Is destruction a corollary for art? Is it not supposed to be the opposite of creation? Since the dawn of time, humanity has made and unmade. But when artists destroy what they have produced, the stakes are not the same. For better or worse.
Tout l’inventaire des destructions, éditions Incertain Sens, 2018.
Revue Critique, numéro de janvier-février 2019.
ARTS & Sociétés / Lettre du Séminaire N°110, « Objets, déchets », Isabelle Bellin et Christian Duquennoi, mise en ligne sur le site de Sciences-Po en avril 2019.
Alain Coulombel, De nouveaux défis pour l’écologie politique, Les Éditions Utopia, Paris, 2019.
Article de M.H. Miller paru dans le New York Times en mars 2019, « From Claude Monet to Banksy, Why Do Artists Destroy Their Own Work? ». Le passage traduit par nos soins est le suivant : « What is clear is that we’ve now reached a point in which destroying a work can at the very least dredge up decent publicity on behalf of the destroyer, and maybe even produce a desirable object to own. »
Since 2000, French artist Éric Watier has been crafting an inventory of destruction, collecting art works generally destroyed at the hands of their authors. The book, Tout l’inventaire des destructions (An entire inventory of destruction), was published in 20181.
The book compiles 200 cases, such as:
In 1861, Paul Cézanne writes to Émile Zola: “I just destroyed your portrait. I wanted to retouch it this morning and as it simply got worse and worse, I annihilated it.”
In 1888, an extremely discouraged Auguste Renoir destroys a large quantity of his paintings. He claims they are too dry.
In 1906, before leaving Kursk, Kasimir Malevitch sets his realist paintings and romantic landscapes on fire.
Nothing remains from what Barnett Newman painted in 1931, the year he shared his studio with Adolph Gottlieb.
“The inventory idea came to me suddenly while giving a lecture at the Sorbonne as part of Anne Mœglin-Delcroix’s seminar in 1999,” says Watier in an interview2. “I don’t really remember what the lecture was about,” he continues, “probably to give an overview of artistic practices in giving. So I brought up some examples: Fluxus,” known for their taste in very open practices, “or even Potlatch magazine,” which editors sent free of charge to hand-picked addresses or to those few people who expressed interest in receiving it.
“I ended the conference with a reading from ‘Giving is Giving’, a list of donations made by artists. That’s when a student asked if artists who give also destroy. The answer was clear: I would simply have to ask them myself.” And thus was born The Inventory of Destruction.
But how is destruction a subtraction, and why is that interesting for our chronicle?
The Inventory of Destruction consists of holes made in Art History.
History is made of landmarks. But in the case of The Inventory of Destruction, these references are absences, artworks gone forever—but that the Inventory recalls in our memories through language. The Inventory is Art History made through subtraction.
More generally, what can destruction actually offer to art? Isn’t creation the opposite of destruction? The issue is more complicated than it seems and lately, destruction in art is discussed at length. It is the topic of seminars and conferences. It also drives the content of numerous articles that remind us how “the world is fragile”, “new worlds will grow out of our ruins3”, or better yet, “waste is a topic in society, extremely complex, that permeates and draws on many scientific disciplines. 4”
In art, destruction has never been trendier: just look at all the noise surrounding the destruction of British street artist, painter and filmmaker Banksy’s piece at the Sotheby auction house just after it had been acquired for over one million Euros, and you’ll get a glimpse at how the notion of destruction, far from refuting our economic mode of operation, is tethered to the core of a consumerist society “that tends toward the full, accumulation and constant growt5”. One New York Times journalist examined Banksy’s action and observed the following: “What is clear is that we’ve now reached a point in which destroying a work can at the very least dredge up decent publicity on behalf of the destroyer, and maybe even produce a desirable object to own.6”
In 1966, English artist Gustav Metzger saw what he called “Auto-Destructive Art” as having liberating potential. Things being considerably less romantic today, Watier sees an artist’s willful act of destruction as a useful and sometimes necessary gesture. There are valid reasons for abolishing certain artworks: Sometimes circumstance forces your hand, or a certain amount of bad luck comes into play. But in every case, an artwork’s disappearance deserves the kind of attention, and cold methodical dedication, that is fundamental to The Inventory of Destruction. An effort made even more admirable through Watier’s insistence on excluding anything that might make it more seductive or spectacular, for example photos. That was precisely the point: the Inventory ventures into a long-defended field of creation, as Watier tells us with every page, indirectly and thanks to his collected stories, that is simply open and already shared by all, without putting anyone in danger. Destruction with a small ‘d’. Nothing more than the creative act at work, seen from another angle. Just as one might agree that there is no such thing as the purely immaterial, rather smaller and larger degrees of materiality, one can suggest that destruction is the smallest degree of creation—or perhaps an unexpected way of creating.
To conclude this chronicle, let’s look at another question: Why destroy when we can choose not to consume, or at least hardly? Or produce nothing at all? When we can choose to remove ourselves from “always making new”? From this angle, destruction might seem outdated—we often destroy things we believe exist in unlimited quantity. The old economy. Right now there are many projects conceived as alternatives to this being implemented throughout the world. For the chronicle it certainly isn’t uninteresting to pit artworks against one another. For example, the Zero Waste organization in France has a “Nothing New” campaign for 2019: “To limit as many new purchases as possible for one year and use alternatives instead: renting, leasing, second-hand, repairing or sharing. The ‘Nothing New’ challenge applies to everyday products and goods aside from food and hygiene: clothing, furniture, appliances, decoration, tech, books, etc.… In exceptional cases, participants are the judge of their purchases.”
A shame the challenge doesn’t apply to art works as well. It could, in 2019, call for no new artworks and simply managing everything that already exists on the market. The idea is nothing new, but it has never truly been put into practice by artists. A strike? Why not?
In economics we often talk about ethical products. Ones that try to limit our environmental impact. Would it be possible to say the same about ethical artworks? In which way, and how? For us it is unthinkable, as art and morality should never, ever, get into bed together. Ethical art is stillborn art.
THIS WAS: Making holes in Art History as subtraction.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: © Anaïs Enjalbert