In the early 1950s, twenty-something artist Robert Rauschenberg knocked on the door of his idol, renowned Dutch painter Willem de Kooning, who was nearly 50. He hoped no one would be home, which would be its own answer to the difficult question he planned to pose. But de Kooning answered, and Rauschenberg asked if he could create a work of art by erasing one of de Kooning’s drawings. The latter agreed “somewhat reluctantly,” notes the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which owns “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” Its power “derives from the allure of the unseen,” the museum adds, and it “eludes easy answers.” The project, wrote Vincent Katz for the Tate, embodied “genteel iconoclasm.”
Iconoclasm refers to the destruction of images, typically on religious grounds. The standard iconoclastic motive is to symbolically obliterate political or religious orders by breaking the images that stand in for them or celebrate them.
“Destroyed art appeals to the small part of all of us that wants to break the rules—to touch art we like in museums, or to push over art we don’t like,” says Erin Thompson, an assistant professor of art crime at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “De Kooning, in particular, inspires a lot of strong dislike with his characteristic figures of monstrous women. I’m sure there were plenty of people before and after who have wanted to erase one.”
There is a national conversation happening right now about image destruction. In the wake of Charlottesville, as violence broke out around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, there have been calls to remove, or at least to recontextualize, Confederate memorials around the country. In New Orleans and Baltimore and Dallas, there have already been removals, and other municipalities are debating how best to deal with their monuments, many of which were raised up well after the Civil War as symbols of white supremacy. Should they remain as they are? Or should they simply be destroyed? Can they be moved to a museum and placed in historical context?
Picasso famously referred to art as a lie that makes viewers realize the truth, but it can also do the opposite—it can reinforce lies. The materials alone which are used to construct monuments are designed to project unflinching permanence. But like the famous portrait that Oscar Wilde conceived of Dorian Gray, there can be grotesque layers obscured beneath the surface. And yesterday’s monuments and their attempts to remind today’s viewers of bygone eras can become tone-deaf, or worse. But art objects are rarely simple, and once they’ve taken hold, their absence too can retain power and a symbolic kind of presence. And like phantom limbs, they can still cause pain.
“The main misconception is that iconoclasm is medieval and somewhere else,” says James Simpson, professor of English at Harvard University, who studies sixteenth and seventeenth-century English iconoclasm. But, he says, “Iconoclasm is modern, and us.”
We see iconoclasm not only in the debates about Civil War monuments, but also in ISIS’s destruction of art and artifacts in the Middle East. It’s the standard practice of revolutionary regimes, Simpson says, and it has a long history in Western Protestantism as well. Some iconoclasts have recognized the artistic heritage of works they’ve wanted removed from civic spaces. Mid-seventeenth-century northern Europeans, for example, removed Catholic artifacts from churches and enshrined them, instead, as art in museums. In the process, they pioneered some of the early imagination of both “art” and “museums.” Simpson says, “They reserved their viewing for cultivated elites, who would not fall victim to idolatry and treat the objects as divine.”
Many of those who argue for the removal of memorials to the Confederacy may be sympathetic to the argument that the objects ought to be preserved, albeit in new contexts. “They might be persuaded that we end up with a razed cultural landscape if every new cultural order destroys the images of the old order,” Simpson says. “They might be persuadable that museums are the place for objects that have become radioactive.”
But Sarah Beetham, assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who is writing a book titled Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Citizen Soldier, is somewhat sympathetic to the idea of destroying Confederate monuments. “There are too many legal barriers in the way. There’s no way you’re ever going to be able to have a unified program,” she says, noting that many of the objects, which used to be under local juristictions, are now overseen on the state level. “I’ve wondered about the idea of just putting them in a field and letting the grass grow up, letting them be reclaimed.”
During the Reconstruction period, when the Ku Klux Klan began to rise, the sculptures shot up. “This period of exciting flourishing in the first couple of years after the Civil War of this possible change in race relations ends up being completely buried and destroyed by basically terrorism with these Klan organizations,” Beetham says. “It’s after that point that the monuments start appearing in the town squares in the South.”
The monuments, mostly made after 1890, resemble Roman victory monuments. “You ask yourself, ‘What’s the victory?’” Beetham asks. “The victory is destroying Reconstruction and getting to replace what actually happened in the Civil War.” Those replacements and “victories” occupied very public spaces, often outside courthouses and in town squares, which themselves became sites of mass incarceration, injustice when it comes to race, and lynching. And even more than 100 years later, they continue to remind many passersby that their lives were threatened because of the color of their skin.
It might seem like a no-brainer to allow nature to “reclaim” such offensive memorials, or to remove them altogether from public view, but even those responses wouldn’t necessarily represent clean breaks.
Aaron Tugendhaft, a collegiate assistant professor of humanities at the University of Chicago, sees destruction as its own kind of image-making, and he rejects the argument that opponents of iconoclasm often make, that the destruction errs in that it erases history. “I think it avoids the difficult and interesting questions about what history is and how it works in the construction of contemporary life,” he says. “History is no more worthy of being divinized than science, the market, or the gods.”
Like history, politics is subject to the ebb and flow of changing values rather than assuming a transcendent perch. Political life necessarily implies images, and those images help produce common political imaginations. “Images are always partial—at best they only tell part of the story. That doesn’t mean that they are all the same, or that it doesn’t matter which ones we choose to live with,” says Tugendhaft, who is penning a book tentatively titled The Idols of ISIS. “Rather, I hope that it makes us more aware of the fact that we must choose the images we live with, and it behoves us to do that choosing as thoughtfully and honestly as we can.”
