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  • Literature Review
  • Lauren Reynolds Hall (bio) and Megan Cross Schmitt (bio)

Literature review, vandalism, destruction, art

[End Page 152]

The Destruction of Art

The most cursory of glances at the recent literature on the topics of vandalism and iconoclasm reveal that The Destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution by Dario Gamboni (1997), is a seminal work on these topics. Gamboni, an art historian, curator, and professor at the University of Geneva, offers the most comprehensive and current exploration of the history and motivation behind centuries of destructive attacks on cultural property, while addressing the evolving perception and definition of art.

References to his 1997 book abound, and to try and tackle contemporary scholarship in these areas without first becoming familiar with Gamboni’s research proves difficult. Because his influence resonates throughout the literature, particularly in the essays reviewed for this article, Gamboni’s theories, arguments, and questions are applied as a means of framing the diverse and extensive issues raised in the material covered in this issue of Change Over Time. His work is used to thread recurring themes of perception, deliberation, action, intent, and modification, all of which are explored and challenged in this review.

Vandalism vs. Iconoclasm

The Oxford English Dictionary defines vandalism as “an action involving the deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property.” Merriam-Webster adds intent in its definition of the term as “willful or malicious destruction or defacement.” Whether or not defined by its motives, vandalism can be categorized as unauthorized and typically harmful interaction with materials that are oftentimes cultural in nature.

Iconoclasm is defined by the same sources, respectively: “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices; the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical; the doctrine of iconoclasts,” and “the doctrine, practice, or attitude of an iconoclast.” The inclusion of the term doctrine in this definition suggests that iconoclasm is in some way sanctioned and its motives are perhaps clearer and condoned.

In either case, acts of vandalism and iconoclasm involve the intentional modification of what is typically cultural material, and oftentimes such activities reappropriate objects for a different purpose. David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art at [End Page 153] Columbia University, has published widely on these themes and acknowledges the temptation to differentiate between acts of vandalism and acts of iconoclasm, particularly when those acts may be societally considered iconoclastic in nature and therefore justifiable in their perceived basis on principle; however, he reasons, motive and intent are often fraught and difficult to categorize.1 Moreover, an historian, preservationist, or most especially a victimized group, may argue that intent does not matter when the consequence of an action results in the deletion of an historic or culturally significant record.

The destruction of celebrated images, or opposition to their use in religious or ceremonial capacities, is often due to cross-cultural differences, be they political, economic, religious, and so on—so contends Stacy Boldrick in her introduction to the recently published Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present. “Iconoclasm is no longer a subject that any of us can afford to ignore or avoid.”2 After having surveyed the literature on the topic of vandalism and iconoclasm for her publication, it would appear that Boldrick’s statement acknowledges both these current times—politically, culturally, technologically—and also the evolution of the scholarship that surrounds iconoclasm. This book’s collection of essays attempts to address and broaden the study of this topic by examining it from a multidisciplinary, as well as a geographically and chronologically diverse, perspective. The essays look at the symbolic power of cultural heritage, and the reactions prompted by the deliberate act of alteration for the purpose of damaging, destroying, defacing, moving, hiding, and even conserving.

The Dawn of Iconoclasm

In her essay “Making and Breaking Images and Meaning in Byzantium and Early Islam,” Leslie Brubaker discusses the emergence of iconoclasm as a cohesive movement and calculated practice borne out of Byzantine Europe.3 In the seventh century, Christianity transitioned from the commonly accepted veneration of spiritual relics to a widespread use of icons and visual symbolism, believed still...


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