MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Damage Control at the Hirshhorn

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand


My first trip back to the Hirshhorn after an absurdly long hiatus was well rewarded: I could have easily spent many more hours exploring the exhibition Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.

Harold Edgerton’s landmark films of the U.S. government’s nuclear tests in the 1950s launch the show. They set its underlying tone of dizzying terror mixed with a paradoxical beauty. The aftertaste this leaves – uniquely disturbing yet fascinating – is comparable to the old-fashioned aesthetic rubric of “the sublime,” as the critic Philip Kennicott aptly points out in his excellent Washington Post review:

Most visitors, conventionally secure in the magical belief that these weapons will never again be used, will find them beautiful in a limited, purely visual way. And that isn’t particularly strange: Since the 18th century, we have had an aesthetic category for this — the sublime — into which we place and contain things that are awesome, boundless, incomprehensible and beyond imagining. There is even a measure of old-fashioned pride in our love of the sublime: Look what man has wrought.

The end of the Second World War was seen to mark the “zero hour” – and the start of something ominously new after so much destruction and nihilism – yet no doubt in the coming year we’ll encounter many reminders of how consciousness was radically changed by the earlier cataclysm that erupted in 1914. And many of the exhibit’s works provoke comparisons with the recurrent theme of revolution and overthrow that has shaped modernity itself.

One of Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s notorious piano destructions appears in the vicinity of the films of nuclear detonation. The aftermath evidenced by these ruins of twisted wire and axed wood encourages the viewer to try to make sense of the rubble – perhaps even to imagine the sounds that could now be elicited from it. It’s ultimately a romantic gesture, an echo of the rock gods of the ’60s and the sacrificial offering of their instruments at the climax of a performance: as if to signify a point of extreme expression and release, after which …only noise or silence can rule.

One of the most profoundly unsettling uses of musical imagery occurs in Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag from 2000, a video piece viewed within a narrow gallery space. It shows the artist roping a Stratocaster guitar to the back of his pickup truck and dragging it mercilessly across a rural Texas landscape. The soundtrack consists of the instrument’s tormented screams, amplified from speakers strapped to the back of the truck. Marclay’s reference to the horrendous contemporary lynching of James Byrd is beyond chilling.

The natural life cycle of music – the birth and death of sounds – is distorted in ways that underline how utopian is the illusion of the artist’s control of material. I also found myself repeatedly thinking of the principle of entropy and the natural decay of order. Here and in many of the other installations, videos, photographs, and concept pieces, the glorification of violence from earlier in the twentieth century is turned on its head, forcing us to rethink the facile acceptance of destruction as part of the pattern of “progress.”

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Kennicott reflects on the ambivalence of destruction as metaphor and the political claims of art:

There is no readily agreed upon contract for when it is okay to destroy things in the name of art, but there are degrees of transgression and limits to the acceptability of consequences. There is a big difference between Rauschenberg’s asking for and receiving permission to erase a drawing by de Kooning and the vandalism of the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who painted cartoon clown and animal faces onto an original set of Goya’s 1810-1820 “The Disasters of War” etchings. In no conceivable universe is the loss of these Goyas compensated for by the trivial graffiti the Chapmans have added, which not only defaces them but further victimizes the victims of war Goya originally depicted.

One can generate elaborate justifications for vandalism to put it into seemingly acceptable art terms. Ai Weiwei may have destroyed an ancient urn (given what we know about China’s art market, there’s no certainty it wasn’t a fake), but only in the name of calling attention to the Chinese government’s systematic destruction of ancient neighborhoods and historical sites (and as a further criticism of the crazy, commercial race to own and exchange antiques). And the Chapmans may have been satirizing some underlying sadism in Goya’s work and perhaps the aestheticization of war through art as well.

Those arguments mean something only within the insular and deeply provincial space of the art world, where people still have an inflated sense of art’s power and often believe it can effect direct and revolutionary change in the world. The worst of what is on display in this exhibition is driven by the false belief that art can somehow compete with political power if it finds images or ideas or gestures that are stark enough, violent enough, to cut through the noise. In fact, compared with people who have real power — over armies, economies and the means of entertainment — artists have virtually none at all and are too often driven to a kind of futile rage through a vague sense of their own impotence.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history

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