Many art pieces have been intentionally destroyed throughout history by radical political movements. Destroying a work of art is a powerful and controversial statement, both to the artist and the world at large. Art offers profound cultural and emotional connections that cannot be recreated. Additionally, art is incredibly valuable, both monetarily and sentimentally. However, when an artist creates something with the intent of destruction, how should we react? Many artists have transformed existing art pieces into new and unique masterpieces through their intentional destruction of them, revealing the fragility of art and value itself. Though these pieces are controversial, they invite discourse in their radical attempts to create unique art.
In the 1960s, Gustav Metzger coined the term auto-destructive art, a novel approach that invited destruction into the process of making art. This form of art was performative and political, drawing upon anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist sentiments. Metzger wrote two manifestos describing the term, in which the key principles of auto-destructive art include:
Time: the work must return to its original state of nonexistence within 20 years of its completion.
Self-Completion: the piece must destruct on its own, without interference in the piece’s development.
Participation: auto-destructive art is centered around public participation. It must happen in a public place with an audience.
As Metzger’s manifesto suggests, his artwork, though replicated in facsimile following its initial destruction, only exists in remnants. The legacy of an artist lives on in their artwork, but Metzger’s radical techniques enable his legacy to transcend his physical creations.
In another of destroyed artwork, obliteration becomes a means of preservation. In 1995, Ai Weiwei created Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a series of three black-and-white photographs. The photographs depict the artist holding, dropping, and standing over the shattered remains of a 2,000-year-old urn of monetary and cultural worth. Ai’s father was a persecuted poet under China’s authoritarian regime. Living under harsh circumstances after his father’s exile, Ai was traumatized and angry. He used art to force the world to think about the evils of the Mao regime. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is highly confrontational, as Ai stares into the camera, aware of the controversies of destroying history. Ai challenged this outrage by stating, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” Ai’s act of destruction assigned new meaning to an ancient artifact, challenging the cultural structures that ascribe a standardized value to objects.
Perhaps one of the most famous contemporary examples of auto-destructive art involves Banksy, the elusive graffiti artist whose work is globally recognized. In 2018, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon was sold for $ 1.4 million. As the hammer came down, a siren rang out and the piece self-destructed. Unbeknownst to anyone at the auction, a paper shredder was installed into the frame. The lower half of the piece was shredded into thin strips in what Sotheby’s dubbed a moment of “instant art history.” The partially-shredded piece was then renamed Love is in the Bin and went up for auction again in 2021. In the same London salesroom, the new piece sold for $25.3 million. This was the first time a piece was created during a live auction. It expresses the artist’s attitude towards the commercialization and monetary value ascribed to art and who dictates it.
The most recent example of art destruction occurred last year in Damien Hirst’s gallery in London. The artist’s new collection “The Currency” became shrouded in controversy for its performative burning. On live stream, the artist’s gallery was filled with smoke as he threw painting after painting into six glass-cased incinerators. The project began six years prior with the creation of 10,000 unique dotted paintings, of which no two dots were exactly alike. Rather than being sold, each piece was placed into a vault. Collectors were invited to purchase a corresponding NFT for each piece. Buyers were then given the choice of the physical painting or its digital representation, which resulted in the physical copies being thrown in the incinerator in front of buyers and journalists. Art burning carries repugnant and somber implications, invoking historical moments of censorship. However, Hirst burned 1,000 paintings in a lighthearted and jovial performance. He wore metallic pants with suspenders and smiled as each creation went up in flames. “The Currency” forced collectors to choose NFTs or traditional art. There was a resounding preference for traditional art. Hirst’s stunt, therefore was intensely calculated, despite its controversy.
The nineteenth-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin famously proclaimed, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” Art, therefore, begets new art as it is destroyed. Whether the artwork is destroyed for political or social commentary, the destruction of an artist’s own collection encourages witnesses and enthusiasts to question the value and meaning of art. Inviting discourse and interest, these artists are no strangers to controversy.
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