senses that arises from the fetishizing gaze. Even if only rationalization, it amounts to theoretical acknowledgment—at the least—that this is what happens with paintings or sculptures. The sailor who attacks The Nightwatch realizes the commodity fetishism on which the value of works of art are based, so he attacks the most valuable work he knows. the attacker of a picture like Ruben's Fall of the Damned realizes the fetishism that turns the picture into something that is threatening to his libido, so he subverts the possibility of fetishism by destroying, mutilating, or otherwise ruining it. [pp. 419-20]

* * *

In these ways we insert the individual act into its social context; thus we engage the interest of the deed that is generally regarded as beyond the pale, and thus we see the truth that lies within the apparently crazed deed of the isolated iconoclast. It is not hard to understand why we should want to repress our kinship with such people, or why we should want to repress the disturbances that images cause and that, in their turn, make us understand why the iconoclast might behave the way he or she does. If we grasp that, and if we accept the disturbances, we may then begin to talk about the power of images—even at the cost of reshuffling our preconceptions about the role and status of art in our lives, or of deriving illumination from the dark acts of those whom we dismiss as deranged and incalculably more troubled than we are. The aim is to seek the calculable. [pp. 420-1]

"Never Mind the Why and Wherefore"
Posted by Dan at 09:21 PM


Referenced in this post:

CIRCA Art Magazine: Backflipping into controversial art—Elaine Cronin
CNN.com: World—Art damaged at Nazi-row exhibition (AP)
Columbia University: Department of Art History and Archaeology Faculty—David Freedberg
David Freedberg: Iconoclasts and Their Motives (Gerson Lecture, 2)
David Freedberg: The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response
Iconoduel: Iconoclast Tumbler Strikes in Berlin