The destruction of an old image replaces the rejected image with a new image: the destruction itself. “Since there is no possibility to live without images, iconoclasm is never really an eradication of images,” Tugendhaft says. “It is an aggressive way to replace one set of images with another.” And in that replacement, the created void operates like a curated image, just as conventional images do. “The absence has to be detectable, and that means that it has been made by human hands, just like the idols of old that the prophets rail against,” he says.
Just as the original Confederate monuments underwent significant aesthetic planning—and were often constructed by Northern companies, notes Beetham—where artists thought deliberately about materials and composition, removing or otherwise altering a monument can also be thought of as an act of art-making. And all of those aesthetic decisions will also have consequences, even if they’re unintended.
Thompson, of CUNY, sees unique potential in partial or destroyed works. “I think destroyed or fragmentary objects have greater power than well-preserved ones, because we can fill in the cracks with whatever meanings we want instead of having to interpret the object on its own terms,” she says.
The blank spaces that a fragmentary work of art presents allow its owner or interpreter to append whatever narratives and significance he or she wants. The destroyed temples in Jerusalem continue to capture the Jewish imagination today, and the destruction of Palmyra has fueled many reconstruction projects. BBC Radio hosts a “Museum of Lost Objects,” which traces “the histories of antiquities and landmarks that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria, India, and Pakistan.”
Harry Rand, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, also notes the kind of “life” after death that the destroyed temples in Jerusalem have enjoyed in the Jewish imagination. “The non-material culture lives on as long as the vessel of its civilization exists,” Rand says. “Hence, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by Rome, but because of the retrospective mourning of the Talmudic movement that catalogued and redacted that temple’s rituals, we can still envision those Jewish rites.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Roman victor’s rituals weren’t recorded in detail, so they’ve been lost, while its material culture remains abundant. “Simple removal ain’t what it’s cracked up to be,” Rand says. “The victor must not merely crush, but erase the victim.”
In every era, the principle remains about what is, and isn’t, recorded. Removed objects, to Rand, may leave behind “a memory of their justification, an aura or recollection, however vague, yet potent.” When Christianity spread in Europe, conscious efforts were made to construct churches upon sites that had previously been devoted to pagan worship. Christianity, here, wasn’t unique. Islam sought sites sacred to Hindus, Jews, and Christians to “advertise the new religion’s robust triumphalism,” Rand says, “simultaneously demonstrating the old order prostrate, while drawing vitality from the predecessor’s site.” New religious sites either masked older structures entirely, or allowed a foundation to peek out from beneath the construction. “Only a faint memory remains to usefully attest to the succession of the replacement religion,” Rand says. “The shell remains while meaning is substituted—old bottle, new wine. No need to utterly remove anything, just re-brand.”
In some instances, like in ancient Egypt, pharaohs committed what Rand calls “visual murder,” by expunging all images of their predecessors. They aimed, he says, both for a “complete monopoly of the visible political pronouncement, and for mystical-religious banishing of memory.” Those Confederate memorials erected following Reconstruction could be said to be doing something similar—monopolizing the visual articulation of the past.
In the debates about Confederate monuments, many Americans have looked to Germany as an example. The country hosts few tributes or memorials to its Nazi past. The place where Hitler died remains an empty parking lot, its absence speaking volumes. And yet, in the aftermath of World War II, the Berlin Wall was built. Its subsequent destruction also had unintended consequences, says James Crawford, author of the recent book Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings.
The structure, which Mr. Gorbachev was so famously told to tear down, retains its power even in its absence. In East Germany, a condition called “Mauerkrankheit,” or wall sickness, persists. “Symptoms range from psychosis and schizophrenia to alcoholism and depression,” Crawford says. “In the aftermath of the wall’s demolition, suicide rates for East Berliners saw a rapid increase,” which correlated to proximity to the former space occupied by the wall. “The closer you lived to it, the higher your chance of committing suicide,” he says. “Those who lived in the physical shadow of oppression experienced a psychological breakdown in the aftermath of its removal.”
So what are well-intentioned iconoclasts, who don’t want to make martyrs out of the works they set their sights on, to do? How can the public good of removing what are daily reminders for many African Americans of slavery and racism be balanced with the threat of those objects potentially expanding their reach and potency in their absence?
Modifying monuments, rather than removing them, can be one strategy, argues CUNY’s Thompson, as can “adding signage to explain the historical context and controversies of the subject, or placing the monument in a museum.”
Beetham, of PAFA, sees contextualizing signage either on the monuments themselves in their original spaces or in museums as an option, but she cautions that many people won’t read the signage. And the monument itself is likely to overpower the label. Most people walking by a Robert E. Lee sculpture in the town square won’t think of it each time as a reminder that society doesn’t approve of the things for which the Confederate general stood and fought. “The visual sign of putting someone up on a horse on a pedestal is a much more powerful message than anything you can say in text,” Beetham says.
Instead, Beetham thinks removing the scultpures could open the possibility for new art to engage those sites. “I actually find the idea of these empty pedestals being there to be really exciting, because they are charged spaces, because that removal is going to create something that people have to think about,” she says, “What does an empty pedestal mean? What are the possibilities for art on an empty pedestal?”
And it’s important to remember that talk here is not cheap, and people both make and break monuments’ reputations. “Removal doesn’t automatically change a monument, and it certainly doesn’t change history,” Thompson says. “What really makes change is when we change how we talk about monuments and history, what we teach our children about them, and how we treat each other.”
Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C.