In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Destruction in Art

  • Introduction
  • Aggression
  • Violence
  • Destruction
  • Activist Publications

Art History Destruction in Art
Kristine Stiles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0139


“Destruction in art” is not destruction of art, neither is it iconoclasm. The term “destruction in art” refers to a wide variety of heterogenous manifestations throughout the arts in all mediums; identifies destructive forces in society and nature; stands for art that employs destructive processes in the service of constructive, innovative, aesthetic ends; and often represents art devoted to cultural, social, and political criticism and change. Destruction, nihilism, anarchism, and other related subjects, which emerged in the 19th century in the context of philosophical and aesthetic aspects of romanticism, were bodies of thought that contributed to the ethos of the modernist avant-garde and its sequential, revolutionary artistic movements. Destruction in art came to the fore in artists’ creations of disparate objects and all types of actions in the 20th century, and it is an approach to art, music, poetry, and other artistic practices that have continued in the 21st century. The term “destruction in art” appeared notably in the work of artist and Holocaust survivor Gustav Metzger in a newspaper publication in November 1959. In March 1960, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely famously staged “Homage to New York,” a mechanical sculpture that unexpectedly spontaneously burst into flame, destroying itself in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1961, the Argentine artist Kenneth Kemble organized the exhibition “Arte Destructivo” in Buenos Aires. The nomenclature of “destruction in art,” however, only became canonical following the international “Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS)” in 1966, organized in London by Metzger with the Irish writer and concrete poet John Sharkey. DIAS, a month-long event, provided evidence of how artists throughout the world were responding to the destruction wreaked by World War II and to an entirely changed future with the advent of atomic and nuclear weapons. With DIAS, destruction in art emerged as the most aggressive artistic genre to confront social and cultural conditions in the wake of World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War bifurcation of the globe between communism and capitalism, and war and conflict throughout the planet in national struggles against colonialism, among other political and social conflicts. This tumultuous period also witnessed massive changes in and challenges to social mores, including struggles for racial, sexual, and ethnic equality that practitioners of destruction in art often championed in their work. Such upheaval signified the heterogeneity of global values, and destruction in art often contributed to efforts to examine and undermine hegemonic power wherever it prevailed. The plurality of destruction in art procedures, materials, results, and contexts contributed to a paradigm shift from the historical avant-garde’s developmental model to heterogeneity throughout the arts. Many critics, art historians, and artists, from the 1960s to the present, have interpreted the intersection of new approaches to art, especially the inclusion of the body, language, and texts in visual art, as related to some examples of destruction in art that have also been associated with such types of art as “conceptual,” “dematerialized,” “formless,” and “anti-art,” the latter most frequently represented in some kinds of performance art and object-based installations that include abjection. While the multifarious expressions of destruction in art have demonstrated processes and effects related to all of these terms, destruction in art customarily produces an act of destruction that results in a disassembled, burned, or otherwise destructively altered object; a body in pain and/or traumatic action; a jarring or altered sound work; a deconstructed, reassembled text or poem; and so forth. To accommodate such diversity, this article is organized thematically and chronologically as a means to underscore the widely distinct, yet interrelated theorizations and materializations that, when considered together, offer a broad view of the philosophical and material foundations and practices of destruction in art.

General Overviews

The philosophical, conceptual, social, and historical underpinnings of destruction in art are varied, from the ways in which destruction and iconoclasm have contributed to shaping culture to concomitant conditions and theories of aggression, violence, anarchism, and nihilism. These selected, overlapping, and intersecting subjects all inform an aesthetic understanding of destruction in art in one way or another. While interpretations vary in different contexts and cultures, elements of each are active in destruction art.

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