It was an unhappy coincidence that the same week Tate Britain opened its new exhibition ‘Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’, a controversial act of iconoclasm was taking place in Newport in South Wales. The Chartist Mural, a much-loved mosaic in the city centre, was demolished by Newport council to make way for a £100 million shopping development. In the exhibition, Tate presents iconoclasm as largely a historical phenomenon, but in doing so overlooks acts of image-breaking that are taking place all too frequently today both outside and inside the gallery.
The destruction of the Newport Chartist Mural has quickly become a political issue. Local protestors feel their democratic views have been brushed aside by a council more attentive to the commercial interests of the developers. The 35m-long mosaic, made in 1978 by Kenneth Budd, is of symbolic importance in this dispute, because it depicted a bloody confrontation that took place in 1839 between Newport Chartists – working class radicals who were campaigning for democratic reform – and government troops. Demolition of this image of popular resistance, in order to build a shopping centre, has not gone down well in the old socialist heartlands of South Wales.
The recent examples of ‘iconoclasm’ included in the Tate exhibition are timid by comparison. I found myself wishing for something more robust and provocative than the ‘exploratory and transformational practices’ producing ‘new works with new meanings’ offered at the end of the chronological hang.
Inevitably, this was going to be an exhibition characterised by absences. But some reference could usefully have been made to Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), for example. This work consisted of the concrete cast of the interior of an East London house, left behind as the solitary monument of a demolished Victorian terrace. Although House was extremely popular, attracting thousands of visitors, the local council didn’t like it. On the same day that Whiteread was awarded the Turner Prize for the work, the council ordered its destruction. The motivations behind this act of obliteration are hard to understand today, but seem to be more about control of public space, than aesthetic considerations.
Even harder to understand are attacks by individuals on artworks in public galleries. It is a shame that the Tate could not include its own Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko in the exhibition, but this painting is still undergoing costly conservation work following an act of vandalism in 2012. The assailant wrote his name and a slogan in black paint on the picture, later claiming that ‘art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it’, a pronouncement that uncomfortably chimes with the ‘new works with new meanings’ definition of contemporary iconoclasm being used in the Tate show.
Sadly, the Rothko is not an isolated example. In 2011, someone sprayed paint on Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf in the National Gallery, London. A newly commissioned portrait of the Queen by Ralph Heimans was defaced in a similar way in Westminster Abbey earlier this year, by someone campaigning for equal parenting rights for fathers.
It is easy to dismiss such incidents as the isolated actions of irrational people. But as the Tate exhibition effectively demonstrates in a section on the Suffragettes, public art institutions become targets for iconoclastic attacks because they are perceived to represent a cultural or political establishment from which some people feel disenfranchised or excluded. And though most museums and galleries strive to be more accessible and less elitist, this openness leaves their collections exposed to those with malicious intent, and increasingly so at a time when funding cuts are affecting staffing levels.
Tate’s show explores historical iconoclasm by examining the contested relationship between art and power. But it is worth remembering that these conflicts are very much alive today, wherever art is publicly displayed.
‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’ is on at Tate Britain, London, until 5 January 2014