Smash and gab

James Hall wonders why so many critics have joined the demolition business; The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution by Dario Gamboni, Reaktion Books, pounds 25
After a day at the British Museum in 1855, the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne announced with the confidence born of belonging to a youthful nation: "We do not recognize for rubbish what is really rubbish". Four years later, he was even more forthright in The Marble Faun, a novel set in Rome. "All towns should be made capable of purification by fire, or of decay within each half-century. Otherwise, they become the hereditary haunts of vermin and noisomeness, besides standing apart from the pssibility of improvements".

Cultural cleansing is the subject of Dario Gamboni's The Destruction of Art, a well-illustrated and level-headed study of iconoclasm and vandalism since the French Revolution. The subject of iconoclasm is currently a growth industry, but what makes Gamboni's book particularly useful is his refusal to limit himself to high-profile attacks on public sculpture, whether they be Communist monuments in eastern Europe or avant-garde sculptures like Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc". He also discusses more subtle and legalised forms of iconoclasm, perpetrated from above by artists, restorers and museum officials.

Indeed, for Gamboni, our society is predicated on iconoclasm. An obvious example would be the recent advertising campaign urging us to "chuck out your chintz".

Gamboni starts with the French Revolution because destruction and preservation were linked here as never before. Monuments to the ancien regime were systematically destroyed, and artworks stripped from palaces and churches. The worst instance of revolutionary vandalism (the term was coined in 1794) occurred in the abbey of St Denis, where the kings of France had been buried since the middle ages. There, 51 tombs were destroyed during three days of uninterrupted demolition.

But from this holocaust arose the idea of patrimony and national heritage. The best old-master paintings were taken to the Louvre, which was founded by the revolutionaries. This action was justified on the grounds that, although many art works were dedicated to the ruling classes, they were also testaments to the work of artists, and embodied values that transcended the circumstances of their commission.

The revolutionaries found it much harder to accept the timeless artistic status of French sculpture. Nonetheless, the painter Alexander Lenoir did rescue some sculptures to establish the short-lived Museum of French Monuments. Lenoir provided the first chronological survey of French sculpture and wrote the first systematic catalogue. In order to make his points about the development of sculpture, however, Lenoir changed the appearance of many works beyond recognition. In 1834, Prosper Merimee observed that clumsy restorers were more dangerous enemies of monuments than Protestants and sans-culottes.

Gamboni's best chapter explores the recent demise of communist monuments in Eastern Europe. Many statues were destroyed, and a particularly popular form of destruction was to put a cable round the neck of the figure and dangle it from a crane before dropping it on the ground. Symbolic hanging is the fate that awaited the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB.

Nonetheless, the iconoclasm has not been unanimously approved. Some Muscovites wanted the Dzerzhinsky monument to remain because it was "a part of our history". One woman had hoped to be able to tell her son in future that "this guy was a bastard". With hindsight, some monuments have come to seem a lesser evil, for they are usually replaced by hoardings for Coca- Cola and Mercedes-Benz.

Successors to Lenoir's Museum of French Monuments have been established. A statue park was set up in Moscow near the Tretiakov Gallery (Russia's equivalent of the Tate). However, many statues were simply dumped on the ground in a fragmented and graffiti-covered state. Another sculpture park was opened in 1993 in Budapest: 61 monuments that had suffered repeated attacks were sent there and a poem, "A Sentence on Tyranny", greets visitors at the entrance. These parks work on a similar principle to the Nazis' Degenerate Art exhibitions. But no doubt they will soon seem as evocative as Roman ruins.

Gamboni brings together a great deal of fascinating information, but he does not really marshall his evidence into a sustained argument. The Destruction of Art reads a bit like an anthology of anecdotes. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to identify a psychology of iconoclasm. There are almost as many motives as iconoclasts. The most politically incorrect explanation is given in a cartoon from the 1960s by Ronald Searle, "The Philistines": disabled men threaten gigantic sculptural fragments representing the body part that lack.

In the past ten years, there has been a flurry of works in which iconoclasm is the central theme, from academic studies, such as David Freedberg's The Power of Images (1989) to Andrew Graham-Dixon's TV series, A History of British Art (1996). A new genre of art-book documents in detail the birth, life and death of a public sculpture: Richard Serra's "Titled Arc" (1991) or Rachel Whiteread's "House" (1995). So why is iconoclasm now being brought into the open? The most obvious reason is that it is the perfect fin-de-siecle theme. It is as death-fixated as any hospital drama or film by Quentin Tarantino. Whereas a late-1980s artist like Jeff Koons was obsessed with sex, a 1990s superstar like Damien Hirst is primarily interested in death. We're all hanging around the scene of a crime, looking for casualties.