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Art under Attack: Does Tate Britain's new exhibition on the history of iconoclasm have anything to say?

The Tate is becoming overly comfortable in its role as the quiet arbiter of British art
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Just over a year ago, I found myself sharing a large portion of McDonald’s fries with one of the most hated men in the art world. This was Vladimir Umanets, who, a month or so previously, had scrawled a ‘new title’ across one of Tate Modern’s celebrated Seagram Murals, painted by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Umanets (tried in court under the Polish spelling of his name, Wlodimierz Umaniec), frustrated at a number of limitations that he believed were inherent in contemporary art and the world which envelopes it, had worked to create a new form of visual expression to sit alongside art, which he called ‘Yellowism’. The title he wrote across Rothko’s Black on Maroon was ‘A Potential Piece of Yellowism’, before signing it with his own name in permanent marker.

In the furore following the event, commentators struggled to make sense of Yellowism, and the reasons behind the ‘attack’ on the painting. I went on to make a short film on the subject, and, despite spending two days with Umanets and his fellow Yellowist Marcin Łodyga, still couldn’t quite work out what led Vladimir to commit such a direct and destructive action.

The restoration project, we were told, would take approximately eighteen months. Vladimir was given a hefty prison sentence of two years. Yet the confusion surrounding his action, and others of its kind, still remained. Will Gompertz of the BBC, in an interview with the Today Programme, described the difference between the Yellowist ‘act of vandalism’, and the work of artists such as Chapman brothers, who in 2003 added grotesquely comic faces to a series of prints by Goya in terms of ownership: if it’s yours, he seemed to say, you can do what you like with it; if it’s not, it’s vandalism. In the discussion of whether it is ever right to alter a work of art, and in what circumstances it might be, however, the Tate stayed mysteriously silent.

When it announced in May of this year that it would be presenting an exhibition called ‘Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’, then, it seemed as though the Tate might be bold enough to face up to a debate which is not only ever present in contemporary art, but which blurs into questions of copyright and plagiarism. Yet as the reviews began to dribble in, it looked like something had gone wrong. Each one seemed uniform in its expression of boredom, disappointment, and even anger.

I hoped that the critics themselves were to blame – that their approaches were too staid for them to appreciate a show that might itself be iconoclastic. I expected something audacious and new from Tate: a deftly assembled physical essay about the nature of and motivations behind the destruction of art. But the critics were spot on. The reviews printed in the last week have already covered much of what’s wrong with the exhibition: it’s a limited display of arbitrarily selected artefacts, scaffolded by dull, prosaic captions. It’s an astounding lack of confidence from a gallery that should have one of the best curatorial teams in the country.

It’s in the third of the exhibition rooms, which skims Suffragette attacks on artworks, that it becomes unavoidably apparent that this exhibition is going to leave you unsatisfied. Since the response of the art world to attacks on its possessions is to restore them, there’s not much to show from here on in. We’re given three pre-Raphaelite paintings whose glass frontings were smashed in Manchester in 1913, there’s a photograph of the slashed Rokeby Venus, and there are a few associated objects such a police reports from the time. In sections of the show, which deal more explicitly with aesthetics, artworks that have been attacked in more recent history are shown restored to a point where it would be impossible to know that they were ever damaged.

This, in my view, is pointless. Showing a fixed-up work of art next to a photograph of what it looked like when damaged, or accompanied by a small block of explanatory text, has effect of stripping away any sense of what it is as an object of admiration or political action. In this state, the works seem vacant: Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre, which was once splattered with blue ink, really does look like nothing more than pile of bricks.

Iconoclasm is an action. The destruction of art is controversial. A show of this sort should court this controversy, spurn the museum’s usual ‘look, but don’t touch’ policy, and give visitors the opportunity to feel what it’s like to at least handle, if not actually attack, some of its exhibits. This wouldn’t be difficult: half the exhibition seems to consist of photographic reproductions of artworks.

But Tate doesn’t have the guts to do this. It’s comfortable in its role as the quiet arbiter of British art, and doesn’t want to let us engage with it, or question it. This is even more obvious in the absence of what, in this exhibition, should be the jewel in Tate’s crown: Umanets’s ‘A Potential Piece of Yellowism’/Rothko’s ‘Black on Maroon’, which is still undergoing restoration. Displaying it – perhaps as the restorers are working on it – would have allowed viewers to see how iconoclasm is dealt with in the present day, and to see art as a continuing site of debate. It would also have forced the Tate to make a firm statement about the circumstances in which iconoclasm is acceptable, and when it is just vandalism. Somewhere along the line, though, someone must have decided that it would be inappropriate to include it. It’s been censored.

What we’re left with is an impression of an institution that, while posturing as a enlightened, progressive and unafraid of controversy, is either happy to keep us in the dark about its views and opinions, or is impotent to the extent that it has none.

Jack Orlik is a writer and digital researcher who has recently completed UCL's M.Sc in Digital Anthropology.