Before I came back to university, my Auntie Christine kindly bought me a year’s membership to the Tate galleries, which grants me access to the special exhibits free of charge, and allows me usage of the Member’s bar. You can guess which one of those I am most excited about. Anyway, a few weeks ago I decided to go to the Tate National because, well, why the hell not, and whilst I was there I visited Art Under Attack, an exhibit which detailed the history of iconoclasm in Britain. Now, this blog is not going to be a review of the exhibit; Christ knows there are already plenty of those. Instead, I am going to talk about some of the things the displays made me think about, and in particular how art and symbols shape our everyday experiences.
All in all, there were nine rooms, and needless to say I am not going to be dwelling on the four rooms concerning the Reformation and the Puritans. There is already enough written on those two subjects without me adding my witty and insightful commentary to the already overloaded canon (pun intended). Rather, for me the most interesting rooms were the last five, as they raised three interesting questions, one of which I had never considered before, and two of which I feel are particularly relevant today.
The first issue the exhibit made me think about was how, by altering and re-imagining already existing works of art, we can give them a new meaning. Or, to put it another way, how destruction is just as much an artistic process as creation. I am not going to lie, a lot of it was pseudo-intellectual crap. But there was plenty of interesting stuff, and the best pieces for my money were Jake and Dinos Chapman’s One Day You Shall No Longer Be Loved (that it should come to this), a series of nineteenth century portraits which have been vandalised so as to reflect the decomposition and decay that their subjects have suffered.
In doing so, the Chapman’s are effectively mocking our obsession with preserving our appearances against the forces of time and ageing, whether it is through cosmetic surgery, a myriad of creams and lotions, or (as is the case here) by commissioning portraits and photos so as to ensure an idealised image of ourselves is preserved for time immemorial. There were some other interesting pieces, such as those where the artist had removed sections of a painting or photo (usually the faces) and replaced them with mirrors, so it looked like you or part of the room were in the painting. But again, for me it was the Chapman’s exhibit which really summed up the overall message.
This also links into the second point the exhibit raised, namely how the destruction of public art is still a very potent political and social symbol, even in this day and age. For example, it highlighted how the destruction of statues and other public symbols of British occupation was used across the Empire to raise awareness of and support for independence movements in the colonies, and also to try and bring about a sense of panic and fear on the part of the British.
There was also a room devoted to the suffragette movement, which was particularly fascinating. Not only did it show just how much a relatively minor act of public vandalism could shock the wider public, but it also highlighted the tension between the suffragettes and other ‘progressive’ causes of the time. My favourite was a plea from British artists to the suffragettes which argued that whilst they supported their goals, in their eyes the destruction of art was going one step too far.
However, the most important thought I took away from Art Under Attack regarded the relationship between the state and art. As I said earlier, there were plenty of examples of how first Henry 8th and then Oliver Cromwell used the destruction of holy images and relics to impose a new social order upon England. But it also showed how the state can create art for its own means. The most obvious example is by choosing to fund artists and galleries, but there are far more subtle ways.
For example, who can forget the ruckus generated when it was announced that Elizabeth Frey (the only woman on any Bank of England notes) was to be removed from the £5, and replaced with Sir Winston Churchill? At first it seems like a relatively trivial debate, but when put in the context of a sluggish economic recovery and a shaky coalition government, all of a sudden the decision to replace an obscure social reformer with arguably the most respected Prime Minister in history seems less like a cosmetic change to a banknote, and more like a cynical ploy to try and restore some sense of lost pride to a beleaguered nation.
Because at the end of the day, it is the small symbols which shape our public consciousness, for the simple fact that we are exposed to them from the cradle to the grave. They are what we hinge our personal and public identities upon, and it is critical to remember this. As soon as we start to take symbols for granted, we start to ignore their effects, which leaves us open to be manipulated by those who know that changing who appears on the £5 note is far more culturally devastating than the destruction of any statue or work of art could possibly be.